Earlier this week follower-fans of Beyoncé - members of the swarming fan assemblage known as "the Beyhive" - took digital flight to re-face the Facebook page of former New York Lieutenant Governer Betsy McCaughey, by posting bee emojis in numerous comment boxes throughout the otherwise bland, nonsensical propaganda materials found there. On CNN, Trump surrogate McCaughey had defended Trump’s claims of serial sexual assault, attempting the familiar “equivalent but worse” argument against Hillary Clinton, an avowed Beyoncé fan, by quoting the already widely circulated, humorous, and critically interrogated line from “Formation,” a key track on 2016’s Lemonade, "When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster,” and saying that because Clinton intends to emulate the singer, that lyric was supposed to be especially problematic somehow. And thus, in what might be one of the sweetest yet most to-the-point hacks ever, the Beyhive launched bee emojis to buzz textually and graphically through McCaughey’s digital “presence,” neither supporting nor opposing, so interrupting Facebook’s conventional expression of “telepresence.” The politician's generic use of Facebook text, image, post, and time-indexing features were made obviously asynchronous, out of the moment, and canned, the emoji-swarm's dissonance cutting through that thin, presumptive impression of sustained liveness that Facebook relies on user-generated data to animate.
When an emoji wielding assemblage of Beyhive members can respond to a Trump surrogate more pointedly than a CNN anchor, in the midst of a political campaign in which routinely incendiary language has performed as mere supplement to a larger, multimodal, and pointedly suprematist violence enacted through a presidential candidate's affective call and response (and while the candidate himself often struggles to put together coherent sentences), it’s fair to ask: Do words really matter in networked digital cultures - and if so, how? I’m thinking about this question - and the relation of Khalil Joseph’s films to the larger contexts and histories of networked media assemblage - mostly because this question was posed by Joseph himself during liquid blackness’ recent symposium on his work.
Joseph’s work often engages the context, form, and platforms associated with music video, while his work also, importantly, is presented in fine art contexts, but it’s not that language, word, or text in his work is a matter of composing corresponding images for lyric or dialogue. In key works, like The Model, dialogue is delivered in a way that makes verbal language seem somehow suspended. But more importantly, “language” as communicative modality extends to sound and image and their synchronization or dis-synchronization, and here, too, there is a sense of something taking precedence over that modality in its suspension. What is this “something”? I asked Joseph about works like his video for Shabazz Palaces' “Black Up,” where the camera often seems to float, as if suspended, as Lauren Cramer has suggested, at times almost to the point of vertical inversion before righting itself again, that camera view echoed in the inverted titles or credits (including his own) near the end of the film. His response was that sometimes he is thinking about the way an uncle speaks - in my understanding - and I’m paraphrasing and interpreting here using a critical idiom that Joseph doesn’t necessarily value - the words themselves may not matter, but there is a larger question of speech beyond semio-grammatical unit, a question, that is, of style, and stylistics not necessarily dependent on word (or image) and rather communicative of something like the “Black Talk” which Ben Sidran famously introduced back in 1971 by describing “listening to a Coltrane solo and hearing my mother’s voice” (and not excluding any of the extraordinary work on Black musical aesthetics and politics that has appeared since).
Two aspects of Joseph’s filmic, digital, audiovisual sync stand out to me in particular in that suspension of communicative modality in favor of a stylistics in which overlaps or inversions produce affective sense beyond (without necessarily excluding, and while sometimes proliferating) semiotic meaning, and while subjecting any determinative semiotic meaning to larger questions of historical style, requiring a vernacular of liberation to be heard, read, and re-composed beyond the word or synchronized sound-image. The first has to do with the question of sense and style: where style finds its sources, and what sense of stillness or movement gives it its paradigmatic figure, if there can be one. Here, the answer comes in the rhythmic lyric of works like Shabazz Palaces chanting of “I’m free” in “Black Up,” which takes its sense and style from liberation histories rather than from neo-liberal pseudo-individuation, so that the gestures here cross registers in provocative and generative ways. Here, we might think about about a diasporic gaze meshing with the auditory lyric, rhythm, melody, and timbre of the soundtrack, but we would probably want also to think about the spatialization of rhythm and line that Joseph’s cinematic visual and digital editing styles accomplish. Musical works are often said to have a pulse, an immanent rhythmic clock, if you will, that is manifested and developed or derived in the rhythms or rhythmic lines we actually hear.
In contemporary musical art, including that of Shabazz Palaces but also, really, scores of contemporary producers, the notion of an integral musical form by which we would identify the contours and limits of a “song” form seems like a quaint echo of a time before composition-via-sampling became an industrial practice and before sound studios were re-located to software suites. Where unitary form loses a determining role, collage, pastiche, or other modes of naming combinatory forms in opposition to "well-formed works" also becomes vague, especially when concrete histories like those of liberation are determining in terms of the style, sense, and meaning of a work. In these contexts, in order for the immanent pulse of a musical work - auditory or audiovisual - to have the kind of driving power that allows the short film to attain to historical allegory and to say “I’m free” - that is, for the film to further adduce the histories and futures it is styling it may need to manifest that immanent pulse in some additional mode. Joseph’s camera and editing give the sense of the spatial frame of the visual guiding and holding the musical pulse, giving it the means to continue, to jump beyond the seam or tear joining different segments of the work. As lightning clear and well-defined as his framing work is, still, by drawing out the musical pulse, holding it in its reverberation, Joseph’s visual framing becomes something more like an aureole than a strict cordoning off of inside-outside.
Finally, this tension between the visual frame as a cutting limit, redefining our gaze, and as reverberating materiality emphasizing a reverberating time strongly evokes historical memory and its transformations. The way in which we seem to hover between indexicality and animated memory in Joseph’s film on the Black cowboy in “Wildcat” is an example. Joseph’s suspension of language, of communicating modality, his stylization of an audiovisual vernacular of future-orienting liberation along with transforming historical memory thus recalls Angela Davis’ observations on women blues singers' vocal power. Between historical voice and technical instrument, Joseph’s stylistics of suspension moves us forward to discover, while moving us backward to recover, in the same reverberating pulse.