This American Life: Moby Dick and Screwing with Africans

by zunguzungu

They’re making a movie about Moby Dick, apparently; a piece of literary art which theorizes the human from the act of killing an animal, it seems, will be transformed into “what at its core is an action-adventure revenge story.” I am fascinated.

A couple posts back, I was thinking about how finessing the distinction between animal and human helps us unlearn the distinction between people who have rights and those who do not, thereby reassuring ourselves that some forms of people are killable. Terrorists do not have rights when we think of them as flies, because flies are without rights. Criminals, too, are often taken to have reduced themselves to the level of mere animals, like the savages which gave the British something to do for centuries, and of whom they enjoyed saying “violence is the only language they understood.” Paging Dr. Caliban, please, the patient is cursing; is there a subaltern in the house?

But this–being a blog–is floating on a particular level of vague generality, and reality is experienced in specific terms. So let’s get specific. On Saturday, I was listening to This American Life and, as they often do, the good people at NPR managed to raise some interesting questions by letting interesting people talk about themselves and then set it to music. Specifically, in an episode called “Enforcers,” the segment I listened to focused on a group of self-appointed internet vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to rid the world of as many internet scammers as they can. These saviors of the republic (to be found at a website called, offer the following explanation for their practices:

“So what is scambaiting? Well, put simply, you enter into a dialogue with scammers, simply to waste their time and resources. Whilst you are doing this, you will be helping to keep the scammers away from real potential victims and screwing around with the minds of deserving thieves…Although this site concentrates mainly on the Nigerian 419 scam, we are happy to deal with other types of scams if and when the opportunity arises. We also have a large team of experts dedicated to the removal and closure of fake scammer banks and sites. Even if you are a newcomer, much fun can be had and at the same time you will be doing a public service.”

Important boxes are being ticked off in my head. Doing a public service by doing vigilante violence on deserving criminals? Check! A team of experts dedicated to destroying an African infrastructure? Check! The pleasure to be had from exerting power over an annoying source of otherness? Check! Transforming racism into a technology of the self? Check!

For example. Our friends decide to take action on Adamu, a particular “lad” they’ve “hooked,” allowing me to check the infantilization box and the African as big-game trophy box. But I’ll let them tell it in their own words:

“Prof So and So, YW and myself have been working on a lad donated by fellow baiter freddyfudpucker, who was too busy to deal with his lads due to school. Well, he had this lad well hooked. So, we decided it was time for him to be a man of the world. He needed to get a bit of traveling under his belt. I mean, there is nothing more fun than a vacation arranged by our church. So, after thumbing through TONS of brochures of beautiful places to visit around Africa, we decided that one of the best places to go would be Chad. After reading this article and talking to YW, I just fell in LOVE with the place. Now, some of you might be thinking that Chad is but a war torn, dangerous place to be. But trust me, it is more than that. It is a mostly Muslim country, which is great because our lad is an evangelical missionary! And, of course, when traveling to Chad he must wear the traditional missionary getup. All white of course. With a pink sash. Another reason why Chad is such a good destination is because it borders Sudan. Why do we like Sudan so much you ask? It cannot possibly be as beautiful as Chad, you say. Well, because it houses Darfur, which is well-known for its hospitality and peaceful nature. Obviously at some point, our missionary will have to make an emergency run to Darfur to do something. Coincidentally, that will be the day he arrives in Ndjamena.”

All of this is done. If you’re interested in the grim details of what this hapless Nigerian scammer goes through, you can listen to the episode in question here. It’s harrowing, if you find human suffering to be a harrowing thing, and even if you think his suffering was justifiable, even if you call it a thing he brought on himself, you have to admit this much: he was human and he suffered. And these fellows-Prof So and So, YW, and jojobean-really enjoyed doing their part in it.

I’m not trying to say that these guys are terrible people, actually; the point is (again, via Arendt) that evil things get done by people who are not themselves evil. And blaming them for that act, as if they themselves are the sole cause of that evil is to do what they did, to judge without trying to understand, which strikes me as (among other things) not very interesting. I’m struck, instead, by the ways they themselves seem to track their own progress over the line, the note of defensiveness that comes from, if not a guilty conscience, an active one. On the radio program, when they said things like “These guys are pure scum as far as I’m concerned…if they get killed, there’s two less scammers in the world” or noted that if they were killed, “I wouldn’t feel responsible; their greed led them there,” I find myself much more willing to relate to them as human beings, exactly because they protest too much. So the care they take to establish that their victim is fuckable-with illustrates how important such defensive maneuvers are: carefully first showing that the victim will knowingly steal money from eminantly good sources (money that will otherwise go to a daughter’s surgery, or for a church), they can thereby slot him into the “scum” box where he will be removed from the realm of human sympathy.

What interests me in all this is not that relegating Adamu to “scum” status translates into the total loss of any sense of shared humanity with him, such that it is okay to do anything to him. That’s the banal, everyday logic of criminal enforcement. What I find remarkable is the kind of joy they take in doing it. Concepts like “bare life” have to do with the juridical status of being kill-able, since the law does protect (or avenge) the forms of life (most animals, selected criminals, parts of the third world) which have been so classified, this peculiar joy illustrates the way some forms of life are, via this status, not only negatively stripped of legal recourse but positively imbued with a special kind of attraction as target. It is not merely okay to fuck with this guy, it is positively a joyous opportunity.

Why, pray tell, is that so? There is nothing inherently virtuous about eating a BBQ chicken sandwich, since the meat is not, as meat, the reason you eat it. You eat it because it tastes good, and you negatively strip away any possible attachment you might feel towards your meal by de-humanizing it. It’s not a human, it’s an animal. Yet to acquire a positive joy from eating that meat, precisely because of what it is, seems strangely different: instead of eating it despite its status as life, which has therefore to be neutralized, you eat it because of its status as a certain kind of life, which therefore has to be emphasized. This is what big game hunters do when they go to Africa, to shoot lions or elephants. And this is what big game photographers do when they go to Africa to shoot lions, elephant, or Maasai. This, too, is what these guys do when they take pictures of the scammers they’ve defeated and humiliated* (in ways that are transparently analyzable)

To pick a totally hypothetical example, it is not unlike a whale-ship captain who loses his leg to a sperm whale and then piles all his rage at the trauma (and all the trauma of life) onto the figure of that whale, making the destruction of that whale not merely a means to a different end, but a kind of end in and of itself. A use-value, in acquiring a new exchange value, produces an occult commodity somehow outside the moral economy it was originally implanted in, or perhaps a negative status–an animal as not-human–has simply become a positive one, the animal as anti-human or something. Maybe that’s why I want to eat just a BBQ chicken sandwich. Maybe that’s why we want to keep saying that Moby Dick is, at its core, just an adventure story. Maybe that’s why certain categories of people are, as such, persons you can bomb without penalty, and should. If it were something more than that, then maybe we would be too?

* In case my big-game head-hunting metaphor seems harsh, note this: the people at that site not only have a “trophy room” (from which all those pictures are taken) but they also list the names and statistics of the Africans they’ve bagged underneathe their signatures. As in “jojobean”‘s:

Christ Safari Ghana-Ndjamena, Chad
Miracle Safari Benin-Ndjamena, Chad
Adamu Safari Lagos-Abeche
Emi Safari– S Africa-Egypt-Sudan- 10k miles
Chris Safari Jolly Roger Dakar to: Niger, BF, Niger, Cameroon, Lagos, Nairobi, Lagos, Mali 9.6k miles
Kevin Pith Helmet 10 Safari Accra – Burkina Faso x2, Togo x2, Kumasi x3, Bolgatanga x1, Benin City x1, Tamale x2 Suitcase 5k miles Tattoo

Kenny Safari Safari Safari 3k miles- dont f*ck me up about the payment plz. i have a policy about that. I JUST GOT A SMALL GOAT TODAY AND ITS IN MY HOUSE NOW. i lobve the goat.

Misc Pith Helmet 20 Pith Helmet 5 Safari Safari Safari Germany-Holland, Atlanta, Beijing-ChangZhou, China, London-Glasgow, Niger-Benin-TIMBUKTU, Ben Safari Safari Safari 2.5k miles