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Formation: The Aesthetics of Police Encounters

Thu, November 9, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Addams, Third Floor West Tower


This paper will suggest that the encounter between the black body and the state enacts a constitutive antagonism between the law and black subjectivity, and will read Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ "Between the World and Me" as competing texts in the ongoing appraisal of the efficacy of political resistance. In the face of the American police state’s continuing suspicion of the black body, “Formation” seems to insist on the power of a hypervisible woke blackness to transform the law. The entreaty at the heart of “Formation” – an unabashed confidence in the power of Beyoncé’s voice and her body to disarm – is of a piece with a black politics that marks the post-Trayvon Martin era, of which Black Lives Matter is emblematic. BLM’s resistance to police brutality and the racial inequities of the criminal justice system rests on the transformative potential of blackness as an aesthetic form, and indeed as an embodied political practice. And yet the optimism performed by the black bodies on display in “Formation” reveals itself to be only one possible future. Indeed, the popular reaction to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance the next day revealed the ugly intractability of white anxiety around black resistance to the American carceral state. Even the suggestion of black self-defense conjured the fears that undergird white presumptions of black threat and criminality. These twinned figurations of the encounter between the black subject and the police plumb the possibilities of aesthetic and armed resistance, and still neither seem to be able to step outside the limits of a white imaginary that consumes the black body as only either entertainment or menace.

Both versions of “Formation” perform a confident and even pleasurable mode of black resistance to police violence. It seems nearly impossible not to smile at the audacity of adolescent breakdancing in front of a SWAT team or Beyoncé’s reconfiguration of her own body, for so long the object of so much desire, as a weapon. And yet these scenes seem to recall different black subjectivities: Tamir Rice’s naiveté in the face of a screeching squad car, or John Crawford III’s radical transformation from Walmart shopper to existential threat. While “Formation” seems to want to shape the aesthetic of Beyoncé’s police encounters as aspirational, the contemporary literary texts that invoke the realities of black America’s relationship with the police seem to auger an altogether different formal approach, turning questions of policing the black body back onto the black subject itself, interrogating the place of blackness in the disciplining function of legal spectacle. Books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me capture precisely the paradox at the center of our self-congratulatory readings of racial activism in the United States today: rather than suggesting any liberatory potential in the encounter between the police and their black protagonists, both books elaborate a profound pessimism about the constitutive place of black vulnerability in the ontologies of both the American legal regime and the black subject.


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