Volume 36, Issue 1/2, 2020
Sebeok Fellows Issue: Vincent Colapietro and Nathan Houser
Theoretical Riffs on the Blues
After disambiguating the word, the author explores the blues primarily not as a genre of music but as a sensibility or orientation toward the world. In doing so, he is taking seriously suggestions made by a host of writers, most notably, Ralph Waldo Ellison, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, and Cornel West. As such, the focus is on the blues as an extended family of somatic practices bearing upon expression (or articulation). At the center of these practices, there is in the blues (to modify Foucault’s words) always the patient yet exuberant work of giving articulate form to our impatience for human freedom. But here the distinction between practices of emancipation, by which a people throws off their political domination, and practices of freedom, by which they tirelessly work to make their freed self truly their own, is crucial. In this, the author is guided by an insight provided by Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (1987: 95). As “an art of ambiguity”, the blues turns out to be also an art of ambivalence: the task of claiming ownership of one’s freed self is one demanding, not only learning to live with irreducible ambiguity but also working toward “an achievement of ambivalence”.