Saturday, June 27, 2020
The Universe of The Immeasurable Want of Light Explained: An Inadequate Primer
We are flung, at the outset of The Immeasurable Want of Light, into a spindle-armed, dark matter galaxy where a kaleidoscopic whirl of human history and fantasy circles around us against an infinite field of Blackness. This cultural cosmos is at once brilliant and blinding. Just as references, characters, and actions seem to be building into a cogent statement about existence, race, or civilization, an unpredictable transformation of form or function baffles our attempts at clear meaning making or interpretation.
The purposefully dense entanglements of cultural, historical, geographic, cosmological and scientific allusions that buttress The Immeasurable Want of Light make the identification and isolation of such facets, in order to better understand the play, a self-defeating exercise. The pervasive injection of cultural allusions alongside original creative inventions calls into question the legitimacy of the former's vaunted position by displaying their commonalities and exposing the permeability of the boundary between them; reconstituting the canon is a means to freeing it from the capitalistic, oppressive clutches of artistic origination. When John Cage's 4'33” of silence is filtered through the black body rather than a piano and orchestra, it is not to propel an acute argument about the avant-garde in music history but rather, when presented with a multitude of other examples that stretch across time and philosophy and aesthetics, is meant to refresh and re-frame our ideas about the scope and reach and visibility of Blackness and that black body.
But amid this tumultuous swirl of cultural ephemera, there are a few concrete, definable pillars—ideas, historical figures, considered paradigms—upon which the play's meaning might be caught resting, if only for a moment.
Scaffolding the universe of the play much like it does our own, dark matter, and the changes in scientific thinking that were necessary to conceptualize it, provides a physical analogy to the ontology of Blackness and the processes by which Blackness has been defined by negation and the fundamental paradigm shifts in culture necessary to render the invisible black lived-in body visible.
Dark matter, one of the key components to current cosmological models, is a form of mass characterized by its unique relationship to light, namely that the two do not directly interact, rendering it invisible to ordinary means of observation. As finding something that can only be observed indirectly is unlikely, dark matter was not discovered until its existence was necessitated by Einstein's famous Theory of Relativity. Very basically, Einstein's theory explained how light, mass, and gravity interact, describing how the path of light is bent towards mass by gravity. But, while Einstein's theory accurately described the behaviors of light and gravity for the most part, it couldn't account for two things. First, the expansion of the universe outward from the Big Bang should gradually be slowing due to diffuse gravitational forces. In fact, observations have shown that the expansion of the universe is not behaving uniformly and is in fact speeding. Second, when light is observed to bend as it passes through the cosmos, it is bending more than the mass we can observe would suggest. To account for these discrepancies, scientists postulated a number of theories but none has taken hold more than the existence of dark energy and dark matter.
Dark energy is the repellent force that provides the means for our universe to be expanding at an increasing rate rather than slowing or contracting. The staggering amount of energy required to do so means that the current cosmological model predicts around 68% of our universe to be nothing but dark energy. There are many theories as to what this dark energy actually is—an inherent property of empty space and the result of more empty space spontaneously coming into existence, the result of virtual particles that flicker in and out of existence, or some pervasive dynamic energy fluid or field—but there is no clear consensus in the scientific community as to which explanation is most correct if any.
The remainder of the universe is made up of ordinary matter and dark matter. Again, according to the same cosmological models, we find that ordinary matter can only constitute around 5% of the observable universe, meaning that nearly 27% of the entire universe is dark matter, or utterly invisible and mostly undetectable to us. Through the use of equipment like the Hubble Space Telescope, the effect of this invisible mass on light in our galaxy and galaxies far beyond can be observed. This has revealed some of dark matter's mysteries, like that it is unevenly distributed across galaxies, but much remains totally unknown about it other than the necessity of its existence, unless the cosmological model is fundamentally flawed.
It is in this effort to manifest the previously invisible visible, in definition through negation, in the the great amount of time and energy it cost to to develop new paradigms that could discover what was already there, that we find the essential analogy to Blackness and the lived-in black body. Specifically, The Immeasurable Want of Light presents a kaleidoscopic view of human history and cultural momentum and asks us to see an ever present Blackness that is often ill-defined by a negative opposition to Whiteness but here is unbounded by any prevailing definition. As with dark matter, assumed paradigms relegated the black body's contributions to the cosmos as marginal, invisible, until progress demanded a more full accounting and determined those marginal effects to be in fact essential and ubiquitous.
The other major structural element upon which expounding may offer some measurably better understanding of the play is the use and reuse of notable figures Fred Moten, Hilton Als, and Nell Painter. All three of them are serious artists, academics, and writers whose works plumb the philosophical conditions and existential quandaries of black identity, queerness, and history—as personal self-study and as a construction set against or apart from an assumed white society.
Fred Moten's voluminous body of writings spans from poetry and essays on Jazz and Glenn Gould to serious discussions of Frantz Fanon and the western canon of philosophers. His writing is extremely dense both in its allusive quality and discursive terminology,often centering around his identification of and rejection of the notion that blackness is a set of impositions on the body and lived experience from the outside,
One way to investigate the lived experience of the black is to consider what it is to be dangerous—because one is, because we are (Who? We? Who is this we? Who volunteers for this already given imposition? Who elects this imposed affinity? The one who is homelessly, hopefully less and more?) the constitutive—supplement. What is it to be an irreducibly disordering, deformational force while at the same time being absolutely indispensable to normative order, normative form? This is not the same as, though it does probably follow from, the troubled realization that one is an object in the midst of other objects, as Fanon would have it (Fred Moten, The Case of Blackness 180).
Thematically, his inclusion in The Immeasurable Want of Light follows from this observed paradox, that blackness by definition threatens to disrupt society's foundations while also being a necessary condition for those norms to exist in the first place, the dark matter of civilization.
Hilton Als is best known for his popular essays, theater and arts criticism, and position among the New York literati. He is known for his grand sociopolitical theorizing but also his capability to translate those proclamations into personal terms,
Americans live, still, in an atmosphere of phantasmagorical genocide—we kill each other with looks, judgments, the fantasies that white is better than black and that blackness is bestial while being somehow more “humane”—read mentally inferior—than whiteness (Hilton Als “The Sugar Sphinx” Vogue, 2014).
While he is not shy about discussing race, his writing often bristles with a tension that strains against the constraint that he, as a black man, must discuss race. The desire to move past that reflexive expectation of blackness, to be free from the endless hamster wheel of black-white discourse, to arrive where there can be no expectations of blackness, is a perfect encapsulation of the expansion and diffusion of personal, social, and historical consciousness presented by The Immeasurable Want of Light.
Like our other two figures, Nell Painter's inclusion in the play is in large part based off the essence of her work. As a historian, much of her work charts the rise of race and race theories in American society, offering clear insights into their artificiality, the intentions behind their implementation, and most hopefully their impermanence,
Today we think of race as a matter of biology, but a second thought reminds us that the meanings of race quickly spill out of merely physical categories. Even in so circumscribed a place as one book, the meanings of white race reach into concepts of labor, gender, and class and images of personal beauty that seldom appear in analyses of race. Work plays a central part in race talk, because the people who do the work are likely to be figures as inherently deserving the toil and poverty of laboring status. It is still assumed, wrongly, that slavery anywhere in the world must rest on a foundation of racial difference. Time and again, the better classes have concluded that those people deserve their lot: it must be something withing them that puts them at the bottom. In modern times, we recognize this kind of reasoning as it relates to the black race, but in other times the same logic was applied to people who were white; especially when they were impoverished immigrants seeking work (Nell Painter, The History of White People xi)
Blackness is often defined in opposition to whiteness. How that whiteness came to be and what it actually comprises is often not discussed. Here Painter chips away at the idea that whiteness is itself an assumable totality of the things that are not black while simultaneously exposing that neither identity is biologically or materially inevitable.
The text of the play reveals none of these parallels directly by foregoing any mentions of their prolific careers, but like dark matter, the indirect effects of these philosophies can be found infused throughout The Immeasurable Want of Light. The irreverent decoupling of these great thinkers from identifiable signifiers of their works and achievements is yet another means by which the play explodes the definitions and visibility of blackness. By freeing these characters from the often dehumanizing monumentalizing—a burden brought on by a history of oppression and repression—that accompanies black notoriety, the solemnity that we might expect from them is absent, replaced by a steady stream of banal bickering, sly flirtations, and practiced drinking.
These few markers could not encompass some total explanation of the The Immeasurable Want of Light. The depth and breadth of form and substance that the play engages with makes a comprehensive dissection unachievable, like dark matter it can only be arrived at indirectly. But to help on that roundabout journey, look for the philosophical signposts left by these major structural and thematic elements and that may point you back in the right direction should you find yourself lost in the cosmic sea.