Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jerry Gafio Watts


Ammiel Alcalay

Committee Members

Joan Richardson

Eric Lott

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | American Studies | Arts and Humanities | Law and Society


Poetics, Law and Literature, Critical Legal Studies, Hip Hop, Rap, Vince Staples, Future


Descent is metacritical, ranging across disciplines to take up – as flash points or instances – failed attempts to revolutionize knowledge, considering these as descents, or movements into the deep, that remain stiff or un-poetic in their attitudes toward the American truisms “individualism,” “blackness” and “invention.” Beginning with William Carlos Williams’ formulation of descent (as a practice necessary for establishing national literary identity) in In the American Grain, the project resolves around the question, How can the critic make peace with her desire to dominate the object of critique by proposing its perpetual sameness in relation to the critic? In the context of these concerns, this dissertation offers new perspectives on the work of legal theorist Duncan Kennedy in critical legal studies – by way of Ralph Waldo Emerson – and the black music-centered theories of black aesthetics elaborated in the cultural and literary criticism of Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey and Fred Moten, proposing a turn away from music as a central trope in African American critical theory. The first two chapters consider the work of legal theorist Duncan Kennedy in critical legal studies (CLS), which attempted an ostensibly radical critique of American law and legal ideology, together with recent assessments of Emerson’s “ideological” commitments. I propose terms upon which to understand Kennedy’s CLS as a failed critique, lacking interest in re-thinking the inaugurating question, What does individualism mean? I argue that the Emersonian sense of personhood offers fortifying tools to contemporary critical theorists who must liberate themselves from crippling obsession with being taken up into the all-pervasive powers they describe. The third (long) chapter, operating as a critical and poetic example of the theoretical groundwork laid in Chapters One and Two. Recognizing the crucial intellectual-historical role of black music to in theoretical elaboration of blackness, I ask whether or how black music remains vital to efforts to describe what (of) blackness is sustaining as art? This is thinking toward re-definition of kinship or communal relationship among black artists and intellectuals, toward construction of new spatial and temporal relationships within which freedom might be played out.