In honor of the publication of José Esteban Muñoz’s posthumous book, The Sense of Brown, edited by Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong′o, we asked a few writers to offer a short meditation on what the book has meant to them. Readers are encouraged to check out the book’s introduction here, courtesy of Duke University Press.
Brown is more than the providence of identifications or even counteridentifications. It is certainly akin to what I described as disidentification, but even that description may hinge too much on linearity of direct alignments. Brownness is about something else. As a concept, even as a method, it offers us a sense of the world. […] These brown feelings are not the sole province of people who have been called or who call themselves brown. It is, instead and more importantly, the sharing out of a brown sense of the world, a flowing until the common that nonetheless maintains the urgencies and intensities we experience as freedom and differenceMuñoz, 149.
Drifting to Stay Attuned
José Esteban Muñoz’s much anticipated, posthumous monologue, The Sense of Brown, co-edited by Joshua Chambers Letson and Tavia Nyong’ó, inspires, yet also offers up sites for further expansion. In the Introduction Tavia Nyong’o astutely captures the tone in which we respond to Muñoz’s narrative in this reflection. In the Introductory chapter, Nyong’o reminds the reader of the inevitable incompleteness of Sense, saying, “What follows does not provide an authoritative account of The Sense of Brown. That labor must remain permanently unfinished” (xiii). We too understand Sense to exist as it is, as a living endeavor; part remix, part love letter, part astute, theoretical schematics for solidarities that we don’t yet have the common language for…that is, outside of the radically renegade microcosms that inspire Muñoz’s own ruminations across the text.
Our piece includes a multimedia reflection on The Sense of Brown, which emphasizes the text’s uniquely transmedium approach to imagining solidarities and social relations beyond the normative paradigms of identity politics and its permutations. Through both textual poetics, intimate analysis, and sound design, we riff off Muñoz’s own performance-based approach to storytelling and meaning-making, engaging Sense as an invitation to reconsider the aesthetic and philosophical terms of community-making through a centering of counterintuitive methodology. The following ode seeks to amplify Muñoz’s life works and praxis as compilation, and we respond back in kind to his call in Sense for engaged attunement to worlds just over there…yes, over there, just beyond the horizon.
But do keep in mind: attunement need not signal neither order nor the state of being “in tune” with one another. Instead, we mean attunement as a sort of “reverberating-in-relation-to,” as a type of antimissiological tuning fork that’s particularly sensitive to the power of dissonance along the margins––as a viscerally methetic and kinesthetic kind of sensing that prioritizes our collective feelings of solidarity within an anti-black, colonized world as opposed to the knowing of the proper institutional and cultural content mass-produced by this world’s societies about who we are and how we are to relate to one another as legal (or undocumented) national subjects.
Fragment I: Pre-Dusk
Imani: I felt restless within. Barely dusk on a balmy, midsummer morning, shortly after re-reading a chapter in The Sense of Brown on “Brown Wordlings,” I found myself drifting into what I hoped would be a rejuvenating slumber. As I embraced the sweet relief that drifting provided, I began to think about the state of affairs in the world today. The world is tired in 2021, especially today, as COVID-19 kicks into yet another gear, threatening once more to immobilize millions of our most underserved populations. New anxieties are bubbling to the surface of our social consciousnesses, especially as the reality of repeat lockdown scenarios and city-wide closures become an evermore threatening reality. It has been very difficult to find rest.
I have spoken to friends, colleagues, and kin who report that they are overwhelmed with feeling everything and nothing at all, negotiating high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that make it increasingly difficult to obtain restful sleep. I’m one of those people suffering from a heightened sense of insomnia. Although my mind was abuzz––activated by the pages recently read––I wanted to force myself to find a space of calm within, to put down my book and release myself into what my body wanted to do most: drift, drift, and drift into other worlds where my dreams were not so forcibly held captive. The waking state seems to feel collectively more and more unsafe, when I think about it. In this state, I couldn’t help but continue to wonder about what really brings beings into relation with another.
I felt determined to catch this ruminant slumber. In preparation, I quietly prompted my dubious AI companion Alexa to play my “deep sleep” meditation music. I began to ritualistically set the scene for an atmosphere that would conjure up some kind of quiet or stillness. Despite my best efforts to bodily comply, I couldn’t help but notice my body steadily resisting, drawing me back to the waking state; a state I could no longer ignore. My conscious mind was ever more forcibly insisting that I pay attention to the thoughts in my head, which seemed to need a home other than my overpopulated mind. I sigh, ready to give in to the impulses that I confront on a nightly basis. I pick up my cell phone and adjust my alarm, suddenly deciding to record my thoughts in iphone audio instead of writing them down. Energy was lacking and all that I could muster was enough wherewithal to self-record a few thoughts that called for attention. Maybe it wasn’t for nothing, so, I trusted my intuition and began to speak into the ether…
Fragment II: Making Habits Make Sense
Brown practices of thought will––as they have always done––thrive in the realms of the intramural, the unofficial, and the fugitive.Muńoz, 4.
The Sense of Brown by José Esteban Muñoz is like an urging
a gentle push or nudge even
… towards a different way of thinking about spaces
and lives lived
that we may or may not share in common.
In a Sense of Brown, José Esteban Muñoz leaves with us, the living
a gift that begs us to ask
different types of questions.
one steeped in a desire for difference.
one that pushes against the confines
racial categories that always seem to rely on identity politics’ most polarizing effects. [Cue Benny Moré and Pérez Prado’s “Dolor Carabalí” – 1950]
And it is a timely offering amid a world reeked by the ongoing hazards, perils and aftershocks,
of the COVID – 19 pandemic; alongside a global
social movement building
ones that are focused on de-centering
colonial imperatives and Euro Western ways of understanding
how to be human.
And instead, Muñoz,
Much like the ways that the world itself is made manifest to us in our contemporary moment,
[he too] guides with in each chapter through
each case study is based on performances by
queer, Brown, Black people of the Latinx diaspora [third world people who identify against the grain],
what is offered yet is a mere meditation on a few passages comprising a whole
ones that seek to elucidate and mirror back
Scramble the codes [in whisper]
to share with audiences some particular maneuvers,
choreographies . . .
José Esteban Muñoz performs through written word [to explore]
in the ways that he carves out spaces to talk about what a sense of being Brown might mean
in a world where race is ever plastic
always moving against the most marginalized
[what about adaptation?]
in the United States and
beyond its borders.
NOTE: This prose mimics the time signature of the original recording, pre-production. The line breaks, pauses, suspensions, and tensions play with and reflect both speech and rhythmic cadence, over and undertones, as well as seek to rupture and disorient in an effort to reproduce the psychomaterial energies and atemporal conversations as they occurred in Imani’s mind.
Fragment III: Co-Creating “Convivencia”
To imagine a brown commons, we must think about the integers and their relationship to vaster circuits as a wholeMunoz, 6.
It is in this spirit that we also decided to play with Imani’s improvised self-It is in this spirit that we also decided to play with Imani’s improvised self-recording “Fragment II: Making Habits Make Sense” to produce a collaborative audio composition titled “Convivencia” (Spanish for “doing life together”). We are particularly echoing the work of Chicanx artivista Martha Gonzalez in our usage of this term, which holds diverse conceptions of sociality across “third world” contexts and vernaculars, enmeshed throughout diasporic sites across the world’s most powerful nations. Gonzalez’ insistence on radical art-based transnational socialities somehow being able to exist “outside” of neoliberal markets and its taxonomies of population control are what aligns us to her understanding of convivencia:
Our impetus behind remixing this standalone cell phone audio performance in the way that we did grew out of respect for what seems to be Muñoz’s fascination with transmedium communication in the queer of color performances that inspire much of his writing across The Sense of Brown. As artists who never had the honor of sharing time/space with Muñoz, the flavor of transmedium performances that we attribute to his palette are entirely virtual and highly speculative. Yet we did what we could to formulate a bit of a soundscape-as-response in order to affectively and somewhat symbolically practice the kinds of transmedium exchanges of memory-making that white supremacist homonationalism cannot seem to muster––that are too brown to muster––even under tremendous amounts of political and market pressure to extract black queer knowledges at all costs for global consumption.
For this sonic dimension of our book review, we processed intertwining tonal, spatial, temporal, and structural dynamics of various forms of both digital and analog recording and reproduction, layering them intentionally outside the bounds of studio expertise. Our hope was that of creating an environment for the feeling of Muñoz’s brown commons to be, if at all, even momentarily or partially glimmered. The digital threads of 1’s and 0’s that make up all of our internet-based playback options for musical consumption are present at dramatically different levels of resolution within “Convivencia,” helixed alongside several magnetic/electric methods of analog recording, conducted via cassette and vinyl. All but the extended sample of Benny Moré and Pérez Prado’s “Dolor Carabalí” (1950) are original textural and melodic themes composed by Caleb, designed to evoke a sense of aural adaptation and environmental communication amid Imani’s self-recorded theorizing.
Toward a Conclusion
Composing a reflection for The Sense of Brown was for us an inevitable invitation to experiment and toy with Muñoz’s propensity towards wanting to describe, learn from, and experience scenes of racialized queerness that seem to upend and suspend most anthropological notions of the social, culture, community, and their purported laws of attraction. Infused to the brim with unexpectedly-positioned transmedium relationalities, Muñoz’s artistic case studies mirror his own exegetical play with the limits of affect theory’s vernacular capacity, in the pursuit of witnessing, embracing, loving, and fiercely composing for and on social, cultural, and institutional breaches of only the most memorable kind.
Muñoz’s own queer performances through reading and analysis, as documented across the pages of The Sense of Brown, effectively demonstrate a substrate of much beauty, futurism, and embodied political rigor upon which queer/racialized relations may be perceived as forming and dissolving, withering and birthing, blooming and wavering, shivering and dancing, laughing and dying, always (tragically) too close to the market’s nose to be contained only within the tired Eurowestern exoskeletons of sociality, communal life, racemaking, and citizen subjectivation. The queerest and darkest scenes of Left performance can never be far way enough from neoliberal extraction or its algorithmic intuitions. Black and Brown/Native queernesses are commodified even before they get a chance to touch the ground. This is both an act of theft and genocide.The brown commons is then, in effect, a vernacular and philosophical experiment in the phenomenology of relationality and the events that may or may not bring human beings together within the post-apocalyptic antiblack worlds forged and maintained by colonial capital. Those who have a keen sense of their place within this genocidal matrix are also those who know where and what the brown things are and have learned to have faith in its secrets. It is a clever and fluid way to think through commodification without choosing to live because of it, through an ethics of perception that is attuned to the unpredictability of radical solidarity as it dances along the edges of taxonomy, identity formation, and our own deepest sense of what constitutes community itself.
 In this piece, we employ “brown” with a lowercase “b” anytime we refer to Muñoz’s theoretical framework. We then use “Brown” with a capital “B” to indicate the identities of people who claim Brownness racially.