What can’t be said, can’t be said, and it can’t be whistled either.
— Fred Moten, ‘frank ramsay / nancy wilson’ 01
This issue of Afterall is noisy, or at least, full of sounds. From 1960s Jamaican vocal groups to harsh noise in indigenous Albuquerque, and from the jokes of gallery guards to the erased words of secret agents, these pages bear sonic artefacts from unexpected places. For the editors, this also comes as something of a surprise: sound was never discussed as the issue came together, nor does this coalesce into anything as coherent as a theme. In many cases, these elements appear outside the main focus of the essays here, in the footnotes and margins, or as artists’ backstories and prehistories.
But these ‘minor’ details are a good place to start. The issue opens with Peter Pál Pelbart’s call for ‘becoming-minor’ in every possible way: reflecting on Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the Enlightenment — which states that to be modern is to reach majority, to ‘grow up’ — Pelbart suggests to be contemporary is to develop minor ways of existing that circumvent and undermine majoritarian, Kantian demands. A similar concern runs through this issue, at different scales: whether the minute plosives of speech or the larger ways in which culture is organised and instituted — and how it may be organised and instituted differently, or perhaps not at all.
Discussing his own musical background with Robert Leckie, Lawrence Abu Hamdan remarks how ‘un-punk’ the world of contemporary art is: as ‘un-punk’ as the mainstream commercial circuits that DIY cultural scenes have long managed to sidestep. This, too, depends on whose ‘punk’ we are talking about. As punk and scholar of Iranian intellectual history Golnar Nikpour has observed, ‘my punk … emerges like an explosion at a particular historical moment in a number of places and then lives many lives enmeshed in colonial and neocolonial power structures and capitalist economies’.02 Such histories are extremely particular to their contexts, and needn’t offer any general, ‘major’ rules — they also live many lives.
Two of the essays look back to the early days of two very different art institutions, unfolding more or less simultaneously on opposite sides of the globe. Eddie Chambers (whose essay takes its title from The Ethiopians’ 1968 hit ‘Everything Crash’, which has also soundtracked the writing of this foreword) locates the current crisis at London’s Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) precisely in its increasing convergence with the procedures of its larger, mainstream competitors — in stark contrast to the self-organised Black activism and artistic activity (of which Chambers was part) that led to its founding. In contrast, Christina Barton describes the inaugural moments of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, foregrounding indigenous artists’ works from nearby territories in defiance of an increasingly globalised art circuit. In a more speculative way, artist Jill Magid’s amorous provocations of institutional bureaucracy, as catalogued here by Mihnea Mircan, suggest a deeper, stranger dysfunction — malfunctions of desire at the heart of institutional crises.
What other kinds of ‘minor’ institutions might be possible? Khwezi Gule describes the ‘memory work’ of Johannesburg collective Center for Historical Reenactments as a slowing down of time, ‘so we can move through it a bit more deliberately’. In another different way, the reimagined ceremonies of artist collective Postcommodity collide traditional forms with the contemporary reality of indigenous life in North America, as Lucy Lippard recounts. The group runs a DIY performance and music venue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, called Spirit Abuse; as they explain to Bill Kelley, Jr, sound is one of their tools to ‘stretch or condense time’, and also a means to repel stereotypes and received understandings — ‘one of the many reasons why noise and confusion are places where we prefer to hang out’.
Few statements could be further from Cambridge mathematician, economist and philosopher Frank P. Ramsey’s statement ‘What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either’, as quoted in Fred Moten’s poem, above. This line is Ramsey’s response to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s well-known epigram about remaining silent ‘whereof one cannot speak’. (Ramsey translated the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into English.) Wittgenstein’s original is sometimes taken to be about ‘expressing the inexpressible’ — the idea being that art goes where language fails, making the manoeuvres that clumsy, inert words aren’t capable of. But it seems that Wittgenstein meant more or less the opposite: that what can’t be said is literally meaningless. If you can’t state it clearly, it doesn’t exist — you can’t film it, record it or whistle it either — another majoritarian demand; that all things must be intelligible, quantifiable, accountable.
How to be unintelligible then? Unlearning is one strategy. In his essay for this issue of Afterall, Anders Kreuger attempts to unlearn his own academic training in linguistics in order to engage with Abu Hamdan’s ambivalent statements, exploiting the slippage between languages, their many histories and the things they don’t mean to say. And perhaps there are other ways to be intelligible. Just as Moten’s poem flips Ramsey’s inflection (by way of Nancy Wilson) into something else entirely, another strategy may consist in minor transformations of what is already there; leaving things legible, everyday, but changed. As Moten observes about the informal and intellectual activities that animate life,
It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal — being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory […] To do these things is to be involved in a kind of common intellectual practice. What’s important is to recognise that that has been the case — because that recognition allows you to access a whole, varied, alternative history of thought. 03
Fred Moten, B Jenkins, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, p.48.
‘I would argue until the end of time with anyone who told me that Bad Brains invented hardcore and that Olho Seco was some sort of imitation or secondary instantiation. This is not just a conceit of a bitter person of colour who wants something to call her own, or a multiculturalist “we all have our own culture” kind of intervention — it is one that takes seriously the Marxian rejoinder that capitalist processes produced global economies from their inception, and that these processes have something to do with the unfolding of social worlds and histories. The linkages aren’t always causal or obvious, but they cannot be ignored.’ Golnar Nikpour and Mimi Thi Nguyen, Punk, New York: Guillotine, 2013, pp.20—21.
F. Moten and Stefano Harvey, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013, p.110. See also Moten’s lecture ‘Black Kant (Pronounced Chant)’, available as an audio recording at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Moten.php (last accessed on 23 April 2015).