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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Walking the Wire between the Reality and Perception of Crime

John Comaroff presenting at JWTC

On Monday morning, July 18th, John Comaroff gave a talk entitled “The Truth About Crime,” a big topic to be sure, and one that has a different connotation when heard in Johannesburg than, say, in my home of New York City. While both the United States and South Africa, as well as many other countries to be sure, seem to have an unhealthy fixation on crime, this obsession manifests itself differently in different spaces.

When I arrived in Johannesburg, my first visit both to the city and to South Africa, I was most struck by the walls that seem ever-present on both sides of you as you walk down the street. Correction: they are on both sides of you as you drive down the street, because, I quickly learned, Johannesburg is not a walking city. It felt jarring and cold, and as if there is a latent anxiety walling the city in. Anxiety about crime is certainly not a South African monopoly, but it does have a different face in the new South Africa than other places I have been. As John Comaroff pointed out in his talk, South Africa seems to claim some kind of exceptionality in terms of crime, and yet, as the Comaroffs argue in their article “Figuring Crime: Quantifacts and the Production of Un/Real,” this feeling of exceptionality (which I have to admit, it is hard not to buy into, especially as one walks between walls) is more perception that reality. Not only are South Africa’s crime figures no higher than many other allegedly “safer” nations, but in fact, John Comaroff argued that historically, there is often a link between democratization and a heightened obsession with criminalization, making the new South Africa’s obsession with crime seem less exceptional.

In the wake of great change, the stability of law, order and sovereignty can feel uncertain, bringing the social contract itself into question. In times of societal transition, there can emerge a disconnect between sign and signifier wherein our old conceptions of sociality become untrustworthy and unstable. If one feels that the forces of order are enigmatic and unreliable, then the once panoptical state is suddenly disengaged and not seeing enough. In situations like this, we want to do something to cope with our feelings of anxiety and helplessness. So, maybe we build walls. Or read news stories about crime, antithetically fixating on that which frightens us. Or we seek out those that we feel can restore law and order to an increasingly chaotic world: the figure of the “divine detective,” as Comaroff called it. The divine detective is more than just a surveyer of clues; he or she is a kind of superhero, charged with the task of making legible the social ambiguities that cause us such anxiety – putting together the puzzles that we cannot. The divine detective becomes an almost mystical figure, exemplifying a seemingly contradictory blend of hyperrationality and preternality.

Comaroff cited a few of these “divine detective” in literature and the news, but these figures are also becoming more and more omnipresent in another form of cultural production: television shows. TV shows centered around criminality are of course not a new phenomenon, but perhaps the rate of proliferation of these shows is as well as the presence of divine detectives, some literally supernatural and some using science or logic in a seemingly magical way. For those of you who watch Law and Order: SVU, you will understand that if I am ever unfortunate enough to be the victim of a crime, I want Det. Olivia Benson and Det. Elliot Stabler to handle my case. Or, if I find myself in Baltimore, I will settle for no less than Kima and McNulty from The Wire (which is, in my opinion, the clear stand-out of the crime TV genre). If there is an uncomfortable tone of fetishizing the violence of crime in those past few sentences, then perhaps I, like many others, are guilty as charged. Part of the impact of the ubiquity of crime TV (as opposed to crime itself), is both a fixation on violence and an emptying out of the actual power of violence. Comaroff was careful to point out that in arguing that crime statistics often result in a fetishization of crime, he did not want to negate or deny the reality of violence. And yet, in watching, over and over again, the watered-down versions of the “reality” of crime in its fictive representations, it is tough not to, first of all, admire the uncanny ability of the often divine TV detective to solve crimes but also to fall prey to a kind of fetishization of the traumatic, equating the dramatic with reality.

There is a sense that cultural capital is being created by one’s connection to a crime and even via victimhood. Perhaps imagined or vicarious victimhood (the feeling that you are always a potential victim or that everyone knows someone who has been affected by crime) fits more with this model than literal victimhood, because then one has the space to see trauma as something culturally valuable as opposed to personally destructive. Is vicarious victimhood a way in which we can fit ourselves into social modalities of society, especially as we feel those modes shifting and becoming illegible in times of social transition? Perhaps we feel that criminality is so ubiquitous in society and popular culture that in order to fit into said society and feel like a participating member, one has to feel connected to crime in some tangible way – being able to say that you are mugged gets you some kind of “street cred,” for example. This is not to negate the reality of the trauma of being the victim of a violent crime, which I can only imagine is horrible. It is, however, to point out the kind of cultural cache that victimhood can take in society, as if it connects one to capital H history, making one an actor in culture, as opposed to a passive viewer of it. In another context, Eva Hoffman coined the term “significance envy,” which I think is appropriate here. Are some of us guilty of significance envy in our fetishization of crime? Perhaps, in light of these ideas, watching shows like The Wire is a sort of research, then – a mastering of the trauma that one hasn’t experienced but nevertheless feels exposed to.

As I was listening to John Comaroff’s lecture, I began composing a hopelessly incomplete list of TV shows that deal with solving crime in one way or another. The fact that I could so quickly put this together speaks to the points above. Feel free to add the many, many shows that I have no doubt forgotten in the comments:

Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order, Law and Order: Los Angeles, Law and Order: Trial by Jury, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Wire, Alias, Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, Detroit 187, The Shield, Southland, The First 48, Dateline, 48 Hours Mystery, America’s Most Wanted, Cops, Medium, Monk, Psych, 24, Bones, Dexter, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, The X-Files, Homicide: Life on the Streets, etc, etc.

Rachel Frankel

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Witchcraft, the Exceptional, and the Ordinary

Pieter Geschiere presenting at JWTC 2011

In his presentation, Peter Geschiere attempted to describe the sudden resurgence in anthropological interest in witchcraft in Africa since the mid-1990s. Since 1994, he suggested, hardly any book has been written on Africa that has not discussed witchcraft in some way. Thus, he argues, we must stand back and ask what exactly anthropologists are doing with this concept these days, and why the term has become so loaded with significance.

The most striking element of what we could call the ‘New Witchcraft Studies’ is, in Geschiere’s estimation, the looseness of the central concept of ‘witchcraft.’ He sees this fluidity as coincidental with the larger ‘post-modernist tide’ in anthropology, and with an increasing emphasis on more discursive modes of understanding and documenting social forms. The looseness/fluidity of the concept, he suggests, is both its central element and the most difficult challenge in studying the notion of ‘witchcraft’: “The diffuseness of the discourse seems to be the secret of its resilience.”

Geschiere began his presentation by drawing out what to him was one of the most intriguing themes of the workshop: the poetic entanglement of the everyday and the exceptional, the line between normalcy and the exception. How do people, he asked, live with a crisis that seems to carry on indefinitely. What about when the rupture carries on, rather than constituting a final moment, a break? Doesn’t this inherently undo the notion of the crisis? What does it mean when crisis becomes the permanent state, when the exceptional becomes the everyday? Can we live continually in a state of rupture?

Anthropologists have tended to approach witchcraft as part of the ‘extraordinary,’ a moment of crisis, but, Geschiere suggests, witchcraft is for many people, like the crisis, “very much a part of everyday life.” As one of his colleagues in Cameroon stated, “Il faut vivre avec son sorcier.” So the challenge for us, Geschiere suggests, is to understand witchcraft as quotidian. How does it change our perspective to see it as part of everyday life, of all social relations? Such a view of witchcraft might qualify also what is written on the notion of crisis in Africa. The crisis, like witchcraft, is often understood as pure panic, but in fact people still manage to go one with their everyday life.

When he began his fieldwork in the 1970s, Geschiere noted, he had come to Cameroon to study politics, and had explicitly intended to stay away from the ‘anthropological hobby horses’ of witchcraft and kinship. People, however, kept talking about power and politics as being centrally about witchcraft, and eventually he realized that he must address the subject. In my own more recent research, I experienced a similar process. I came to my research area aiming to look at the operations of global policies and programmes in the local realm, but instead found myself studying the intricacies of social relations based around notions of kinship, of intimacy and trust. Similarly, in account of patterns of care within families, notions of the occult played an underlying role in people’s explanations of social processes.

Geschiere’s argument, following on the presentation by Wendy Brown on religion, politics, and the secular, prompted me to think about the old structural-functionalist divisions within anthropology, which attempted to bound spaces of political life, religion, economy, and family. These divisions have long between refuted. Anthropologists today acknowledge the impossibility of bounding life into such discrete spheres. Similarly, it seems impossible to bound something called “witchcraft” as separate from broader questions of intimacy and trust.

For Geschiere, the central element in the understanding of witchcraft as part of the quotidian is the link between witchcraft and the intimate—an attack from close by, the ‘dark side of kinship’—which thereby also raises the problem of trust. By exploring the link between witchcraft and intimacy, Geschiere is able to problematize some anthropologists’ equation of home, community, trust and reciprocity. Sahlins’ classical model of ‘concentric circles’ suggested that intimacy was equated with reciprocity and with trust. A similar assertion has been taken up within neoliberal development projects, which often appeal to notions of kinship and ‘community’ to justify their programs. This reductive notion obscures the ways in which intimacy is tied not only to trust, but to suspicion, doubt, and jealousy. It is important nonetheless, Geschiere suggests, to see the link between witchcraft an intimacy as precarious and fluid link. The link between witchcraft and kinship is ever more contested as people move further and further from family spaces.

Centrally, witchcraft can be understood as part of a larger ordering of the social world. Rather than a sign of the exceptional, it can be read as a mode of understanding and diagnosing social relations and structures of power. Witchcraft is also, as the brief film clip from Cameroon showed us, one of the few languages in which power structures can be inverted, in which a younger person can attack an older person.

In this sense, witchcraft can be also be understood as a sign of a general disruption in the social order, as folded into larger processes of violence and the decline of the family. In his 2005 book, Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy, Adam Ashforth suggests we think more broadly about a concern with ‘spiritual insecurity,’ which he links explicitly to other forms of social insecurity—violence, poverty, inequality. Though one can take issue with the boundaries of such notions as the ‘spiritual,’ the ‘occult,’ witchcraft, it seems that the key is to more broadly about the dangers associated with forms of intimacy—violence, disease, dispossession—in what we might call the ‘neoliberal’ moment, and with witchcraft as a signifier of these dangers. In this way, we are also able to begin to “desenclaver l’Afrique,” as Mbembe calls it, to show that notions such as ‘witchcraft’ are not unique to Africa, but are rather signs of more general complexities in processes of intimacy, jealousy, and alienation in the face of what Geschiere describes as the “capriciousness of new inequalities and the vagaries of the world market.”

Lindsey Reynolds, Johns Hopkins University