A Thought on Erica Garner’s Passing

From 30 December 2017

A small thought on Erica Garner.

I was thinking today about the long, searching conversations I had with my Baldwin seminar last spring while we were reading his last great work Evidence of Things Not Seen. Baldwin in that book was able to make the lives of black Atlanta and the lives of murdered children speak, come alive, and communicate their individual and communal despair, as well as the link between that suffering and the long arc of African-American history. Read more

Derek Walcott, In Memory

Rest in peace, Derek Walcott.

A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he needs no new recognition. He was as great a poet as one can imagine. His non-fiction is fantastic. In a post-Fanon, post-Césaire world, he refashioned the meaning of the Caribbean for more than one generation of intellectuals. That is the world. For me, right here, there was no greater influence on my work in Africana studies. Read more

Five Thoughts on I Am Not Your Negro

A first handful of thoughts on I Am Not Your Negro, which is a film worth thinking about in a couple of different ways. First, as a film about race and American life. Second, as a film about James Baldwin. Those both are and are not the same thing in Peck’s film, I think. These are first impressions, but I wanted to write them down. I think Peck’s film is worth returning to and exploring. He’s a brilliant artist, and this is a work of art, which means it demands a lot of thoughtfulness.

I usually hesitate to write out first impressions. And yet, here are five: Read more

Do widzenia, Zygmunt Bauman

Rest in peace, Zygmunt Bauman.

In my waning days as a teacher of things European, I started regularly teaching a course on death. First, I taught it as an elective at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, then, second, I taught it as a first-year seminar at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. The course really had Heidegger’s meditations on death as a centerpiece – to me, some of the most profound stuff in twentieth century philosophy – and we used that to frame all sorts of stuff, whether readings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky stories or an interpretation of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Read more

On the National Museum of African American History and Culture

It was a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, but my family and I managed to get tickets to the opening day of the National Museum of African American Culture and History on Saturday, September 24th. The museum is here forever, so the first day is just an especially festive day. And that it was. There were thousands of people gathered out front to witness the opening, in line to go inside according to timed entry, and inside across the five distinct floors of works reflecting on and presenting the African American experience. Read more

Words for Violence

I ran into three of my students while walking across the quad this afternoon. We stopped to talk. I planned to wave and nod, but they wanted to talk. All three are African-American.
 
They wanted to talk – or sound off, as much as anything – about “yet another” murder of an unarmed Black person who’d done nothing wrong. The question was what you’d expect: what are we supposed to do? Could have been asking anyone, really, but it was them asking me. I don’t know. It’s not like we grown ups are hoarding the obvious answer.
 
But while the truth is that I have no words, no words that measure up to the terrifying losses in each of these cases, and these murders are so catastrophically awful and just repeat and repeat, I also think no words isn’t always (if ever) the right response to have in these moments – especially as a white person.
 
Questions are words. I asked a question. Then more. I trusted that we know one another well enough to have questions, for them to know I wanted their inner selves, not my theories of or guesses at what they are feeling and thinking. I wanted them, not my presumptions.
 
They told me things worth putting here.
 
They are scared for their own lives and the lives of friends and family, no matter where they live.
 
They are enraged and it is slowly eating away at their love for life and being wherever (and whomever) they are.
 
They are frustrated that their white friends are completely oblivious to these realities.
 
They are frustrated that it seems special or amazing whenever a white person says even just one thing.
 
The obliviousness feeds senses of isolation.
 
The white silence feeds suspicion that, for all the partying and conversation and camaraderie on campus and in the dorm, their specifically Black lives don’t matter.
 
They don’t want to be seen as just humans because their fear and sadness and rage and anxiety is coming from being Black, not from being seen as human.
 
They want killing with impunity to stop.
 
In the meantime, they want to be seen and heard.
 
Being seen and heard is important because being oblivious is a form of “passive gaslighting” – making them doubt that they are living in reality. (That was a student’s phrase.)
 
And they don’t want to feel like being seen is a huge burden for white friends, but instead want it to feel like that’s just getting to know each other.
 
They also want white students to take Black Studies courses. And they were serious about that. “Our lives hang in the balance but these motherfuckers are taking another class about more dead white guys.”
 
It was amazing to hear them say it straight out: we could breathe better if everyone wasn’t always doubting our experience and explaining away our fears.
 
I have no words except please stop, how is this possible. Those are my words. I am passing along these words from my students today, though, because when they said it all to me, their words became words I now have. Not all words for something need to be my own. And they spoke truthfully. They said to share (I asked).
 
I hope white friends hear that truthfulness in this small report in my tiny corner of the world of social media.
A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTSH3XR
A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSH3XR

Unity and the Police

I don’t really consume any television news sources, so the tv at the gym has been a revelation. In the worst sense.

Of course, as you might guess, most of it was a combination of endless heartbreak pieces about the dead police officers in Dallas and commentaries meant to focus and direct our response. I mean, it was flat out endless repetition of their faces and names and exhortations to be sad (in very specific ways) about it all. The Sterling and Castile stories, from the same moment, were predictably always about “the investigation,” something that was posited as an ongoing something, but we never knew (or know) what’s actually going on, what’s the process, who is involved, to what end, what are the source materials, what do they expect or hope to find, and so on. The victims themselves in those two cases? Well, there’s no exhortation to remember and mourn. They, by which I mean their deaths, are overwhelmed by “the investigation.”

There’s nothing surprising about this. I’m observing nothing but the expected and the common. It’s a standard, old as I can remember, combination of media racism and worship of the militarized state – even as that militarization takes on new forms and targets us. It’s all part of our learning to love the repressive state apparatus. By “our,” I here mean mostly white people, for whom fearing the repressive state apparatus is not the first go-to, but instead a last resort, something worked out on the bodies of protesters here and there. The whole pitch for white people begins with love for the repressive state apparatus, renewing it if we’ve felt it slip, and nothing brings people and apparatuses closer than death inside that apparatus (the slain officer, the personal story of the Army soldier, the special forces op that resulted in a sad death, American Snipers all of them). That’s a really important aesthetic feature of media politics in this kind of moment. Love, then learn to love again when you fall from passion.

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But what kept coming back on the news screen, surely predictably, in every interview or panel, was this whole “we must unite” thing. In a certain sense, that originates in the fear of a rebelling populace, which changes the fear-first approach to asserting the repressive state apparatus in Black and brown communities and replaces, or at least appears to replace, fear with a certain kind of love. With friendship. With fraternity. Racialized all the way down, at one level (we all know that polite interactions with the police won’t blanket save Black lives), but also coded as proper citizens, which have always been racialized citizens, the first citizens, white Americans.

It’s interesting enough that this love, friendship, and fraternity – the variations I can see in this “unity” talk – is a sick, twisted demand to love your abuser. And the crooked belief that somehow this can work, if in fact that’s what’s behind the whole thing. I think this repetitive exhortation, worked to perfection on CNN yesterday morning, functions differentially, to rally white viewers around the love they’ve already come to have (or come to think they should have) for the repressive state apparatus, which in turn marks the dissenter – the protester, the Black person – as an outsider because of their own moral failure to mobilize as mourners. It helps, too, when we see the spectacle of citizens lining up to “hug a Dallas cop,” as we did yesterday (11 July) in viral videos. That multi-racial citizenry hugged their way, symbolically (and perhaps materially), into the repressive state apparatus fan club. The fan club is for citizens, whether that reassures your citizenship or bestows it for the first time (the distinction might not even work here; perhaps every repetition is a first time). For everyone initiated, the non-initiates look all the more outside, problematic, disposable, frightening, foreign, and therefore more readily available for abuse. Why didn’t you hug an officer today?

Just to underscore it: this “belonging” is nothing more than participation in rituals of submission to the police. Because the police are everywhere, this is a crucial initiation that repeats itself on the screen. Are you sufficiently sad about the killing of these officers? Are you sufficiently rallied to the side of the police as an institution and symbol? It’s like a test on the screen as Don Lemon moves from guest to guest, with the occasional dissenter (bless them, they do crazy hard work) getting shouted at and shamed for not articulating belonging properly. I watched Alicia Garza speak and insist and argue and hold her ground, and all I could think was, damn, that is some will and courage.

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All of this is to say a little bit of something about the viral photo of Ieshia Evans at a Baton Rouge protest (by Jonathan Bachman, with Reuters), confronting the fully militarized police with nothing more than her presence. Nothing more than her presence. That means so much to me, this “nothing more,” not because it makes for a compelling contrast – thinking here of the iconic photo of hippies putting flowers in the gun barrels of police and National Guard troops – but because it is just a simple presence, woman in an everyday dress with her everyday posture, hair, glasses, stance, set to mark with undeniable clarity the people with whom we are relentlessly called to say “unity.” In our everyday clothes, like Evans, we are supposed to say unity with paramilitary forces. I think we have to be blunt about that. Why are we the ones called to unity? Who wants to live in that burning house, to evoke Baldwin’s famous imagery of a racist United States? Well, that’s the work of race as violence. Plenty of people.

I don’t think this is news to folks who think and work hard on race, racism, and the state. Nothing here is meant to be that. Rather, I’m just saying that we have, in ways I haven’t seen so clearly articulated, the terms of belonging set out in front of us without any trace of ambiguity. The cops aren’t smiling, middle-aged chiseled jaw men in friendly repose or laughing with children. They aren’t even that super sad guy from The Leftovers. That rhetorical thing is gone, at least in this moment. What’s left is a paramilitary unit, our unity aspiration, converging on a private home in Baton Rouge, LA to arrest and suppress protestors and protests. And then the call to unify with them. To see, not that they belong to us in a shared humanity (no, never that, not any longer), but that we, through our expressed love and dedication, can belong to them through rituals of submission and praise. Because we aren’t the same. I sit in this apartment in southern California, writing this in boxer shorts and a t-shirt; protesters in these clips wear a few more clothing items and hold their phones up; the paramilitary forces, which we habitually call “the police” still, carry machine guns, drive military vehicles, and wear all the gear of warfare.

And that’s what it means for us to imagine unity these days. An odd sense of democracy.

I wonder, too, to reach a bit with speculation, if this isn’t also a way of framing the “new Jim Crow.” Because it marks one form of belonging that the racial terror of the police ensures cannot belong, in any deep or abiding sense, to Black people. Racial terror means the repressive state apparatus means racial terror. You can’t love the apparatus on those terms. Instead, you endure or rebel, in each case expressing, arguably, aspects of the necropolitical order in which killing or sacrifice seem the only paths of resistance. While simultaneous with that is the exhortation to whites: belong through love, this is your unity. Behind the police. They stormtroop for you. Learn to love that.

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Police and Extra-Judicial Killing

I really have no idea what to say as another pair of high-profile killing make their way around our awareness. But I noticed something and here’s a note on that.

Every few rounds of social media response to awful violence seem to generate a twist on vocabulary. In my corner of the world, I keep seeing the phrase “extra-judicial killing” over the last couple of days. Like, I’m seeing it a lot a lot. Everywhere.

I find this to be a really interesting and important phrase. Technically or by strict definition, that’s exactly what these police murders of Black people are: killings by the state without the adjudication of guilt or innocence, killing outside the law without consequences for that killing. But rhetorically, for me anyway, the phrase “extra-judicial killing” is the way we used to characterize military and militaristic dictatorships in 1980s and 1990s Latin America, and in particular the paramilitary death squads that did the real work of terror and domination. Think of Pinochet’s goons throwing people out of helicopters or Fujimori’s paramilitary forces slaughtering people by the hundreds in the Andes, etc. It is awful and terrifying and shameful to be defined, as a country, by extra-judicial killing. Or so I would hope (history doesn’t really give reason for that hope. I get that).

This all goes to the heart of what and who this country is or has become. The state has been killing Black people since 1776. That’s not new. And we’ve always been a militaristic country, whether waging war on borders or borderlands or in conquest, or in other countries in wars big and small. But I think we have to start associating extra-judicial killing and its broader (lack of) meaning with the notion of a military dictatorship. Think about it: what support is there, nationally, for continued presence in Iraq or Afghanistan? Or support for intervention in Syria? Do any of us, except those who read targeted stuff about that part of the world, really even know the extent of our presence, expenditure, death toll, and so on? No, of course we don’t. Because that’s the point: the military works (and has been for a very long time, maybe since the beginning) completely autonomously, bearing little if any relationship to the democratic arm of the state.

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And who would ever question that autonomy? No one does.

The police operate with that autonomy, absolutely. Not unlike the paramilitary forces I associate with the phrase “extra-judicial killing.”

This autonomy operates with so little questioning (if any) from white people. It reminds me of the interviews in Patricio Guzmán’s ‘Chile, la memoria obstinada’ in which Chileans cheerfully remember and defend Pinochet’s reign of violence. I find my fellow white people defending this shit just as terrifying and terrifying in exactly the same way. What is wrong with you guys, my god?!

No significant elected official says anything about these police murders, except to send a prayer here and there, which is some deep fucking cynicism that we just accept as a society.

If the military operates without concern for public support to the tune of trillions of dollars, and the police kill with absolute impunity, then why would we say anything other than that the United States is a military dictatorship? The enigma is this, of course: we are a military dictatorship without a strongman figurehead, unless you think presidents are that (I don’t).

Anyway, if you know me, I’ve said this about military dictatorship stuff for a long time, so this is repeating myself. But seeing this phrase “extra-judicial killing” appear in my social media has been striking and its rhetorical sounding is really something worth thinking about. This is a question we have to take very seriously, whether or not we need to start thinking about the United States as a form of military dictatorship, with the police as an arm of that military and the one place where the citizenry feels the violence, intensity, and impunity of the power occupying the state of exception. This sort of characterization of our (or my, if you’re reading from outside the U.S.) country needs its own accounting, because it is outwardly imperial in new ways and inwardly murderous in ways consonant with origins in conquest and enslavement.

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I’m reminded of Nathan Huggins’ book Black Odyssey, which after many many pages of documentation of anti-Black violence at every level since the founding of the U.S., from law to everyday life, concludes with what we have to conclude: that the United States has always been a tyrannical state for African-Americans. This is a moment to maybe extend that characterization (while also a moment to sit with all these particularities, to know their names and to remember them, R.I.P everywhere), and to also ask questions about casual complicity by white Americans in the development of military authoritarianism inside and outside their own country. It’s wrong to see military dictatorships or authoritarian governments as formed at the expense of the people. Watch Guzmán’s film, or even just recall Nazi Germany, or watch this election season: “the people” have great passion for authoritarianism, especially when it comes to bear on old, enduring racial hatred. To kill brown people. It’s the plain. The excuses begin. The refusal to imagine the military wing of the state accountable begins. Or maybe better to say that “it all continues.” Choose your despairing characterization.

As much as anything, the publicity of these murders by the police and how they remain (rightly) in our view for so long, has me in a spiral that keeps saying “I just have no words.” So, these are words about police murders – not “about” in the sense of getting to the heart of it all (I have no words for that heart of the matter, just profound despair), but “about” in the sense of dancing around edges and borders of really singular, terrifying loss.

[featured image is from a tweet by @Nnedi, retweeted by @amplify285]

Abbas Kiarostami, Rest in Peace

Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami.

I remember when he had his moment in the U.S., when Taste of Cherry made its rounds. It’s nothing to say that it’s a fantastic bit of cinema. It just is. I remember thinking how much I loved his lingering without ponderous sense of shot and attention to landscape, how people moved through the frame so naturally and normally that it seemed less like a film, more like looking out of a window. That’s why “realism” gets attached to a lot of his stuff, I guess.

After seeing Taste of Cherry, I found what I could of his films in translation and tracked down the Earthquake Trilogy. All of them are fantastic, but I was especially taken in by what, in the version I first saw, was titled in translation And Life Goes On. Now, it goes by the presumably better translation Life, And Nothing More, but the title And Life Goes On is especially important to me as a thinker and scholar. In fact, the title and the film’s content changed the way I think about the world and my own commentary on it. And Life Goes On is about a filmmaker and son driving, talking, observing, and seeking out survivors of an earthquake in rural Iran. The title I first saw – And Life Goes On – tells the deeper story of the film, that it documents, as a quasi-documentary, the relationship between traumatic events and the obstinacy of life. The fact that an earthquake might destroy everything, but life goes on even after. That is, there is never not life.

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The film came to me as I’d finished my dissertation, revised it as a book, and was looking for a new project. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah had really deeply affected me. So, I was starting to think very hard on questions of trauma and memory (one of oh so many doing that in the late-90s) and I read around the Holocaust memory studies literature. Nearly every source was fixated on fixations on the past, and for good reason; traumatic pain fixes attention on the past that recurs as a wound, re-wounding in each turn. But I was also thinking a lot about the Americas, especially the afro-Caribbean and African-American intellectual traditions, both of which made a lot out of a traumatic past, but without a similar fixation on fixation on the past.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that difference. But I saw this Kiarostami film and it changed so much for me. It changed so much for me because it was insistent on the presence of the traumatic past – the entire film, in some sense, is a tour of ruins and remains – and also insistent on a peculiar and enigmatic temporality: the future as obstinate, not just a projection of a looping past. A particular scene struck me, one in which the director stops to ask directions, and the man turns to help. The man is carrying a toilet seat.

I remember watching the film alone and stopping it right there, pulling out my writing notebook, and free-writing a response to this mini-scene. I wish I still had that notebook, for the sake of remembering the moment, but the words I wrote out don’t matter now. In a very serious sense, what I had to write is what I’ve had to think ever since then: perhaps our most profound sense of human temporality lies in the obstinacy of the future, how it comes and goes just because life goes on. Not because we have transformative projections of another kind of life (though that is possible), but because the mundane of life – from the toilet seat to the wedding, both of which figure among Kiarostami’s documentation of the ruins – persists and insists. In-sists in the sense that our very being derives its subsistence from that mundane, not in opposition to the profound, but as a condition of it, a companion to it.

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I mentioned just this in closing an essay on subjectivity, loss, and the abyss from a collection on Levinas and Nietzsche, writing:

At this point, however, I’m drawn back to a pair of scenes from Abbas Kiarostami’s 1991 semi-documentary Life and Nothing More. In this film, the second in his Earthquake Trilogy, Kiarostami explores the aftereffects of a catastrophic earthquake in rural Iran. The lead character, a filmmaker, travels a devastated series of highways and side roads through equally devastated towns. In other words, it is a film about traumatic pain and its aftermath, in this case the traumatic pain of natural catastrophe. We might expect Kiarostami’s lead character to meet townspeople telling tales of the unspeakable experience of mass destruction. Indeed, the fixed, lingering shots that structure of the film suggest just such trauma. The trauma is there, without a doubt. But what is not there is the gravity of thought in response to such devastation. Rather, the filmmaker meets and talks first with a man carrying a toilet seat. Then an extended conversation with a young man who was just married in the ruins – quite literally on top of the rubble – of his community. What are we to make of Kiarostami’s witnesses to catastrophe? Are they inauthentically attuned to what has happened and how nothing can be the same afterward? Or do we theorists (of which Kiarostami may have been one) infuse such catastrophes with a gravity of thought that eclipses the mundanity of life when like not only does go on, but must go on? After all, the evacuation of one’s home and place does not mean one is also alleviated of the need to sit comfortably, in privacy, and, well, “to evacuate” oneself – or marry one’s beloved and begin the mundane domestic life the young male character embodies.

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What kind of space of conversation might this mundanity of life open when life goes on? How are we to register the gravity of thinking after the abyss in that mundanity? How, indeed, are we to begin accounting for a conversation between the one who clings to the toilet seat and the one who proclaims the Overman or the ethical? This is an important conversation, for both the mundanity and the gravity of thinking after disaster belong to the same community of those who have nothing. And both belong to beginning’s abyss.

Every now and then someone asks me what my work is all about. The temptation is to say something about traditions and debates and the like, but I always come back to that phrase. My work is about how life goes on. Thinking from very small places and how those places are the meaning of all big places and big visions, really.

And so when I think about what my own work is all about, I think back to Kiarostami and seeing Ad Life Goes On and how it changed my thinking. I was never going to become a specialist in Iranian film. But I drew everything from this Iranian filmmaker, whose vision lingers in the camera and on the small place of life we really too often forget when we wonder about life itself. There is always life and nothing more, because life goes on.

Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami. You leave everything for us to think. Thank you for that.

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