This essay explores the question of black liquidity in relation to Zygmunt Bauman's conception of liquid modernity. Along these lines, it charts the historical process by which capitalist modernity cast the Negro as a commodity and how that led to so‐called Negro liquidity as the principal collateral in an extensive banking‐finance‐credit system with international scope. In that system, Negro liquidity was so thorough a monetization that its relation to Negro work was somewhat tangential—in the sense that simple ownership of a Negro indicated creditworthiness, irrespective of what work that Negro did. What's more, from 1850 to 1860, the accumulated wealth generated by that credit finance system, measured in Negro liquidity, was the largest in the nation. Drawing an analogy between that system of credit financing based on Negro liquidity and the current system of art credit financing, in which the artist's blackness is monetized, the essay foregrounds the appositive relation between this capitalist genealogy of liquidity and a concomitant genealogy of black poiēsis entailing a concept of liquidity not completely determined or circumscribed by that genealogy. Construing this poiēsis as polygenous and para‐semiotic, the essay argues that it is a performative black critique of capitalism's commodification of life.
This is something that I call the flow
Not many if any, ’cept for Vinnie, can say they know
In fact, detracting that is something that I rarely show
Because my tongue is actually fast but then again it's slow . . .—Naughty by Nature, “Everyday All Day”
When rap lyricist Anthony Criss, better known by his stage name, Treach, proclaims what he does is called “the flow,” and then says that is because his “tongue is actually fast but then again it's slow,” we know he is talking about the rhythm of his poetic fluidity as well as his delivery. There are many ways of defining this in the technē (the poetic know-how) of rap. Drew Morisey describes flow as “drum patterns over an instrumental converted into words, that is, drum rhythms over the instrumental that are in word form, coming out of the rapper's mouth, his voice.”1 This is about sonic technology; more precisely, it is about the temporal harmonizing of distinctive instrumentalities of sound, each with distinctive sonic qualities, in some sort of orchestration or arrangement. Flow, then, is the fluidity in the cadence and sonic clarity in tone of the human voice. Such fluidity is referred to in phonetics as “liquid,” following the classical Latin designation, liquidus, which itself translates the Greek term for fluid, υγρός (hygrós), used to describe the slippery effect of sonorant consonants on meter in classical Greek poetry. Rap's flow is liquid like that, and it is a liquidity of a complex lineage. It is worth recalling Édouard Glissant's account of the emergence of that lineage in modernity with the imposition of sound on the enslaved peoples taken from Africa.2 We can imagine the imposed noise to be the cacophonous sounds onboard the European slave ships, known generically as “Guineamen,” onto which those captured Africans were loaded and transported to the plantations and mines of the New World. Throughout that so-called Middle Passage of the triangular transatlantic trade, phonic materiality was meaningful in itself. The pitch, tonic color, repetition, and so rhythms of noise articulated an in situ order of referentiality and relationality. Among the more repeated arrangements of sounds clearly directed at the captives as that noise to which they were violently compelled to respond in identification was “Negro,” or its cognates, “Neger,” and “Nègre,” depending on the nationality of the ship. As Fred Moten has pointed out in In the Break, that imposition of noise was an inaugural moment in “the animative materiality—the aesthetic, political, sexual, and racial force—of the ensemble of objects,” which he says might be called “black performances, black history [or] blackness.”3 The animative materiality he refers to is also sonic, the sound of the heartrending shrieks in response to the noisy identity violently imposed on those captive bodies. What is inaugurated is an order of verbal performative practices that will be iterated in ring shouts and spirituals, invisible church sermons and worldly work songs, as well as the blues, jazz, toasts, and even everyday signifying—where, to again quote Moten from the same In the Break passage, “shriek turns speech turns song.” Each of these practices articulates a complex, highly dynamic confluence whereby multifarious traditions of performing human being—we might also call this performing “cosmological mimesis,” meaning the material representation of being-in-the-world—flow together with what we are wont to call “modernity.” When we speak of the liquidity of blackness, we mean it in two senses. The one we are talking about right now is the liquidity of these confluent performative practices of blackness. My reasons for dubbing this poiēsis in black will be set out at the end of this piece. The other is the cash value of blackness. There is a historical, ofttimes generative, tension between these two liquidities. In exploring that historicity, it behooves us to bear in mind that both these senses of liquidity are hallmarks of modernity.
It is hard to speak these days of liquidity in relation to modernity without referencing, or at least having in mind, Zygmunt Bauman, whose use of “liquidity” as a metaphor denoting the nature of our present moment hinges on his account of modernity starting with developments in technologies of transportation that made it possible to traverse greater distances in increasingly less time, resulting in space and time becoming separated from each other so that time has history. That alacrity fueled another determinate characteristic of modernity delineated by Bauman: “its compulsive and obsessive modernizing—and modernizing means liquefaction, melting and smelting,” he tells us; but then he thinks it important to point out that “initially, the major preoccupation of the modern mind was not so much the technology of smelting . . . as the design of new moulds into which the molten metal was to be poured and the technology of keeping it there.”4 Acknowledging that this liquefaction is characteristic of modernity from the beginning, Bauman differentiates between prior periods of liquefaction and what he terms “the present time . . . of fluid modernity,” by which he means the global political economy that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. In prior phases, preexistent configurations of dependency and interaction—bonds interlocking individual choices in collective projects and actions, such as traditional feudal loyalties, rights, duties, and ethical obligations—were smelted only to be recast into new molds of social positioning. Bauman speaks of “patterns, codes, and rules” of conduct when referring to the instrumentalities of these new modes of positioning.5 We can readily recognize them as semiosis—in the sense of a systemic process of signification—of sociality, and just as readily construe the liquefacted bonds they displace along the same lines. What distinguishes the current phase of liquefaction is that the new semiosis into which the preexistent ones are to be recast have become themselves in increasingly short supply. In effect, the process of liquefaction has become so absolute there are no enduring new patterns into which things are poured, only ever-increasing liquidity, in the economic sense; which is to say that everything is monetized and fungible in accordance with the ubiquitous free market. Bauman's account has a significant lacuna, however. Although attentive in his analysis to the role played by the separation of space and time in the historical emergence of capitalism and the economy as the basis of social life, he completely overlooks the trans-atlantic slave trade.
This is no trivial oversight given that for three centuries (from the seventeenth to the nineteenth), the most advanced technology in speedily traversing great distances was the galleon ship, the mainstay of European maritime commerce—and the fastest type of galleon, utilized in a most lucrative commerce, was the Guineaman. Nothing exemplified the increased alacrity in movement Bauman delineates more than the Guineaman. What's more, in its physical structure, with its divided hull and main deck complemented by the systematic use of its onboard tools of torture, the entire ship functioned as a smelting machine, liquefying the solidity of whatever preexistent process of sociality, whatever semiosis, the captured souls loaded in its hull came with—whether Soninke, Wolof, Bambara, Fulfulde, or Yoruba. Onboard the Guineaman is where the process began of liquefaction and setting the liquefied material into the mold of an exchangeable commodity asset codified in commercial language and law as “Negro.” Arguably, the fact that the Negro resulting from the Guineaman's smelting is energy readily convertible into cash—such facility of cash conversion being the meaning of “liquidity” in economics—suggests it is a preeminent, if not principal, instantiation of modernity's liquefaction; so much so that we can reasonably say: There is no Negro except that there is the liquefaction of modernity, and there is no liquefaction of modernity without the Negro. This paraphrase of Marx's remark in The Poverty of Philosophy—“Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry”—emphasizes the centrality of Negro liquidity in the accumulation of the monetary wealth that financed capitalism's industrial expansion.6 From roughly 1820 to 1864, that liquidity was the basis of an expansive, sophisticated system of credit financing that revolutionized American and international banking, in which factorage firms, such as the New Orleans–based Consolidated Association of the Planters of Louisiana (CAPL), played a major role. A regional investment bank chartered by the Louisiana legislature in 1827 to assist slaveholding planters in securing favorable credit facilities, CAPL provides a heuristic of how this system worked.
Planters wishing to borrow capital from the association first acquired shares by mortgaging slaves and land. They were then entitled to borrow up to 50 percent of the mortgaged property value in CAPL bank notes, used to finance the expansion of their cotton production. Those bank notes were secured by a large cash reserve raised through the sale of bonds in financial markets throughout the United States and Europe. A single CAPL bond had the face value of five hundred dollars, the average market price for a young Negro male at that time. Secured with the credit of Louisiana, those bonds would reach maturity in ten to fifteen years, yielding their investors 5 percent in annual interest. According to CAPL's Mortgage Book, in 1828 it received from its European broker, Baring Brothers, receipts from bond sales in the amount of $2.5 million in sterling bills. With this cash reserve, the bank began lending out $3.5 million in new notes to its planter-shareholders.7 Negro liquidity was thus a significant component of a collateralized credit market, which spread the financial risk of expanding entrepreneurial-driven growth in cotton and sugar agriculture while also generating the financing needed to fuel that growth. CAPL was functioning as a financial intermediary from borrowers to depositors, effectively creating money by issuing its bonds in order to accumulate capital. In this scheme, money was simply a debt, or unit of account that transferred purchase power from the future to the present—that is to say, so planters could buy more slaves now and pay later based on profit expectations. The bank's ability to create money was due to its liabilities being made acceptable by the state of Louisiana's guaranteeing these transactions, which induced an auction-like financial market in which risk of default was minimized. As long as the nominal value of the asset—Negro liquidity—grew relative to that of their bonds, the bank's net worth increased.
Something about Negro liquidity, however, is phantasmagorical and fetishistic, in Marx's sense. The $500 market price for a young Negro male, reflected in the face value of a single CAPL bond being sold in the Western world's financial markets, was a monetization of the material energy embodied by the Negro as an asset. Whatever the number arrived at, whether $500 or $1500, it signified the cost of acquiring the Negro asset and not the surplus value generated by his productive energy. In other words, while the Negro was, in certain respects, a fixed capital asset essential to the generation of profit, the Negro's liquidity was a financial asset that in and of itself was a source of wealth. My point is that Negro liquidity, as the principal collateral in an extensive banking credit system, was so thorough a monetization that its relation to Negro work was somewhat tangential; not in the sense that it was marginal or of limited importance, but in the sense that ownership of a Negro indicated creditworthiness, irrespective of what work that Negro did. Moreover, the accumulated wealth generated by that credit system, measured in Negro liquidity, was the largest in the nation. In 1850, the accumulated slave assets had a market value of $1.3 billion, which was 80 percent of the total cash market of the South and one-fifth of the wealth of the United States as a whole, nearly equaling its gross national product; by 1860 those assets had increased to $2 billon. Needless to say, the 1863 emancipation without compensation effectively eliminated Negro liquidity, precipitating a severe system-wide crisis in the credit market. Be that as it may, the system of credit financing based on Negro liquidity will find an iteration of sorts in the twenty-first-century art market, where ownership of black expression provides collateral for raising capital.
Today, works by black artists such as Sondra Perry (figs. 1 and 3), Kara Walker, and Glenn Ligon are financial investments, which is a determination of the market and involves a complex set of relations between the function of curation, market forces—such as auction houses and galleries—museums, and academic art criticism and history. As with Negro liquidity, while the intrinsic qualities of a piece—say, for instance, Perry's Wall 2—are factors in determining its speculative liquidity, what is actually being evaluated is the viability of the credit financing system in which it functions as an asset. A quick look at the 2019 Deloitte Art & Finance Report gives a clear sense of this. So too does the Artemundi Global Fund's 2019 website posting, which—professing “art can be useful beyond its emotional, intellectual, and cultural value”—claims to have helped investors achieve attractive rates of return to the tune of $1 billion over the thirty years since its founding in 1989 by “using art as a tangible asset.”8 Art, however, does not have anywhere near the liquidity the Negro did. In fact, it is notoriously illiquid, a fact that Artemundi claims to overcome through its proprietary methodology for managing art investment portfolios. Yet among the six axioms of Artemundi's investment strategy listed on its website, one resonates sharply with the nineteenth-century credit financing system based on Negro liquidity, and that is its rule to only “acquire artworks in which we can apply appreciation strategies.” A variable in such appreciation is the artist's name brand; and value is added when the artist is black. In other words, the artist's blackness has some liquidity. That, of course, was the point of Keith Obadike's 2001 eBay auction of his blackness as fine art. The increasing speculative value of black art is evidenced in the portfolios of asset-based bankers, such as Athena Art Finance, and Borro Private Finance, whose function as financial intermediaries between art galleries and the art market—both private and institutional collectors—ever so resembles that of the nineteenth-century antebellum factorage firms financing slave liquidity. And just as the Negro liquidity on which those firms speculated was tangential to the actual expenditure of Negro labor in commodity production, so too the liquidity of blackness on which art speculation feeds is only tangentially related to the continual activity of proactive creation and performance of new formal processes in which the black artists are engaged.
This tangency reiterates the difference in types of liquidity instigated by modernity's presumed liquefaction of myriad African semiosis and imposition of the Negro, with which we began our discussion. What I want to attend to here is how the previously discussed animative materiality instigated with that imposition unfolds as a type of liquidity much more preoccupied with sustaining fluidity than a new mold into which fluidity can be fixed. The compelling violent force of modernity's liquefaction notwithstanding, elements of those African semiosis remained in the stream poured into the Negro mold. With respect to the so-called Negro, we can say there are multiple semiosis at play, and these elements have inflecting iterations of fluidity, which I call para-semiosis. Para-semiotic fluidity provides for infinite dynamic possibilities of expression bound only by the limits of human imagination. These possibilities are dynamic in the sense that the only “determinate” is the continual activity of proactive creation and performance of experimental forms of expression. We learned from Aristotle to call this activity poiēsis, which he described as “saying possibility.” In the blues, taking up this poiēsis is termed being at the crossroads, where the figure varyingly called “the Devil,” “the Black Man,” “Exu,” “Eshu,” and, more widely, “Legba” dwells. Legba is “the Black Man” at the crossroads, and the poiēsis there with him was instigated when the noise, Negro, was imposed. I call this poiēsis in black to foreground its being heterologous to capitalist modernity's liquefaction—that is to say, an activity perpetually flying away from the capitalist commodification of life. As such, it is being-in-apposition; not in the rhetorical sense of apposition as exegesis, which would suggest blackness is an explanation of Negro, but in a polyvalent sense, combining the general grammatical connotation—“being side-by-side in close proximity”—with the biological, where “appositional growth” refers to the accretion of additional layers of cell wall material onto a preexisting cell wall, a process that strengthens the overall cell structure. I do not wish to be misconstrued here as suggesting blackness is some type of essentialism, the continuation of putatively pure “African” practices. On the contrary, just as there is no Negro except that there is the liquefaction of modernity, so too there is no African except with modernity, as V. Y. Mudimbe showed us some time ago.9 More to the point at hand, poiēsis in black is also a function of modernity's liquefaction. It is not a question of whether this para-semiotic poiēsis escapes the Negro mold and continues essentially African practices free from contamination by commodification and monetarization. What I want to underscore is the dynamic confluence of intra-elemental transformations enacted by poiēsis in black in relation to modernity's persistent liquefaction. In other words, poiēsis at the crossroads cannot but be a performative critique—which is the most parodic when it is the most mimetic—of capitalism's commodification of life. It is a performative contradiction instigated at modernity's liquefaction. This confluence is what Anthony Braxton dubs “trans-African functionalism,” giving particular emphasis to “Creative Music,” which is definitively experimental and so not readily reduced to a cash-price; until it is, at which point its experimentation gets bent into “black exotica,” Braxton's label for the process whereby the expression of poiēsis, the art—in this case, jazz—gets separated from what the artist was thinking and feeling in its performance.10 This lineage of experimentation in apposition to modernity's liquefaction is the confluence where rap flows. It is the liquid doings of black art. Claudia Rankine's 2019 one-act play, The White Card, dramatically portrays the continual effort of the black artist to stay one step ahead of the process of monetization, to para-semiotically proliferate lines along which the possibilities of saying, of poiēsis, continue. We see such effort looking at Sondra Perry's Typhoon Coming On, with which we opened our essay, and can say along with Treach: “This is something that I call the flow.”
Braxton, quoted in Lock, Forces in Motion, 26, 67.