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On How to G(r)asp for Life or The Breath in My Bones: A Review of M Archive: After the End of the World by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Reviewed by Sasha Panaram | @SashaPanaram |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Thursday, April 19, 2018.

listen: i need my oxygen

-- Evie Shockley

And I dream of our coming together

encircled driven

not only by love

but by lust for a working tomorrow

the flights of this journey

mapless uncertain

and necessary as water.

-- Audre Lorde

I read M Archive: After the End of the World underwater. Seriously. Between 138 Street and 125 Street where the 6 train traveled from the Bronx to Manhattan darting beneath the Harlem River, I started to imagine what it would be like to live in another world, a world below. I finished M Archive on the day a bomb detonated at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. As the bomb exploded, my train pulled into Grand Central. When a fellow commuter reached for her cell phone to call her boss and explain that she would not make it to work on time, I looked at her and wondered simply this: would I make it at all?

Then I took a deep, long breath.

While I do not typically disclose the coordinates that pertain to where and when I start or finish a book, I feel it necessary to mark when and where I encountered M Archive, because within seconds of completing the text I was simultaneously reminded of the endless possibilities of and for life, and my own finitude.  

When it occurred to me that for the reasons previously stated I might not surface aboveground again while none of that was okay that I was in the company of Alexis made it all right. Who better to lead me to safety, to usher in a new life than she who can see underwater, she who can breathe below? “Is Alexis writing from the bottom of the ocean, or the far off future, or from inside the mind of God-is-change?” marvels adrienne maree brown. She might be and for that reason sight is an occasion for celebrating while reading M Archive because here we see everything broken, boundless, anew.

If Spill is an oracle, then M Archive is our heaven. The second book in a planned experimental triptych, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ M Archive chronicles the possibility for black life after a worldwide apocalypse. Conveyed to us by a post-scientific researcher encountering artifacts after the end of the world, this work of speculative documentary invites us to think together what it is we know about the world and what it is we cannot know, at least not now. Gumbs, the newly appointed Winton Chair in Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, blurs the boundaries between art and scholarship suggesting that the two are not oppositional or distinct enterprises, but part of the same project, part of the same practice.

I use the term “practice” very intentionally because what is clear upon opening the text is its sacred contents – its holy formulations – that gesture towards modes of living and imagining that if pursued collectively open wor(l)ds: wor(l)ds where being “human” is not enough; wor(l)ds where the land cannot contain us; wor(l)ds where breathing is not taken for granted (“they were raised to believe that they could only trust words. words were a place to stand. even though they could be washed away”).

The book’s subtitle – After the End of the World – echoes a footnote buried deep in Fred Moten’s “Notes on the Passage” wherein he calls for a return to Ed Roberson’s To See the Earth Before the End of the World and then asks readers “if the earth can survive the world” (74). As if departing from this question, M Archive enlightens us to how people have “violated the trust of being born” and plundered the earth bearing little or no respect for the ground they walk on or water they bask in (45).

Prophetic and sobering, M Archive asks “why would anyone choose to come to this planet right now?” (172). Considering black people as critical sites of knowledge production and black women as integral to that process, Gumbs troubles histories of racial categorization and racism. Where some turn to science and mathematics for the answers to life’s most persistent enigmas, she says “you could have asked anyone sitting on the porch back in her day” (24). She would have known the answer. She always already knew.  

Written with the ancestors and with whom Gumbs calls “the far-into-the-future witnesses to the realities we are making possible or impossible with our present apocalypse,” M Archive pays homage to M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (2005). Following Alexander’s formulation that the Middle Passage not only resulted in the forced migration and displacement of millions of people, but also the transfer of energies and elements, Gumbs infuses her text with elemental histories. With sections devoted to archiving dirt, sky, fire, and the ocean, she reintroduces us to the stuff of our daily realities.

Each section is prefaced with sections from the Periodic Table of Elements, an organizational scheme that contains all of the relevant data points for a set of elements. For instance, “Archive of Ocean: Origin” begins with the elements hydrogen, sodium, chlorine, and oxygen. However, each of these sections are followed with expositions that show us what these elemental charts cannot. Consequently, M Archive reveals just how little those data points actually reveal when it comes to matters of world-making and world-breaking.

Gumbs self describes her work in M Archive as experimental, but revolutionary is far more accurate. Complete with her own “Periodic Kitchen Table of Elements” that lists books and songs in addition to Pedagogies of Crossing that inspired M Archive’s creation, Gumbs models how to create and privilege bodies of knowledge.  

Be it on the porch, underwater, in the heavens, or among the trees, M Archives is a work of geography steering us home (“when she touched the map it moved”).

But there’s something else at stake in M Archive.

We are taught very early on about the importance – in fact, the necessity – of breathing. In moments of distress, we are instructed to take a deep breath. When new life is entering the world, mothers anticipate such arrivals by breathing between contractions. Successful scuba diving is predicated on taking longer breaths so as to conserve air. In the event of an airplane emergency passengers are instructed to secure their oxygen mark first and then attend to others.

M Archive is concerned with the possibilities for breathing underground, below the surface, deep in the water. Hers is an investigation into the capacity for breathing in non-landed spaces.

The past few years have witnessed renewed urgency around the topic of breathing in the field of black studies; urgency no doubt increased by the ongoing attacks on black life that endanger black breath. Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is partly in search of “the word for keeping and putting breath back into the body” (113). In a chapter devoted entirely to breath in Blackpentacostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, Ashon Crawley maintains that black pneuma is “the capacity for the plural movement and displacement of inhalation and exhalation to enunciate life, life that is exorbitant, capacious, and fundamentally, social, though it is also life that is structured through and engulfed by brutal violence” (38). Frantz Fanon once declared in Toward the African Revolution, “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Breath – what we might call the poetics of breathing – has been central to the poet-scholar Nathaniel Mackey’s rich oeuvre of critical and creative works. Similarly, Fred Moten begins The Little Edges with an announcement that introduces his fascination with breath: “live, remote, preoccupied with breathing and black” (4). Even Gumbs previously undertook an examination of breath as she considered its meditative capacities through the development of a c(h)ant for Eric Garner and many more.

M Archive adds to and extends the critical work being done around breath, breathing, and blackness.

And in so doing, it gives us a reason to breathe – independently and collectively – again.


Sasha Panaram is Ph.D. student (ABD) in English at Duke University. A Georgetown University alumna, her scholarly interests are in black diasporic literature, black feminisms, and visual cultures.

A Review of Alexis Pauline Gumbs' "M Archive: After the End of the World"

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