Moten Discusses Relationship Between The Theory Of Blackness And The Theory Of Mind
Fred Moten, the Helen L. Bevington Professor of Modern Poetry at Duke University, delivered a lecture entitled "The Touring Machine (Flesh Thought Inside and Out)" in East Pyne Hall, Room 010 on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. In the lecture, Moten explored the relationship between the theory of blackness and the theory of mind, using the works of several prominent thinkers and artists as a vehicle for his discussion.
Moten lectures on March 7, 2012. Photo credit: PhotoBuddy LLC/David Dooley
The lecture had three distinct sections. In the first part, Moten discussed and reinterpreted philosophical and cognitive theories of selfhood. He traced arguments of modularity of the mind – the idea that within the mind there are distinct structures that perform unique tasks – from Jerry Fodor, a cognitive scientist who revived the idea in the ‘80s after it had been discarded as a part of the defunct pseudoscience phrenology. In addition to discussing Fodor, who followed in the Chomskyan tradition, Moten also referenced Robert Kurzban, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recently published book, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite. In addition, Moten drew extensively on the writings of Immanuel Kant and Michel Foucault.
Of the Turing Machine, to which his lecture title refers, Moten said, “When the self is understood to be originary, interpenetrability is both warped and lost. Warped, when the always already-given internal difference of simple cognitive states or processes is forgotten in a discourse of the penetrability that is held in the very idea of the individual mind; lost, when the interpenetrability between minds is submitted to the individual mind's originarity rather than the derivation from its social constituents. There is something like, but both a little bit and a whole lot more than, the machine Alan Turing described and imagined: an infinite memory capacity, with an infinite amount of time, whose computational force allows us to chart the limits of what can be computed."
Professor Imani Perry thinks critically about Moten's scholarship. Photo credit: PhotoBuddy LLC/David Dooley
The second part of Moten’s lecture was a more lyric and personal piece. Moten explained that it derived from a “daybook that I’ve been keeping for a while,” and explained that the central event underlying the thoughts featured in the second part was the earthquake in Haiti.
In a particularly poetic passage at the beginning of the second part, Moten said, “By way of the den of the generative multiplicity, which sounds like an itinerant quartet's rhizomatic excess of itself, or like what kids' anarchic sounding does to speech, or like the evolutionary step of love, invaluable flesh's instantiated interplay of artifice and intelligence, its blessedness inseparable from its woundedness, both new, in poverty's radical theoretical attitude, M. NourbeSe Philip's song, and more generally the black history that is the sea, as Derek Walcott didn't quite say... Documents of dissent and descent, experiments in ascension and consent, as an emergence anticipatorily after the fact of the ongoing imposition of a submarine state of emergency.”
The third part of Moten’s lecture discussed questions of sovereignty and the nature of political philosophy. Moten discussed the ideas from an unpublished paper by French philosopher Catharine Malabou, “Will Sovereignty Ever be Deconstructed.” Malabou’s work is concerned centrally with the idea of “plasticity,” derived in part from Hegelian philosophy. According to Moten, she considers sovereignty to be problematic because of its " ’Biopolitical deconstruction,’ where the citizen emerges as something on the order of a general equivalent, an abstract and empty signifier that Malabou aligns with symbolic life.”
Moten also drew from the works and thoughts of Toni Morrison, Thomas Hobbes, and others including Levi Strauss and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Students pose questions following Moten's lecture. Photo credit: PhotoBuddy LLC/David Dooley
According to Moten, “The history of racialized, gendered interplay of phenotype and genotype, nature and culture, is a familiar horror. It's not enough to say that we can separate the true and given racial and gendered discourse; it's the fact that racial and gendered discourse emerged from it.”
Moten’s thoughts were expressed not merely through the words of his paper and the style in which it was written but also through music: in between the three parts of his lecture he played jazz which complemented and helped to further express his meaning. The song played was, “My First Winter,” from the World Saxophone Quartet with soloist David Murray.
In addition to teaching at Duke, Moten is a Whitney J. Oates Fellow in the Humanities Council and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of several books including In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. He has also published several books of poetry.