Tag Archives: language

Wendell Berry on Racism: The Hidden Wound

Wendell Berry The Hidden WoundIn 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.

It opens with a frank admission:

I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)

This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.

Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):

The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)

Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)

I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.

Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.

Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)

Later he writes:

The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)

This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:

I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)

This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.

From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)

The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)

He also writes:

Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)

And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:

It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)

This not least because

Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)

Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that

…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)

It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.

For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)

It involves recognising the humanity of all.

As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)

There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:

There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)

[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]











Poverty, Quesadillas & Alien Interventions: Juan Pablo Villalobos

Juan Pable Villalobos I loved Si viviéremos en un lugar normal
by Juan Pablo Villalobos, enjoyed again the way that fiction can open up experience of home, patria, poverty, frustration, entrapment, and the inflationary economy in ways that non-fiction cannot. This post tells you a very little of the plot but does kind of involve a spoiler, so be warned.

En los anos ochenta en Lagos de Moreno, un pueblo donde hay mas vacas que personas y mas curas que vacas, una familia mas bien pobre intenta sobreponerse a los estramboticos peligros de vivir en Mexico.

On the amazon.co.uk page, this book is being sold as Quesadillas, rather than If Only We Lived in a Normal Place, and this description from the back is translated as:

It’s the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno – a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows – and a poor family is struggling to get by.

Struggling to get by, yes without doubt, but this translation misses the vital point. I’d say rather ‘trying to overcome the absurd dangers of life in Mexico.’ Possibly bizarre rather than absurd. The rest of the translations are my own and done in a little too much haste, and all faults are mine.

This is, above all, a book about absurdity — of poverty, of politics, of life. The sense of absurdity that emerges from the anger that emerges from this poverty. That gut feeling that it doesn’t make sense pushed to its absurd liberatory conclusions that therefore other absurdities are equally likely to exist. The black humour that resonates so strongly with my favourite approach towards getting through the injustices of life. It is the same kind of humour found in The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, describing the absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. I adore the fact that both involve alien interventions from outer space (or do they?) because why not? (I mean honestly, why not?) What is stranger than reality, if not the way everyone ignores the injustices of its strangeness?

I can see, though, why they called the English version Quesadillas — delicious morsels of cheese melted inside a tortilla. For me, this use of quesadillas to explain the experience of the Mexican economy in the 80s is almost nostalgic, because here in the UK they remain a treasured memory as any semblance of the cheese required to make them does not exist here. But my own longings are beside the point.

Entramos en una fase de racionamiento de quesadillas que terminó por radicalizar las posturas políticas de todos los miembros de la familia. Nosotros concíamos muy bien la montaña rusa de la economía nacional a partir del grosor de las quesadillas que nos servía mi madre en casa. Incluso habíamos creado categorías: quesadillas inflacionarias, quesadilla normales, quesadillas devaluación y quesadillas de pobre — citadas en orden de mayor opulencia a mayor mezquindad. Las quesadillas inflacionarias eran gordas para evitar que se pudriera el queso que mi madre había comprado en estado de pánico, ante el anuncio de una nueva subida en los precios de los alimentos y el peligro tangible de que la cuenta del súper pasara de los billones a los trillones de pesos. Las quesadillas normales eran las que comeríamos todos los días si viviéramos en un país normal, pero si fuéramos un país normal no comeríamos quesadillas, por lo cual también las llamábamos quesadillas imposibles. Las quesadillas devaluación perdían sustancia por razones psicológicas, más que económicas, eran las quesadillas de la depresión crónica nacional — y eran las más comunes en casa de mis padres. Finalmente teníamos las quesadillas de pobre, en las que la presencia del queso era literaria: abrías la tortilla y en lugar del queso derretido mi madre había escrito la palabra queso en la superficie de la tortilla. Lo que no habíamos conocido todavía era el chantaje del desabastecimiento quesadillesco. (17-18)

In English:

We entered into a phase of rationing quesadillas that ended by radicalizing the political postures of every member of our family. We knew all too well the roller coaster of our national economy through the thickness of the quesadillas that our mother served to us at home. We had even created categories: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and the quesadillas of the poor — named in order from greatest opulence to greatest meanness. The inflationary quesadillas were fat to prevent the great amount of cheese from going bad that my mother had bought in a panic, confronting the announcement of another hike in the price of food and the tangible danger that the supermarket bill might go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were those we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country, but if we had lived in a normal country we wouldn’t be eating quesadillas at all, which is why we also called them impossible quesadillas.  The devaluation quesadillas lost substance for psychological reasons, more than economic ones, they were the quesadillas of a chronic national depression — and they were the most common in the house of my parents. Finally, we had the quesadillas of the poor, in which the presence of cheese was only literary: you opened the tortilla and in the place of melted cheese my mother had written the word cheese on the tortilla’s surface. What we still hadn’t yet come to know was the blackmail of the cheese shortage.

Amazing. That encapsulates much of the humour, the next sentence captures how it hits a little below the belt, and makes it hurt:

A mi hermano no le gustaba ser pobre, pero la pobreza de los peregrinos circundantes no modificaba la nuestra, si acaso nos dejaba clasificados como los menos pobres de ese grupo de pobres, lo cual lo único que demostraba era que siempre se podía ser más y más pobre: ser pobre era un pozo sin fondo. (78)

In English:

My brother hated being poor, but the poverty of the surrounding pilgrims didn’t change our own, even if did allow us to classify ourselves as the least poor among this group of poor people, that only demonstrated that it was always possible to be ever more poor: being poor was a well without bottom.

A well without bottom — that’s what it is, isn’t it. And always you are afraid you have further to fall.

Two brothers are already embarked on picaresque adventures here — in search of their two younger brothers who have disappeared (meaning more quesadillas are available for everyone else). Their adventure involves a fight and a split — they lasted longer than I probably would have with any of my brothers, however. Orestes refuses to believe the story of his older brother that they have been abducted by aliens, (Orestes is our hero, they are all names after Greek figures — Aristóteles, Orestes, Arquíloco, Calímaco, Electra, Cástor y Pólux) and he continues on to the city, works out a con involving a machine with a red button, survives, returns. The unfinished shoebox of a house that he hates stands in the way of the development of a rich neighborhood, and they are evicted brutally, watch it torn down in front of them. It is all managed by their wealthy neighbour who also works inseminating cows — Orestes once went to play there with the son, eat their wealthy food, experience their wealth of possessions, and disdain. At one point he has to apologise to them, work for them, and oh, I burned with him. All these feelings. So familiar. There is, too, that feeling that things just happen to you and you have to react, the adrift feeling of circumstances pushing you here and there because you are not someone with the power or money to stand still, make your own fate.

And then:

Aparece una gigantesca nave interplanetaria…

— No puede ser verdad…

¿Y por qué no?

¿Por qué no, papá?

¿Acaso no viviámos en el país en que vivíamos? ¿No se suponía que nos pasaban cosas fantásticas y maravillosas todo el tiempo? ¿No hablábanos con los muertos ¿No decía todo el mundo que éramos un país surrealista? (180-181)

In English:

A giant interplanetary ship appeared…

— It can’t be true…

And why not?

Why not, papa?

Maybe we don’t live in the country in which we live? Didn’t we all know that fantastic and marvelous things happened to us all the time? Did we not speak with the dead? Did we not tell the whole world that we we were a surrealist country?

All the rules are off, and with clicks of the red button on Orestes’ little machine, the house of their dreams is built there in the field, reality constructed in ways that the poor are never able to construct their own realities:

al final, in the end:

Ésta es nuestra casa
Ésta es mi casa
Ahora intenta tirarla (186)

These are the fighting words, now there is something worth defending and everything is different.

This is our house
This is my house
Now just try and tear it down.

Just try.

But, as always, the victory is terribly fragile.










Navajo Nation to Aztec Ruins, New Mexico

Before leaving Tuba City, we went to the museum right next to our hotel, one of my favourite stops on this trip.

Navajo Interactive Museum

The Navajo Interactive Museum shares some of the Navajo’s own history. It is the first place I have ever been that does not try to whitewash the history of conquest. It does not shy away from how people were killed, enslaved. It tells of the forced march, relocation, return. The immense loss. Grief. It shows how much has been saved, how custom and belief are not things of the past but of the present. It shared versions of the creation. Methods of weaving, the sheep that are the sources of wool. The building of hogans and some of their spiritual meanings. It is divided by the four directions, reclaims history for its own people, and offers it as a gift to us.

From one of the signs:

Indigenous languages are holistic, fluently expressing intrinsic human relationships with everything. Navajos believe that their language is a spiritual gift from the Holy People, for it connects them directly to the entire universe. It is a language of webs and motion, relationships and process, not of nouns and objectivity.

I have been thinking so much about language and patterns of thought, the limitations of science and how perhaps it is built into the English language itself. Spanish too, but just knowing two languages helps you understand language’s limits. There is still so much I cannot express, I wish that I had been honored to speak such an indigenous language. It is not hard to see why conquerors would work so hard to destroy language, it is so intertwined with culture, with worldview. It is always a place of strength and resistance.

Next door was a small museum in honour of the Navajo code talkers, the men who joined the US army and used their language to keep our transmissions from the Japanese. The whole text of the ‘Navajo Code Talkers Act‘ was on the wall, and it surprised me. I have put in bold the things I never though the U.S. government would say out loud, and we circle around language…

(1) On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared by Congress the following day.

(2) The military code, developed by the United States for transmitting messages, had been deciphered by the Japanese and a search by United States military intelligence was made to develop new means to counter the enemy.

(3) The United States Government called upon the Navajo Nation to support the military effort by recruiting and enlisting 29 Navajo men to serve as Marine Corps radio operators; the number of enlistees later increased to over 350.

(4) At the time, the Navajos were second-class citizens, and they were a people who were discouraged from using their own language.

(5) The Navajo Marine Corps radio operators, who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers, were used to develop a code using their language to communicate military messages in the Pacific.

(6) To the enemy’s frustration, the code developed by these Native Americans proved to be unbreakable and was used extensively throughout the Pacific theater.

(7) The Navajo language, discouraged in the past, was instrumental in developing the most significant and successful military code of the time. At Iwo Jima alone, the Navajo Code Talkers passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period.

(A) So successful were they, that military commanders credited the code with saving the lives of countless American soldiers and the successful engagements of the United States in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa;

(B) So successful were they, that some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow marines whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy; and

(C) So successful were they, that the code was kept secret for 23 years after the end of World War II.

(8) Following the conclusion of World War II, the Department of Defense maintained the secrecy of the Navajo code until it was declassified in 1968; only then did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans emerge from history.

I am unsure what the U.S. government has done since then to grant full, respectful, honoured citizenship or to encourage the speaking of indigenous languages, but I suppose medals were something. It would take a few years before other tribes were honoured for similar roles, the Comache and Choctaw among them, in WWI as well as WWII.

navajo_code_talkers_617_488We drove and drove, Northeast, out of the red rocks towards New Mexico. We passed Black Mesa, and the Peabody Company’s coal mine — another reminder of exploitation, another form of resource extraction.


Peabody uses this pristine water supply simply to mix with crushed coal-called “slurry.” This “slurry” is then pumped through a pipeline over 275 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.

With every breath we take, 50 gallons of pristine ground water has just been pumped from the dry lands of northeastern Arizona. On Black Mesa, home to the Hopi and Navajo people, more than 300 gallons of potential drinking water has, in the last 10 seconds just been mixed with crushed coal. In the time it took to read these sentences Peabody Coal Company pumps over a thousand gallons of the cleanest groundwater in North America, simply to transport coal. Today, Peabody Coal pumps more than 3,600 acre-feet (equivalent to 4,600 football fields, one foot deep) per year of pristine water from the Navajo Aquifer.

You can find out more on the Southwest Research and Information Centre site. These beautiful lands are also be exploited for their uranium, in summary of the report on uranium mining on the Navajo Nation from Brugge and Goble:

From World War II until 1971, the government was the sole purchaser of uranium ore in the United States. Uranium mining occurred mostly in the southwestern United States and drew many Native Americans and others into work in the mines and mills. Despite a long and well-developed understanding, based on the European experience earlier in the century, that uranium mining led to high rates of lung cancer, few protections were provided for US miners before 1962 and their adoption after that time was slow and incomplete. The resulting high rates of illness among miners led in 1990 to passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

You can read and listen to more on Democracy Now’s program ‘A Slow Genocide of the People’.  Even now people gather to stand against another exploitation of the earth and threat of contamination for land and water — the North Dakota pipeline.

In North Dakota, indigenous activists are continuing to protest the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which they say would threaten to contaminate the Missouri River. More than a thousand indigenous activists from dozens of different tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, which was launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

I wish I could be there too. Instead I am here, writing. We drove onward. It looks pristine, but corporations are poisoning this land.

Road Trip Tuba City to Chama


Road Trip Tuba City to Chama

Road Trip Tuba City to Chama

A sea of crushed metal, old cars left here.

Road Trip Tuba City to Chama

Up to the ‘Aztec’ ruins. Midway between Chaco and Mesa Verde, this was an incredible Anasazi construction, planned and for the most part built within a very short time. Labelled Aztec because that’s all people apparently knew of indigenous cultures building in stone, too ignorant or racist to ask its real name. The National Park Service did try to give a ‘balanced’ history, but such radically different ways of seeing the world sit uneasily next to each other. There could be nothing too critical of the role archeology has played in the mythologizing of western expansions, nor of those expansions, nor the disrespect of native histories. A disrespect that stems from their attempted destruction. But it was good to hear native voices here, and the contrasting ways of seeing.

Aztec Ruins

This is a place that feels good, a place left to the ancestors before white men arrived, like Chaco, like Mesa Verde.

It’s construction is beautiful, full of details. The corner openings:

Aztec Ruins

T-shaped doors

Aztec Ruins

Stones rolled smooth from the river

Aztec Ruins

And other bands of decoration:

Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins

Once standing three stories high

Aztec Ruins

This wall traces exactly the path followed by the sun during the summer solstice

Aztec Ruins

It is a beautiful place. To see with eyes open and with eyes closed. The ground story of storage rooms still stand

Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins

They open into other rooms, a mat left behind is still here, hundreds of  years old.

Aztec Ruins

From archaeology we see the map of the whole. Almost all of it built between 1100 and 1130, which is amazing. Then slowly added to.


This map shows its symmetries, though it cannot explain their meaning.

Aztec Ruins

They have reconstructed the great kiva here, I am not sure about entering such a place of ceremony without ceremony. Without invitation. So I didn’t take pictures, but I did give thanks to be there. With mum. They are wonderful sacred spaces.

Aztec Ruins

Several of them, along with the large central one, are surrounded by smaller rooms. I have never seen this before.

Aztec Ruins

I didn’t love the small museum as much as the one in Tuba City, but the pottery was beautiful (so much here, as in the other NPS museums, on loan from far away. Pottery and artifacts taken away as property by the institutions who sponsored digs, I do not understand how they do not see this as a living place to which things still belong). Apart from the maps of the place itself, the trade routes were also wonderful:

Aztec Ruins

From here we continued on and on, up to Chama. A good day.

Linda Hogan: Dwellings

3592266A beautiful meditation through a series of essays on the world and our place in it from Linda Hogan…our place as part of it, and our place sharing it with a host of other things full of wonder. A world that is greater than our comprehension, though dominant ideology attempts to constrain it within words and models of profit and loss.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. it is something beyond us something that does not need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. We have no words for this in our language, or even for our experience of being there. Ours is a language of commerce and trade, of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing. It is a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power. (45-46)

The world continues to be greater than our small understandings.

There is so much here that resonates with the very theoretical work emerging around the crisis we face, the working through in academic ways of the meaning of the anthropocene. Dwellings emerges from the bottom up, from earth and people and out of a tradition whose attempted destruction demanded the rationalisations emerging from immense intellectual work. The theorising that justified genocide, that continues to justify the world’s destruction, shares much the same abstracted kind of language as that of academics now working in their own ways to understand this moment of crisis we are in. This is not entirely a critique, people speak in the language that they know. I love some of this work. It is just a dissonance I always feel, an alienation that is always there. Because in many ways, academic language cannot really cope with what matters, and what it learns it hides away behind an impenetrable wall of words in books as heavy as bricks.

We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind. Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation. (60)

I’m not sure English can cope at all, the way we have stripped it. Funny how words that try to grapple with meaning and emotion too often just sound cheesy, like Hallmark cards packaging things for slick consumption. This should not damage the quality of those meanings, but our language seems to try.

We have no home, have no place.

Hogan quotes Lynda Sexson from the article ‘What do Stars Eat?’ in Left Bank, which expresses so much of the barrenness I find in the imagination, that works like Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape highlight through their rich textures and hopes, no coincidence that language should also be a focal point of her work.

We are so accustomed to myths (sacred stories) of extinction, that we are not as practical at imagining that greater gap–continuation. . . .  Would the earth or our existence be in such peril if we did not harbor a profound desire for extinction? “They lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick,” resonates Isaiah. The crisis of Western culture is ecological. The source of that crisis is in Western culture’s own version of reality; the myth of the urge to eradicate: earth and images of earth, body and song. (94)

Everywhere we see the smoking charred proofs of this urge to eradicate.

It manifests partially, I think, in simple arrogance, so deeply ingrained people don’t even know its there. I guess centuries of Colonialism, Imperialism, Slave-owning and genocide haven’t been too good even for those at the top of the chain. Academics especially always need to be discovering, inventing. Need to be owning, taking credit. The establishment demands it, we are caught up in a system just as Marx described manufacturers, and so too many of them (us) bluster through the world not listening, but extracting and abstracting and generating money and status from what other people already know, when they are not busy working on things that probably don’t much matter.  A poem by Jimmie Durham, Cherokee writer: The Teachings of my Grandmother

In a magazine too expensive to buy I read about
How, with scientific devices of great complexity,
U.S. scientists have discovered that if a rat
Is placed in cage in which it has previously
Been given an electrical shock, it starts crying.

I told my grandmother about that and she said,
“We probably knew that would be true.” (55)

all these things that are ‘discovered’, and  — we probably knew that would be true. There are meditations here on Cortez, conquistadores, and I think that’s a big part of where all of this started. That attempt to completely destroy other ways of knowing, other ways of being. In an article on Ishi (last of his tribe), Linda Hogan writes:

A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away at the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)

On the opposite side of a culture that creates holes in the universe is one that celebrates people, strangers, potential, and welcomes them inside:

The lands around my dwelling
Are more beautiful
From the day
When it is given me to see
Faces I have never seen before.
All is more beautiful.
All is more beautiful.
And life is thankfulness.
These guests of mine
Make my house grand.
–Eskimo song







Language and Violence — The Meursault Investigation

The Meursault InvestigationI quite loved The Meursault Investigation, an evocative and angry wrenching away of anonymity from those murdered under colonial rule. A stinging refusal to allow the focus to remain on the problems and tragedies of the murderer to search them out instead in the man murdered, the hole he left behind, the impact of those who we were close to him. The very power of Camus’s words rendered the violence he inflicted on the stranger all the greater.

It’s simple: The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is, starting when the Arab’s body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name…So one reason for learning this language was to tell this story for my brother, the friend of the sun. Seems unlikely to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the response nobody wanted to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you…(7)

The Meursault Investigation is about how we understand things, how we construct naratives around events. How European narratives erase non-whites, push them into the background, into the scenery, into simple provocations or plot twists that facilitate the drama experienced by white males.

The way counter-narratives must be constructed.

Without realizing it, and years before I learned to read, I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud. (21)

There is so much here about language, the differences between Arabic and French, the limitations and liberations of each. In this it shares space with Assia Djebar, though from such different perspectives I love how they each grapple with the same questions.

Language and the construction of narrative.

For a long time, not a year passed without my mother swearing she’d found Musa’s body, heard his breathing or his footstep…And for a long time, that would make me feel impossibly ashamed of her–and later, it pushed me to learn a language that could serve as a barrier between her frenzies and me. Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in… I had to learn a language other than that one. To survive…Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words. (37)

She tells and retells, invents and reinvents narratives around his brother — they are so strong they smother him, contain him so that he cannot be himself, must always live in his brother’s shadow. One aspect of the violence of language, brought to life through loss and longing and obsession.

This explores another violence that can be found in words, in silences, in storytelling:

But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. That’s denial of a shockingly violent kind, don’t you think? As soon as the shot is fired, the murderer turns around, heading for a mystery he considers worthier of interest than the Arab’s life. (46)

A violence possible only through the construction of other, through conquest. What the colonised share in common around the world conquered by whites:

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,”… (60)

These strangers for the narrator are the Meursaults, the numberless faceless figures of occupation and oppression.

And reminiscent of Fanon, there is yet another kind of violence, what could be a redemptive violence:

On that hot night, nothing had suggested that a murder was about to happen. You’re asking me what I felt afterward? Huge relief. A kind of worthiness, but without honor. Something deep inside me sat down, curled up into a ball, took its head in its hands, and sighed so profoundly that I was touched and tears sprang to my eyes. Then I raised them and looked around me. Again I was surprised by the extent of the courtyard where I had just executed an unknown person. It was as if perspectives were opening up and I could finally breathe. Whereas I’d always lived like a prisoner until then, confined within the perimeter established by Musa’s death and my mother’s vigilance, I now saw myself standing upright, at the heart of a vast territory: the whole nocturnal earth, the gift of that night. When my heart regained its place, all other objects did the same. (78)

But it is not that simple of course, just as the competing narratives, the claims on identity, the nature of family, the complexes existing between a man and his mother, nothing is simple.

Well, after I’d killed a man, it wasn’t my innocence I missed the most, it was the border that had existed until then between my life and crime. That’s a line that’s hard to redraw later. The Other is a unit of measurement you lose when you kill. (90)

After the murder he is imprisoned, will possibly be executed through the new state’s state-sanctioned violence for killing outside of the liberation struggle he is despised for not having joined.

Algeria lives in a different way in this story, Algiers both concrete and abstracted:

…but I loved the virile, almost comforting roar of the engine that was snatching us, my mother and me, out of an immense labyrinth made up of buildings, downtrodden people, shantytowns, dirty urchins, aggressive cops, and beaches fatal to Arabs. For the two of us, the city would always be the scene of the crime, or the place where something pure and ancient was lost. (21)

Funny the way that this is specific and yet non-specific, belonging to a national and urban geography, yet individuals have been erased from them.

…there’s no point inn your going to the cemetery, or to Bab-el-Oued, or to the beach. You won’t find anything… This story takes place somewhere in someone’s head, in mine and in yours and in the heads of people like you. In a sort of beyond.

Don’t do any geographical searching — that’s the point I’m trying to make. (57)

There is much more to The Meursault Investigation, more on language and identity, sexuality and relationships, nation and colonialism and struggle. Much of it is not at all subtle. A book that repays rereading I imagine, a good book for teaching. At the same time it has an intellectual feel, an abstracted feel not entirely due to the form of tales told a researcher in a bar. I am not quite sure why, in some ways the violence is as abstract as it is for Camus, as removed. It does not have the emotional power of Djebar’s Algerian White, cannot touch Mouloud Feraoun’s recollections before his assassination, or even the more rigorous incandescence of Fanon.

[Daoud, Kamel. 2015. The Meursault Investigation. London: Oneworld Publications.]



Algerian White

Djebar_AlgerianWhite_HC_largeThis was beautiful.

A meditation on death and loss, lives taken in the struggle for freedom against the colonial power, against fundamentalism. A meditation on writing and all of its risks, language and all of its meanings, Algeria and all of its tragic complications.

Love and loss, hope and despair.

A travel through memories, like this one:

I took off for Kader’s Oran, the city and its deepest depths, which he had sketched out for me… we drove around the town, splattered with cries and laughter, full of youths (oh, the youths of Oran, everywhere, leaning against a wall, on the vertical, in the sun, at every street corner, watching, laughing, cautious!), our tour was gradually fed by Kader’s memories. (21)

A town to be loved. I had only just finished The Plague, also set in Oran. Albert Camus writes, with the eyes of a European that must always be comparing the rest of the world to an ideal of home:

The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centres in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves — a thoroughly negative place in short? … Our citizens work hard, but solely with the objective of getting rich. (1-2)

There are no Arabs in the Oran found in these pages, though Camus does write of walking through the Negro district (and what does that word mean to him exactly?), ‘steep little streets flanked by blue, mauve and saffron-yellow walls… (79) He writes of the plague starting in the poorer and more crowded outskirts, but there are only Spaniards and Frenchmen.

This absence is possibly one of the largest presences in the literature I have read.

To Kader, returning to Oran, Djebar writes:

You must have often unveiled for others the naked, tumultuous and impulsive, raucous, mocking town. (22)

This town and the town of the Plague — two Orans, two visions of what a city could and should be.

Camus is in Algerian White as author. His lack of understanding of the complexities. His effort to make peace. His early death in a car accident. She later writes:

Camus, an old man: it seems almost as unimaginable as the metaphor of Algeria itself, as a wise adult, calm at last, at last turned toward life, ordinary life… (103)

I think it true that ordinary life escaped him, you see it in his words.

But he is really the least among this pantheon of writers, too many of whom I still know almost nothing, despite all my recent reading.

But first we return to the theme of dust:

Three Algerian days.

White with dust. The dust you didn’t notice, on any of these three days, but which seeped its way in, unseen and fine, into all those who came together for your departure.

A dust slowly forming, which gradually makes that day grow fainter, further away, a whiteness which insidiously effaces, distances, and makes each hour almost unreal, and the explosion of a word, the gasp of an ill-repressed sob, the bursting spray of chants and litanies from the crowd, all of the excessive on the day itself, from then on paled, worn hollow to the point of evanescence.

So, white days of that dust in which tens of witnesses, friends, those around you, who went with you to the graveside, they the followers, thereafter caught up; clothed in it stiffly and awkwardly, unknowingly. Dust of oblivion which cauteriuzes, weakens, softens, and …. Dust.

Three days white with that dust and that mortal fog. (51)

I cried for the death of Mouloud Feraoun, his words still live with me, I almost feel as though I know him. Feraoun, one of six murdered together in two sets of three, machine gunned down, with 109 9 mm cartridge cases found. The son of another there, Jean-Phillipe Ould Aloudia, spent thirty years investigating, identified the assassins granted amnesty by the French State.

Nothing could be done to them.

There is Djebar’s chance meeting with Mouloud Mammeri in Algiers, 1988:

‘Before I saw you in the distance, I was walking with my head in the clouds.. How lovely this city is, iridescent like this! I can’t get enough of it: as if it were the first time! I never tire of the facades or the balconies of the houses, and especially not of the sky!… (139-140)

I learned about Emir Abdelkader, who fought the colonial invasion, whose bones have been fought over:

Abdelkader, if he has truly come back to this land where he was first a soldier, will be better able than I to make the list of those who write and who, like so many others, are persecuted, silenced, pushed to suicide, to suffocation, or–through the intermediary if desperate youth, transformed into paid killers–killed by a single blow. (225)

There are Franz and Josie Fanon, Jean-el and Taos Amrouche, Kateb Yacine, M’Hamed Boukhobza, Mahfoud Boucebci, Anna Greki, Abdelkader Alloula among many  others. And, like Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, a return to language, nationality, home…the tangle of words and the limits language and culture place on what can be expressed.

Algerian literature–we must begin it with Apuleus in the second century and continue to Kateb Yacine and Mouloud Mammeri, passing Augustine, the emir Abdelkader, and Camus–has continuously been inscribed in  a linguistic triangle.

–a language of rock and soil, the original one let’s say.  Libyco-Berber, which lost its alphabet momentarily except among the Tuareg:


–a second language, that of the prestigious exterior, of Mediterranean heritage–Eastern and Western–admittedly reserved for lettered minorities…

Arabic and then French

–the third partner in this triangle presents itself as the most exposed of the languages, the dominant one, the public one, the language of power: that of the harangues, but also the written one of the forensic scientists, the scribes and the notaries.(227-228)

This has been Latin, Classic Arabic, Turkish, French, again Arabic…

These are just a few quotes I liked, there is so much more here, particularly for someone who knows more of these writers and the recent history. I am setting out to learn…

Perhaps the best of all, though was this (a facebook update from July 28th, as I mix my social media)

Today on the tube I met a Maori who asked how I came to be reading Assia Djebar and I told him a quick summary of the long story about this article I can’t finish and he told me how in New Zealand his university classes on colonialism had featured a professor who studied violence in Algerian women’s fiction, and then we talked about Djebar and Feraoun and Fanon and Paris and damn but did it bring happiness to my day.

For more on the struggle in Algeria…




Noir Interlude

371023Just a quote from Ross MacDonald’s The Galton Case: I’ve finished Mark’s stash of three three-book omnibi, and am a little forlorn I confess…

She stood squarely in front of him in a deliberately ugly posture, one hip out, her breasts thrust forward under the white shirt, and at the same time sharp and tender. She didn’t seem to be drunk, but there was a hot moist glitter in her eyes. Her eyes were large and violet, and should have been beautiful. With dark circles under them, and heavy eye-shadow on the upper lids, they were like two spreading bruises. (6)

I do find amusing many of Macdonald’s descriptions of breasts and their emotional ways as if they’re somehow independent of their owners. I’m reading Lanark by Alasdair Grey and funnily enough, he sees breasts in the same way.

Still, I love Macdonald’s language, it is the texture of noir itself at its best. I’ll miss not having a novel sitting here for me to read on the weekend.

The Listening Ear was full of dark blue light and light blue music.

The description of a beat night club is brilliant, as is the poet as is the plot itself with yet another psychological twist showing the terrible things that money does to families (but also, what the lack of it can do).

For one more quote, you can go here.

Trouillot’s Silencing the Past

357199I also want to reject both the naive proposition that we are prisoners of our pasts and the pernicious suggestion that history is whatever we make of it. History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots (xix).

I love this book. It is short, poetic, and has been transformative of how I think about history and my own work investigating the past and bringing it to bear on the present. As if that weren’t enough, it helps recapture the brilliance of the Haitian revolution while exposing how and why it has been silenced. That’s not all it does, but I think what it does best.

There is is some really interesting things about language in here, how history and historiography are shaped not just in how we tell the past, but in the very words that we use.

Human beings participate in history both as actors and as narrators. The inherent ambivalence of the word “history” in many modern languages, including English, suggests this dual participation. (2)

There’s a reminder of how language structures the ways in which we think:

The pernicious belief that epistemic validity matters only to
Western-educated populations, either because others lack the
proper sense of time or the proper sense of evidence, is belied by
the use of evidentials in a number of non-European Ianguages.
An English approximation would be a rule forcing historians to distinguish grammatically between “I heard that it happened,” “I saw it happen,” or “I have obtained evidence that it happened” every time they use the verb “to happen.” (7-8)

I also love the expansion of what history means, who makes it and tells it and who impacts on the ways it is understood, the critique of academic historians who tend to limit it.

Such debates suggest that historical relevance does not proceed directly from the original impact of an event, or its mode of inscription, or even the continuity of that inscription.
Debates about the Alamo, the Holocaust, or the significance
of U.S. slavery involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. (19)

It also tries to shift how we view the ways in which history is made and by whom:

History, as social process, involves peoples in three distinct capacities: 1) as agents, or occupants of structural positions; 2) as actors in constant interface with a context; and 3) as subjects, that is, as voices aware of their vocality.

peoples are also the subjects of history the way workers are
subjects of a strike: they define the very terms under which some situations can be described. (23)

This in turn shifts how we write about it, what we focus on:

Thus between the mechanically “realist” and naively “constructivist” extremes, there is the more serious task of determining not what history is–a hopeless goal if phrased in essentialist terms–but how history works. (25)

Building on this reconceptualising of who makes history and how, is the ways in which so much history is lost, erased, silenced — and how we reclaim them.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). (26)

To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly. (27)

Thus the presences and absences embodied in sources (artifacts and bodies that turn an event into fact) or archives (facts collected, thematized, and processed as documents and monuments) are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis. (48)

One of my favourite sentences? ‘…one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun.’

Deconstruct these silences we must, because above all this is about fighting the power that oppresses and silences, and building out own.

Power does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation. Thus, it remains pertinent even if we can imagine a totally scientific history, even if we relegate the historians’ preferences and stakes to a separate, post-descriptive phase. In history, power begins at the source.

We can be hopeful, we can find traces of what has been silenced. Not everything is lost, and we can (and must) look to material remains.

What happened leaves traces, some of which are quite concrete–buildings, dead bodies, censuses, monuments, diaries, political boundaries–that limit the range and significance of any historical narrative. This is one of many reasons why not any fiction can pass for history: the materiality of the sociohistorical process (historicity 1) sets the stage for future historical narratives (historicity 2). (29)

But we must do this well, uncovering the working of power and the larger significance of our work:

The turn toward hitherto neglected sources (e.g., diaries. images, bodies) and the emphasis on unused facts (e.g ., facts of
gender, race, and class, facts of the life cycle, facts of resistance)
are pathbreaking developments. My point is that when these tactical gains are made to dictate strategy they lead, at worst, to a neo-empiricist enterprise and, at best, to an unnecessary restriction of the battleground for historical power. (49)

Silences Within Silences
The unearthing of silences, and the historian’s subsequent emphasis on the retrospective significance of hitherto neglected events, requires not only extra labor at the archives–whether or not one uses primary sources–but also a project linked to an interpretation. This is so because the combined silences accrued through the first three steps of the process of historical production intermesh and solidify at the fourth and final moment when retrospective significance itself is produced. (58-59)

And then there is ‘The Haitian Revolution as a non-event’, an immense and inspiring uprising that shifted global balances of power, yet is treated as peripheral where mentioned at all. There is a powerful discussion of why and how that should be, which explores how limits are created on people’s perceptions and their ability to understand events, and how these limits worked in European thinking.

The Haitian Revolution thus entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. (73)

Thus the Enlightenment exacerbated the fundamental ambiguity that dominated the encounter between ontological discourse and colonial practice. If the philosophers did reformulate some of the answers inherited from the Renaissance, the question “What is Man?” kept stumbling against the practices of domination and or merchant accumulation. The gap between abstraction and practice grew or, better said, the handling or the contradictions between the two became much more sophisticated, in part because philosophy provided as many answers as colonial practice itself. (78)

Slavery and its foundations are, of course, one of the principal limits, all too obvious in Enlightenment discourse (yet never raised as such):

The Enlightenment, nevertheless, brought a change of perspective. The idea of progress, now confirmed, suggested that men were perfectible. Therefore, subhumans could be, theoretically at least, perfectible. More important, the slave trade was running its course, and the economics of slavery would be questioned increasingly as the century neared its end. Perfectibility became an argument in the practical debate: the westernized other looked increasingly more profitable to the West, especially if he could become a free laborer. A French memoir of 1790 summarized the issue: “It is perhaps not impossible to civilize the Negro, to bring him to principles and make a man out of him: there would be more to gain than to buy and sell him.” (80)

Above all, it is a discourse tied to the practicalities of maintaining domination and Empire:

Behind the radicalism of Diderot and Raynal stood, ultimately,
a project of colonial management. It did indeed include the abolition of slavery, but only in the long term, and as part of a process that aimed at the better control of the colonies. Access to human status did not lead ipso facto to self-determination. In short, here again, as in Condorcet, as in Mirabeau, as in Jefferson, when all is said and done, there are degrees of humanity. The vocabulary of the times reveals that gradation. When one talked of the biological product of black and of white intercourse, one spoke of “man of color” as if the two terms do not necessarily go together: unmarked humanity is white. (81)

This is not to make the demand that people of the past should understand the moralities of the present, but rather what it was about the past that made these moralities almost impossible to imagine:

I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today. On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility. The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in in England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

Below are some fragments of how ideology sat uneasily, often contradictory within white understandings, how innocence of Black humanity was preserved ideologically in the pursuit of domination and profit:

Thus, next to a discourse that claimed the contentment of slaves, a plethora of laws, advice, and measures, both legal and illegal, were set up to curb the very resistance denied in theory.

Rather, each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance was treated separately and drained of its political content (83).

Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy. (84)

When the news of the massive uprising of August 1791 first hit
France, the most common reaction among interested parties was disbelief: the facts were too unlikely; the news had to be false. (90)

Worldview wins over the facts: white hegemony is natural and taken for granted; any alternative is still in the domain of the unthinkable.  (93)

The international recognition of Haitian independence was even more difficult to gain than military victory over the forces of Napoleon. It took more time and more resources. more than a half century of diplomatic struggles. France imposed a heavy indemnity on the Haitian state in order to formally acknowledge its own defeat. The United States and the Vatican, notably, recognized Haitian independence only in the second half of the nineteenth century.  (95)

This is important not just to understand how domination worked, but also revolt:

Not only was the Revolution unthinkable and, therefore, unannounced in the West. it was also–to a large extent–unspoken among the slaves themselves. By this I mean that the Revolution was not preceded or even accompanied by an explicit intellectual discourse.

In that sense, the revolution was indeed at the limits of the thinkable, even in Saint-Domingue, even among the slaves, even
among its own leaders. We need to recall that the key tenets of the political philosophy that became explicit in Saint-Domingue/Haiti between 1791 and 1804 were not accepted by world public opinion until after World War II.(88)

By necessity, the Haitian Revolution thought itself out politically and philosophically as it was taking place. Its project, increasingly radicalized throughout thirteen years of combat, was revealed in successive spurts. Between and within its unforeseen stages, discourse always lagged behind practice. (89)

Thus in looking specifically at how the facts and the meaning of the Haitian Revolution have been (mis)understood, Trouillot uncovers two specific processes that he terms ‘Erasure and Trivialization: Silences in World History’:

I have fleshed out two major points so far. First, the chain of events that constitute the Haitian Revolution was unthinkable before these events happened. Second, as they happened, the successive events within that chain were systematically recast by many participants and observers to fit a world of possibilities. That is, they were made to enter into narratives that made sense to a majority of Western observers and readers. I will now show how the revolution that was thought impossible by its contemporaries has also been silenced by historians. (96)

The treatment of the Haitian Revolution in written history outside of Haiti reveals two families of tropes that are identical. in formal (rhetorical) terms, to figures of discourse of the late eighteenth century. The first kind of tropes are formulas that tend to erase directly the fact of a revolution. I call them, for short, formulas of erasure. The second kind tends to empty a number of singular events of their revolutionary content so that the entire string of facts, gnawed from all sides, becomes trivialized. I call the formulas of banalization…Both are formulas of silence. (96)

Thus domination continues on into the present, these interpretations having everything to do not just with the ways in which silences continue, but in the limits this imposes on how we understand the problems facing the present and how we imagine working towards a new future.

Finally, the silencing of the Haitian Revolution also fit the relegation to an historical backburner of the three themes to which it was linked: racism, slavery, and colonialism. In spite of their importance in the formation of what we now call the West, in spite of sudden outbursts of interest as in the United States in the early 1970s, none of these themes has ever become a central concern of the historiographic tradition in a Western country. (98)

That Hobsbawm and the editors of the Dictionary would probably locate themselves quite differently within England’s political spectrum is one indication that historical silences do not simply reproduce the overt political positions of the historians involved. What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest, the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention. (99)

Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural. (106)

The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within
a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the
West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated form, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world. (107)

This happens in theory and the terms that we use:

Terminologies demarcate a field, politically and epistemologically. Names set up a field of power.” “Discovery” and analogous terms ensure that by just mentioning the event one enters a predetermined lexical field of cliches and predictable categories that foreclose a redefinition  of the political and intellectual stakes. Europe becomes the center of “what happened.” (115)

It highlights what we must remember in our own work if we are not to reproduce this:

historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-a-vis the present as it re-presents that past. (148)

Authenticity implies a relation with what is known that duplicates the two sides of historicity: it engages us both as actors and narrators. (150)

This is so long and pieces together a sense of his writing about process, while hardly touching the substance of the various histories he reclaims from the silence — as important a project as what I have focused on here. So read it.

For more on race, empire and history…




Language, Landscape and Identity: Raja Shehadeh on writing and struggle

Raja Shehadeh - Language of War Language of PeaceRaja Shehadeh speaking in person to help launch his latest book Language of Peace, Language of War: Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice was wonderful. That a scholar should be brought from Ramallah, that Palestine should be the topic to kick off LSE’s annual literary festival was a nice surprise.

In his description of his personal trajectory as a writer, Shehadeh quoted Sharon as saying that he wanted to sear into the consciousness of the Palestinians a new geography. Everything has new names, villages have disappeared, settlements appear and appear and appear. Roads he once loved and drove he can no longer drive and they are no longer called what they once were. Hills he once loved and walked, he can no longer walk.

To no longer walk the hills….

Raja Shehadeh - Palestinian WalksHe wrote Palestinian Walks as a response, to reject this imposition, to cement memory of what was before.

Palestinians have a word, samoud, the idea of persevering, of staying on the land. One word to hold all of this pain and struggle and determination. An idea to permeate all writing, all action. I wonder how many other peoples have a word for the long struggle against dispossession. I wish I had had one. Like him, I reject the idea that this must continue, that the poor, the less powerful must always be stripped of their lands if it happens that someone else wants them.

Clearly all of these books form part of this perservering. This connection between writing and struggle emerged in several ways — and while the questions especially brought out more of his thoughts on the legal and political strategies of fighting the occupation, it is the writing I will share here. There will be a podcast you can watch here when it is ready.

Raja Shehadeh said he once believed that a book can make a big difference, change the world. Not now. It can have a longer term effect, yes. But he no longer feels urgency.

He said writing always begins for himself alone, only later does it become public. He writes anything and everything in his journals, uncensored. Then reviews, revises, rethinks. That through writing he comes to understand things. But I love this sense of writing first for self, and then for public. It puts things round the right way I think.

Still, he writes to communicate. He does not write about the worst things that have happened in this conflict. He writes what people can take. What he can take. Left unsaid were all those things that have happened that no one can bear.

He read a passage about the burning alive of a young man in a forest. The message this was meant to send, the language of this message. Go, or we will burn your children. In strange coincidence I had only a few days before finished watching Shoah, it is not a film that soon leaves you. It is full of burning. So I sat there with these two things sitting together in me — I could not understand them. I have heard people try, but fundamentally these actions reject all words of understanding.

Books unleash the imagination, however. They remind us of the past when things were different, and push us to remember that the future does not have to be this way. It will not be this way. Hope lies in history and an imagination of the future — they teach us how all states were invented in the Middle East, they would not exist without subsidies. They seem natural to us, but they are not, nor are they sustainable.

He describes a world without borders, without fragmentation. The kind of world I too would like to see.

Raja Shehadeh will also be talking at the Mosaic Rooms on 25 February, at 7:00 pm, go see and hear, go buy the book(s).

Raja Shehadeh


Black Skin, White Masks

274392Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon ([1952] 1986)

Another classic I am long overdue in reading, though I loved Wretched of the Earth and it’s now higher on the list to be read again.

There is a controlled anger in his writing, made possible by distance.

This book should have been written three years ago. . . But these truths were a fire in me then. now I can tell them without being burned. These truths do not have to be hurled in men’s faces. They are not intended to ignite fervor. I do not trust fervor (11).

I like hurling truths, but laying them out eloquently and  clearly often works better. I feel that rage demands at least this clarity, perhaps this is why much modern theory frustrates me. As for fervor, I don’t always trust it either.

I enjoy the occasional burst of a lyrical passage:

There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born. (10)

But above all I love tying psychological analysis to material conditions. Seems to me another form of oppression to deny the role (and thus culpability) that conquest, physical oppression and racism have played in forming our psyches.

If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process:
— primarily, economic
–subsequently, the internalization–or, better, the epidermalization–of this inferiority.

The black man must wage his war on both levels: Since historically they influence each other, any unilateral liberation is incomplete, and the gravest mistake would be to believe in their automatic interdependence (13).

Seems to me we need to think about how we reclaim this, heal this. On both levels.  It affects everyone, the violence of this relationship does not harm only those on the receiving end of it.

The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation (60).

I was thinking this when reading Virginia Woolf, and this brought to mind Faulkner, who has always epitomised to me the terrible harm that a slave-owning society causes to those supposed to be its beneficiaries. Fanon picks up on this later, this connection between the colonial and the familial writing

In Europe and in every country characterized as civilized or civilizing, the family is a miniature of the nation. As the child emerges from the shadow of his parents, he finds himself once more among the same laws, the same principles, the same values (142).

The horror of Colonial laws, principles, values. Greed mostly. Fanon goes on to quote work by Joachim Marcus who finds that conflictual family structures produce social neurosis, ‘abnormal behaviour in contact with the Other’ (158, footnote 23).

This does not shift where the greatest pain and damage lies.

what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact (16).

Let us have the courage to say it outright: It is the racist who creates his inferior. (93)

As everyone has pointed out, alterity for the black man is not the black but the white man. (97)

The ways in which colonialism have twisted worth up with language and skin. There is great insight here into words, the ways that power relations warp language and our appreciation of it, the meaning we give it.

The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter–that is, he will come closer to being a real human being–in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language. I am not unaware that this is one of man’s attitudes face to face with Being. A man who has language consequently possess the world expressed and implied by that language (18).

The ways that this also marks ‘rubes’ from the country vs the city. England is perhaps the prizewinner in building hierearchy by accent, but the level of English spoken too often seems to define the respect granted to others wherever I have lived. Or traveled. Another terrible kind of violence, as is talking down:

To make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible (34)

But this is not simply to be accepted.

From the moment the Negro accepts the separation imposed by the European he has no further respite and “is it not understandable that thenceforward he will try to elevate himself to the white man’s level? To elevate himself in the range of colors to which he attributes a kind of hierarchy?” (quoteing Claude Nordey, L’homme de couleur (Paris, Collection “Presences,” plon, 1939)

We shall see that another solution is possible. It implies a restructuring of the world. (81-82)

Isn’t about damn time we restructured the world? Who can bear it as it is?

There is a long quote from Karl Jaspers, (La Culpabilite Allemande, Jeanne Hersch’s French translation, pp 60-61 — reading Hannah Arendt put him on my list of things to read many years ago, but he is hard to track down). It’s a quote I think at the end of the day I agree with, but don’t know what to do with exactly, apart from choose my battles and fight them to the best of my ability…

There exists among men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world, and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence or of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, I am an accomplice in them. If I have not risked my life in order to prevent the murder of other men, if I have stood silent, I feel guilty in a sense that cannot in any adequate fashion be understood juridically, or politically, or morally . . . . That I am still alive after such things have been done weighs on me as a guilt that cannot be expiated.

Somewhere in the heart of human relations an absolute command imposes itself: In case of criminal attack or of living conditions that threaten physical being, accept life only for all together, otherwise not at all. (89)

I want to accept life only for all together. I want to make this world. Sadly the world as we have created it now is one of the exploitation of the many, the destruction of the natural world. These things demands solidarity for each and all in their oppressions, as much as we can give. Fanon recognises this, taught me that in the French colonial hierarchy a native of the Antilles was higher than an Arab– another marker of the shifting boundaries of race, religion and hierarchy–and makes his stand:

Whenever I see an Arab with his hunted look, suspicious, on the run, wrapped in those long ragged robes that seem to have been created especially for him, I say to myself, “M. Mannoni was wrong.” Many times I have been stopped in broad daylight by policemen who mistook me for an Arab; when they discovered my origins, they were obsequious in their apologies…every citizen of a nation is responsible for the actions committed in the name of that nation (91).

I do not mind the humanism, the affirmation, the search for hope

I said in my introduction that man is a yes. I will never stop reiterating that.
Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes, to generosity.
But man is also a no. No to scorn of man. No to desegregation of man. No to exploitation of man. No to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom. (222)

Homi K Bhabha in his forward (‘Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition’ (London 1986)) is a little more skeptical of this life affirmation, this humanism. I like how his thoughts build on Fanon, however, how they situate it in relation to theory now:

He nails the London left here I’m afraid:

When that labourist line of vision is challenged by the ‘autonomous’ struggles of the politics of race and gender, or threatened by problems of human psychology or cultural representation, it can only make an empty gesture of solidarity. Whenever questions of race and sexuality make their own organisational and theoretical demands on the primacy of ‘class’, ‘state’ and ‘party’ the language of traditional socialism is quick to describe those urgent, ‘other’ questions as symptoms of petty-bourgeois deviation, signs of the bad faith of socialist intellectuals. The ritual respect accorderd to the name of Fanon, the currency of his titles in the common language of liberation, are part of the ceremony  of a polite, English refusal. vii-vii

These speak far more eloquently than I do, I think, about what Fanon has brought us:

He may yearn for the total transformation of Man and Society, but he speaks most effectively from the uncertain interstices of historical change: from the area of ambivalence between race and sexuality; out of an unresolved contradiction between culture and class; from a deep within the struggle of psychic representation and social reality (ix)

In his desperate doomed search for a dialectic of deliverance Fanon explores the edge of those modes for thought: his Hegelianism restores hope to history; his existentialist evocation of the “i” restores the presence of the marginalized; and his psychoanalytic framework illuminates the ‘madness’ of racism, the pleasure of pain, the agonistic fantasy of political power (x)

Remembering Fanon is a process of intense discovery and disorientation. Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present. It is such memory of race and racism, colonialism and the question of cultural (xxiii) identity, that Fanon reveals with greater profundity and poetry than any other writer (xxiv).

Again, as always, we come back to the past, to the ways it continues on into the present recalling CLR James a little, Trouillot a whole lot. In just a fragment of a sentence the geographies of the colonial project are invoked, ‘the validity of violence in the very definition of the colonial social space’ (xiv) but I would argue it is as much physical, material space: The arbitrary delimitations of nations, the segregation of living spaces.

To end with this final farewell and celebration of his legacy:

The ‘social’ is always an unresolved ensemble of antagonistic interlocutions between positions of power and poverty, knowledge and oppression, history and fantasy, surveillance and subversion. It is for this this reason — above all else — in the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, that we should turn to Fanon.  xxv

For more on race and empire…