Scattered notes on love, counterpublics, queer time, the care industry & Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You"

From Dr. Herukhuti’s Ocean’s of Love Letter: Is one black man loving another man the revolutionary act of the 21st Century?:

In choosing to communicate through the simile, “I feel like a free man,” rather than saying he was a free man, Ocean provided us with a painful truth for black men in, what Ibrahim Farajajé (formerly Elias Farajajé-Jones) in his essay Holy Fuck called, a “dominating culture [that] expends incredible amounts of time, money, and energy controlling and policing our bodies and the ways we decide to use them.” By not definitively claiming and owning freedom in the journal entry, Ocean acknowledged the task at hand for him and other black queer men, as Farajaje described, “the physical/spiritual/psychological process of making our bodies and our desire our own.” It is a process—rather than a destination to which we arrive and reside—that will not allow for easy definitions of who we are or interpretations of our artistic or life choices.

Supporters and detractors of Ocean have made the themes of his album and his Tumblr post mean much more than Ocean himself may have intended. In 2012, some folks find it more provocative that a black man has loved another man than if he had done violence against one. Joseph Beam once wrote, “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act of the eighties.” Honoring our capacity to love other men and women in a society that makes it more easy to use and abuse others is the work of making our bodies and desires our own. Ocean clearly seeks to put the work into that project, at least for the time being. But one young, gifted black man does not a revolution make, particularly if he is still understanding his relationship to that revolution. Revolutions require many committed others working “in sober uncompromising moments, to reflect on the comedy of concern we all enact when it comes to our precious images!” Where’s your love letter? How much truth does it tell?


I’ve been wanting to write about “Thinkin Bout You” for a little while, and after reading Frank Ocean’s moving and beautiful Tumblr post on falling in love with a boy at nineteen, I figured it would be timely (!) to try to put down some of the things that have been swirling around in my head about the song, as well as Ocean’s most recent single, “Pyramids,” from the forthcoming Channel Orange. But then I got sick and didn’t want to write a whole long post, there were already a lot of Frank Ocean reaction posts hopping around, I didn’t know what more I had to say. But then R.J. asked if I was going to write something about Frank Ocean and hip-hop. So here I am, I think, starting to write about Frank Ocean, and maybe hip-hop. But mostly what I want to say is that I don’t know if I can really say how much I love “Thinkin Bout You.” Have loved it for a little while; my first mp3 of it starts off with a shoutout to DJ Love Dinero, from a mixtape, so, I don’t know how long it’s been. I love that it’s a song written by a man to be sung by a woman (as Ocean originally wrote it for Bridget Kelly to sing), like those traditions of men writing poetry in the female voice, I keep thinking about “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” that poem by Walter Raleigh in response to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” both of which are poems also, like “Thinkin Bout You,” about love, and time, and love in time, and love as time beyond time, love as both utopic and uchronic. I love that the song is heterotopic, too, it’s literally all over the place, we have a natural disaster, a tornado, a rainstorm, an unexpected mess, we’re in Southern California, we’re in Arizona, the rainstorm turns to weeping eyes, I don’t usually cry, but. But. A song written by a man in the female voice, that is ultimately sung in the male voice, so that the gendering remains destabilized—when Ocean sings, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy, they bawl / when I’m thinking of you,” the boy is both the Boy, beloved Boy, and the exclamatory boy, oh boy, oh boy, I’m in love, oh boy, what have we here, oh boy, I’m in for it now, oh boy, oh boy. I love the enjambment that’s used throughout the song, the tiny pauses that Ocean makes or abstains from making (there’s a word for this rhythm, but I can’t remember what that word is) that change the meaning of certain lines; how he says, “No, I don’t like you I just thought you were cool enough to kick it Got a beach house I could sell you in Idaho / Since you think I don’t love you I just thought you were cute That’s why I kissed you Got a fighter jet I don’t get to fly it though I’m lying / down thinking bout you,” the last two words, “I’m lying,” come straight after the long litany of disaffected macho fronting: got a beach house, it’s not like I like you, I just thought you were cool, I just thought you were cute, also I got a fighter jet, I’m lying (down thinking bout you).

But what you really stumble on is the part where he goes: “I’m lying.” Listen to the song again. “I’m lying.” All this is just fronting. “I’m lying.” When I say I don’t like you, I’m lying. When I say I just thought you were cute, I’m lying. When I say I got a fighter jet, I’m lying. I’m lying (down thinking bout you). Here’s the truth. I’m lying down thinking bout you. That run-on line kills me. It’s like when you’re a kid (maybe you still do this when you’re an adult, if you do, bless you) you ask your crush if they like you, and they say, I don’t know, and you ask if they don’t like you, and they say something like, I don’t not like you; it’s that double-negative, that blanked-out but vibrating space where you put your love when you’re too shy to name it—the way Ocean hurries through the delivery of “I’m lying” captures the whole emotional landscape of that experience in a split second. I’m lying down thinkin bout you (ooh, no, no, no.) I’ve been thinking bout you (you know, know, know). I’ve been thinking bout you, do you think about me still? Do you, do you. I love how no, no, no is reflected, mirror-rhymed in know, know, know. What is no, no, no, you know, know, know. You know what’s in the no; what’s in the blank space, the thing you don’t name, the feeling you can’t describe, the emotion that doesn’t even have a category. It’s a no, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know it. You know the no. You know what’s inside that blanked-out space. Behind that crossed-out name. The no can be known, absence has a presence. Every single person who has ever been unhappily in love knows this. The no of your heartbreaker, the one who left, the one who isn’t yours anymore, the love that’s gone—you still know that no. You still know that no.

Writing this, of course, I’m listening to the song. Sometimes I just stop and have to hold my heart. A song that’s so beautiful you have to write about it. A song that’s too beautiful to keep writing about. The song really is too fucking good. It’s my whole romantic childhood in a song. It’s probably not going to be possible to write this, I take this song too personally. The song is a throwback, too, which is why it’s so great. I mean, Frank Ocean released a mixtape called Nostalgia, Ultra, he knows about nostalgia. About the golden age of 90s R&B ballads, which “Thinkin Bout You” is a message-in-a-bottle both to, and from. “Do you not think so far… ahead—” Ugh, this breakdown kills me every time. The sound of every brokenhearted kid who believes in love, in spite of everything: “It will never get old, not in my soul—” Me at nineteen, dead of love, knowing it was over, knowing it would never be over. I think this song would have saved my life if I had heard it back then. I mean, I have my life, it’s saved, other things saved it, eventually. But if the song had come out then, I would have played it every single minute of every single day. I would have lived inside the song. The conditional is a tense for Sehnsucht, isn’t it. I would have lived inside this song. I would have been saved by it. In some way, listening to it now, it does save the nineteen-year-old me. When the world was over, time was over (it’ll never be over), because of love that said no.

I’m listening to the song on loop. I actually listen to most of my songs on loop, especially if I’m writing. It’s become a joke among people who know me; that all my playlist settings are always set to Repeat 1. REPEAT ITEM. I usually only listen to a few songs, again and again, for weeks, sometimes months, on end. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Again and again and again. It will never get old, not in my soul—I believe that about everything I love, is the thing. Or maybe it’s not that it will never get old, but that I love the olding, too. I love it through time. Being, as I am, an irrepressibly faithful lover. That’s scary, right? Oh well, one person liked it. Loved through time, time after time. That’s what “Thinkin Bout You” is about, too. When he says, “I’ve been thinking bout you / do you think about me still / or do you not think so far ahead? / Cause I’ve been thinking about forever,” the whole movement here is temporal. Time-as-feeling, feeling-as-time. I’ve been thinking about you, do you think about me still? Or do you not think so far ahead? Ocean doesn’t ask: “Or do you not think of me at all?” He asks: “Or do you not think so far ahead?” The I of the song is in a different time, is in the elongated future, that immanent imminence of hopeful love: to think of me, the when-where of thinking of me, means you have to think ahead. A time that’s also a space: that’s where I am. You have to think of the whole future that I mean.

Or do you not think so far ahead? Cause I’ve been thinking bout forever. Do you not think so far ahead? (Do you not think of me?) Cause I’ve been thinking bout forever (I’ve been thinking bout you.) What’s the time-space of mad love? To think about you is to think about forever. It’s not that when I think about you, I think about spending forever with you. It’s that to think about you is already to think about forever. There’s no thinking you without thinking about forever. There’s no thinking you without thinking about the time that doesn’t end. I think maybe every love song is about this, even if it doesn’t really know it or admit it. But this is probably the best song about it. About that mad and true feeling, which is knowledge, at the juncture where feeling is knowledge, knowledge is feeling: I am the future, you are forever. When I’m thinking about you (ooh, no, no, no), I’ve been thinking about you (you know, know, know).

And yes, I know, I know: queer theory, no future, etc., the importance of rejecting futurity as privilege and violence of heteroproductivity, there are important things to reject. But there have to be ways for queer subjects to recuperate the concept of forever, the ever after (someday I am also going to write about what a great movie Ever After mostly is and why I loved it as a kid, but, err, more on that later), the eternal and the destinal. It can’t be left to heteronormative culture, can it? Because I love the drama of the ever after, a drama whose drama comes almost entirely from its audience’s desire for the drama to be true. The at-all-times of ever; simultaneity of time, hybrid transtemporalities of ever, ever, for ever, ever after, the always-after of the at-all-times. Ever, ever. Forever ever? Andre 3000 asks. Forever ever, Andre 3000 answered, I’ve always loved how the beginning of “Ms Jackson” starts out with that record rewinding, rewinding, rewinding, like rewinding time, take it back, take it back, take it back before I fucked it all up, I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson, I am for real, never meant to make your daughter cry, I apologize a trillion times. “On the oak tree, I hope we feel like this forever / forever / forever ever / forever ever?”

How can I be made to give up the ever? The ever is for brujas, curanderas, albularyos, dwendes, faith healers and people healed by faith, possessed girls, writers, stupid kids, stupid kids who listen to writers, stupid kids who become writers, lovers. People who believe in love. Melodramatic people. I’m not giving up on the ever. No, no, no. Ooh, no, no, no, you know, know, know. You know that no. Melodrama. Music and drama. “Thinkin Bout You” is a whole melodramatic universe. It’s an ever.

Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories:

Longing produces modes of both belonging and ‘being long,’ or persisting over time. Yet this is more than desire, for desire is a form of belief in the referential object that the subject feels s/he lacks and that would make him or her whole (and insofar as this referential object is often posited in terms of a lost object, desire is ‘historiographical,’ a way of writing that object into the present). Erotics, on the other hand, traffics less in belief than in encounter, less in damaged wholes than in intersections of body parts, less in loss than in novel possibility (will this part fit into that one? what’s my gender if I do this or that to my body?)… [The queer subject] would refuse to rewrite the lost object into the present, but try to encounter it already in the present, by encountering the present itself as hybrid. And he or she would use the body as a tool to effect, figure, and perform that encounter.

It’s not that I believe you’re here, it’s that you’re already here? Not that I believe you’re forever, but that you’re forever, your being you, your being here, is a forever? That I’m this cheesy for you. That I think these things for you. That I feel these things for you. That they’re true. Teleology is breaking my heart. I want another time. Another time? Can we do it some other time? Let’s do it some other time. I’ll see you some other time. Is now not a good time? Now’s a good time. The other time is now. I feel it. I still feel it. We’ll go down this road til it turns from color to black and white. Until the film of our love itself fades out, wears down, wears out its color, even then; until we go backwards in the time of film, from our Technicolor present to the black-and-white past, before color was something even we could record. Before, color was something only your body could remember. Unless you were rich enough to look at some paintings. I love that orange, the orange of Channel ORANGE, is both a color and something you can eat. The multiply sensuous nature of orange. Go down this road til it turns from color to black and white. Go forward in this love so much we’ll be going backward. I see it, I feel it, I eat it, it feeds me. It makes me up. I make it up. Can’t live without it. Hunger for it. For you. What’s past? It hasn’t passed, for me. Won’t ever pass.

*

“Where’s your love letter?” I’ve said before that everything I write or make is a love letter. Every single letter, a love letter. To be a letter-writer, you do have to kind of be an idiot for time, though. You have to be an idiot for the future, too. You have to believe that what you’re sending will arrive. That time and space will come through for you. Even if you’re sending something that you know will never arrive, even if you’re sending something too late, even if you’re not sending something forward, but sending it back, into the past, you still have to believe in time, which is to say, time before, against, and beyond death. But I don’t think I agree anymore with what Derrida says in The Post Card, even though I’m basically writing a book named after it:

If I say I write for dead addressees, not dead in the future but already dead at the moment when I get to the end of a sentence, it is not in order to play. Genet said that his theater was addressed to the dead and I take it like that on the train in which I am going writing you without end. The addressees are dead, the destination is death: no, not in the sense of S.[ocrates] or p.[lato]’s predication, according to which we would be destined to die, no, not in the sense in which to arrive at our destination, for us mortals, is to end by dying. No, the very idea of destination includes analytically the idea of death, like a predicate (p) included in the subject (S) of destination, the addressee or the addressor. And you are, my love unique

the proof, the living proof precisely, that a letter can always not arrive at its destination and that therefore it never arrives. And this is really how it is, it is not a misfortune, that’s life, living life, beaten down, tragedy, by the still surviving life. For this, for life I must lose you, for life, and make myself illegible for you. J’accepte.”

Okay, okay, okay, so the destination includes analytically the idea of death, death is in every word, I already know that. Anyone who has had someone they love die or has loved someone such that their death would be the end of the world, knows that. That’s not hard to know. This is the first fear. Freeman writes, describing the epistolary form of Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Most works of epistolary fiction play on the gap between the moment of writing a letter and the moment of receiving and reading one: among other things, this conceit allows the reader of an epistolary novel to know things before characters do, and for a plot element to be obsolete (that is, already undone by another event) even as it is revealed. Like the monster’s body, then, many letters are dead on arrival. If the family form gains coherence through the virtual space or “worlding” enacted by writing letters, it is made dangerously incoherent by the time lags that this spacing depends on…”

Letters, death, arrival, time lags. Death, death, death. God, there’s an awful lot of philosophical energy invested in certain ways of thinking about (fetishizing) death. It makes death sound terribly melancholy and appealing, doesn’t it? Meh. But what about the time lag of resurrection, and the resurrectionary power of the epistolary? That when I write to you, even if the you is dead, gone, not listening, doesn’t care—that nevertheless the trajectory of sending, of addressing, is actually multidirectional, that by sending to you, I also bring you back, that’s the ontology of the addressee, if you’re there to be addressed to, you’re there, there-here. How Ocean writes: “I’VE NEVER HAD MORE RESPECT FOR LIFE AND LIVING THAN I HAVE RIGHT NOW. MAYBE IT TAKES A NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE TO FEEL ALIVE.” Derrida writes, “For this, for life I must lose you, for life, and make myself illegible for you.” But couldn’t we actually write the exact opposite? As in: “For this, for life I must resurrect you, for life, and make myself legible, radically legible, for you. J’accepte.” Couldn’t you write that, instead? My version’s more passionate, anyway. This is why I can’t be a philosopher, either. All the passion. Derrida’s version is a bit like the guy who says: Hey, I can’t quite commit, because, well, we’re all going to die. Really? Wouldn’t you rather receive my letter than Derrida’s? Wouldn’t you rather receive Ocean’s? Ocean: “I DON’T HAVE ANY SECRETS I NEED KEPT ANYMORE.” Derrida, writer of A Taste for the Secret, probably could never really imagine that—but I love it. At what point does honouring the “secret” become another excuse for obfuscation, suppression, mystification? I know continental philosophy very much enjoys the idea of naming as a permanent violence. And I feel it, too. But there are forms of naming and re-naming that serve to redress a previous violence. Why is it that when historically subjugated people start talking about taking back their names and rights, suddenly white philosopher-kings start blabbering about how there’s no such thing as human rights and also naming is always a violence, all inscription is murder, okay, well, it certainly doesn’t stop you from publishing a billion books and holding all the respected academic positions imaginable, though. So. Sure, I like secrets. But the idea of secretlessness in love, in consenting to that kind of totality of revelation, of even believing that it’s possible, knowing that it’s probably not, the way Ocean qualifies his statement: “THERE’S PROBABLY SOME SMALL SHIT STILL, BUT YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN,” but even believing in it, living for it, is astonishing, and astonishingly radical. The surrender of your secrets. I mean. That’s what you call a love letter. It will never get old, not in my soul, my spirit keep it alive. This isn’t messianic, this isn’t about à-venir, the love-to-come or the justice-to-come, or even the future-to-come. This is ever-time. At-all-times of time. Or do you not think so far ahead? Cause I’ve been thinking bout forever.

*

“As Jürgen Habermas reminds us,” Freeman writes, “eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century letters were often written not only to their addressees but also implicitly to larger publics within and beyond the extended family.”

So if we think of the history of letters as also an implicit history of publics, of the animation (re-animation, after Frankenstein) of a public, can’t we also think of love letters as a history of counterpublics? As the epistolary form is historically a feminized genre and the letter is often a queer form in a social structure whose discursive production values more rational, impersonal forms of communication, how can we think about the erotics and politics of the letter form, a form of taking the world personally, and then making that personal feeling, public? What’s most radical about Frank Ocean’s love letter is that it was a love letter. A thank you letter, that was also a love letter, that was also a love story, that was also a history of love, that was also a counterhistory. Is gratitude, grace, a form of love, or is love a form of gratitude, grace? They inform each other. How the letter began: “WHOEVER YOU ARE, WHEREVER YOU ARE..I’M STARTING TO THINK WE’RE A LOT ALIKE.” We’re brought into a past, and a past love, that isn’t ours, but that we share, that he allows us to share, because he wrote it, and published it, and made a public of it. So that emotionally, affectively, we all become historicized, interdependently, with each other, which is how we should be historicized anyway: with each other. Whoever you are, wherever you are. The letter makes a counterpublic out of everyone who reads it and feels it. As bell hooks writes in “Love as the Practice of Freedom: “”A culture of domination is anti-love. It requires violence to sustain itself. To choose love is to go against the prevailing values of the culture.”

Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination–imperialism, sexism, racism, classism. It has always puzzled me that women and men who spend a lifetime working to resist and oppose one form of domination can be systematically supporting another. I have been puzzled by powerful visionary black male leaders who can speak and act passionately in resistance to racial domination and acept and embrace sexist domination of women, by feminist white women who work daily to eradicate sexism but who have major blind spots when it comes to acknowledging and resisting racism and white supremacist domination of the planet. Critically examining these blind spots, I conclude that many of us are motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often, then, the longing is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us. This is why we desperately need an ethic of love to intervene in our self-centered longing for change. Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.

A love letter is a form of what Freeman calls erotohistoriography: “Erotohistoriography is distinct from the desire for a fully present past, a restoration of bygone times. Erotohistoriography does not write the lost object into the present so much as encounter it already in the present, by treating the present itself as hybrid.” It will never get old, not in my soul, my spirit keep it alive. This is, as Freeman writes, “an erotic relation to history that would suture contemporary affective historiography, which in its attachment to melancholy seems to pleasure shy, to the model of jouissance, from whose ahistoricism queer theory has turned away.” But love letters and love songs have always known what it means to have an erotic relation to the past, such that the past is never merely or purely past. It doesn’t pass me by. It won’t pass me by. Emotions have a resurrectionary aspect: to still feel it is to bring it back, again and again. To still feel is to never have let it go. Yes, of course / I remember / how could I forget / how you feel? I remember, how could I forget how you feel? Not possible to forget how you feel. I remember, I re-member, I bring the members back together, members as citizens, members of the feeling body, feeling as aggregation, that’s how a love letter, a love song becomes a counterpublic. I remember. I re-member. Feeling as aggregation; collective memory. Re-member what Symeon Brown said, during the London riots last year? “Some say collective memory is a fantasy. Are you watching footage of Southall? Historical amnesia is an epidemic.” To remember and re-member against dominant culture imposed forms of forgetting and suppressing, is a dissident act.

I remember, how could I forget, how you feel? The I here is plural, non-unitary. What Trinh T. Minh-ha calls the I/i: “A critical difference from myself means that I am not i, am within and without i. I/i can be I, or i, you and me both involved. We (with capital W) sometimes include(s), other times exclude(s) me. You and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me, while remaining what you are and what i am not.” Love, enclosure-obliterating love. Love, holding tight, holding fast, love. Love, still feeling it, of course I remember how could I forget how you feel, love.

And it wasn’t just a love letter that Ocean published on his Tumblr, but a photograph (a screenshot) of a love letter. I want to think about love letters, counterpublics, photographs and: the archive. In “Archive Fever,” Okwui Enwezor writes:

From its inception, the photographic record has manifested ‘the appearance of a statement as a unique event.’ Every photographic image has been endowed with this principle of uniqueness. Within that principle lies the kernel of the idea of the photograph as an archival record, as an analogue of a substantiated real or putative fact present in nature. The capacity of mechanical inscription and the order of direct reference that links the photograph with the indisputable fact of its subject’s existence are the bedrock of photography and film. The capacity for accurate description, the ability to establish distinct relations of time and event, image and statement, have come to define the terms of archival production proper to the language of those mechanical mediums, each of which give new phenomenological account of the world as image. Photography is simultaneously the documentary evidence and the archival record of such transactions. Because the camera is literally an archiving machine, every photograph, every film is a priori an archival object. This is the fundamental reason why photography and film are often archival records, documents and pictorial testimonies of the existence of a recorded fact, an excess of the seen. The infinitely reproducible, duplicatable image, whether a still picture or a moving image, derived from a negative or digital camera, becomes, in the realm of its mechanical production or digital distribution or multiple projection, a truly archival image.

It’s this quality, this excess of the seen, of Ocean’s letter that moves me, too. How if you wanted to keep the words, you couldn’t just “copy and paste” the text. You could reblog the whole post (write it all again, ever and ever), if you were a Tumblr user you could “heart” it–or you could save it. Save the image, save the words. In this age of imposed historical amnesia, who or what will remember us, re-member us, bring us together again? Who or what will save us, who or what will we save? “Thinkin Bout You” is a love song whose love is also a love of the archive, a love of remembering, a love of saving, being saved. Keeping you safe in my heart, it will never get old, not in my soul. It’s what Ann Cvetkovich calls “an archive of feelings,” in An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures:

My approach to genre has been inclusive because the resulting range of texts and artifacts enables attention to how publics are formed in and through cultural archives. Cultural artificats become the archive of something more ephemeral: culture as a ‘way of life,’ to borrow from Raymond Williams, or a counterpublic, to invoke recent work on the public sphere. My materials emerge out of cultural spaces—including activist groups, women’s music festivals, sex toy stores, and performance events—that are built around sex, feelings, and trauma. These publics are hard to archive because they are lived experiences, and the cultural traces that they leave are frequently inadequate to the task of documentation. Even finding names for this other meaning of culture as a ‘way of life’—subcultures, publics, counterpublics—is difficult. Their lack of a conventional archive so often makes them seem not to exist, and this book tries to redress that problem by ranging across a wide variety of genres and materials in order to make not just texts but whole cultures visible. In using the term public culture, I keep as open as possible the definition of what constitutes a public in order to remain alert to forms of affective life that have not solidified into institutions, organizations, or identities. Like Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, I would like to ‘support forms of affective, erotic and personal living that are public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity’ because ‘queer is as difficult to entextualize as culture.’

Love songs, Tumblr posts, love letters, screenshots. Until the film turns from color to black and white. Who will remember us? I remember, how could I forget, how you feel? Do you think about me still? Do you, do you? Or do you not think so far ahead? Cause I’ve been thinking bout forever.

But the privilege of being remembered, Walter Benjamin reminds us, has always been the privilege of the ruling classes: “…if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate… There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

So then what would be the document from the barbarian’s perspective? (This is what I’m trying to write, with POSTCARD, actually.) But when I write barbarian, let’s think about the word not only as that original racist slur, but as barbaros, barbarophonos, the babbling tongue, the language the ruling power (the politis) doesn’t understand. How to write a document in barbaros? In a language not yet known or acknowledged by dominant culture, a language not privileged by power? Ocean, thinking about the heterosexually-situated love songs of his youth: “I REALIZED THEY WERE WRITTEN IN A LANGUAGE I DIDN’T YET SPEAK.” So what language is “Thinkin Bout You” written in? What tongue do I speak, when I ask, when I insist, that my love and I be remembered? A love song is always in a foreign language. Foreign to language, foreign to language as tool of communication, language as inscription, language as totalizing and enclosing power. But that it is foreign doesn’t mean it’s secret or indecipherable; what publication, publishing, the making of a counterpublic, must also mean is: translation. That our efforts at feeling-with and knowing-with each other move across. That we move and be moved by each other.

Foreign love song. Love song’s softness, its weakness, its sweetness. Reviews of Channel ORANGE have made much of Ocean’s use of falsetto; thinking about the feminized and queer associations with the falsetto (though I didn’t know that there’s a controversy around falsetto in musical theory, that historically only men have been understood to be capable of falsetto?), the breathiness of the falsetto, song that’s still intimate with breath, the physiology of sound-making, how a falsetto seems to somehow be transcending voice (going higher, higher, up, up), but is also deeply embodied, the waft of the breath, the difficulty of maintaining the notes, the seams of the singing reveal themselves. When I think about the screenshot, the falsetto, I think of things that are almost-immaterial, almost-ephemeral, almost-forgotten, but aren’t. Aren’t immaterial and aren’t ephemeral. Aren’t forgotten. Could have disappeared, could have been silenced, but aren’t. Weren’t. Are here. Yes, of course, I remember, how could I forget, how you feel?

Enwezor: “Yet, against the tendency of contemporary forms of amnesia whereby the archive becomes a site of lost origins and memory is dispossessed, it is also within the archive that acts of remembering and regeneration occur, where a suture between the past and present is performed, in the indeterminate zone between event and image, document and monument.”

*

I love the music video for “Thinkin Bout You,” too. What it animates about historical time, institutional time, the privilege of time, the time of labor and the organization of time through labor, the time of a labor of love, drawing parallels between the time of labor and the time of love.

Freeman:

Chrononormativity is a mode of implantation, a technique by which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts. Schedules, calendars, time zones, and even wristwatches inculcate what the sociologist Evitar Zerubavel calls ‘hidden rhythms,’ forms of temporal experience that seem natural to those whom they privilege. Manipulations of time convert historically specific regimes of asymmetrical power into seemingly ordinary bodily tempos and routines, which in turn organize the value and meaning of time. The advent of wage work, for example, entailed a violent retemporalization of bodies once tuned to the seasonal rhythms of agricultural labor… More recently, Judith Butler has shown how the rhythms of gendered performance—specifically, repetitions—accrete to ‘freeze’ masculinity and femininity into timeless truths of being… In chronobiopolitics, this process extends beyond individual anatomies to encompass the management of entire populations: people whose individual bodies are synchronized not only with one another but also with larger temporal schemae experience belonging to itself as natural. In a chronobiological society, the state and other institutions, including representational apparatuses, link properly temporalized bodies to narratives of movement and change. These are teleological schemes of events or strategies for living such as marriage, accumulation of health and wealth for the future, reproduction, childrearing, and death and its attendant rituals. Indeed, as the anthropologist John Borneman’s work clarifies, so-called personal histories become legible only within a state-sponsored timeline. This timeline tends to serve a nation’s economic interests, too.

In the video we’re in some colonial space; an injured white man is carrying an even more gravely injured and sickly-looking white woman (his wife? his sister?) on a coat to what looks like a tepee, where shamanic figures (Lakota?) are engaged in a kind of ceremonial ritual. The white man seems to beg—offering a purse of money—the figures to help save, cure, heal, his female companion. Then there are flashforwards to a contemporary hospital, in which a sick white woman (is she the one dreaming up this colonial fantasy/history?) is lying in a hospital bed (a dreamcatcher is hanging over her bed, a nod to the Ojibwe or Lakota narrative), while Ocean seems to be explaining something to a young white boy.

I’ve read people describe Ocean’s role here as a doctor: no. As someone whose entire family has been subsumed and continues to be subsumed in the colonial-imperial medical-industrial complex, let me say: Ocean’s character is most likely a nurse. He’s wearing scrubs (so unless he’s a surgeon, which as I’ll continue to explain, is not likely given what his character does), and he’s taking the time to explain something to the patient’s family. Believe me, most doctors are not taking the time to do all that work. This particular portion of (affective) labor is nearly always exclusively the burden of nurses. All the work of treatment that isn’t limited just to diagnosing, prescribing drugs and/or treatment, and generally swanning around in your credentialed privilege–i.e., the actual, everyday, embodied, material work of care–yeah, nurses are the ones who do all of that. Futhermore, nursing everywhere in the world is a profession populated predominantly by women and men of color–everywhere in the world, being one of the biggest sites for imported labor, wealthy countries everywhere have always outsourced their care when they could, they killed off all the witches, women, queers, during primitive accumulation but they still needed people to attend to the doctor class they’d produced; so where do you find suitably otherized bodies to do that dirty work? you only get one guess. Imperialism has transformed entire nations into satellite nurse factory, most notably the Philippines, where my parents are from. I also think people are reading Ocean’s character as a doctor because people assume that male = doctor, even though many nurses are men of color, often queer men of color, and they do often experience the cultural stigma that male supremacist patriarchy attaches to men who work in a historically feminized profession; ask my brothers, uncles, etc. But I read Ocean’s character as a nurse—as yet another racialized and subordinate body through which the dominant, privileged white culture comes to demand “treatment.” (The treatment in the colonial fantasy also coming through the white man digging up some shard of a fallen comet for the shamans to use? Which Ocean’s nurse practitioner, in the future, seems to be describing to the young boy, as if describing the history of a famous comet? I like that moment when Ocean indicates the celestial being exploding onto the ground upon contact; how the little boy looks really disturbed, and Ocean just looks equanimous about the whole thing. That makes me laugh.)

In the scenes with the young woman being healed by the shamans, we hear Ocean’s voiceover layered over the track, so that the lyrics of the love song also become the words of a nurse speaking to a sick, barely conscious patient, or a shaman speaking to the one being healed: “How you feel?” “Time!” “New feel?” “Spirit, keep it alive.” In some way the video feels like a way for an artist of color to talk about what it means to always be the one providing love songs for dominant, white supremacist culture. Why do you always come to me to heal you, to make you feel good, to make you feel better? My rhythm, my blues, my ballad, my sadness, my soul. Why do I always have to exorcise you? Why do I always have to cure the sickness in your body, in your heart, in your soul? Why do you always come to me to learn how to feel things? You injure yourself in the process of injuring the world, and then you come to me to make you better. You desensitize yourself through plunder, domination, exploitation, privilege, acts of cruelty small and large, then you come to me because you want to remember how to feel things again. Teach me how to feel things again. Give me my heart again. Why do you make me the repository of your heart? Why does it become my responsibility to remind you what’s human about yourself, what’s mortal and therefore saveable in yourself, because your power has allowed you to forget both your mortality, your vulnerability? But now that you’re vulnerable, you need me to make you better? You need me to care for you. This is what it’s like to care for you. I’ve been caring for you all my life. My mother’s worked in a veterans hospital in California since before my birth—often illegally, since before Clinton, you couldn’t work at a veterans hospital and have a second job, but of course she always had a second job, sometimes a third job. You know what Vietnam War and Korean War veterans typically say to Asian female nurses when they’re in pain and lashing out? My mom’s heard a lot of shit. Been told a lot of shit, been made to carry a lot of shit, been made to care for a lot of shit. Some patients think nurses are the tissue you wipe your shit on. I don’t know if it was her who said to me, When you first become a nurse, I think you kind of fall in love a little bit with all your patients, you feel so sorry for them, you really get involved, you really care, but then after a while, especially after the ones that die, you have to remove yourself, you have to become cold a bit, otherwise you can’t go on.

The video ends with Ocean’s character leaning onto the bed with the sick woman, attending to her. How many times have we seen a scene like this? (Manet’s Olympia comes to mind.) With this video, Ocean is drawing parallels between R&B ballad writers, indigenous forms of healing under colonization, and contemporary nursing work—parallels between multiple forms of affective labor, as they have existed throughout time. What does it mean to love, to want to heal? When wanting to love, wanting to heal, is transformed into being required to love, to heal; paid to love, to heal? When does a love song start to feel like work? I’ll always be attending to you; how long am I going to be attending to you? I’ll always care for you–I’ve always been caring for you.

  • http://ignoranceisplentiful.blogspot.com/ Don Charles “Stuffed Animal”

    How dare anybody assume the right to label another human being “queer” . . . what could be more cruel than hanging a sexual slur (don’t give me that “reclaimed” bullsh*t) around the neck of a human being because of his/her gender expression or sexual orientation? It’s the very height of ignorance! The so-called Progressive web is every bit as oppressive and insulting to LGBT identity as the Right Wing web. Learn to speak of me and my kind with respect, and then maybe we can have an enlightening conversation.

  • Dylan

    Great piece!!!

    By the way, I think the word you were thinking of was “syncopation.”