Sunday, July 31, 2011

Power with TEETH: Neoliberalism(?) as Ruination and containment of the Black Catastrophe

Achille Mbembe presenting

I begin with a disclaimer. I will not attempt to summarize any lecture here. Rather, I will run with threads from a couple of lectures. Specifically, I want here to continue the discussion that was generated by Achille Mbembe’s lecture, “The Ordinary, The Event, and the Accident”. Mbembe began his talk by returning to the lectures of the previous day. First, he endorses Stoler’s suggestion that we need to sharpen our senses in tracking the tangibilities of empire. For Mbembe, the tangible is not only that which is capable of being perceived. And thus he encouraged us to think about touch. This was, of course, also a way to problematize Western metaphysics privileging of the optic.

Engaging Aristotle’s exploration of touch, Mbembe suggested, if I recall correctly, that for Aristotle, to touch the limit and to touch at the limit are not the same thing. From Aristotle we moved to Derrida’s discussion of tangibility as always intimately connected to striking and stroking.

This discussion of tangibility and touch facilitated Mbembe’s move to recall that an important element of power is teeth. Thinking about touch also meant that we need to always consider, as Mbembe elaborated, that imperial power is a power of tactility where sight is accompanied by a need to touch, hence the importance of teeth. This was then interwoven with some insights from Adi Ophir’s lecture. However, since others will blog on this lecture, I will not engage it further, except to say that Mbembe took up the concern with catastrophe in his own lecture.

Indeed Mbembe wanted us all to reflect on tangibility and catastrophe. For example, at one point Mbembe asked something that went like this: “what if we ask how does the ordinary become the extraordinary?” This, maybe, was part of his move to entice the participants in the workshop to think about how we are to get out of the Schmittian cage.

Maybe part of such a strategy required that we contemplate how and why the idea of the divine, in various forms of monotheism, share terror as its vital force. I was reminded immediately of Ayi Kwei Armah’s contention that the claimed monopoly on spiritual power is the root of terrorism. For Mbembe, there is an idea of terror embedded in the idea of one God and this is based on catastrophe. This is so because redemption requires catastrophe.

Thus we continued our reflection on tangibility and catastrophe. Mbembe took us on an engagement with Bloke Modisane and Frantz Fanon. Mbembe argued that suffering had a particularly important place in black critical thought. What is significant about this place of suffering is that it is joined with critique as witnessing. Thus, critical Black thought uses writing as a way to effect disruption. It is done in a way to shift perspective so one may reflect critically on life. In his reading of Modisane, Mbembe finds a most convincing interlocutor of Fanon; even more than Steve Biko.

When Mbembe turns to Fanon it is to explore how the latter approaches decolonization as a form of disentanglement. Mbembe points out that Fanon is interested in figuring out and articulating an ethics of struggle that enables one to be free from race.

It is an understatement to say that Mbembe’s lecture generated considerable interest. The participants in the workshop were mesmerized by his presentation. In the discussion period that followed, one topic that generated considerable interest was Mbembe’s reading of Fanon, a reading that made the reclaiming of personhood or self-possession fundamentally important. At least 4 speakers expressed angst at the notion of a self-possessed individual being an important move for any emancipatory project. Bluntly put, it sounded like a desire to get beyond race without going through race. What I experienced as “depoliticization” continued for a while before a crucial intervention was made. Why depoliticization? Mbembe’s engagement with Fanon parallels the (re)turn of contemporary social movements in South Africa to Fanon (and Biko). Thus an interesting space to think “theory from the South” was being opened up. However, the line of questioning and comments seemed to defang the political significance of Fanon’s (and Modisane’s) thinking for the contemporary moment. Thus, the title of this blog; I want to bring some of the political implications to the fore.

First, “power with TEETH” is meant as a reminder that even if a focus on teeth can not capture all there is to power (one participant queried the notion of power with teeth), it is totally inadequate and definitely deadly to minimize (if inadvertently) the fact that Black bodies continue to have a special tactility that is made to attract TEETH. That is to say, Black bodies remain “the” fundamental target for ruination. Second, the question mark after “neoliberalism” is meant to question immediately if that term is sufficient. Put differently, does neoliberal understood as a specific political rationality sufficiently grapple with white supremacy/ anti-Black racism? So I want to pose two questions here: (1) does neoliberalism, if it fails to take white supremacy as a fundamental axis of power work to contain (in the negative sense) the production of genealogies and other analyses of the ruination of Black life? And (2) does neoliberalism enable us to think about ruination, as an ongoing process, that produces and contains Black life as non-life and thus works to constitute life (i.e.,“white”?)? And following from the previous question, by “Black Catastrophe,” I mean to say that Black life is ontologically a catastrophe. Black life is a life that is not quite a life. This is one reason why decolonizing critical theory is so important. The knee jerk responses (I only recall one intervention explicitly stating that one must be careful here) to the claim for self-possession and for reclaiming the self-possessed individual, makes legible the limits of Western theory. That is, we see the limits of Western theory most clearly when confronted with the Black subject(?); a subject who is never quite a subject. A subject whose very condition maybe something beyond Butler’s notion of precarity. To extend Fanon’s insights, the Black body is overdetermined from without for death, which is also its ontological state.

And this brings me to the other lecture I wish to briefly engage: Neville Hoad’s paper. My understanding of this paper is that it argues that a serious engagement with the affective and the body could potentially open up new ways of thinking about human rights. It seems that Hoad is grappling with why human rights discourse(s) needs ordinary violence to become extraordinary. Hoad pursues his project by engaging the story of Roger Casement. Specifically, he is interested in Casement, who while working for the British government, helped expose the crimes against humanity in the King Leopold II controlled so-called Congo Free State. It is in his “white diary” that Casement records many of the atrocities that he observes. Hoad, however, is also interested in Casement’s “Black Diary,” where he recalled his sexual exploits and revealed an uncanny impulse to measure. If I follow his argument correctly, Hoad suggests that thinking about/through Casement’s humanitarian work and his sexual practices together provides an important space to (re)engage with human rights. Casement apparently had sex with Congolese men. Although he never names these men, he kept detailed measurements of their penises. As I understand it, for Hoad, Casement’s sexual encounters can be understood, at least partially, through a notion of reciprocity. It seems that Hoad is suggesting that Casement can be understood as reconstituting the “part-object.” Apparently, this is where the redemptive possibilities can be located. There is something here. Yet, it is a very risky move.

The risk paid off. The paper was accorded an overwhelmingly warm reception. I was intrigued by this. Like a participant who sought to problematize taking the so-called Congo Free State as a site for locating human rights, I was a bit cautious of the theoretical move suggested in the paper. Fanon has already thought us that some bodies are already “object(s) in the midst of other objects.” It seemed, for example, as if by paying more than “market price,” “twelve times the cost of his hotel” for the penis that he desired Casement was giving a gift, he was participating in a reciprocal relationship that sought not to dismember.

A number of questions must be asked: does being a “bottom” prevent Casement from being implicated in imperial violence? Can a “bottom’s” bottom not rape? Is there a fundamental difference between Leopold’s collection of the arms of African people in the so-called Congo Free State and Casement’s collection of Black penises? Is there no violence here because the “Congolese” men/Black men are nothing? To be clear, my argument is not that gay sex leads to Black death. Rather, I suggest that given the genocidal context in which Casement procures his sexual encounters, we are required to query more carefully the precise conditions of possibility for Casement’s structure of desires and their fulfillment. Can the most generous reading of Casement’s sexual desires and practices disentangle them from the structural violence in which they are embedded? It may be necessary to follow Sadiya Hartman’s lead and not lose sight of how “enjoyment” itself can be imbricated with subjugation.

What are we to do when an “innovative” analytical/theoretical move necessitates the dismemberment and collection of black penises, i.e., Black death? In other words, how is it that the reproduction of the Black Catastrophe could so easily be reinscribed (along with the necessary caveat recognizing the problem of the pornographic gaze) and receive much more praise than critique? Are we to embrace the possibility of vitalizing human rights discourse(s) by the sanction/reproduction of Black Catastrophe? What if the structure of desire that animates this affective turn is also a structure of destruction? What does it mean to embrace (however tentatively) an affective turn that imagines it self as opening a “new” or “different” place to energize human rights that is predicated on the cannibalizing of Black bodies?

Alas, we are reminded that the Black body is always already a Catastrophe and is repeatedly made to entice ongoing ruination. It maybe that at the nexus of capitalist imperialism and white supremacy we find the working of witchcraft that constitutes and is constituted by a specific fetish: the Black--not quite human life--ruined object--wreckable commodity.

Thus we can grasp why Fanon had to claim self-ownership and why dismissing this claim today is likely to portend continued Black death. If his remains the most prescient analysis of what it means to be life that is not-quite human, of structural nothingness and the violence that produces it, then Fanon maybe the, and certainly is a, foundational theorist for “thinking theory from the South.”

But what that may mean remains an open and “messy” question. Still, we have important leads having engaged some of the crucial themes: ruination, neoliberalism, catastrophe, wrecked objects, and precarity. This may mean that more than ever we are compelled to face power in its myriad forms, especially power with TEETH as the violent structuring of abjection persists and intensifies.

C.A.K. Uzondu