Blackpentecostal Breath

The Aesthetics of Possibility

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Ashon T. Crawley
Commonalities (FUP)
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , October
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823274550.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

How does one write “otherwise?” How does one write about breath, about noise, about “choreosonics”—a word so evocative it needs no definition—about glossolalia? How does one write glossolalically? In short, how does one write an academic book that engages in the subversive repurposing of the academy and the university that author Ashon Crawley, citing Fred Moten and Stephano Harney, attributes to the “critical academic”? This is nothing less, to my mind, than one version of the challenge Audre Lorde raised when she forcefully argued that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. So, how to forge new tools in order not to relinquish the academy to white supremacist neoliberal capitalist heteropatriarchy? In this bold first book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possiblity, Crawley doesn’t pontificate on how one might do such re-forging; he forges ahead and does it. Like a good Blackpentecostal musician or preacher, he improvises his way into a powerful re-enactment of the study of religion. While the result is occasionally uneven—strongest, I think, in the many spaces where he leaves off wrestling with the racist, colonialist texts of what he calls the theological-philosophical canon and focuses on doing what he might call “nothing,” doing “otherwise,” both very much in the active and constructive sense of “doing”—overall this is a path-clearing and exciting book that left me eager for Crawley’s next work, and wondering in which medium I will find it.

Crawley is an intellectual and methodological polyglot—or perhaps speaker of tongues, but definitively not in the xenolalic form that he rightly critiques as settler colonialist. Equally at home in musicology, fiction, literary analysis, thick description, poetry, theology, architecture, philosophy, and storytelling (I avoid the term history – or History – given Crawley’s critique of it and his claim to ahistorical writing in a very specific sense), Crawley weaves together all of these approaches through both usage and critique in order to approach what he terms Blackpentecostalism on its own methodological terms—through practice.

A brief passage at the end of the introduction caught my attention sharply; I quote it at some length here because it encapsulates for me an important methodological move that Crawley makes:

I am all too familiar with the [Blackpentecostal] world’s proclivities for classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.…But something is there, in the aesthetic practices, aesthetic practices that are collective intellectual performances, that serve as antagonistic to the very doctrines of sin and flesh that so proliferate within the world….[T]he resource for critiquing the ways sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism inform the world exist within the world itself….It is a world of Black Study even against its sometimes vulgar and vile declarations of sin (24; italics in original).

Taking a performative approach, Crawley wants to read Blackpentecostalism not through what it says, but through what it does, a kind of “think with what I do, not with what I say” method of analysis. This approach offers a powerful methodological redirection to the field of religious studies. Critiqued for years, most famously by Talal Asad—but certainly also by others such as Tomoko Masuzawa, and in the area of US religious studies, both Thomas Tweed and Robert Orsi—for its deep roots in Protestant Christianity and Enlightenment philosophy, and its consequent, persistent centering of belief over all else in the identification and definition of religion, the field nonetheless has largely persisted in subordinating practice to belief—a move that, Crawley might argue, also subordinates blackness, Blackpentecostal practice, and their atheology-aphilosophy. Building on this approach, I wonder how others of us in the field might perceive and think and experience differently the religions we study, were we to find not only their practice but also their primary meaning in their performance.

There is far too much depth, richness, and innovation in this book to do justice to in a short review, but at least an overview of the book’s structure is in order here. In addition to an introduction and an appropriately-named “Coda,” the book moves through four chapters, each exploring one aspect of Blackpentecostal practice as a practice of freedom and a “politics of avoidance”—skilled avoidance, that is, of those who would chain it down, violate its flesh, suffocate its breath. In the process, Crawley weaves his reading of and engagement with these themes together with queer, womanist, mujerista, and black liberation theologies—among many other resources—to critique both canonical theology/philosophy and dismissive approaches to Blackpentecostalism. In “Breath” Crawley frames his work as a Blackpentecostal pneumatology, linking the “pneuma” of the Spirit to the “pneuma” of human breath, and to the murder of black people—starting, as one might anticipate, with Eric Garner. “Shouting” leads him to a consideration of the “choreosonics”—the inextricable movement and sound—of Blackpentecostalism, and from there, to aesthetic, fugitive, enfleshed hermeneutical practices, social ecstasy, and the erotics of shouting. “Noise” further develops the book’s ongoing discussion of excess as both a spiritual, liberatory practice and the rhetoric of racist dismissal through a deeper consideration of the “sonic” aspect of choreosonics, and the disciplining of black “noise” into harmony, purity, or silence. “Tongues” engages glossolalia focusing, in part, on the ways in which disputes over the nature of this sacred speech both reflected and produced the sharp racial divisions in Pentecostalism. Crawley argues for the fullness of “nothing,” the openness and generativity of—an apparent—lack of meaning through his discussion of glossolalia as a heavenly language that can only be interpreted, not translated, and through a provocative reading of the purportedly “unintelligible” middle section of Ben Ali’s Diary, attributed to the early Sapelo Island resident Bilali. The Coda brings it all together, fittingly, with a consideration of the formative and reputedly quite queer role of the Hammond B-3 organ in Blackpentecostalism, and in US culture more broadly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melissa M. Wilcox is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ashon T. Crawley is assistant professor of ethnic studies at University of California, Riverside.

Keywords: 

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