Hershini Bhana Young

Falling, Floating, Flickering: Disability and Differential Movement in African Diasporic Performance

New York University Press, 2023

320 pages


What is movement, if not an unraveling of stillness, in space, time and in rigid categorizations of bodies? Hershini Bhana Young’s Falling, Floating, Flickering: Disability and Differential Movement in African Diasporic Performance moves to breaths, stillnesses, and beats of Black bodies that inhabit “differential embodiment and the movements that result.” Othered movement becomes methodology for Black sociality, as Young redraws the body, “unmoored” from Western humanist species categories that place the white able-bodied as ideal. In performances of relational hybridity, “alternate corporealities” and ‘multiplicity,’ Young deploys movement to unravel stilted categories of the ‘human,’ that reduce Black bodies to devalued “flesh.” 

In tethering theory to pedagogy, Young nuances her theoretical kernel in collaboration with her student’s performance, “Home in Contemporary Black Girls’ Bedrooms.” Young cites Johanna Brucker’s “redistributed sensorium,” “where affect moves between individual bodies, creates new possibilities of being with and for one another [ . . . ] allows for the intimacy of holding another person’s breath.” This idea maps Young’s student’s claustrophobia within half-spaces, comingled with asthmatic, material breaths, seeking, “Intabi—may God take everything ill in you and bring it on me instead,” in strangers’ cries for help. Young uses Intabi as reminder of the “relational” vulnerability of Black breathing. Bringing together different theoretical threads of breath, Young contemplates Intabi as “not the prescriptiveness of filiation but rather oxygen-rich structures of affiliation.” With Intabi, Young writes of creating community, “that despite mutual unintelligibility, acknowledges the need for ethical relationality  . . .  not based on the expectation of reciprocity.”

Grounded in “African diaspora studies and performance studies,” Young’s scholarship unravels-reorients disability studies to “defamiliarize how we think about bodies.” Young’s project borrows “choreography” from dance studies and uses critical cultural history to speak to “archival absences.” Through these intersections, Young arrives at ‘differential movement.’ Intabi allows her to claim sociality in shared species-vulnerability of “fleshly substrate.” Young calls for “reimagined black relationality” in a “politics of conjoinment.” Developed through Franco Berardi’s distinction of “conjunction,” against connection, the former highlights imperfect tetherings across species movements (After the Future (2009)). These hybrid beings resist narratives of deviant lack requiring mending, inhabiting movements that “articulate the haptic reality of permeable bodies, global violence, and the aftermath of slavery and imperialism.” Placing ‘differential movements’ of socially disabled peoples alongside historical lineages of slavery, Young breaks away from capitalist “linear progressive time.” Using Michelle Wright’s “epiphenomenal time,” in which the past manifests itself in the present moment,” (Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (2015)) Young weaves “spacetime horizontally,” contemplating the slowing “stretch” of time that enfolds within, time to breathe, to grieve, in relational Black sociality. 

Methodologically weaving complex theoretical threads across disciplines, Young notes that these “chafe against each other.” Without attempting neat unity of this disciplinary cacophony, Young practices Keguro Macharia’s “frottage;” “rubbing produced by and as blackness, which assembles into one frame multiple histories and geographies . . . . Frottage . . . suggest[s] diaspora as a multiplicity of sense apprehensions, including recognition, disorientation,  . . .  frictions and irritations and translations and mistranslations” (Frottage: Frictions of Intimacy across the Black Diaspora (2019)). In the process, Young refuses conflations of Blackness and disability as interchangeable modalities of being, thinking at edges of disciplinarity that create/separate species-categories into fields of study. Young speaks to “tensions” inherent in methodologies of differential movement involving “voluntary” performances by the able-bodied. Interrogating ideas of “neutrality” of bodies, Young navigates tensions between imitation and performance, suggesting differential constitution of all bodies, as practiced in her chapters that move through actionable verbs. 

Contemplating squatting, begging and crawling as differential movement, Chapter One writes with American/Nigerian artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? alongside Black queer artist William Pope.L. Here, situated historical movements of polio-stricken people in Sierra Leone are placed adjacent to Ogunji’s crawls, dragging her body along rugged terrain in Ejigbo, Lagos. Young argues through them for a politics of horizontality against Western able-bodied norms of verticality. Where verticality is precursor to individuated selfhood, Young argues, horizontality holds space for Black bodies in complicated histories of labor, pain and also community and pleasure. It can allow remapping of traditional urban space and economies. Using falling as “pivotal disorientation,” Young writes Ogunji’s performance of crawling, as “conjoined” act that creates slow time. The performance challenges normative movement, making visible, gendered material bodies of laboring women “interrupting the flow of capital production.” While falling and slowing down are not “voluntary” choices for all bodies, Young holds space for “pleasure of alternate movement” without erasing material labor of bodies in pain. In performances of crawling, Young highlights relations of sexuality and disability. These performances create “queer [ . . . ] intimacy with the ground,” and “expand the realm of the erotic.” The chapter wrests horizontality away from death and abjection, imbuing it with “alternate black sociality” and “fugitivity.”

Floating bodies in Chapter Two perform “necroactivism,” Eunjung Kim’s ““technology of resistance”  . . .  when the dead demand that the living acknowledge their “material” and “spiritual presence”” (Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience Vol 5.1). This chapter presents Black sociality in conjoining dead migrant bodies, drowned across the Mediterranean, with the living that remain, grieving materially, these lives. Young writes against the dehumanizing impulse of government surveillance records, that flatten people to trackable dots and pixels on radars. Thinking with Christina Sharpe’s material remembering of the dead and with Rizvana Bradley and Fred Moten, Young gives body/personhood to lost lives through sensory “hapticity.” Young performs “sensuous scholarship” (Paul Stoller, Sensuous Scholarship (1997)) reading material sounds of the ocean that buries migrants in death, against sounds of a young woman’s living, labored breath in Unburied. This conjoinment is material interweaving of living and dead. In relational experience of loss, “one feels not one’s own dispossession but the dispossession of others who are feeling for you”the logic of Intabi. Young charts historical lineage in the present moment of the Mediterranean refugee crisis “as part of a spatiotemporal constellation that includes the transatlantic slave trade.” Using Berni Searle’s performance of floating in Home and Away, Young wrests floating away from narratives of progressive movement. Here floating is slow wandering, sundering global capitalism’s rapid-accumulative linearity. 

In flickering hybridities of human-animal, Chapter Three charts “messy indeterminacy of flesh,” against claims that: equate Black life with animality or build hierarchies of Black life over animal life. Melding Mel Chen’s theoretical frameworks in Animacies(2012) with works of Nandipha Mntambo and Lauren Beukes’s speculative novel Zoo City (2010), Young muddies the ‘human’ through “oscillating non-normative human-animal embodiment.” Mntambo’s sculptures, part human, part cattle, “toggle between  . . . , presence and absence, male and female.” In a performative bullfight in Mntambo’s Ukungenisa (2009), the artist inhabits a bull’s body. The performance evokes the loneliness of the animal, alongside its fear and vulnerability, provoked to attack. Mntambo experiences “shared fear and animosity” in vulnerable Intabi, demonstrating “mutual imbrication of animal and human embedded in the wreckage of colonialism.” Zoo City presents relational identities for humans coercively conjoined with animals, in physical-telepathic tethers. Young uses the character of Danai, a transgender sex worker to speak to abjection of the Black body. Conjoined with a sparrow, she is killed, torn away from the bird. Discarded in a mine dump, Danai becomes “inhuman flesh,  . . .  the nonbeing that remains after her value is extracted.” Dumped in earth alongside environmental waste, Danai’s body conjoins with the mine’s ecology; “earth archive,” she is testimony to conjoined harm created in bodies/ecologies. Her separation from her sparrow reiterates liberal humanist ordering of individuated selves; equality amidst conjoined species is not equally balanced power, but “shared precarity.”

Chapters Four and Five explore the ethics of differential movement through spasms and shakes. The spasm in Chapter Four allows Young to contemplate ethics of performances of disability by able-bodied performers. Young reads co-opted imitation of disability against performances where bodies surrender to “uncontrollable movement” through Spoek Mathambo’s video “Control.” Chapter Five treats differential movements and Black sociality created through the plight of zombies, the undead and peoples made not-quite-human through slow violence (Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011)) of necropolitical wars. Subsumed within the brutalities of war and its effects on bodies and body politic, Chris Abani’s novella Song for Night finds play in differential rhythms.

“Unhinging” structures of disciplinarity, Chapter Six employs Intabi as praxis, in collaborative academic writing, embracing “ways that  . . . ]brains and bodies misfire, fog up, and lose time.” Finding value in the “din” of voices talking together, rather than synthesized symphonies, Young writes with Saidiya Hartman, Katherine McKittrick and Mel Chen, to present unhinging as praxis for “decolonizing cripistemology” (Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories (2020)), where neurotypical narratives of disciplinary progress are disoriented through “affective, embodied, and emergent” relationalities. Young claims writing in the balance of evocative moments alongside “incoherence” in unresolved adjacence. Young questions value in collaborative writing where one’s ‘fog’ translates to comprehension in another. Or “Can you hold me breath?” Young describes non-linear cognition, epiphenomenal time through ant communities. Ancestral cognition and movement become part of present cognitive conjoining, as ants perceive each other through “lingering ancestral presence” in ecologies stamped with historical time, movement, and memories. Using River Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, Young argues for “neurocacophany;” here characters communicating through specific registers, create gaps in cognition, and learn to sit with differences.