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JJJJJerome Ellis' The Clearing
On citational ethics, pacifiers, and the pitfalls of verbalizing our pain
According to a pithy, well-circulated dictum which is most commonly misattributed to the late Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” If the rhetorical alliance between pen and sword is a well-worn one, so too is that of the shield and the spoken word. For if verbality were the one true criterion for immunization from citational harm or falsification, then Hurston—a prolific writer who was by no stretch of the imagination ever silent, about her pain or otherwise—would surely have been safeguarded against the kinds of shameless posthumous exploitation evinced in her viral miscitation.
Indeed, the converse action—speaking
about pain—can be just as deleterious, particularly for Black and disabled people, whose declarations of being-in-pain are often imagined within the very crucible of medical racism(s) that pit mental and physical soundness against the insensate cacophonies of illness; the fluent articulations of mind against the alleged disarticulations of body. Such is the ostensibly self-contradictory nature of the “something in excess of” that Christina Sharpe identifies as a lynchpin of anti-Blackness: it is this precise excess which—whether through speech or petition or signage—cannot be reasoned or reformed out of performing its assigned and assigning violences.
Not unlike “reformed” Nazi Martin Niemöller’s infamous “First they came...” confessional, “Hurston’s” credo lends itself rather facilely to a depoliticized, carpe diem-style interpretation. (A cursory Google search yields numerous collages superimposing the quote over heavily filtered images of white hands clutching fresh or pressed flowers; cigarettes; their own blonde manes.) Yet Niemöller and knock-off Hurstons also find themselves in surprisingly ancient, or at least pre-modern, company. Take, for example, this line of Lady Philosophy's from Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, which (assuming our doctored quote is more or less modern) was penned some 1500 years earlier: “If you want the doctor's help, you must reveal the wound.” “Every illness is a musical problem,” chimes in German Romantic poet Novalis, as quoted in JJJJJerome Ellis' The Clearing (21).
At 13 x 10 inches, The Clearing is a vast, ocean-blue blur of a book, whose visually arresting, page-swirling, time-marking and -unmarking compositions give one the thrill of stealing an illicit glimpse at a concrete poem in its nascent, uncemented liquidity. In effect, Ellis pierces together a stunning tableau—what a less restrained critic might call a “counter-archive”—of the manifold poetic and lyric pulselines of the Black Stutter: at once figurable as melisma; as “trembling” (11); as 808, loop or loophole; as sonic cover for mutiny; as "bow[...] bent / but the arrow still [not] flown" (43).
But let us return to our philosopher-cum-physician, who is fast losing patience with Boethius, her noncompliant student-patient. She sneers at him: “Or are you like the proverbial donkey, deaf to the lyre?” An image is forming. A constellating, an appellating, an allying of the child-(like), the animal-(like), and the fool(-ish). Yet there is still, as Sharpe reminds us, an excess lying in wait. A coffle proceeds. “Fluent speech,” Ellis contends, “has been used to police the border between humans and nonhumans or subhumans.” Meanwhile it is “black dysfluency” which "places the paradox of black humanity in the body. In the throat” (6-7). Such could also be said of the particularly Ancient Roman practice of irrumatio. Indeed, in his expertly cogent analysis of the irrumatio's function in the poems of Catallus, William Fitzgerald puts it thusly: “Irrumatio is, after all, the means by which the mother silences the noisy baby[...] as sexual threat it is intended to reduce the victim to a status comparable to that of the baby (infans, i.e., not speaking) in relation to the all-powerful adult who silences it.”
If the underbelly of the disclosureist, speak-up ethic taken up, in various hues, by not-Hurston, Niemöller, and Boethius belies an alternative that is perhaps equally troubling as doing or saying nothing, then we must too revise our thesis—“But because thesis also refers to a downbeat / in music, / my thesis / must move, / must metamorphose, / like music” (Ellis 3-4)—about the silencing function of the irrumatio. Rather than simply reaffirming or re-signifying an already existent active/dominant-over-passive/submissive order, the irrumatio in fact inaugurates it, by carrying out a violent displacement of the residual degradation of having been infan—i.e., dysfluent—onto an Other who is simultaneously marked by said violence as being of a securedly lower socio-sexual status. “Fluency,” in other words, is “secured by dysfluency” (Ellis ii).
Crucially, the baby is not entirely without voice, just without the capacity for (Human) speech. What's more: babble—a frequentative which probably originates from an imitation of children's speech (“ba ba ba”)—takes up a richly storied etymological residence at the interstices between the charge of the river, the station of the fool (the Latin babulus), the prattling barks of the barbarian (from the onomatopoeic “bar bar bar” sound the Greeks used to imitate the sound of non-Greeks' speech) as well as those of the infant. The differentiability between voice and speech, then, rests precisely on the differentiability between fluency and dysfluency.
Along with the accompanying 12-track LP of the same name, The Clearing is a rare feat in its uncompromising, twofold commitment to both a Glissantian vision of opacity as well as a Disability Justice-informed approach to accessibility. Now in its second edition, it is as much an “experiment in melismatic writing” as it is a true practice of its title: an osmosis of disparate Black disabled knowledges, musics, etymologies, rituals, registers, and histories come together in the spirit of gossip, congregation, conspiracy, cross-contamination, and a shared irreverence for the imposition of Time proper (Introduction, vi). The resultant clearing is open, it is there, and it is waiting for you, but that doesn't mean it will be so easy to find. Like the river which cannot be entered twice, “perhaps we all have to enter the forest at a different spot” (i).