In this conversation, Andrew Cutrone and Marquis Bey discuss Bey's recent monograph, Black Trans Feminism (2022) in the context of citation practices, black and trans feminist practice and theory, “radical‐radical thinking,” and fugitivity.
Marquis and I “met” virtually five or so years ago. A friend of mine shared a paper of Marquis's on blackness, presuming I would like it because Marquis took up some of Fred Moten's ideas, of which I am incredibly fond, on blackness and fugitivity. I then wrote Marquis thanking them for writing the essay, and Marquis, as is their wont, was like, “Oh, what's up? You like Moten, too? We should talk more.” And so we did. And that is our beginning. It is also our present. Marquis and I just talk. We have deep phone conversations for hours on end. We send each other half-random essay-length texts with our newest ideas, knowing that the other person will receive and consider it with care: that is, with the archives of black study in mind and with black feminism at work.
Integral to the relation between Marquis and me is a reading, listening, and revision practice animated by the notion of fugitivity. We call it, later, a “fugitive biblio-praxis.” Marquis calls it a writing and reading on the run. Yes, and it is also what I describe above: a radical divestment from expected, worldly forms of relationality (which is how I understand social capital) and from normative disciplinary attachments. Marquis knows this, but I don't consider myself a “sociologist.” Sociology and black trans liberation are, in so many ways, incommensurate projects. So, too, is much of philosophy, the discipline whose normative contours Marquis is probably most familiar with. Thus, our practice of reading, writing, and homing-in is a together-practice, on the run from what has been bestowed upon us by the disciplines in which we have found ourselves, and from the world, whose condition of possibility is the denigration of the kind of thought we attempt to proffer here.
Below is another iteration of our ongoing conversation.
Andrew Cutrone: Marquis, there is so much that I want to say, and which I look forward to saying, about your book, Black Trans Feminism. But first, I want to state my gratitude for your work, and to the ways the work to which you (and I) are committed lives in every conversation that we have. I hope that this conversation continues in that vein, which is nothing but the unfolding articulation of our intersubjective relation to the black feminist radical tradition. Indeed, for this conversation, I hope that we can celebrate your book, but not simply restate its arguments for an uninitiated audience. I want, with you, to traverse still-new ideas and explore the crevices of black trans feminist possibility that are too deep for the lone investigator. In other words, I want to have a conversation near your book, and after it—a conversation that we can now have because of your book. A conversation in-poiesis.
I learned about poiesis in another great book for which we both share an affinity—Kevin Quashie's Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being. In that book, he describes black aliveness as a practice of poiesis, a term that indexes the “activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before” (we forgo typical citational practices here, for reasons that will soon become clear. We instead invite readers to go to the sources and discover them for themselves). In this sense, black aliveness is an expression of the desire for life in the subjunctive tense (a grammatic register in which we express our capacity to “indicate the thing that hasn't yet but still might happen”). And though I do not want to subsume your book's profound interventions into or under the rubric of another's, I read Black Trans Feminism as, itself, an act of poiesis, as the very act of inducing new ways of thinking about blackness, transness, and black feminism in ways that are ethically careful and politically fierce. I would love to begin our conversation by opening up space for a sort of poetic reflection. What do you think might now be up for discussion around the constitutive terms of your book that was not so prior to its publication, or, say, one year ago or five years ago?
Marquis Bey: Yes, the work—which is this admittedly nebulous term I continue to use but also something so deeply felt, deeply thought, something that maybe doesn't need to be delineated in discursive excess—is something that emerges in each conversation we have. Which is why we continue to have all the conversations we have, I think. This latest iteration is one of love and black study and black feminist theory and queer insurgency—all these things on the radical edge, and a whole bunch of other things, as it always is. So: thank you, Andrew.
Let's begin in a way that is, as it always is, not a beginning. Let's begin, as you've suggested, near the book. The book didn't exist, and then it did. And it emerged into existence because so many things, so many people, so many ideas and encounters insisted on this thing or that thing being possible in some way. And I've tried to excavate those things, assemble them into an unruly assemblage of illegal black-market parts, because those things are still not quite permitted to exist, at least not without regulation of some sort.
So, the book tries to make possible what others insisted on being possible—all of which might be to say, to make possible the impossible. It makes possible a recalibrated understanding of blackness, of transness, of black feminism; it makes possible the thought that we need not be this or that gender; it makes possible the kind of radicality that will frighten and invite backlash. I'm not so hubristic to think that Black Trans Feminism is saying something that no one has ever said before. It does not, because, indeed, I am in that book trying to say something like, “Look, all the stuff y'all are kinda saying, or refusing, even though you understand yourself as radical, as an abolitionist: look, look, Hortense Spillers said this thing, and Fred Moten, and Cathy Cohen, and Jennifer Nash, and C. Riley Snorton, and, and, and . . . These people are saying stuff that I understand as radical and necessary, as abolitionist, but you are not saying these things, yet you love and think highly of these people. What do you do with that?”
Black Trans Feminism is this little kid, wide-eyed and excited about all the awesome things lying on the floor left by so many others who cared for that kid even though they didn't know that kid. That little kid is tugging at their caretakers’ pant legs, saying: “Look at this, look at this!” The caretakers aren't looking yet, or are half-looking, saying, “That's nice, honey.” But that kid is just waiting until they look, really look. Because when they do . . . goddamn.
AC: There is an emphasis on and commitment to genealogical thinking that moves through Black Trans Feminism. It's thinking that taps into the work of scholars and artists many of us study, cite, and pedestalize. My sense of it, however, as you also seem to suggest, is that it is genealogical thinking that seeks to radicalize that genealogy beyond its commonly accepted and circulated radicality. Upon such a practice, which I might tentatively name “radical-radical thinking,” the conclusions we yield are different, too. And this is where people's feathers get ruffled, I think. They say that we should walk away from Cohen, or Moten, or Spillers, or Ferguson, or McKittrick with these, and not those, takeaways. Instead, it seems to me that you're tapping into their work on the edge of their work, such that what undergirds your analyses are the very possibilities that might exist on the other side of reading, say, Spillers in those ways—in short, radical-radical genealogical thinking. What do you make of this distinction between radical thinking and radical-radical thinking that I am positing here as it relates to Black Trans Feminism? Additionally, can you talk about what goes into your reading (against the grain) practice, such that we associate the book with compelling (radical-radical) formulations of blackness and transness?
MB: Oh, wow, I love this. Radical-radical thinking. Yes. I want to always take away those things as opposed and apposed to these things; indeed, if we can very slightly retinker with the demonstrative pronouns, making them, respectively, that and this—as in, I am searching for and excavating the possibilities, always, of that rather than this—then we see the ways it is a radical(-radical) trans gesture. Che Gossett and Eva Hayward think through this in a lovely essay that, readers, y'all should find. (It is out there, just look.) Gossett and Hayward say that “to elaborate the impossibility of that . . . is to resist the classificatory certitude of mastery,” where “that-ness” indexes the trans insofar as trans does not necessarily notate a corporeality or anatomical (re)configuration, does not “have to reify that category of ‘the Human’—trans/gender/sexual can break from the line of succession that consolidates species differences (predicated on racialization, as in ‘human/black’) with sexual difference.”
So, one way to think about radical-radical thinking might be moving in the grit of the grooves expressed, or unexpressed, in our academic and para-academic faves—that is, Moten and Spillers are saying stuff, but they are also saying stuff that can't quite be borne by lexical constraints, saying stuff that makes one think dreadful things. Sometimes they say it plain as day, yet no one, or very few, hear it (“Everyone whom blackness claims, which is to say everyone,” Moten writes in that short but exquisite PMLA essay, “can claim blackness”); sometimes they say it on the sly, leaving readers to pick something up if they dare (only if they dare, only if they are daring—“blackness,” Spillers writes in her essay collection, is “a symbolic program of philosophical ‘disobedience’ . . . available to anyone, or more pointedly, any posture, that was willing to take on the formidable task of thinking as a willful act of imagination and invention”). But all of this is to insist on, in not so many words or not any words, imagining the impossible, insisting on enacting and living the impossible. It's like a writing and reading on the run—a fugitive biblio-praxis, as it were. (Which is, I would argue, inextricable from how I understand trans—on the run, fugitive, from the strictures that are definitional of something like gender, but even more than that; fugitive from the categorical, from the very gesture to categorize and thus delimit and circumscribe, an impulse that is chief among efforts to do and impose gender.)
You texted me this picture of a person in a chariot, zooming to no-one-knows-where, that you described as an accomplice, a fugitive on the run. The image, which you said will be your next tattoo (which is a dope idea), was inspired by the work of Lari Pittman. So, of course, I looked this person up and, yo, I was enraptured. The first image on the website is “Like You” (fig. 1), and there is something so alluring about it. Something, maybe, so trans about it. Not just because there are ostensible genitalia littered throughout the piece, genitalia that are not affixed to specific kinds of gendered subjects—and that, in fact, unaffix from gendered subjects and subjectivity; a kind of (un)gendered insurgency, a trans-inflected “upheaval of order,” as the description of the painting notes—but because there is also something monstrously, beautifully open about it: it is wholly enterable, as the “Enter” key in the bottom left attests; it unhooks the consolidation of the “I”-as-subject in the middle of the left edge. There is no central locus or foci, which is to say it is not reducible. My eyes, in looking at this, are on the run. And they are not running toward any one thing; they are bouncing around and absorbing no one thing, not this, but always exploring that. Radical-radical thinking could be that, and it could be reveling in a growing dexterity in moving and writing and thinking with that, or, better yet, living that, to this world's socio-grammatical, ontological, affective chagrin.
I think this relates to how I read too, to be quite honest. Often when I read, I am reading, of course, the text: What is its argument? How does it move through the argument? What is its evidence? And, too, how does the language move me, what does the language do?—is it, let's say, beautiful? But with this is a practice of thinking alongside the text and reveling in its penumbra, its shadows. What kind of work had to happen for this to be written? What is not being said in so many words, and what are the implications of that, how might the unsaid-but-felt, as it were, be work gifted for someone else to do, and how might I, if I can and choose to, take up that work? In short, when I read, I am not only gathering information; I am also being called, over and over again, to put in certain kinds of work—and called to undermine the very grammatical criteria for what qualifies as “work,” who can do that work, how we get outside of such dictates, how we fracture and break and bend language. Letting the paint smear off the canvas designated for its hues and know that the paint's splatter is, too, a part of the painting.
AC: Thank you for the compliment on my vision for my next tattoo (fig. 2). When I saw Pittman's piece at The Broad in LA, I actually cried. It is a gigantic piece of art. Its multiple scenes are dynamic and riotous, trans, yes, and kaleidoscopic. The chariot-riding accomplice, a status I lovingly imputed onto the silhouettic figure on the fourth panel in Pittman's piece, has been my phone's lock screen for the longest time, and I finally decided to reproduce it as a tattoo, except the figure drawn on my tattoo is meant to be more demonic—on demonic ground, as it were. And I have my friend, Noel Fernandez, to thank for that McKittrickian adaptation. To hear you affirm its radical beauty and capaciousness is incredible.
Yet after having sat with your response, I cannot help but gravitate toward your conceptualization of your intellectual method—a “fugitive biblio-praxis.” I love that. Within it, if I may, is a kind of Spillersian ethic—“I will cite anybody, everybody, all the time, but it's going to be mine when I get through it.” This she said in conversation, with another black feminist saying the thing black feminists feel almost compelled to say (though, of course, not disingenuously). And I was so grateful, in a really robust and complex way, that she said that. Such a statement, it seems to me, punctures identitarian trends in citation politics, such as #CiteBlackWomen, and challenges certain political commitments by feminist authors who refuse to cite white men as, precisely, an expression of their investment in black feminism. To me, Black Trans Feminism, in its fugitive biblio-praxis, makes an argument about citation politics and the experiential, structural, and ethical fonts from which those politics emerge. Can you draw out that argument for us? It seems important, for the future possibilities of black (and) trans feminist theorizing, to elucidate a fugitive (radical-radical) citation method. How do you imagine citation moving/existing as part of the more expansive project of black trans feminist intellection?
MB: That Spillers quote is everything. Full disclosure, I just texted you, upon reading this and preparing my response, and articulated how this needs to be spangled across every paper and book and idea. And it reminds me, too, of a recent Jennifer Nash quote. Nash is a rigorous and careful and, I'd add, lovingly vicious black feminist thinker, whom we both admire fiercely for her deep, rigorous, and indeed radical(-radical) taking to task of the politics of propriety and territoriality—her insistence that these things, even when they are woven through an ostensible black feminist ethic, are not our aim. In the vein of citation, Nash writes (in a piece that needs to, oddly enough, be cited more, I think),
The capacity to cite Black women must be present in a different kind of world, but that capacity must include Black feminism's capacious myriad traditions, genealogies, feelings, and disruptions, and must include an ongoing willingness to disrupt the conflation between “Black woman” and “Black feminism.” What we must wish for, fiercely imagine, frightening as it may be, is a relationship to Black feminist innovation that eludes property and territoriality, captivity and policing.
That is a tall order, and a deeply necessary one, that so many people don't really take seriously. But I want to take it seriously, because that is what I am called to do in my black and trans feminism. It's that innovation, that Spillersian invention, that in fact, I think, indexes the radicality of black trans feminism—can we dare to imagine and invent at and on, and indeed beyond, the edge?
So, citation for me is much less about citing the “right” (kinds of) people, though I suppose it is not exclusive of that. There is something to be said, I guess (hear the exasperated sort of capitulation in my words here), about what is often called representation, though I care much less about that than others, for myriad reasons. But, rather, citation for me is an articulation of the kinds of ideas that move us and engender (un)certain kinds of (un)worlds. Put differently, citation is not, in its main or entirety, about saying X person said Y thing; it is so much more than that, more than the proprietary desires implicit in such a citational sentiment. I understand my citational practice as one that does not so much say, “This person said this thing” but says, “This idea, this way of relating and moving and emerging and insisting, has done or might do these kinds of things, and has moved in these kinds of ways.” (It's like, for me, a more robust way of saying that kind of annoying thing people have often said around me: there are no new ideas, or there is nothing new under the sun. I don't like that language, or its attitude, if you will. What I'd prefer to say is: the very mechanisms through which we think, the language we have to do that thinking, the conditions under which we can, or cannot, think are all in an entangled mess of influence and indexation and cultivation. “Origins” quite simply do not exist to me, if origins are understood in the typical way. “My” thought is never and has never been “mine,” one, because I reject such a proprietary and covetous relation and, two, because it's untrue: I have learned and been influenced by and been touched by and received the language of, and lived in a world cultivated and tilled and harvested by so, so many others, making the very notion of “my”—something arising from me and solely in my possession—at best a fantasy.)
I don't really care about “where” an idea comes from, both because it's about what the idea does for us, for the kind of way we want to move with and alongside each other; and because I do not believe in the singularity of the “from”—I do not, in other words, believe that there is a singular, identifiable locus that serves as an origin for an idea, presuming, thus, that one pay ethical homage to that locus by continually saying over and over again that, look, I know the “origin” of this (the naming of [Kimberlé] Crenshaw as the originator of intersectionality, anyone? Like we don't already know . . . [apologies, kind of, for the snarkiness. I only half mean it]). Black trans feminism cites anybody, yes, Hortense (if I may), because we never know from whom the idea, or the ideas, might come, so we are promiscuous in our thinking, radical in the content and form and locales of those ideas. We do not and cannot know what the abolitionist ideas that permit us to cultivate an abolitionist world will look like, nor do we know where they'll come from. That is their fugitivity, their paraontology, I think. So, I want to go where I must, even if that location looks unlike what we expect. We must go there.