Afro Pessimism Core



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Social Death Theory is Wrong



Their use of social death and absolute dereliction as epistemological frameworks is bankrupt and debilitating and doesn’t accurately describe black life


MOTEN Professor of Black Studies and Poetry @ Duke University 2k8 Fred; “The Case of Blackness”, Criticism, Volume 50, Number 2, Spring, Project Muse, Accessed: 11/5/11, OG)

So I'm interested in how the ones who inhabit the nearness and distance between Dasein and things (which is off to the side of what lies between subjects and objects), the ones who are attained or accumulated unto death even as they are always escaping the Hegelian positioning of the bondsman, are perhaps best understood as the extra-ontological, extra-political constant—a destructive, healing agent; a stolen, transplanted organ always eliciting rejection; a salve whose soothing lies in the abrasive penetration of the merely typical; an ensemble always operating in excess of that ancient juridical formulation of the thing (Ding), to which Kant subscribes, as that to which nothing can be imputed, the impure, degraded, manufactured (in) [End Page 186] human who moves only in response to inclination, whose reflexes lose the name of action. At the same time, this dangerous supplement, as the fact out of which everything else emerges, is constitutive. It seems to me that this special ontic-ontological fugitivity of/in the slave is what is revealed as the necessarily unaccounted for in Fanon. So that in contradistinction to Fanon's protest, the problem of the inadequacy of any ontology to blackness, to that mode of being for which escape or apposition and not the objectifying encounter with otherness is the prime modality, must be understood in its relation to the inadequacy of calculation to being in general. Moreover, the brutal history of criminalization in public policy, and at the intersection of biological, psychological, and sociological discourse, ought not obscure the already existing ontic-ontological criminality of/as blackness. Rather, blackness needs to be understood as operating at the nexus of the social and the ontological, the historical and the essential. Indeed, as the ontological is moving within the corrosive increase that the ontic instantiates, it must be understood that what is now meant by ontological requires special elucidation. What is inadequate to blackness is already given ontologies. The lived experienced of blackness is, among other things, a constant demand for an ontology of disorder, an ontology of dehiscence, a para-ontology whose comportment will have been (toward) the ontic or existential field of things and events. That ontology will have had to have operated as a general critique of calculation even as it gathers diaspora as an open set—or as an openness disruptive of the very idea of set—of accumulative and unaccumulable differences, differings, departures without origin, leavings that continually defy the natal occasion in general even as they constantly bespeak the previous. This is a Nathaniel Mackey formulation whose full implications will have never been fully explorable.12 What Fanon's pathontological refusal of blackness leaves unclaimed is an irremediable homelessness common to the colonized, the enslaved, and the enclosed. This is to say that what is claimed in the name of blackness is an undercommon disorder that has always been there, that is retrospectively and retroactively located there, that is embraced by the ones who stay there while living somewhere else. Some folks relish being a problem. As Amiri Baraka and Nikhil Pal Singh (almost) say, "Black(ness) is a country" (and a sex) (that is not one).13 Stolen life disorders positive value just as surely as it is not equivalent to social death or absolute dereliction.

The fact is that social death cannot explain the nuances of slavery specifically or black life in general

BROWN PROF OF history & African American Studies 2k9 (Vincent, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” http://history.fas.harvard.edu/people/faculty/documents/brown-socialdeath.pdf)

But this was not the emphasis of Patterson’s argument. As a result, those he has inspired have often conflated his exposition of slaveholding ideology with a description of the actual condition of the enslaved. Seen as a state of being, the concept of social death is ultimately out of place in the political history of slavery. If studies of slavery would account for the outlooks and maneuvers of the enslaved as an important part of that history, scholars would do better to keep in view the struggle against alienation rather than alienation itself. To see social death as a productive peril entails a subtle but significant shift in perspective, from seeing slavery as a condition to viewing enslavement as a predicament, in which enslaved Africans and their descendants never ceased to pursue a politics of belonging, mourning, accounting, and regeneration. In part, the usefulness of social death as a concept depends on what scholars of slavery seek to explain—black pathology or black politics, resistance or attempts to remake social life? For too long, debates about whether there were black families took precedence over discussions of how such families were formed; disputes about whether African culture had “survived” in the Americas overwhelmed discussions of how particular practices mediated slaves’ attempts to survive; and scholars felt compelled to prioritize the documentation of resistance over the examination of political strife in its myriad forms. But of course, because slaves’ social and political life grew directly out of the violence and dislocation of Atlantic slavery, these are false choices. And we may not even have to choose between tragic and romantic modes of storytelling, for history tinged with romance may offer the truest acknowledgment of the tragedy confronted by the enslaved: it took heroic effort for them to make social lives. There is romance, too, in the tragic fact that although scholars may never be able to give a satisfactory account of the human experience in slavery, they nevertheless continue to try. If scholars were to emphasize the efforts of the enslaved more than the condition of slavery, we might at least tell richer stories about how the endeavors of the weakest and most abject have at times reshaped the world. The history of their social and political lives lies between resistance and oblivion, not in the nature of their condition but in their continuous struggles to remake it. Those struggles are slavery’s bequest to us.



People who are socially dead find not value in revolution

  • The very presence of a radical disposition in slave communities shows that the very idea of social death is false

BROWN PROF OF history & African American Studies 2k9 (Vincent, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” http://history.fas.harvard.edu/people/faculty/documents/brown-socialdeath.pdf)

African American history has grown from the kinds of people’s histories that emphasize a progressive struggle toward an ultimate victory over the tyranny of the powerful. Consequently, studies that privilege the perspectives of the enslaved depend in some measure on the chronicling of heroic achievement, and historians of slave culture and resistance have recently been accused of romanticizing their subject of study.42 Because these scholars have done so much to enhance our understanding of slave life beyond what was imaginable a scant few generations ago, the allegation may seem unfair. Nevertheless, some of the criticisms are helpful. As the historian Walter Johnson has argued, studies of slavery conducted within the terms of social history have often taken “agency,” or the self-willed activity of choice-making subjects, to be their starting point.43 Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that many historians would find themselves charged with depicting slave communities and cultures that were so resistant and so vibrant that the social relations of slavery must not have done much damage at all. Even if this particular accusation is a form of caricature, it contains an important insight, that the agency of the weak and the power of the strong have too often been viewed as simple opposites. The anthropologist David Scott is probably correct to suggest that for most scholars, the power of slaveholders and the damage wrought by slavery have been “pictured principally as a negative or limiting force” that “restricted, blocked, paralyzed, or deformed the transformative agency of the slave.”44 In this sense, scholars who have emphasized slavery’s corrosive power and those who stress resistance and resilience share the same assumption. However, the violent domination of slavery generated political action; it was not antithetical to it. If one sees power as productive and the fear of social death not as incapacity but as a generative force—a peril that motivated enslaved activity— a different image of slavery slides into view, one in which the object of slave politics is not simply the power of slaveholders, but the very terms and conditions of social existence.

From the ships to the shores black bodies maintained aspects of their cultural practice and identities aboard slave ships and through other methods of cultural retentions in the “new world” this reality disproves the idea of a social death



BROWN PROF OF history & African American Studies 2k9 (Vincent, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” http://history.fas.harvard.edu/people/faculty/documents/brown-socialdeath.pdf)

In fact, the funeral was an attempt to withstand the encroachment of oblivion and to make social meaning from the threat of anomie. As a final rite of passage and a ritual goodbye, the ceremony provided an outlet for anguish and an opportunity for commiseration. Yet it also allowed the women to publicly contemplate what it meant to be alive and enslaved. The death rite thus enabled them to express and enact their social values, to articulate their visions of what it was that bound them together, made individuals among them unique, and separated this group of people from others. The scene thus typifies the way that people who have been pronounced socially dead, that is, utterly alienated and with no social ties recognized as legitimate or binding, have often made a social world out of death itself. The funeral was an act of accounting, of reckoning, and therefore one among the multitude of acts that made up the political history of Atlantic slavery. This was politics conceived not as a conventional battle between partisans, but as a struggle to define a social being that connected the past and present. It could even be said that the event exemplified a politics of history, which connects the politics of the enslaved to the politics of their descendants. Although the deaths of slaves could inspire such active and dynamic practices of social reconnection, scholars in recent years have made too little of events like the funeral aboard the Hudibras and have too often followed Orlando Patterson’s monumental Slavery and Social Death (1982) in positing a metaphorical “social death” as the basic condition of slavery. In a comparative study of sixty-six slaveholding societies ranging from ancient Greece and Rome to medieval Europe, precolonial Africa, and Asia, Patterson combined statistical analysis and voluminous research with brilliant theoretical insights drawn from Marxian theory, symbolic anthropology, law, philosophy, and literature in order to offer what he called a “preliminary definition of slavery on the level of personal relations.” Recognizing violence, violations of personhood, dishonor, and namelessness as the fundamental constituent elements of slavery, Patterson distilled a transhistorical characterization of slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” In this way the institution of slavery was and is a “relation of domination,” in which slaveholders annihilated people socially by first extracting them from meaningful relationships that defined personal status and belonging, communal memory, and collective aspiration and then incorporating these socially dead persons into the masters’ world. As a work of historical sociology concerned primarily with the comparative analysis of institutions, the book illuminated the dynamics of a process whereby the “desocialized new slave” was subsumed within slave society.5
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