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"How far do I have to go?": An Evening with Fred Moten

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Published Date

April 5, 2024

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by Aditi Rao

In what he suggested could be his “second to last ever lecture,” poet and Black Studies scholar Fred Moten opened with a little gossip. He told us a story that moved between himself, Judith Butler, the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, and an unnamed analytic philosopher who was charged with being a sophist. In the spirit of rumors, those of us in the audience will hold on to the rest, but in the spirit of communal disclosure, we can share Moten’s opening query, “what is a sophist—and why’s that such a bad thing to be?”

These probes laid the ground for a conversation involving Socrates, Barbara Cassin, Francis Ponge, Karen Barad, and Arthur Jafa, among others. Central to all of these threads was an open question as to the relationship between the sophistic and Black Studies. “What Black Studies knows,” Moten suggested, “it does not know through detachment.” As the workshop sifted through the forms of intimacy that germinate certain intellectual modalities, disciplines, and texts, Moten took on a sort of interlocutory role, shepherding via small stories and queries back to us. 

Over and over, Moten gently returned us to the notion of the “reiterative substrate,” refrains, echoes, mirrors, responses, dialogues, affects, exacerbations, exploding out from one another—for example, that the response to “shit torn up” is “tearing shit up.” In the end, iteratively, the workshop was an exercise in the dialogic form, a model of bringing ourselves in explicit proximity with our theoretical undertakings. Moten explained how it is only through closer and closer examination that an object begins to resemble a field; this tunneling is disciplinarily generative, sure, but requires a closeness between self and subject, and to deny this closeness undoes its value. 

The workshop opened with an explanation from Moten for his minor delay. He had gotten caught up in writing all morning, following a new thread and emerging only just before it was time to hit the road to Princeton. He told us that when he got in his car, he could only laugh, thinking, “How far do I have to go to do Black Studies?” I could only leave our department seminar room, which I had previously considered the natural answer to the question, asking myself, “How far do I have to go to do Classics?”