Death and American Spectacles, take three

by zunguzungu

In case you’re interested in what the Bush Doctrine actually is (instead of my argument for what it practically amounts to) you can go here for a fine discussion. A key quotation:

“Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot permit our enemies to strike first.”

The phrase “given the goals,” seems key to me (as is the fact that it specifically notes “rogue states” ahead of stateless terrorism), the idea being that our understanding of our enemies’ ontological essence (as enemies) makes unnecessary any soul searching over the question of whether they have yet incriminated themselves or whether there is the equivalent of probable cause. They are killable because of who and what they are–with their enemy status needing neither to be explained nor questioned–and the fact that they have not yet been killed is only a sign of our graceful mercy. To put it another way, this is not just a formation of identity for those who are being imagined as bare life; this is a project to re-make the United States’ identity in terms of its privileged position within just such violent transaction.

Along these lines, Abdul JonMohamed’s recent book places Richard Wright in dialogue with (and about) a social reality shaped by this kind of omnipresence of death, specifically, the American south where lynching was a normal part of the social contract. As Jeffrey Atteberry puts it in a review, “The central conceit of The Death-Bound-Subject is that with each successive work of fiction and autobiography Richard Wright excavates another layer in the psyche of a subject forged through a dialectic of death,” and this seems right to me; also right is Atteberry’s description of how (if only implicitly) he is alluding to John Locke’s “description of slavery as a coercive institution sketches the basic structural outlines for a ‘death contract’ theory of slavery that would rest upon the passive consent of the enslaved,” which is to say, how “death” becomes a socially structuring metaphor not against but with the (coerced) consent of the involved population.

I find that profound, and only partly because I’m more familiar with a Lockean discourse than the Heideggerian idiom JanMohamed uses for most of the book. There is much to say about that; part of the impetus for such a re-reading, I think, is the desire to neither ennoble the figure of the slave by presuming his or her ontological lack of agency (thereby absolving him and her of any responsibility for the society in which he or she lived), nor to admit the kind of agency to that slave figure (which the historical record shows) without acknowledging the imbrication of that social agency within the structures of oppression that we now find repugnant. In other words, internalized coercion is inseparable from agency, and again, I go back to my favorite Weber quote: “the enigma of a servitude to which one voluntarily consents, and which is integrated by the subject as a component of its personal will.” Identity is a transaction with authority, not a zero-sum struggle with it.

Another part of this is the desire to think about how the centrality of “frontier justice” to Southern society was experienced by those who were on the receiving end of it, and the ways which this social reality was the cloth out of which identity and agency were constructed (for good or ill), just as French fashion is the material through which Diouana (tragically) reaches towards self-actualization. Or, to steal from John’s post on David Foster Wallace talking about Kafka, the way our identities and agencies are formed by a vicious transaction with the violent forces that oppress us:

…it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get–the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

I feel a need to connect this already rambling and circumloquatious missive to Berman’s Baudelairian fascination with the flaneur who makes his home in the streets, but I’ll let it go at that. The point is that the world we all live in (however differently) is defined by the normalization of arbitrary violence, and the Bush doctrine’s collossal and Strangeloveian desire to stop worrying and love the bomb is more than a reflection of that reality, it’s an instrumentalization of it, an attempt to capitalize on their privileged status within it. This is why JonMohamed went from writing about African writers under colonialism to Richard Wright, why he uses Steve Biko as the interpretive key into an artistic oevre focused on the American South in the thirties and forties, and why this work is so closely linked to the big foreign policy issues of right now. And why, if it isn’t clear by now, I think “lynching” is the necessary metaphor we need to employ in thinking about what it means to inhabit a world still yet structured by America’s arbitrary violence. “The surge,” “shock and awe,” and everything our government has done from Grenada to Kosovo just testify to the extent to which America’s ego-image as lynch mob is still in the drivers seat.

As an academic who sometimes self-identifies as an “Americanist,” I’m interested in how our national identity gets formed out of this reality. As an American, I’m horrified by it. And as an American academic who sometimes self-identifies as an “Africanist,” I’m struck by how often (and how clearly) this reality gets articulated by people who don’t self-identify as American, and who are therefore able to see and say things about my country that I have studiously learned to be blind to. It makes me read Tutuola (with help from Keguro) with a different understanding about what that skull might signify, and how “death” becomes a means of subject formation.

But you don’t Tutuola (or Heidegegger) to make the connection between how “the West” is thinkable and the practical ways it exerts itself in the world. In Blake’s post from Sudan, we get it from the mouths of babes:

“So,” I said at length. “I hesitate to ask this question, but what is America famous for?”

“Killing people,” said one young lad sitting at the back, without hesitation.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this is a far more common and truthful understanding of what the United States is than most Americans are willing or able to imagine, and for every American idealism about racial harmony and universal human rights, there is the counter-reality of an internalized and self-legitimizing discourse about violence against the weak. My own time in TZ only added fuel to that fire, to my suspicion that what I have to struggle to make myself see, the spectacle I have learned to close my eyes to, is an open secret to billions of this globe’s inhabitants. And it makes me imbue this upcoming election with a symbolism that raises the stakes so far above and beyond their already frighteningly high level that it makes me wonder if the gods are just fucking with us. Seriously, are we living in a didactic morality play? Are we really presented with the choice between a person whose identity is defined by his time as a bomber in an American war of imperial aggression and a guy with a “Muslim” name who wears centuries of America’s violent racial oppression on his skin? Are you fucking serious?