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Spectators and Witnesses: Legacy Russell & Fred Moten

Legacy Russell and Fred Moten join the Verso Podcast to talk memes, memory, and gaps in the archive.

2 May 2024

Spectators and Witnesses: Legacy  Russell & Fred Moten

VersoBooks · Spectators and Witnesses | Legacy Russell & Fred Moten

This week on The Verso Podcast we’re taking a deep dive into the relationship between blackness and modern visual culture in the digital age. Eleanor Penny is joined by Legacy Russell and Fred Moten to delve into complicated relationship between philosophy, music, virality, and critical fabulation - in order to elucidate the fundamental way in which the history of modernity is inextricably bound up with images of blackness.

Legacy Russell's new book, Black Meme: A History of the Images that Make Us, is out now.

The silent film Lime Kiln Field Day ends with a kiss between its two black leads - Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey - a moment of on screen black tenderness seldom permitted at the time, and rarely seen in the decades following. It is the oldest surviving film with an all-black cast - though its romantic lead, Williams, was obliged through the conventions of the day to wear cartoonish blackface makeup; the kind white performers would use to parody blackness on stage. Though it was filmed in 1913, it never made it into cinemas. It was abandoned, unassembled for decades - only saved when the original footage was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in 1938. 

Two years after Williams and Grey shared that historic kiss, D.W. Griffith would release Birth of a Nation, which remains to this day one of the highest grossing movies of all time. It was shown in a private screening to the then-president Woodrow Wilson, who declared it a triumph - and it is widely credited for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, portrayed in the movie as heroic figures responsible for defending innocent white womanhood against the threat of black predation. It is one of the most widely shared and widely studied pieces of cinema - and it is influential not only in its viciously racist representations of black people, but for popularising techniques that are still central to how we understand the visual language of film today. 

There, at the very genesis of mass media and modern visual culture, we see a struggle over the representation of blackness. It’s a pattern that has persisted ever since - representations of both black life and black death have shaped viral culture even before the birth of the internet. Cultural production and dispossession have been bound together throughout the evolution of the digital age. And as digital culture becomes ever more entangled with our day to day lives, it’s time to take a look at the history of the images and cultural practices that have made the modern world.

Legacy Russell is a curator and writer. Born and raised in New York City, she is the Executive Director & Chief Curator at The Kitchen. Her academic, curatorial, and creative work focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry, and new media ritual. Russell's written work, interviews, and essays have been published internationally. Her first book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto came out in 2020, and her second book Black Meme: A History of the Images that Make Us will be released on May 7th - and is currently available for preorder. Both titles are published by Verso Books.

Fred Moten is a cultural theorist, poet and scholar. He’s a professor in the Departments of Performance Studies and Comparative Literature, where he teaches courses in black study, poetics and critical theory. He works with lots of social and aesthetic study groups including the Black Arts Movement School Modality, Le Mardi Gras Listening Collective, the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy, Moved by the Motion, the Institute of Physical Sociality and the Harris/Moten Quartet. His works include In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, A Poetics of the Undercommons, The Service Porch, All That Beauty, as well as the consent not to be a single being trilogy.

Be sure to tune in for our next episode featuring Beverley Best and Aaron Benenav to talk Marx, machines and the labour theory of value.

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Black Meme
In BLACK MEME, Legacy Russell, awardwinning author of the groundbreaking GLITCH FEMINISM, explores the “meme” as mapped to Black visual culture from 1900 to the present, mining both archival and co...

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