In anticipation of Claudia Rankine and Will Rawls’s What Remains, writer and artist Malakai Greiner, in conversation with Rawls, reflects on legibility, blackness, Edouard Glissant’s right to opacity, and the void.
I can always tell, a second before they do it, when a white person is going to ask me the question, “What are you?” I can feel it coming, and it could come anywhere, anytime—on the street, at family gatherings, in the library, in class, and, most often, at work. I work at a moose-themed coffee chain in Minneapolis, and every so often this question comes stumbling through the line. I’m never sure how best to answer. I know what they are asking, but why they are asking takes some guessing.
Why do they want to know what I am?
It might simply be because they don’t know, and they want to.
Maybe because it is easier to ask someone this question when they are serving you, when there is little to no chance of refusal.
Maybe they ask to avoid questioning their own desire for knowing.
What structures exist to teach you what you deserve of/from a person?
I am proud of my answer to this question—I’m proud of “what I am.” My issue is not with the question but with that which is left unexamined in it’s asking. When, in the pursuit of understanding, this question is prioritized over all others, it perpetuates a structure of value, assessment, and appraisal based solely in race. It is a question which, for many askers, is only useful when held against what author Zora Neale Hurtson calls “the sharp white background.”
“What are you?” is an example of the kind of questions that masquerade as an effort toward understanding; inevitably, these questions fall into the unknowable wake of a person and snap. While this question is, at worst, invasive and clumsy, it indicates a social deficit on a mass scale. The forces which form our identities are complex, and no one person can be fully rendered in a completely legible, singular form. From the consolidation of cross-cultural dialogue to this realm—the realm of the forthright and unambiguous, of classification and ownership, of whiteness—comes forth a spectrum of violence.
How can we work against these standards of legibility?
What if the questions we ask can’t be answered with words, or really “answered” at all, but can be appreciated through an open yet careful inspection of the foggy: the stilted, urgent, shifting, bending, remembering, timing, repetition, repetition, repetition in the physicality of someone’s daily work; or a sympathetic view of a body in the act of physical endurance; or through a demonstration of all the ways one contorts their posture and speech to feel safe, or strong.
How can we seek to understand someone while accepting the impossibility of complete and comprehensive knowing?
The answer may lie in Caribbean writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, wherein he proposes the right to opacity. Glissant observed the West’s hyperfixation on a method of understanding based in “transparencies”—the reductive ways in which we classify others against existing dominant structures of worth. For Glissant, transparencies are limited and limiting. Transparencies disregard those countless unknowable things about a person that makes each of us who we are.
Instead, Glissant presents opacities. Opacities are those hard-to-explain parts of yourself. The subtleties, the intricacies, the “irreducible singularities,” the prime numbers and contradictions of yourself. Opacity is anti-spectacle, anti-revelation, anti-grasping, anti-ownership. The right to opacity is freedom from the expectation of complete coherence and comprehensibility in every aspect of your personhood.
Glissant describes people, culture, life as we know it, as a tapestry of fabrics that weave together to create an “exultant divergence of humanities.” According to Glissant, one must focus on the “texture of the weave” rather than the individual components of each fabric to reach an understanding of it. This is not to say representation and the attempt to understand others across cultural boundaries are not powerful tools and worthwhile efforts, but in order to utilize these tools and execute these efforts we must first seek to see someone rather than through them.
To fully exercise our right to opacity and protect it for others, we need to find ways of describing the indescribable. What available methods are capable of usurping the restrictive and oppressive standards of transparency? If lucidity and comprehension are no longer top priorities, why not recruit dance, poetry, and the void.
In What Remains, choreographer Will Rawls and poet Claudia Rankine, along with filmmaker John Lucas and performers Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Leslie Cuyjet, Jessica Pretty, and Tara Aisha Willis, challenge the specific standards of transparency required of black Americans. I asked choreographer Will Rawls to give some insight into What Remains’s methods of meeting this challenge.
Much like Glissant’s tapestry, What Remains weaves movement, voice, song, text, sound, and video into the work—resulting in a performance based in what choreographer Will Rawls calls “arcs of feeling and material” rather than a strict narrative structure. “In What Remains the performers improvise a lot, with their voices and bodies, and I’m excited to see black performers moving from the throes of abstraction into song and back again,” says Rawls. “At times, the performance turns in on itself, and the audience witnesses the performers at play and at work, devising material for each other while moving through a complex structure that contains many scenarios.”
The shifting legibility of What Remains also relies upon its sparse yet deliberate stage elements. For Rawls, the fundamental properties of light and darkness in the space “inform not just our understanding of what’s happening, by revealing and concealing the action, but also inform our very faculties of perception.” In these ways, Rawls and the cast of What Remains challenge the viewer to question the limits of their optic and supersensory perception.
On the page, Claudia Rankine’s poetry reads at a pace and flow akin to movement, to dance. Rankine’s voice is at times shifting and multivalent. Her spaces of inquiry delve into the everyday occurrences of racism and violence as well as “internal, abstract landscapes of feeling,” says Rawls. “It is these landscapes of intensity, stillness, absurdity, and wonder that inform the mood and structure of What Remains.” If you are expecting that What Remains will be a re-staging of Citizen, don’t. While Rankine’s texts (Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely) feature heavily in What Remains, it is the distortion that occurs in the coalescing of languages that creates the work. Rawls and the cast of artists developed “various vocal improvisations that distort the text. [Rankine] was confident that the sense of her words would remain no matter how distorted it got. She was right.”
One such vocal distortion is a combining of Rankine’s text with Jidenna’s “Classic Man.”
This catchy melody and narrative of black excellence in a masculine framework is thrown into contrast with the invocation of the “already-dead-space”—the void of non-being resulting from the curtailment of the physical and psychic worlds of black Americans. For Rawls and Rankine, these voids are not places of emptiness and stagnation but contemplation and performance. “Voids seem like appropriate tools for interpreting the dumpster fire of injustice that is our country,” says Rawls. By looking through voids, we see what (and who) is left out of anthems of self-confidence and excellence. By creating voids on stage, What Remains can show the unshowable—the incomprehensible is not reduced to untranslatability but expanded past and beyond.
What Remains will urge you to go below just the surface, to “invite the suspension of disbelief necessary for reimagining things as they are,” says Rawls. To actively work against structures of transparency, first you have to listen, to look. Peel back your own layers of sense and comprehensibility—and see What Remains.