Five Facets of Fred Moten

October 7, 2019

On Wednesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. in May Hall's McCarthy Auditorium, the College will welcome award winning scholar and poet Fred Moten to campus as this year's Chet Raymo Literary Series speaker.

Moten, who currently serves as a professor in the department of performance studies at New York University, explores black studies, performance studies, critical theory, and poetics. His 2014 collection of poetry The Feel Trio, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angles Times Book Prize, and was winner of the California Book Award.

Professor Amra Brooks presented Moten as a choice for this year’s Raymo lecture to her colleagues in the English Department and they unanimously supported the decision to invite him. With Professor George Piggford, C.S.C., Brooks is teaching one of Moten’s books, The Feel Trio, in their Learning Community, "What is There Beyond Knowing: Poetry Writing, Poetry Reading" and she believes that having a predominant black studies scholar, critic, theorist and award-winning prolific poet represents a huge opportunity for our students.

“They will learn a lot from his visit. The way Moten thinks about studies as collaborative and interdisciplinary is part of his appeal for students and faculty alike across all disciplines. Moten is a brilliant thinker whose frame of reference and knowledge about black history, culture, and poetics will surely be a fascinating reading and discussion. And we are lucky to be able to have his brand new book of poetry, All That Beauty, as well."

To explore Moten's literary, intellectual, and cultural impact and preview his visit to campus, we have pulled from a number of different sources to offer five facets of his work, viewpoints, and life.


Taken together, Moten’s writings feel like a Charlie Parker solo, or a Basquiat painting, in their gleeful yet deadly serious attempt to capture the profusion of ideas in flight. For him this fugitive quality is the point. We are not supposed to be satisfied with clear understanding, but instead motivated to continue improvising and imagining a utopian destination where a black cosmopolitanism—one created from below, rather than imposed from above—brings folks together.

This insight, shared by Jesse McCarthy in the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Harvard Magazine (Moten is a 1984 graduate of the institution), reflects Moten's style—continuous exploration, incisive cultural, academic, and philosophical connection, and relentless challenges to assumptions—which drives his art. McCarthy Continues:

He is that rare literary figure who commands wide and deep respect in and out of the academy, and who blurs the line between poetics as a scholarly pursuit, and poetry as an act of rebellious creation, an inherently subversive activity.


A 2018 New Yorker profile by David Wallace explores Moten's work, starting with his most recent collection:

Moten had agreed to meet so that I could ask him about his newest books, three dense volumes of critical writing, written in the course of fifteen years, and gathered under the name “consent not to be a single being.” The first volume, “Black and Blur,” has writings on art and music: Charles Mingus, Theodor Adorno, David Hammons, Glenn Gould. The second, “Stolen Life,” focusses on ideas that Moten describes as, broadly, “sociopolitical.” The third, “The Universal Machine,” deals with something like “philosophy proper,” as he put it to me, and is broken into “three suites of essays” on Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, and Frantz Fanon.

...Moten’s poetry, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, in 2014, has a good deal in common with his critical work. In it, he gathers the sources running through his head and transforms them into something musical, driven by the material of language itself...

As we finished lunch, I asked Moten what his next projects might be. He began, typically, with everyday things: unpacking from the move to New York, getting his two children enrolled in school, adjusting to walking everywhere again instead of driving. Then, in the same casual tone, he said that he was working on two new books, and that he might try his hand at opera soon—perhaps write some librettos. And he’s still trying to figure out how to teach a good class, he said. He wasn’t sure that it was possible under the current conditions. “You just have to get together with people and try to do something different,” he said. “You know, I really believe that. But I also recognize how truly difficult that is to do.”


Writing in Art News, Andy Battaglia noted in 2018:

Moten first made his name with In the Break, a dense, daring, and deeply moving study of what he calls at one point in the book the "experimental, performative, objectional, sensually theoretical, public privacy that animates the aesthetics of the black radical tradition."

Harvard's McCarthy adds, on In the Break:

“The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist,” is the book’s arresting opening sentence, announcing his major aim: to rethink the way bodies are shaped by aesthetic experience. In particular, he explores how the improvisation that recurs in black art—whether in the music of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, the poetry of Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey, or the conceptual art of Adrian Piper—confounds the distinctions between objects and subjects, individual bodies and collectively experienced expressions of resistance, desire, or agony.

And again, from Battaglia's profile in Art News:

“You should see my copy of the book,” said Adrienne Edwards, a curator for the Performa biennial in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—and the newly appointed curator of performance at the Whitney Museum... From Moten, she gained a sense that “blackness itself could fluctuate and circulate and levitate in a way that is not always attributed to it,” Edwards said. “He made it a multiplicity.”

In “The Case of Blackness,” an essay from 2008, Moten took up such matters by way of an episode that pitted jazz pianist Cecil Taylor against the painter Ad Reinhardt. “The cultural and political discourse on black pathology has been so pervasive that it could be said to constitute the background against which all representations of black, blackness, or (the color) black take place,” Moten writes, before chronicling a group conversation among artists about the metaphysics of black in 1967. In the dialogue, after Reinhardt opines on black as both a color and a formal conceit, Taylor takes issue with the painter’s refusal to acknowledge matters of blackness that apply differently to some than to others. “One is black and the other is white,” Moten states, “which means not just different experiences that differently color their thinking about color but also Reinhardt’s palpable inability to take Taylor seriously, a handicap that more often than not still structures interracial intellectual relations.” As Reinhardt and Taylor talk at and around each other, a gap opens that grows only wider over “the question of black dignity in a discourse of black art,” as Moten describes it.

Moten himself shared a take on his black studies work through the Art News profile:

“The most important and powerful critical work in my field in the last 50 years has been feminist work,” he said. “To do black studies in my moment has been to arrange oneself, hopefully in a rigorous and critical and open way, in relation to black feminist work, which takes up questions of gender in ways that are both obviously part of a larger feminist insurgency but also disruptive and dissonant within that insurgency precisely because of the place and the force that race takes up there. The problematic of blackness is inseparable from the problematic of gender and sexuality.”


In a 2017 interview in Brooklyn Rail, Moten reflects on writing In the Break, offering an example of the ease of and skill with which he connects disparate concepts to form a conceptual foundation for his writing:

I remember watching a documentary on Elvin Jones, the drummer for John Coltrane’s great quartet. It was later in his career, and at one point he’s playing the drums and starts talking basically about his experience of synesthesia. He hits the ride cymbal and says, See, for me that’s yellow. In the course of writing In The Break I was reading a lot of stuff on synesthesia—there was a way that what I wanted to do was link-up synesthetic experience with this other kind of cognitive experience I was fascinated with—what Wittgenstein calls “seeing aspects,” when you see something and then it turns into something else. It’s essentially just the “duck/rabbit” phenomenon. Of course, Wittgenstein would say that it doesn’t turn into something else—it’s the same thing, you just see a different aspect of it. So, I was thinking, What if there was something within the general sensual field that operated in a similar way to this seeing aspects? Instead of saying, First it was a “duck” and then it was a “rabbit,”you would say, First it was a “duck” and then it was a sound.

Wallace, in his New Yorker profile:

Over lunch, we spoke about Moten’s essay “Knowledge of Freedom,” collected in “Stolen Life.” It’s a critique of Kant that considers the philosopher’s ideas about the imagination and his “scientific” racism alongside a close reading of “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” an autobiography published, in London, in 1789, the year after Kant published his “Critique of Practical Reason” and the year before he published “Critique of Judgment.” Equiano was enslaved in what is now Nigeria, worked for years on British ships, and later, in the United States, bought his freedom.

“I neither want to refute Kant nor put Kant in his place,” Moten said. “I want to think about Kant as a particular moment in the history of a general displacement.” This, he added, “requires recognizing that Kant is a crucial figure in the development of the very concept of race on something like a philosophically rigorous level. But, of course, the fact that the incoherence that we call race can somehow be compatible with something like philosophical rigor lets us know something about the limits of philosophy, you know?”

And again, McCarthy in Harvard Magazine, on Moten as he took up residence in a new office at NYU:

He hadn’t had a chance to unpack his library, but already a small stack of books on jazz theory, performance, and quantum mechanics rested in a pile near his desk. It soon became clear, however, that he is the kind of thinker who keeps all his favorite books in his head, anyway. His Paul Laurence Dunbar is always at his fingertips, and he weaves passages from Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, or Hortense Spillers into his conversation with equal facility.

In someone else this learnedness could come off as intimidating, but in Moten it’s just the opposite. Something about his composure, his relaxed attentiveness, the way he shakes his head with knowing laughter as he pauses over the direction he’s about to take with a question, instantly erases any stuffiness: one can imagine the exact same conversation taking place on the sidelines of a cookout.


Again, from David Wallace's New Yorker profile:

In 2013, Moten published “The Undercommons,” a slender collection of essays co-written with his former classmate and fellow-theorist Stefano Harney. For a book of theory, it has been widely read, perhaps because of its unapologetic antagonism... “It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment,” Moten and Harney write. They lament the focus on grading and other deadening forms of regulation, asking, in effect: Why is it so hard to have new discussions in a place that is ostensibly designed to foster them?

They suggest alternatives: to gather with friends and talk about whatever you want to talk about, to have a barbecue or a dance—all forms of unrestricted sociality that they slyly call “study.” The book concludes with a long interview of Moten and Harney by Stevphen Shukaitis, a lecturer at the University of Essex, in which Moten explains the idea.

We are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal—being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory—there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it “study” is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.

Moten maintains that this kind of open-ended approach can be brought to bear everywhere, and can address even those subjects that might seem most traditionally academic.