Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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The following is an updated version of a post that appeared originally on the philosophy website Daily Nous as part of their “Philosophers On” series. Thanks to Justin Weinberg for permission to repost it with updates here.

This edition of Artworld Roundtable appears in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Over the next several weeks, we’ll present a series of roundtable discussions based on Richards’ “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” AFB has rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they have to say about each question. Richards has provided AFB with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. First was cultural appropriation. Second was how to respect the wishes of dead artists. Third was whether selling out is still possible. Fourth was how to engage with objectionable lyrics. Today we ask whether and to what extent we can separate art from the artist who made it.

The past couple of years have been filled with news about artists and entertainers history of sexual harassment and assault. But the bad behavior of artists isn’t limited to that. Many musicians are outspokenly racist. Some have committed crimes or even murders. And others are just terrible jerks.

How, if at all, should the personal character and moral transgressions of musicians change what we think about, and how we act in regard to, their music?

Whether we can separate the art from the artist is the fifth of “the five hardest questions in pop music”, as described in the Washington Post by pop music critic Chris Richards. Below is the guiding question accompanied by a few examples that Richards finds particularly salient, followed by our contributors’ responses. Continue reading

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The American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) is currently holding elections for a vice president and for two trustee positions.

The ASA Vice President will serve a two-year term starting February 1, 2019, and after which they will serve as ASA President for two years. The two ASA Trustees will serve for three years, also starting February 1, 2019.

Brief bios for the nominees appear below the fold. (These were sent out via email to ASA members.)

The deadline to vote is December 31, 2018. Results will be announced in early January. All members of the ASA in 2018 are eligible to vote.

To vote, click here. Continue reading

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What follows is a guest post by Espen Hammer on his recent edited volume Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives.

When reading works of literature, philosophers often look for very general assertions of a quasi-theoretical nature. Thus, Camus’s The Stranger – to pick an obvious example  ̶  is supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of human existence. Or, if that doesn’t satisfy them, they typically start discussing entirely abstract questions of meaning, representation, and reference – of interest to academics steeped in Frege, Russell, and Davidson yet devoid of any concrete relation to actual texts of literary significance.

Kafka, however, on which a recent edited volume of mine entitled Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (OUP, 2018) focuses, is peculiar in that his texts so vigorously seem to resist such general accounts. To be sure, many philosophers have tried to see in Kafka a kind of visionary thinker either of human existence as such or under specific circumstances, in particular those of modernity. Classical accounts of The Trial have focused on theology (“this is what the human condition looks like without God”), psychoanalysis (“this is what guilt and paranoia looks like”), and sociology (“this is the fate of the individual in a society integrated through anonymous, bureaucratic measures”). The list, of course, could be made very long. Note, though, that all the suggested interpretive keys stand in danger of violating our sense of Kafka’s mystery and ineffability. They all do what philosophers too often do: they reduce the text to a unified set of graspable, general meanings.

What is it that, in the absence of thesis-mongering, might make The Trial a philosophical novel? The answer I would propose is two-fold. First, qua philosophical, The Trial is a work of literary modernism. By that I do not mean “experimental” in the loose sense we assign to poetry by Apollinaire or collages by Kurt Schwitters. This novel contains no literary experimentation in the narrow sense. On the contrary, Kafka, being influenced by such master narrators as Goethe and Dostoevsky, aimed for clarity and articulation, writing stories that stand out by their extraordinary display of narrative economy as well as attention to significant detail. Rather, by literary modernism I mean a form of literary discourse that pays sustained attention to its own conditions of existence. The literary modernist dreams of a text that is fully self-authorizing – one that reflectively questions itself and its very capacity for making sense.

The modernism of The Trial is as radical as it gets. Kafka may indeed have been deeply versed in theology and able to translate this interest into his writings. He may perhaps have felt the suffering involved in Freud’s accounts of early childhood trauma. Writing in a turbulent Eastern European location at the outset of the First World War, and being employed in the insurance industry, he cannot have been oblivious to the kinds of experiences associated at the time with notions of alienation and reification. Yet the truly important thing – and this is the second part of how I would account for its philosophical implications – going on in The Trial is its questioning of the very capacity we have, as linguistic beings, to make sense.

In the Wittgensteinian view of language on which I would base such a claim, humans make sense when they manage to insert their words into the right kinds of contexts (or “language games”). The sentence “This is a robin” makes sense in contexts in which the question whether something is a robin can meaningfully be asked. We know what a pupil struggling to learn the names of birds means when he or she says such a thing. However, it makes little or no sense when no such context is provided. The philosopher G. E. Moore, who in front of a tree claimed to know that “this is a tree” when no issues of epistemic failure may be raised, produced little more than emptiness. Why would someone in perfect viewing conditions, faced with such an object and with their cognitive faculties unimpaired, say such a thing? “Language,” Wittgenstein would famously write, “has gone on holiday.”

The Trial abounds with strange, puzzling assertions verging on this kind of emptiness. The information being passed on may at first glance seem clear and comprehensible. However, its frequent elusiveness and obscurity cannot help escaping us. Words float around, failing to be fully intelligible and to make a point. Why, for example, is the painter Titorelli telling K. that he will only help him if the trial goes well? (If the trial goes well, K. doesn’t need his help.) Indeed, what is actually the court before which K. stands, and which slowly yet persistently destroys him? To what kind of order is it answerable? To what might K. appeal in order to demonstrate his presumed innocence? Also, throughout the novel various characters talk of arrests and court proceedings. Yet no clarity is provided about what exactly these procedures involve, or why anyone would instigate them. Of what crime is K. supposed to be guilty? No one seems ready to stand behind his or her words by making them matter. At stake is our very capacity to achieve intelligibility. The characters in The Trial experience each other as foreign not because they are unaware of each other’s identities, but, rather, because they seem utterly incapable of revealing themselves to their fellow human beings.

Is this – that we may find ourselves being mutually incomprehensible, that the generalized context of significance that we call “a language” may fail us, leaving us entirely isolated – perhaps the most timeless warning of Kafka’s The Trial? The pervasive anonymity that Kafka found in the functionaries and the bureaucracy of his own day has not disappeared. Our digitalized, information-saturated, surveillance-oriented surroundings are hardly any less intransparent than the court of that novel. The question I take from my re-reading of Kafka is how our standing as concrete, irreplaceable and vulnerable human beings can be protected from this onslaught of decontextualized speech and symbolization.

If Kafka’s text is philosophical, it is because it problematizes our very capacity for sense-making. While devoid of the kinds of generalities that philosophers usually look for, it becomes an exercise in the attainment of selfhood.

Notes on the Contributor
Espen Hammer is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University, Philadelphia. He is the author of, among other books, Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary (Polity Press, 2002), Adorno and the Political (Routledge, 2005), Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is the editor of German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2007), Theodor W. Adorno II: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers (Routledge, 2015), and Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is also the co-editor with Peter E. Gordon and Axel Honneth of the Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School (Routledge, 2019) and, with Peter E. Gordon and Max Pensky, of A Companion to Adorno (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019).

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Philosopher: Phillip Barron, University of Connecticut

Artwork: Las Meninas (10′ x 9′, oil on canvas, Prado) is the title given to a 1656 painting by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. Its composition and complexity raise questions about reality and illusion, most significantly by the presence of a mirror on the far wall of the room.

Just as Descartes reduces thought to rationality,
Velázquez reduces painting to visuality.
— Jose Ortega y Gasset

Words: Sometimes on the metro, I catch myself in windows and see myself as another. Funny how sound is not the same as light. It never echoes transposed the way a mirror moves a scar from left to right.

The painting made me king or queen when peering in the canvas mirror. The nearer to the frame I stand, I am both here and there. Standing at Las Meninas, the self I saw on the train disappears.

After reflection, if I was what I saw, then saw is both the echo and mirror of was.

Image credit: Museo del Prado, via Wikimedia Commons


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On Saturday, October 13, the American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) issued an apology to Dr. Shelby Moser for their handling of her sexual harassment complaint. This went out via email to all members registered for the recent ASA Annual Meeting. Below is an excerpt from the apology:

“This summer, several individuals in the ASA Board made misleading public comments about the incident and its reporting. As a result, the member making the complaint felt obliged to make a public statement, identifying  herself, to set the record straight.

The Board of Trustees of the ASA hereby apologizes to Dr. Shelby Moser for misleading communications to the effect that she had not made an official complaint in 2017. We deeply regret that she felt compelled by the  remarks to  publicly identify herself, needlessly causing her stress and disrupting her life. We salute her grace and courage in speaking out.

We recognize that failure to respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment contributes to a culture of  gender discrimination. We undertake to act collectively, as members of the Society, to ensure that in the future the  Society speaks clearly and unequivocally on matters of discrimination and harassment.”

(For more background, see our previous post on this issue.)

In related news, the ASA has named Dr. Jeanette Bicknell the new ombudsperson for the ASA. The basic role of the ombudsperson is to “receive complaints of discrimination and harassment and, where possible, serve as a resource to members regarding such complaints.” The ombudsperson’s full duties are detailed at this post on the ASA website.

They also invite nominations (including self-nominations) for a five-person standing committee on Discrimination, Harassment, and Respectful Behavior.

For the announcement and more information about the invitation, see the ASA’s post here.

This post has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the email went out to all ASA members.




This edition of Artworld Roundtable appears in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Over the next several weeks, we’ll present a series of roundtable discussions based on Richards’ “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” AFB has rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they have to say about each question. Richards has provided AFB with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. First was cultural appropriation. Second was how to respect the wishes of dead artists. Third was whether selling out is still possible. Today we ask how we should engage objectionable lyrics.

The lyrics to some of our favorite songs are, upon moral reflection, completely horrific. Do those lyrics affect whether we should endorse the music or support the artist? Or is it okay – because it’s fictional, because it’s catchy, or because we know the artists don’t share those views?

How we should engage objectionable lyrics is the third of “the five hardest questions in pop music”, as described recently in the Washington Post by pop music critic Chris Richards. Below is the guiding question accompanied by a few examples that Richards finds particularly salient, followed by our contributors’ responses. Continue reading

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What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Daryl Jamieson, “Hollow Sounds: Toward a Zen‐Derived Aesthetics of Contemporary Music” which you can find in the current issue of JAAC.

Losing yourself in the experience of listening to – or playing – is an experience that many (most?) people will have had at some point in their lives. It can be life-changing. For a child just dabbling in music, having a transcendent experience like that can turn her on to a career. Or it could turn someone into a lifelong fan of the musician or genre of music that they were listening to when it occurred.

I can recall several such experiences: the first time I heard an orchestra live in my school auditorium (playing Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr, if I recall correctly), dancing all night at London clubs with particularly good DJs, the full-frontal assault of analogue Japanese noise music, both times I have been present at live performances of Feldman’s more-than-six-hour-long String Quartet N°2, the weirdly-erotic ritualism of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the shock of encountering the 15th-century Matteo da Perugia’s sublimely complex Le greygnour bein. I could go on…

I’ve been composing since before I knew what a composer was, and naturally, having had many of these transcendent experiences with music myself, my own goal as a composer is to write music that has this effect on listeners (and performers). I came to aesthetics as a discipline late in this quest, having stumbled my way (basically self-taught) through political philosophy and queer theory in university, and getting into Buddhist philosophy as a way to understanding Nō theater. From learning about Dōgen and medieval Buddhist thinkers, I naturally got into the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic philosophy of more modern Japanese philosophers. I was especially intrigued by the Kyoto School, a loose association of thinkers based around Kyoto University whose founding figurehead was Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945). In their writings on art, flowers, and especially poetry, these philosophers greatly influenced my own musical craft. They were writing about art’s transcendental power as an aid to religious experience and sometimes as a substitute path to enlightenment.

But I began to notice something odd: none of these philosophers – or any other major Japanese philosopher – had written anything substantial about music. Continue reading

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Transatlantic turntable-ism, Krista Franklin

What follows is a guest post by James B. Haile (University of Rhode Island).

Critical responses to Marvel’s first black super hero movie have been quick, varied and numerous, ranging from the significance of an all-black cast for filmic representation (here and here), to the veneration of its depiction of strong, intelligent dark-skinned black women with natural hair as central and heroic characters (here and here), to the critique of the film for pursuing a cosmopolitan vision of “Africa” at the expense of both Africans themselves and for African Americans (here and here), to critiques of the film for promoting the ameliorative agenda of integrationist hopefulness of neo-liberalism dressed in “black excellence,” standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hegemonic power, eschewing pan-Africanist sentiments (here, here and here). And though on the surface these approaches appear diverse, they have, for the most part, a common or central focus that limits their analysis. That is, what unites these ideas is the ever-present and looming undercurrent of our contemporary social, political, and aesthetic history—individualism. Our nation is grounded in the importance of the individual both politically (we can look at the “one man, one vote” idea as central to our political system) and socially (the idea of democracy is so fundamentally rooted in the importance of the individual that no other social or political organization is given merit). But this idea is also significant aesthetically in that it grounds how we interpret, that is, think about and represent ourselves and our world socially and politically (one can think of the aesthetic quality of the voting booth as akin to the confessional booth). It is unsurprising, then, that our films also replicate individualism. This is nowhere more evident than in the recent explosion of superhero movies, highlighting the force of the great individual to impose social, political, and moral values onto the world through a very particular aesthetics—e.g., the aesthetics of Superman’s iconic red cape fluttering behind his floating body captures the idea of an all-seeing sense of justice; Batman’s highly stylized black suit replete with a black and gold utility belt gives the sense that any and every one could be the enforcer of a moral code greater than the law itself; and Black Panther’s all-black suit that gives the impression of how future technological innovation could be merged with the natural world without damaging our planet. Yet, each of these characters are individuals who come to represent larger social and political ideals rather than social collectives. It is, then, no surprise that individualism not only shaped the storyline and how Black Panther depicted its central characters and plot line, but also how it was received by the public.

As such, this filmic aesthetic analysis of Black Panther locates its “African/blackness” in the individual/individuating phenomenon of the characters themselves. (See the end of this essay for a note on the use of quotation marks.) The individual characters of T’Challa, Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri, for examples, represent the dignified king, the warrior, the sympathizer, and the genius respectively. Despite the boundary pushing elements of the film, it has largely been interpreted as “black” and/or “African” because of how the characters in the film appear—they are, save for two white characters, phenotypically dark. And, while the clothing and language present in the film have also been credited for how the film has been received, the social, political, and aesthetic influence of individualism has largely been the portal/lens through which the film has been viewed—the characters, as individuals, are “black”; therefore, the film is “black”. What we are left to answer has to do with how “blackness” and/or “Africa” are depicted in the film through individual characters, and the limitation in depicting “blackness” and/or “Africa” through individual representations of it. The difficulty with addressing “blackness” and/or “Africa” in Black Panther, then, is multiple.

Yet, like the obvious hiddenness of “Wakanda” behind a virtual cloaking device, this reading of Black Panther obscures the significance of the landscapes itself for the narrative telling of the “African/blackness” of the film. The subtle features of the film that could be highlighted as “black” and/or “African” are less tied to the individuation of particular characters, and more to the technological, political and cultural sophistication of its ecological vision. An ecological reading of the film, I will argue, offers a more substantive interpretation of the “blackness” and/or “Africanness” of Black Panther.

How do we theorize this “blackness”? This is the question of the film, the question of the “blackness” and/or “Africanness,” and the question of the “Afrofuture”.

Towards an Ecological Blackness

One of the reasons that we usually do not think of “blackness” or “Africanness” when discussing ecology is because we have generally understood the natural world to be a space of hostility, alienation and exploitation—this is why one usually thinks of the current water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, of Hurricane Katrina, or of the 1992 drought in Somali that led to famine and those infamous photographs of starving African children rather than Matthew Henson, who explored the North Pole as early as 1909. Black Panther, though, introduces us to a relationship between “blackness” and/or “Africanness” and the natural world other than environmental racism. This is a really important contribution, because it challenges us to rethink “blackness” and/or “Africa” as well as how we think about the natural world.

In his essay, “Black Ecology and the Alleged Wisdom of the Wilderness,” Levi R. Bryant argues for a concept of Nature that “recognizes only relation” rather than “narratives about the special Wisdom of Nature, in a ridiculous belief in the homeostatic essence of Nature.” For Bryant, Nature is dynamic rather than fixed and static; the “black” in “black ecology,” for Bryant, references not so much “race” or the history of racialization, but the “dark and tangled reality … full of objects, flows, agencies, complexes and differential powers.” In other words, “black ecology” is the “totality of distributed beings and the possibility spaces between them.”

And, it is here, with this notion of “blackness” and “black ecology” that we can begin to think about the “African/blackness” of Black Panther. In the opening scene of the film, a young boy (who we later come to know as N’Jadaka or Erik Killmonger) asks his father (T’Challa’s uncle, N’Jobu) to tell him “the story of home,” the story of “Wakanda,” to which his father replies, “millions of years ago, a meteorite made of vibranium…struck the continent of Africa affecting the plant life around it. And, when the time of men came, five tribes settled on it and called it, Wakanda.” After being struck with vibranium, we learn that the Earth has been “affected,” changed, and that everything emerging from it, too, has been altered. It is in this change that it provided new possibilities for “objects, flows, agencies, complexes” to become and exist in many different and unpredictable forms and states—for example, it is the unpredictably of the natural world that generated the “heart-shaped herb” that the “warrior” ingested to give him “super human strength, speed, and instincts” making him the “Black Panther,” the first king and defender of Wakanda.

While Bryant was not actually talking about “race” or “Africa/blackness” as it is traditionally understood, it is, nonetheless, important for our discussion. Shifting the conversation of “blackness” and/or “Africa” and its relationship to the natural world, though, highlights the irony in the conversation itself. Just as we are constantly in search of a stable, unchanging “natural world,” for exploitation and to judge our own progress against, we are also in search of a stable, unchanging definition of “blackness” and/or “Africa” to exploit and judge our humanity against. The irony of Black Panther is that it referred to as a “third world nation,” and it is this fixed and stable idea of “Africa” as impoverished that allowed “Wakanda” to hide, under the shield of the social imagination of “Africa” as permanently “third world”. In other words, “Wakanda” hides its “blackness” and/or “Africanness”—that is, a constantly evolving place where the natural and technological merge with the cultural to create an alternate present—under the guise of an accepted idea of “blackness” and/or “Africanness”—that is, the idea of social, economic and cultural deprivation.

What this hiddenness reveals is the idea of “home” that N’Jadaka asked his father about in the beginning of the film—a space of self-possession and self-determination outside of external influence. It is significant that it was N’Jadaka that asked about “home,” for it is not only the idea that alluded him, but the physical space itself. From narratives such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, we learn that African-Americans were not alienated from the land, but had their lands taken from them, forced to migrate to northern, urban centers in search of work and safety, and that this migration not only had social and political effects, as well as economic effects, but also had aesthetic consequences. In asking the question of “home,” N’Jadaka is asking a political and social identical through the aesthetic of the land. A “black” and/or “African” ecological reading of Black Panther reveals it as an aesthetically informed politics of social identity.

The Golden City, Birnin Zana

In the exhibition “Africa is not a Refugee Camp,” curator Mpho Matsipa set out to reconfigure the “expectations that are set when people go to see exhibitions about Africa.” Rather than experiencing the “narrative of a continent in dire need of developmental aid,” museum goers experience an exhibition that “actively reimagines African cities and presents ideas that touch on themes of migration, architecture, and Afrofuturism … as sites of innovation, rapid transformations, new architectural typologies, infrastructures and technologies” [source]. In reimagining the continent as a place of home rather than a source of alienation, the exhibit allows us to not only understand “Africa” in terms of the “organic interactions between the city’s inhabitants and its spaces,” but it also allows us to think of the continent in terms of technological innovation rather than social and political crisis. The exhibit, set in futuristic dreamscapes, offers the artists and viewing audience space to imagine what and how “African” solutions to “African”—and also the world’s—problems might appear. Some of the images from the exhibit are below:


Shanty Mega-structure, Olalekan Jeyifous



Afro-imaginaries, speculative student work produced in Global Africa Lab, Harare Studio, Columbia University, by Simba Mafundikwa

In the first image, we see contemporary urban design with concrete block buildings in shades of yellows and pinks, and streets congested with cars and people, but we also see buildings and overpasses lined with trees, suggesting that the problem of smog and global warming in the present world is met with innovating designs of naturally informed architecture. (This brings to mind the Liuzhou Forest City in China.) In the second image, we see in the foreground a woman gardening with a modern urban skyline in the background. Between these two images, we see wooden structures reminiscent of traditional South African granaries, striking a balance socially, culturally, and aesthetically between tradition and urbanization. In the exhibit as in Black Panther there is a statement that tradition and modernity are not in competition, and that they can and do exist simultaneously in contemporary and future ideas of “blackness” and “Africa”.

A more detailed accounting of the conceptualization of Wakanda’s capital city, Birnin Zana will help to flesh out how “rapid transformations” and “new architectural typologies” currently exist and how they might futurally exist even in the contemporary world.

Charles Mudede has argued what is most intriguing about Black Panther is the landscape. He writes, “The capital of Wakanda has skyscrapers, a monorail, sidewalks of grass, green buildings, farmers markets, and no cars. The whole idea of private transportation is foreign to this fictional society. And this is what makes the city so unfamiliar. It’s big but has no suburbs… This is a radical urbanism concept indeed. If this black African capital has anything to share with the world, it’s its city planning.” Below is an image of the capital city as theorized by designer Till Norwack.


Concept of the Golden City, designed by Till Nowack

In one interview, Nowack, the conceptual artist hired by production designer Hannah Beachler to design Wakanda and its capital city Birnin Zana, says he conceptualized the direction of the project as an “Afro-futurist Eden,” of a “hidden African country that had never been colonized.” Till went on to argue that, “it was very important to them [director Ryan Coogler and Hanna Beachler] to incorporate elements from all over Africa while also pushing it into a futuristic, yet undiscovered direction.” The “Africa” and “blackness” of Wakanda and Birnin Zana was of a parallel history, culture, and aesthetics—one in which Wakanda had not been colonized, yet was not located in a distant “African” past. We see in the concept image both an urban cityscape, urban congestion, and the presence of the natural world. Similar to the images from the exhibit, we see signs of traditional culture—most notably, the awnings of a city-market.

Coogler and Beachler began researching Black Panther with extensive trips throughout the African continent to get a better sense of the film, to “create something that felt African in its influences, without seeming strained through the white gaze which relies so often on stereotypes and clichés.” Till continues, “We studied an enormous amount of traditional African buildings, art, and design… Hannah [Beachler] wanted the flowing, repetitive patterns of traditional African textiles to be the inspiration for the city’s footprint, so they became the basis of a curvy street layout and the intertwined layered terraces of the palace.”

In other words, that element of homeness and peace that Killmonger sought and Till, Coogler, and Beacher hoped to capture with Wakanda was not just the power and control over natural resources (i.e., vibranium); the “home” that Killmonger sought and Black Panther captured was a technologically advanced society that still had a sense of its own historical, cultural past, one that had not been infiltrated with Western standards. As such, it is not just that Wakanda had never been conquered—enslaved and/or colonized—that marks its achievement, but that it had a sense of its own existence and identity within a specific territory that made it “home”. In other words, it is this sense of self-defined space and self-understanding within the natural world—expressed in the aesthetics of the city-architecture and planning—that mark the film as subtlety “black” and revolutionary. A more detailed image of “Birnin Zana,” here, is helpful.


Birnin Zana, Wakanda

In the image above, we get an idea of the everyday life of Wakanda. We see up-close the integration of traditional customs and folk life with technological innovation, and how this insight might give a different perspective of what constitutes the “blackness” or “Africanness” of Black Panther. For examples, under closer inspection, one sees a “trotro”-like vehicle running through the center of the city. A “tro-tro” is a vehicle traditionally used by a majority of African populations throughout the continent. It is largely a cheap mode of transportation involving a van or similar vehicle that has been gutted to add additional seating, usually the two to three rows of a traditional van have been adjusted to make room for usually five to six rows. Alongside the “tro-tro” are woven baskets, informing us that even with technological development, the technology of traditional customs still has a place within people’s lives. These are important elements for the film because they signal to the audience that “tro-tros” and woven baskets do not exist within traditional culture because they are inexpensive, but because they are a part of the culture of the countries themselves, and not a mark of poverty. In shaping the “background” of the city, Nowack, Coogler, and Beachler were actually constructing the main metaphor of the film itself—the relationship between the natural and technological environments and the social, political and economic aspects of the people themselves.

In his novel, In the Castle of My Skin, George Lamming writes of the central role the landscape of his village has for the narrative telling of a people. Lamming writes, “The book is crowded with names and people, and although each character is accorded a most vivid presence and force of personality, we are rarely concerned with the prolonged exploration of an individual consciousness. It is the collective human substance of the Village itself which commands our attention. The Village, you might say, is the central character” (xxxvi). In other words, instead of viewing T’Challa, Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri as expressions of “Africa/blackness” in their visual representation, we should look at their individual presentation/representation as much a misdirection as our contemporary views of “blackness” and/or “Africa”. These ideas do not illuminate as much as they hide the function of the city itself—its the architecture, the technology, etc.. The city operates as the exchange between human beings and the natural world, giving a material expression to the idea of “home”. An ecological reading reveals this.


Note: “Blackness”/”Africanness”/”race” in quotation is meant to refer to an historical group of people referred to as “black”/”African”/”raced” and understood largely in terms of enslavement, colonialism, and neocolonialism; while, blackness/Africa without the quotation is meant to refer to the existential and aesthetic expression of those persons deemed “black,” and is understood largely in terms of human relationships to space and place, in particular geography and the natural world. The complexity of the film, Black Panther, is that we have a human population that is deemed “black,” even though they were never part of the “blackness” that is defined by historical facts attached to “blackness,” and all-the-while exhibits the existential and aesthetic elements of a black cultural population. The significance of the distinction between “blackness” and blackness is that while the former points to significant historical events that have shaped the development of the modern world, it largely cannot and does not account for the specific expressions emergent due not to transatlantic enslavement, internal enslavement, colonialism or neo-colonialism, but rather to how these populations in the New World adapted differently to the specificities of weather patterns, natural/environmental changes, differential geographies and unique modes of self and the world articulation/interpretations that developed therein.

Notes on the Contributor
James B. Haile is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Rhode Island. He specializes in Africana philosophy, philosophy and literature, philosophy of art and continental philosophy. He has published an edited collection on Richard Wright, Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright and is currently completing an edited volume on James Baldwin and a text on black male literary studies.

Edited by Alex King




Sadly they’re sold out. Must be good advertising.

This edition of Artworld Roundtable appears in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Over the next several weeks, we’ll present a series of roundtable discussions based on Richards’ “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” AFB has rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they have to say about each question. Richards has provided AFB with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. First was cultural appropriation. Second was how to respect the wishes of dead artists. Today we ask whether it’s still possible for musicians to sell out.

What does it mean to sell out? In today’s commercialized, social media, sponsorship-driven world, can musicians still sell out in any meaningful way? Or, in an era where people are unwilling to pay for music, is selling out just getting paid?

Whether today’s artists can still sell out is the third of “the five hardest questions in pop music”, as described recently in the Washington Post by pop music critic Chris Richards. Below is the guiding question accompanied by a few examples that Richards finds particularly salient, followed by our contributors’ responses. Continue reading