Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination

"This question remains unresolved: again, as in the sentence about “beat” and “surge,” we read a text that hesitates and wavers, juggling the momentum of its argument. But this should not be surprising if we read this juggling as an attempt to register the action of “swinging” itself. This indecision represents a radical possibility for reconceptualizing agency because it turns— in the sense of “trope,” of course, it turns a metaphor— not on the foundation of some intentional physical act, or of some communicated black “essence,” but on the ground of form itself. (41)

When Johnson writes of the black body, whether individual or collective, he is not only describing it in an ethnographic sense; he is using it as a figure in which to situate black musical “swing,” the form he is trying to describe. What has happened here is that the black body, rather than being locked into some individualized and essentialized notion of agency, has been wrenched out of its phenomenological focus. This is almost always interpreted as a risk, or as inconsistency in argument. But in this instance, I would suggest, to quote Nathaniel Mackey, there is a “telling inarticulacy” in this inconsistency— an inarticulacy that signifies. (42) When one recognizes that the body is both “present” (a phenomenological entity) and “absent” (a discursive figure) one is forced to re-envision the possible relationship between individual and community, between intentional “activity as a kind of mechanical process” and “movement as something which is rooted in some faculty of the imagination.” (43) Thus, in Johnson’s conception, agency is two-fold: the individual is both an agent-as-creator, as an active shaper of culture (the individual juggles “swing” through his body), and an agent-as-representative, as a part of the collective in which that elusive “swaying” manifests itself."

Edwards, Brent Hayes (2017-06-05). Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (pp. 72-73). Harvard University Press.


Kyla Tompkins