New Affiliated Faculty Spotlight: Fumi Okiji

Fumi Okiji, Assistant Professor, Rhetoric

Fumi Okiji’s research looks to black expression for alternative ways to understand the inadequacies of modern and contemporary life. Okiji explores how black and Africana music, sound cultures and expression, more broadly, provide the basis of a critical theory. Okiji’s approach is thoroughly interdisciplinary, drawing from black radical thought and expression, critical theory, feminist thought, sound studies, and musicology. Okiji is an improvisor and jazz vocalist—whose research is greatly informed by this practice.

Critical Theory: Could you tell us how, personally and professionally, you became interested in the work of Critical Theory more generally?

Okiji: During my master’s at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, I took a course called “Modern Literary Thought” with Josh Cohen, which introduced me to the writing of Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Adorno, and others. It made quite an impression. This was the tail end of century and I—conditioned by my Greater London Authority progressive schooling, the fall of Thatcherite hegemony and a mirroring recession of the Left—was living in the heightened but, largely, arrested state of socio-political consciousness that tended to characterize so many of my generation. I was also immersed in listening to and performing jazz and improvised music. So, it is probably not surprising that I was particularly intrigued and disturbed by Adorno, whose formulations concerning the double-bind of knowledge production and critique, whose interest in the critical potency of artistic expression, and whose pessimism concerning the possibilities of the good life resonated so insistently with me, but whose thoughts on jazz seemed to strain against my experience in practice and performance, and against his own political and ethical commitment “to lend a voice to pain and suffering.” This ambivalence still shapes my engagement with Adorno although, increasingly, I find that the task is less an attempt to resolve the contradiction. The attitude that now drives my interlocution with Adorno—who has become, for me, a synecdoche for Western modern thought, particularly of the radical variety—is almost of parental-like concern—“Who/what did this to you? What happened to you that could/can not recognize in blackness the resources for rearranging thought and action?”.

Critical Theory: Can you tell us about a current project that you’re working on, and more about your research interests? How do you utilize the concept of critique, and(/or) related philosophical work from Critical Theory scholars, in your work?

Okiji: My first book project, Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited, was an exploration of the idea that the socio-musical play of jazz resembles ideas of an alternative mode of human conduct, a way of being in the world that Adorno suggests is revealed in radical European art. While Adorno refused to provide a positive image of a progressive future, lying just beneath the surface of his writing on art, and particularly music, you’ll find an unremitting address of the ethical disposition required to bring about such revolution. I argue that jazz, a music Adorno considered an insignia of the failings of humanism, is, in fact, capable of contributing to a model of ethical praxis. In response to writing that presents jazz as a reflection of American individualism and democracy, the book also presents a case for considering a “gathering in deviance,” a subject characterized, in part, by the manifold ways it departs from mainstream society, as a more fruitful perspective from which to evaluate jazz’s critical potential. I unfurl the idea that blackness is a mode of existence in which the disjuncture between the reality of everyday living, and the ways this life is imaged and imagined within the general social field, is so pronounced that it incessantly calls into question the integrity of the world. Suggested is that, had Adorno been attuned to jazz work as participant of this critical reflection, he may have embraced it as a tool of resistance.

I am currently focused on a second book project, tentatively entitled Billie’s Bent Elbow: The Standard as Revolutionary Intoxication. It is a response to praxes—including leftist and black feminist love-politics, hyper-ethics of relation, and empathetic scholarship—that appeal to “eternal values” of imagined futures. While sympathetic to these moves towards love and empathy, I argue that such frameworks arrive too soon, and lack the coevality necessary for truly transformational practice in thought. These criticisms prepare the ground for alternatives able to satisfy the imperative to break with (scholarly) frigidity but that proceed from a comportment presently available to us in this ever-extending era of high capitalism and American imperialism. I am exploring, by way of Walter Benjamin, mimesis and fascination as possible modes.

Critical Theory: When you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your time? Any particular pastimes, hobbies, etc. that you would like to share?

Okiji: I spent a number of years performing on the London jazz scene. I love scholarship but I miss the (often) haphazard, thrown together, deep-dive intimacies that improvising socials cultivate. Since becoming a full-time academic, I’ve had less time to make music but I always have in mind to reestablish a more consistent practice.