Experiments in ExileC. L. R. James, Helio Oiticica, and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness

Experiments in ExileC. L. R. James, Helio Oiticica, and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness

Laura Harris

Print publication date: 2019

ISBN: 9780823279784

Publisher: Fordham University Press


Comparing the radical aesthetic and social experiments undertaken by two exile intellectuals, James and Oiticica, Harris chart a desire in their work to formulate alternative theories of citizenship, wherein common reception of popular cultural forms is linked to a potentially expanded, non-exclusive polity. By carefully analyzing the materiality of the multiply-lined, multiply voiced writing of the “undocuments” that record these social experiments and relay their prophetic descriptions of and instructions for the new social worlds they wished to forge and inhabit, however, Harris argue that their projects ultimately challenge rather than seek to rehabilitate normative conceptions of citizens and polities as well as authors and artworks. James and Oiticica’s experiments recall the insurgent sociality of “the motley crew” historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker describe in The Many-Headed Hydra, their study of the trans-Atlantic, cross-gendered, multi-racial working class of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Reading James’s and Oiticica’s projects against the grain of Linebaugh and Rediker’s inability to find evidence of that sociality’s persistence or futurity, Harris show how James and Oiticica gravitate toward and seek to relay the ongoing renewal of dissident, dissonant social forms, which are for them always also aesthetic forms, in the barrack-yards of Port-of-Spain and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the assembly lines of Detroit and the streets of the New York. The formal openness and performative multiplicity that manifests itself at the place where writing and organizing converge invokes that sociality and provokes its ongoing re-invention. Their writing extends a radical, collective Afro-diasporic intellectuality, an aesthetic sociality of blackness, where blackness is understood not as the eclipse, but the ongoing transformative conservation of the motley crew’s multi-raciality. Blackness is further instantiated in the interracial and queer sexual relations, and in a new sexual metaphorics of production and reproduction, whose disruption and reconfiguration of gender structures the collaborations from which James’s and Oiticica’s undocuments emerge, orienting them towards new forms of social, aesthetic and intellectual life.