I read a particular performativity as being specific to Sonia Boyce’s Devotional Series, deciphered through elements of Houston A. Baker’s transformation of form and process expressed through his writing in “Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance” (Baker 1987). There is a performativity that I recognise in Baker’s analysis of Amiri Baraka’s1 influential concept of the “changing same” through which two complex processes of mastery are entangled, the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. These forms resonate through the shimmering cartography of the Devotional Series, which I elaborate upon further throughout this chapter (Baraka 2010: 205; Baker 1987: 15).
In “Modernism and the The Harlem Renaissance” (1987), Baker critiques common assumptions about modernism and the modern as being generally accepted to lay claim to a “scientific mastery” arrived at through a “bare chronology” that “makes modernists of us all” (Baker 1987:1-2). Baker’s concerns critique accepted understandings of the all encompassing temporality of modernism, the timelessness of the grand narrative, both in the manner of a representational actualisation of the “latest moment’s production” and an ongoingness of “modernism’s allowable tomorrows” that combine to posit a totalising belief that “the movement is unending” (Baker 1987: 2). Further, Baker explains that British and Anglo-American (in other words those enabled to assume an intellectual supremacy and power of naming) instantiations of modernist tradition coalesce in agreement around the time-frame and important names of this great epoch; “there is a tenuous agreement that some names and works must be included in any putatively comprehensive account of modern writing and art” (Baker 1987: 2-3 emphasis in original).
The names and techniques of the “modern” that are generally set forth constitute a descriptive catalogue resembling a natural philosopher’s curiosity cabinet. In such cabinets disparate and seemingly discontinuous objects share space because that is the very function of the cabinet – to house or give order to varied things in what appears a rational, scientific manner. Picasso and Pound, Joyce and Kandinsky, Stravinsky and Klee, Brancusi and H. D. are made to form a series (Baker 1987: 3).
Baker calls this practice of modernist serialisation “naming rituals” that “substitute a myth of unified purpose and intention for definitional certainty” (Baker 1987: 3) a certainty that arises through categorisation, classification and ordering in the name of an assumed archetypal universality. Baker’s critique then, stems from the generally held belief that the onset of modernity is thought to occur from around 1910, where authors such as T.S Eliot, Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald are heralded as marking the birth of a new temporal totality in the face of a “changed condition of human kind” and are representative of “a profound shift in what could be taken as unquestionable assumptions about the meaning of human life” (Baker 1987: 3-4). Similarly, Sharon Patricia Holland asserts that “in racist ordering, relation is defined as those who shape time and those who stand outside it, as those who belong to your people and those who do not” (Holland 2012: 18). The series then, that Baker critiques and that hegemonic modernisms seek to reproduce through formalism and canonisation, clearly mark who does and who does not belong, manifesting these universal distinctions through an ordering time dependent upon the manipulation of space.
Within this schema, the focus of modernist formalism remains upon supposedly objective and universal compositional elements, such as sound’s fundamental parameters, or, within the visual, upon colour, line, shape and texture, thereby masking any possible impression that historical and social contexts might have upon the making of cultural artefacts, be they literary, visual, musical or sonic. Formalism not only assumes that everything necessary for comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art but also operates within a dialectic of real/unreal, human/non-human, natural/cultural, terms that are assumed to be mutually exclusive. Such an exclusive and hierarchical focus upon form – art for art’s sake, sound for sound’s sake, or even community for community’s sake – is one in which the context of a work, the reason for its creation and its historical background are rendered not only less important but irrelevant. Baker’s critical deconstruction of Western modernism seeks to de-centre such totalising and universal narratives of modernist form, by not only refusing the secondary status of historical context to formal structure, but more prominently by developing processual and performative strategies that reorganise timeless and ahistorical conceptions of form itself. Assumptions of timelessness and ahistoricity through Baker’s modernist intervention are reorganised as particular socio-historical processes specific to an expanded notion of modernism as one that maintains a stubborn connection to a political past of specifically African-American cultural production, one that predates common assumptions of a ‘change in human character’2 specifically in 1910 (Baker 1987).
As a counter to such (mis)conceptions about the emergence and form of modernity, Baker resignifies modernist form as an interstitial process – something that happens in the gaps, that is always moving, shape-shifting – through a specificity of Afro-American modernism. Baker reads this specificity through an assemblage of the “intellectual history, music, graphic design, stage presence, oratory, etc” that commenced at the time of Booker T. Washington’s public delivery of the “Atlanta Compromise” 3 in 1895 and which culminated in the ‘Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as one of Afro-American modernism’s most “seminal moments” (Baker 1987: 8).
Further Baker explains that a reconceptualisation of the question of Afro-
American modernism, symbolised for Baker through dominant perceptions of a failure of the Harlem Renaissance to achieve the goals and aspirations that typified the movement. Baker reconsiders this assumed failure through Amiri Baraka’s concept of the “changing same” as a “designation for the interplay between tradition and the individual talent in Afro-American music” (Baker 1987: 14-15). Baker embodies this concept of the “changing same” with strategies of “the mastery of form” and “the deformation of mastery” (Baker 1987: 14-15).
When I use the word “form”, I do not want to invoke a distinction between form and content and spring the metaphysical trap privileging a primary order of form as an abiding and stabilising presence. For me, “form” has the force of a designated space – presumably, that between traditionally formulated dichotomies such as self and other. A substitute for the term might be ellipsis, or trope or poetic image. What I have in mind is not a single, easily identifiable structure, or even an easily described spatial apperception (Baker 1987: 16 emphasis in original).
Baker’s performative act here elegantly shifts ‘form’ to ‘process’, awakening the arrested potential of the modernist’s still life into a breathing, shimmering life-force within an expanded and deeper history of modernist production. ‘Form’ as process, becomes something inherently transitory and fluid, as a space between, a “symbolising fluidity” as “a family of concepts or a momentary and changing same array”, as something living, alive, transformative (Baker 1987: 17). This always fluid form or array, the “changing-same”, is critically embedded in the concept of the mask which, as an inherently multivalent form, provides a fluid “metaphor of concealment and revelation” (Blackmer 1993: 233). The mask, as a form that constantly oscillates “between traditionally formulated dichotomies such as self and other” provides a means by which to connect ideas of gestalt-like activity embedded in the Devotional Wallpaper with Boyce’s Good Morning Freedom print, which I return to in the next post, through a continued serial de-centring of hegemonic norms. The “form, array, mask” deciphered through Baker’s scholarship is both the “minstrel mask” and the Dan mask, a duality that provides the necessary keys to unpack the performative strategy both culturally and sonically, as a productive “spirit of denial” that I hear throughout Sonia Boyce’s Devotional Series (Baker 1987: 16). For the Devotional Wallpaper can be read as exhibiting a similar formal process as that which Baker articulates, as having “the force of a designated space”, as the space that oscillates between dichotomies. The form of the wallpaper, as a wall of silent sound, then, can be heard as sounding out the auditory thresholds of a particular mnemonic ritualistic device through a logics of performative silence, which I elaborate upon through the following posts.
- I am aware here of the implications for feminism and queerness that using Baraka’s theory could potentially represent. Instead, following Jose Muñoz and Fred Moten, I read Baraka’s theory as a queer negation (Munoz 2007; Moten 2003).
- Virginia Woolf famously writes, ¨…in or about December, 1910, human character changed…All human relations have shifted — those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910¨ (Woolf 1924).
- The Atlanta Compromise of 1895 was one in which Booker T. Washington as the then president of the Tuskagee Institute, a private black university founded in 1881 in Alabama USA, cemented the post-emancipation agreement that would see Southern African American populations as accepting unequal white political rule in return for the granting of limited educational and legal rights. W.E.B Du Bois famously disagreed with this agreement which he claimed foreclosed the possibility of engaging in the struggle for civil rights. Thus the agreement became known as a ‘compromise and may also be appreciated as a precursor for the separate but equal euphemism and Jim Crow laws that followed in the USA.