This analysis was drafted in late August, 2014, while the streets of Ferguson Missouri were still hot but before #Blacklivesmatter had asserted itself as a central slogan. I will leave it up to the reader to determine what relevance certain parts which have become dated still have. I submit this for public review because I cannot escape the sense that it may yet do some small measure of good.
Death, has been the marching-drum of human history, from the beginning. From Jesus Christ, to Joan of Arc, Western history is regularly mile-marked with martyrdoms which, behind all the symbolism, is simply a specific genre of death. It is easy to conceptualize cultural moments in terms of human deaths. Camelot ended when Kennedy was shot, and the Manson murders closed the 60s. Rightly or wrongly, (actually, wrongly) we close our understanding of the mid-century Civil Rights revolution with the closing of Dr. King’s casket. And we mark our lack of progress in (Black) racial matters with the long-ago begun and yet-to-be ended litany of White supremacy tinged Black deaths. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo; before them Medgar Evers, Emmett Till; earlier (but still 20th century) Mary Turner whose baby was cut out of her and Sam Hose whose face was skint and liver eaten before a riotous crowd in Atlanta, Georgia. There exists a William Blake painting from 1796 entitled: “A Negro Hung Alive by the Rib to a Gallow” which is, what it sounds like with skulls and bones in the fore and background to assure us that this tormented, brutalized man did not die alone. That he does not have a name tells us that we are looking at one of slavery’s portraits, that same way, that if one were dropped unawares into 1930s America one could pick up a weekly paper and with certainty know that if it contains an account of a lynching one must be between the 1940s and 1880s.
Lately, we know when we are by the never-ending stories of Black teenagers gunned down by outraged White men, and tales of shackled young me committing situationally inexplicable suicide in the backs of police cars, which are just one especially fanciful iteration of that very old civic hobby, anti-Black police brutality. These regular occurrences engender a standard response, the internet-age protest. The process: An occurrence is publicized. Those who find it abhorrent and unjust come together in a moment of sincere outrage. Their outrage becomes a public spectacle of indignation, which makes them feel as if they are (going to, or intent upon,) doing something to prevent the recurrence of what has outraged them. Furthermore, those who witness the sincere spectacle can revolt vicariously through social media. It is all a grand moment of catharsis which is, in theory, supposed to lead somewhere. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the aesthetic is at its conceptual zenith if Al Sharpton shows up to play the archetypal-King role as an internet-age understudy. That all this is, in fact, an aesthetic is demonstrated by the fealty with which these rather novel expressions often hew to civil rights or general 60s tropes. “We Shall Overcome” and other Civil Rights hymns are a staple especially when racism is at issue. In addition, there is the sit-in, (anti-Jim Crowism’s great contribution to the world) and all the myriad ways that activists connect themselves to the way of being which inspired them. I do not mean to say, that engaging the past is regressive or even not-strictly necessary. I do mean that in constantly engaging past revolts as an aesthetic, we neglect them as a reality.
One way we do this is, I am convinced, is by an obfuscation of what is at stake. Oppression has always functioned best when shrouded in fog and night. The little subjugations which make up the big ones are deadly serious indeed. In 1930 s Georgia, a White man who called a Black man a boy, need not have been explicitly aware that he was committing a mini-lynching rather than merely practicing his region’s culture and etiquette. Even if he was aware of reinforcing the prevailing racist order, he probably considered the term “boy” to be much lower staked. To be sure, for any particular lynched individual, the significance of language was nil. But by the time he was reduced to a state of physical unrecognizability, the message carried by his corpse would have filtered into the minds of the oppressed, for them, it would have been as if every Black man and Black woman had been called “boy” or “girl” a million times and a lifetime of slow ego death were compacted into a few seconds. In the reverse function, it is in this sense that “cat-calling” a woman on the street can can be considered a “mini-rape” because her subjugated status is reinforced by being forced to posit herself as an object to be used by a man rather than as a human being with a body. In this sordid category of miniaturized oppressions we find programs like stop and frisk. Stop and Frisk (or any number of ways which police harass the ghettoized) functions as a regime of mini-lynchings by making the victim acutely aware that he is a subjugated and potentially violently repressed body under a government and society which does not care to spare him this humiliation. The odd dramatic act of repression only serves to refresh and make clear the meaning behind the everyday humiliation which descends to the level of micro-aggression. That the implication of daily humiliation and mini-oppression are not always consciously felt renders them no less there, in fact, this means oppression has become so internalized that insult is no longer insult but is merely, uncriticized, reality.
The illusory lowering of stakes serves to constrict the oppressed individuals’ ability to accurately appraise reality. Lowered stakes convince even the would be architects of social justice that society as a whole is somehow divorced from oppressive circumstances, because the prevailing structure is so much greater in scale than the structures of oppression. Strategists of the oppressed, therefore, only plan within the terms dictated by those against whose hegemony the have designs. Furthermore, this trick of proportion limits the potential range of action. If “true”oppression is only or primarily, or most importantly, seen as manifested in dramatic displays of injustice, why act in the spirit of absolute sacrifice which has always characterized movements insofar as they have been successful. Occasional strategies demand little from us until they are revealed as an integral part of the very fabric of social reality.
As for social media, the conventional wisdom is that twitter-facebook and their kin constitute the second coming of the agora, the form and the village square, which is arrived none too early to halt the fraying of humanity. As evidence we have iconic hashtags: #iftheygunnedmedown #yesallwomen etc. And from the Persian summer of 2009 to the Arab Spring of 2012, one’s reporting on young, urban agitation is never complete without vignettes extolling the subversive potential of the social media. Without denying the utility which these portals can have as tool, I must state the obvious when I observe that to tweet is not to act. While the social media can, in theory, help to ignite that mass social consciousness which is the source of every lasting social spasm, by their nature, they tend to make shallow as well as castrate this consciousness. Social media merges the worst aspects of the classic means of social communication. From speech, both public and private they pull the unreflective fervor of the political political rally and the street-corner argument. The social is, in very important ways, the enemy of the intellectual. In the realm of the social, before an audience, it is better to obliterate reason and forebearance in the name of sloganeering than to risk a loss of social status by copping to the realities of complexity and uncertainty. (insert footnote about lawyers) The person unfortunate enough to possess his own thoughts risks being shouted down by the cyber-mediated crowd which surrounds him. From academia and the written word in general, social media creates a certain removed sense of action. That is, it is incredibly tempting for the writer/academic/discusser to imagine that he is doing by SAYING. As mighty as the pen is, it can only pulverize the bedrock of empire when its words fire a consciousness to move a body onto the bloody fields of action. The social media are even more dangerous in their temptations because previously only a few were able to convince themselves that wars waged on the field of culture were sufficient, the man of letters has always been an exceedingly rare specimen. Now, a Facebook account is all it takes to begin a prolific, if inillustious, career in polemics. I know how tempting this is, because I too have chased “likes” and “retweets”.” The fact that celebrities and luminaries at least nominally share this space with us, on Twitter tantalizingly separated by no more than an “@” , tunes the illusion to an irresistible pitch. Thus does social media shallow, and thus does it sastrate. We cannot in honesty deny, that for all the real affirmation we get from cyber-mediated social activity, the social media are, in themselves, nothing more than a fictive space for quasi action. They obscure our quotidian impotence and boil off the explosive tension which it would otherwise create, because one can revolt between lunch and the 1 p.m. meeting with a simple Facebook post. Insofar as the social media serve as a powerful organizing tool, they also kill the explosive impulse in between bursts of collective outrage. Hence, the outrage carousel.
As I have said before, I too am strikingly guilty. It is only because my spasms of outrage are painfully sincere and my motives as pure as I can make them, that I can muster the courage to critique myself so sharply. Put simply, the work of the 1960s which more than one thinker called an “age of revolution, is not yet done. Just as the work of the 18th century enlightenment putrefied into a foul bourgeiois-colonial imperialism, so has the work of the mid-century rotted into a steamrolling conglomerated corporatism. The world is still a profoundly unfree place. In America, we speak of “income inequality” as though a greater share of the neocolonialist bounty which Western corporations grasp by the barge-ful bears even a passing resemblance to justice. From Cape Town to Caracas, children starve atop the lion’s share of the world’s riches while the beneficiaries of the Vienna Convention and the Banana Republics, can only manage an empty spew of self-serving affectivity, which conveniently ignores that the “charity” they bestow is nothing more than a thief’s partial remittance of ill-gotten loot. But back to America, the never-ending litany of police outrages is merely the boil-over of the military-police-prison industrial complex. The American Civil RIghts Movement was not allowed to get past the point of (to paraphrase Malcolm X) asking America’s system of exploitation to take the internally colonized unto itself, in the same way that the third world integrated into the global corporate hegemon through which certain of we citizens of the Third World (the internally colonized) occupy an occasionally more comfortable position than before. In Africa, Asia, and South America, pacification is taken care of by distance and economic entanglement. (And increasingly by drones) In America, by a sporadic release of tensions through a Satanic carnival ride of harmless indignation. I fear I have strayed somewhat far afield, but, I perhaps not for all is connected. Just as the scattered mass of the Earth’s Wretched once found themselves and each other, so must we. Because now as then…..There is work to be done.
-Victor Bradley is the editor of The Negro Subversive and a grad-student-in-exile, his tweets can be found at @vblhe
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