Ensemble: An Interview with Dr. Fred Moten


My itinerary is simple. It begins with considerations of the role of determinacy—formal determination articulated as a kind of efficient causation—in modern thought, and closes with a proof of the Equation of Value, intended to release that which in blackness has the capacity to disclose another horizon of existence, with its attendant accounts of existence.

—Denise Ferreira da SilvaDenise Ferreira da Silva, “1 (life) ⎟ 0 (blackness) = ∞ – ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Eqaution of Value,” e-flux 79 (February 2017), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/79/94686/1-life-0-blackness-or-on-matter-beyond-the-equation-of-value/.


On the one hand, there is no solace for the loneliest number; on the other hand, number never applied to us anydamnway. There’s nothing epic about this virtualization of virtuosity; the ordinary blur is in the details. Blackness is our everyday romance.

—Fred MotenFred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 279.


I interviewed Dr. Fred Moten over the telephone in January of 2018. He was in New York City and I was in Toronto. I had wanted to have a conversation with him about the work he begins to present in his book Black and Blur (2017) to be followed by Stolen Life (2018) and The Universal Machine (2018). I was particularly focused on his attentiveness to Blackness, as I continue to work through this alchemical text. Here, I present a condensed version of our conversation. In conducting the interview, listening to the recording, transcribing the text, and editing it for publication, I have paid attention to it in different contexts, environments, moods, soundtracks. The texts that Moten references, placed relationally and read harmoniously or contrapuntally, produce a constellation I am still exploring. In the phrase “consent à n’être plus un seul,” Édouard Glissant issues an invitation into the ensemble for one to no longer be alone.

Nehal El-Hadi: I wanted to start with Glissant’s “consent à n’être plus un seul.” What did you read into the translation of the phrase that you ended up working with?

Fred Moten: That translation was done by Christopher Winks, who teaches here in New York at Queens College. Christopher’s is an interesting and perhaps idiosyncratic translation of the phrase “consent à s n’être plus un seul.” Some people who are a little more literal-minded might even call it a mistranslation or a flawed translation, but I like to think of translation slightly differently. When it comes to French, I’m lucky that I have a good friend, the great critic and scholar Brent Edwards, who helps me. He gave me some possible alternative translations of the phrase. It could be “consent not to be one,” or “consent not to be single”—but that repetition of be, in the verb to be and the noun being, makes music. Being is maybe not necessarily something that one would immediately derive from the original, but I liked it. I liked that repetition, and I liked that phrasing. And I thought that it had a kind of interesting impact on a certain set of ontological questions that one could delve into. What would it be to not be a certain kind of being? (laughs) And not just a certain kind of being, but a single being, when so much of the normative assumptions that guide ontology are predicated on an assumed singularity. The phrase, as Winks renders it, already grants entrance into the realm of the paraontological in a way that philosophers (like Nahum Chandler) sometimes talked about. And in a way that probably already marks a certain deviance from Glissant. Hopefully, it is a respectful and loving deviance, but it’s definitely a deviance, which I know and am willing to acknowledge.

There’s more going on in the immediate context of that phrase. There’s an interesting numerical glitch or rupture that takes place when one consents not to be a single being, indicating that one can, at some point, not be one. It implies that one is a subject capable of giving or enacting that consent. But my tendency would be not only to displace the subject of that consent, calling into question even its powers of self-division, if not self-destruction, but also therefore to reconfigure consent so that it is not so much an activity or an enactment or a performance but something more on the order of a condition—a kind of commonality that is, in some sense, given independently, of the subject or his or her actions. That also constitutes a certain deviance. Ultimately, the figure of the one who consents must be the subject of, or subject to, a certain kind of relationality that is obviously talked about and engaged with great brilliance and devotion in Glissant’s work.

NE: Is opacity desirable?

FM: That’s two different things. There’s a set of ideas and a particular modality of phrasing and of address to certain kinds of issues and problems, and we come to know that body of work under the name of Édouard Glissant, and it’s a name that we revere, and that reverence is because of the specific set of differences that we can locate or associate with that name. But then the phrase one’s work or his work or my work seems to me already to diminish the most fundamental elements of that body of work that we admire and that we love and that we try to adhere to, that sense of that kind of propriety, or property, or properness that can so easily be attached in a certain kind of possessive discourse to a proper name. That feels to me like it goes against the spirit of what it is that one loves. It’s a complicated thing ’cause we live in a world that seems to be so much structured by this kind of possessive individuality that it seems like a huge grammatical pain in the ass to have to come up with some way of saying something that doesn’t include the word my or his, that doesn’t get activated around the possessive pronoun. We know what we mean when we say these things but at least with regard to Glissant, we ought at least acknowledge the necessity of the effort.

With that said, opacity is both desirable and unavoidable. So, if you don’t desire it, it’s still there. In Poetics of Relation (1997), maybe there’s a distinction that gets made between opacity and obscurity, but then I always think about those two things, maybe as not necessarily so opposed to one another. Famously and brilliantly, Saidiya Hartman talks in Scenes of Subjection (1997) about the right to obscurity and the necessity of that right being respected, and I believe in that. And I believe that there’s opacity as Glissant understands it, and obscurity as she understands it. I think that the real distinction to be made is maybe between opacity and transparency. Opacity implies a sort of blurring or obscuring, a complication, but it also still implies the capacity to see through, to see through that complication, and to see through it even if that seeing through produces something that others might want to think of as a kind of distortion or a lack of clarity. At the same time, it’s important that it’s a lack of clarity, it’s important that what we’re talking about goes against the grain of any simple kind of notion of transparency.

I feel like what opacity implies is a kind of ongoing devoted thinking, but again, for me, it’s not only a thinking of the object in question, but it’s also a thinking that is, at the same time, through the object in question. Or another way to put would be, again not just seeing something, but also seeing through something. And within that context, knowing is a project, is an activity, that doesn’t come to an end.

NE: What is the intention of the work, for Black and Blur in relationship to Stolen Life and The Universal Machine?

FM: There’s a project that I want to be a part of that is structured in such a way that it puts one in a position of having to call into question the very terms within which I would express that desire. See what I mean? Like I and part, all of those things. And I’m totally committed to trying my best to think as rigorously as possible, in a way that does call those terms into question; but that doesn’t deviate from the depth and extension of the project. But just talking amongst ourselves, what I would say is, yeah, there’s a project, it’s a social project, it’s the project of what Amiri Baraka used to call “social development.” And that project is an abolitionist project. It’s a project that isn’t just engaged in the abolition of slavery, which is still an ongoing project, of which the abolition of prisons is an extension. It’s not just the abolition of slavery, it’s also in a certain sense the abolition of freedom, insofar as freedom and slavery are so bound up with one another. Insofar as the abjection of the figure of the slave is inseparable from the exaltation of the figure of the master, or the figure of sovereignty. So, it’s an abolition of sovereignty. It’s an abolition of a certain horrible and brutal individuated notion of freedom. And it’s an abolition of the world that is constructed on that conceptual framework. And if you want to put it in positive rather than negative terms, then it is the project of saving the earth. Or, as the great poet Ed Roberson would say, “the project of seeing the Earth before the end of the world.”

There are all these traces and rivers of work, all these particularly beautiful sets of differences that we associate with proper names, like Baraka or Nate Mackey or Gail Jones or Angela Davis, my mom, my grandma. That was their project. That’s Cedric Robinson’s project. When I read Dionne Brand or when I read Cecily Nicholson, I feel like yeah, that’s their project. That’s my project. I wanna be in their project. I wanna be with them. That’s NourbeSe Philip’s project. Mercedes Eng’s project. I think that’s Frank Wilderson’s and Jared Sexton’s project. And Nahum Chandler’s project. Robin Kelley’s project. Stefano Harney’s project and Laura Harris’s project. C. L. R. James’s and Helio Oiticica’s project. Du Bois’s and Fanon’s. Mary Pat Brady’s. R. A. Judy’s. William Parker’s and Johnny Dyani’s and Joëlle Léandre’s. Jacques Derrida’s and Claudia Jones’s and John Akomfrah’s. Alvaro Reyes’s and Manolo Callahan’s and Annie Paradise’s. Dhanveer Brar’s and Fumi Okiji’s. Silko’s project and Layli Long Soldier’s project. Wilson Harris’s. Harriet Tubman’s. Cecilia Vicuña’s. Cecil Taylor’s. Saidiya Hartman’s. Min Tanaka’s. David Lloyd’s. Mahmoud Darwish’s. To the extent that anything like my individual intentions will have any final and ultimate say over the matter, that’s what I would hope. I hope I’m doing something that helps.

NE: Said talks about reading texts contrapuntally—what is, in Baraka’s terms, the place/meant of all these different texts that constitute The Work?

FM: I’ve literally been transformed by that term place/meant, that play of meaning and location, and that way in which it indexes, that at the same time meaning can have a dislocative effect. It’s almost as if in a weird way when you put that a in it, it almost makes it substitute for that d, i, s. Displacement. It’s that movement. And I always felt that this notion of the contrapuntal is not only about the idea of a multiphonic, multivoiced kind of music, but also the ongoing place/meant or displacement that difference or, as Glissant might put it, multiplicity, implies and requires. I wanna see if it’s possible to detach difference from individuation. And I think that individuation is the incarceration of difference; it’s a regulative concept, a concept of law enforcement, that is meant to control and to create a certain kind of separability that then becomes associated with difference. And in this regard, there’s a very brilliant and specific set of differences that goes by the name of Denise Ferreira da Silva, and the way she works, the work she’s involved in, is crucial in thinking through that. How important it is that she’s able to distinguish between difference on the one hand, and separability on the other. So, the key thing would be to talk about the contrapuntal in terms of entanglement rather than relationality.

NE: Where you discern difference, or you don’t attach importance to the difference?

FM: You can discern it, and you attach supreme importance to it. It’s just that the difference never manifests itself as some kind of enactment or manifestation of singularity or individuation, that’s all.

NE: Counterpoint is a geographical term—it’s about where things go in place over time for them to be engaged in a contrapuntal process.

FM: That all sounded interesting. We can talk about it. One alternative term, one particular manifestation of counterpoint in music, is plainsong, or plainchant. And I’ve always loved that notion of plain, and I’ve always loved the pun that’s implicit between plain and plane, ’cause for me, those two points converge in the notion of a field. So, plainsong—it shows up for me first of all in Cecil Taylor’s work, and the way he uses that notion of plain in his notes to his classic album Unit Structures (1966); but it also shows up in Charles Olson’s work, in the sense of an open field poetics, that kind of postmodern American poetics to which Baraka was also such an important contributor. And Baraka, in fact, is the convergence of those two strains, of a certain kind of contrapuntal force of movement in Black music in the late 1950s that came to be known as free jazz, and then at the same time, that kind of open field complexity and differentiation and non-fixity and incompleteness that you can see in the experimental poetics of that same moment. And I think, again, you can think about it all in terms of place/meant, in the sense that Baraka uses that term, but you also have to think about it in terms of displacement too.

Imagine if there could be a geography of displacement. A geography that’s not predicated on the fiction of a fixed point. You could even call it, not necessarily a relational geography, but a relativistic geography. Maybe, I don’t know, quantum geography or something like that. (laughs)