Todd Ayoung

Notes On A Mode Of Address: Talking Back

Todd Ayoung
Notes On A Mode Of Address: Talking Back

“The mode of address, far from being a simple rhetorical technique, enacts the social constitution of ontology….The mode of address enacts the social possibility of a livable existence” Violence, Non-violence: Sartre and Fanon, 2008, Judith Butler.

What do I mean by a "mode of address”? This notion from Judith Butler’s "Black Lives Matter” New York Times interview, and her essay "Violence, Nonviolence”, reflections on Sartre’s introduction to Fanon’s 1961 book "The Wretched of the Earth”.

A mode of address is a form of speaking out, an enactment of a "social constitution of ontology” according to Judith Butler. This social constitution of ontology, of a mode of re-directing, demanding, and as a result a placeholding.

This enacts two anchors to begin our discussion: form giving as a re-directing, and a demand to open a placeholding as locational. This notion of a mode of address and place holding employed by Black Lives Matter, in 2012, was also employed by the Occupied Wall Street movement in 2011. What are some similarities and differences between the two movements? Like BLM, in the wake of OWS demanded political horizontality, as initially modeled after the egalitarian possibilities of social media. OWS in actuality, unlike BLM initially, was a placeholding of the NYC financial district, or a place of symbolic financial power: Wall Street.

After Occupied was policed away from Wall Street proper, Occupied found another placeholding close by, this time the public privatized Zuccotti Park, before OWS’s mode of address eventually proliferated globally. Black Lives Matter evolved through a mode of expression and virtual placeholding, after being platformed on social media through hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2012, as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman murdering of black teen Trayvon Martin, in Florida. This placeholding originated in most cases, in spatially black dominant communities (BLM started in Oakland CA, as did the Black Panthers), and is speaking to the historical systemic violence, in the US, directed at African American bodies.

What results from this re-directing, demanding and place holding, in both cases is a configuration of a mode of expression. For "Occupied” was a temporary nomadic global placeholding, to draw attention to a mode of political economic inequality, inherent globally in capitalism. For Black Lives Matter, this re-directing, demanding and placeholding, also spatially emerging globally, draws attention to a mode of in-existence, an un-livable existence (Homo Sacer) in the United States, where black bodies, since chattel slavery, are expendable at the hands of a militarized, predominantly white police force, and where black and brown bodies are the majority incarcerated through a "New Jim Crow” (Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010) political economic policy, that emerged after the old Jim Crow policies from 1877 ended in the mid 1960’s.

Talking Back

Talking back is form giving as re-directing, demanding, and howa mode of expression is locationally acted out. This act is re-act-ing a place holding, but it is also forming and locating blackness” in what Fanon calls the "historical racial schemata”. This schemata, a historical violence, a de-constitution, gives form through the beginnings of Chattel Slavery in the 15th century to the re-enacting, re-constitution or talking back/ black in Black Lives Matter.

Judith Butler’s essay "Violence, Nonviolence” is addressing Sartre introduction to Fanon’s book "The Wretched of the Earth”, and how Sartre and Fanon use the pronoun "you” differently in their mode of address.

Who is this "you” Sartre is addressing and who is this "you” Fanon is addressing? Nested within this "you” is also the question of violence.

For Sartre violence by the colonized is justified because of the violence acted upon the colonized by the colonizer. For Sartre the violence of the colonized is a mirroring back of the violence of the system of chattel slavery and racism, and ultimately the violence of being colonized.

For Fanon, violence is not just an absorption of violence practiced by the colonizer that is thrown back, but also a "pycho-affectivity”, an investigation into the ontology of the colonizer/colonizer dialectic, which can be a kind of violence towards the difficult process of self emancipation. So even though Fanon does not picture violence as Sartre seems too, as somewhat deterministic, Fanon does engage with violence as a cathartic instrument in the forward movement to social revolution.

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” - The Wretched of The Earth, 1961 Frantz Fanon.

“O my body, make of me always a man who questions!" - Black Skin White Mask, 1952 by Franz Fanon.

We Speak, You listen

I attended a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Ithaca, New York this summer. There was a large turnout with lots of pre-made signs for the participants. Some signs simply read "Black Lives Matter”, others directly questioned police violence in general. Another sign brought up a specific case around a police killing of a black man in Ithaca, and other signs spoke to incidents of excessive use of force by the police. At this rally and others I have witnessed African-Americans or people of color, were given a the platform to talk back, pushing white folks into the position of being active listeners. In fact there was no opportunity throughout the evening rally in Ithaca for white opinions or verbal acts of solidarity. White bodies were allowed and needed, but their individual voices were secondary.

This type of format in Black Lives Matter where whites are asked to position themselves only as allies is important. This differs from the Black Panther Party movement where whites could not join, but could be allies outside the group. In the Black Lives Matter movement, many white allies, at lease initially, were involved in organizing with blacks, but their voices in public space become secondary. Whites in public space are positioned as active listeners/allies only, whereas folks of color are the speakers. This was also evident at an Occupy Black Lives Matter intervention I happened to witness on my way out of Church Ave train station one night in Brooklyn. In this case, whites were in a call and response line on the sidewalk with folks of color doing the repeated vocal mega phone action occupy became well known for, as two African American male individuals initiated a call of remembrance/justice for Kyam Livingston’s wrongful death, which happened while she was in police custody in 2013.

This brings us back to Judith Butler’s essay on violence, non-violence. Fanon’s "The Wretched of the Earth” the mode of address is directed at black bodies, whereas Sartre’s introduction to the book, his mode of address is directed to white Europeans. Sartre’s encourages the Europeans to listen carefully, but not to assume that these black bodies give a damn what Europeans think. This is not unlike the Black Panther movement, which started in October 1966 in Oakland, California, or Stokely Carmichael’s summation of what was taking place in black America, as "Black Power”.

"She (white ally and activist) broke down a system that allows black infant babies to die at twice the rate of white ones. A system that expels black kids from school at five times the rate of white kids. A system where black teenagers are more likely to die than graduate from college. A system where police kill black people 21 times more often than white people. And a system that cages more black men today than were in bondage during slavery.”- It Took Me Years to Believe That Black Lives Matter. Now Here’s What I Need From You , Yes Magazine Oct 16, 2015.

Under Decolonization

"Denmark shipped around 100,000 enslaved Africans across the Atlantic from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries. This traffic made up almost 1% of the total transatlantic slave trade, which is assessed at 12.5 million persons from the 16th to the 19th centuries. During the period from the 1660s to 1802, or the time when the Danes participated in the trade, their share amounted to a little more than 2% of all slaves embarked in Africa for the Caribbean." - Erik Gobel from Danish Shipping Along The Triangular Route, 1671-1802.

I started off with this quote not to create what we call in the US "white guilt”, with regards Danish involvement in the European slave trade, but to re-cite what Franz Fanon calls the formation of a "historical racial schemata”. A good example of this is from Fanon’s first book "Black Skin, White Masks”, 1952, where Fanon recalls a personal incident as a new immigrant arrival walking the streets of France. A child points a finger at him, saying to the mother, "look a negro, I am frightened”.

How does this mode of speech from a white French child inscribe black and brown bodies, not only singularly, but historically? Can we say following Fanon's lead, that today’s "Clash of Civilizations”, with regards migrants or refugees, is the result of a historical cultural, religious schemata? If this question is relevant to the current Danish, or maybe European continental context generally, then what Birgitta Frello, the Danish Scholar writes in her essay Dark Blood, 2010, on the 2005 Danish documentary "Slaves In the Family”, that "It can be argued that in Denmark the racialize Other is not black. He is Muslim”. So how or when did the Muslim become "racialize”?

To continue Birgitta Frello declaration she writes: "Although visual difference does count when it comes to identifying Danish-ness, the bodily signs of difference that are most often designated as markers of a threatening otherness are not primarily "African‟, but rather signs that can be read as "Muslim‟. Hence, the main issue in terms of purity and contamination is not "race”, but "culture” – or rather "religion‟, which then, in its turn, is racialize: it is read on the surface of the bodies of its carriers.” Can we see how Fanon’s notion is echoed by Frello in this quote, that is, how black or brown bodies are inscribed through race historically in this statement?

Frello’s analysis is based on the distinction between the notion of "liberal hybridity”, which "essentializes” the mixture of "races”, in the Danish slavery and colonial context of black and white, and "hybridity as displacement”, which re-sites not only the history of slavery and colonialism, but also locates how power relations are translated through cultural and religious, social and nationalist configurations, creating the racialized other from "African” to the Muslim.

Making this distinction she then goes on to say that the documentary "Slaves in the Family”, although allowing Danes to acknowledge, even romanticize, that their "kinship” homogeneity is questionable. "We are all immigrants” as the film director when promoting his documentary, as regards the mixing of the blood of African slaves and the Danish slavers. "Slaves in the Family”, does not bring into question the current economic, social power relationships created in the wake of slavery and colonialism.

So in the Danish context today, you may be all immigrants, but some of you more so than others, meaning, to use a notion from psychoanalysis Erik H. Erikson, we have two constructions of "pseudo-speciations,” one more culturally, politically, religiously and nationally powerful than the other.

To continue with this thought regarding "pseudo-speciations”, or as Huey P. Newton, (Black Panther Party) would put it, a form of "reactionary intercommunalism”, which today could be a kind of Capitalist globalization. In Susan Buck-Morss’s book Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Buck-Morss quotes the Trinidad historian Eric Williams’ book Capitalism and Slavery, that "Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was a consequence of slavery”. Buck-Morss goes on to state that given the consequence of slavery, "Europeans built conceptual barriers of difference in the form of spatial distinctions between nation and colonies, a racialized distinction of Negro slavery, and legal distinctions as to the protection of persons, in order to segregate free Europe from colonial practices.”

As regards Danish involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. I wonder what other factors besides having difficulties navigating the seascape around Denmark, to the Africa coast, discontinued the Slave trade in 1802? Denmark being the first European nation to abolish slave trading is admirable given the capitalist profits involved, but the essay Erik Gobel regarding Danish involvement in the slave trade, only lays out the  historical mathematics and pragmatic difficulties the Danes encountered, but does not hint at any Danish ethical dis-engagement with slavery as a practice, like the old Testament injunction:

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute’ (Prov. 31: 8).”

From what I have read and viewed on the Internet, the most recent Danish installment regarding the European slave trade, the film Guldkysten, 2015 (Gold Coast) loosely based on the actual diary of a Jewish Dane, fictively, romantically, if ambiguously unfolds Denmark’s recent attempt to come to terms, dis-engagement with it’s past slavery days. One news report on Guldkysten, voicing astonishment, revelations of Denmark’s role in the Atlantic slave trade, has a Ghanian man involved with the film, stating that the slave trade also has to be blamed on African chiefs too. This inserted speech act by a black African to the realities of Danish slavery, allows the white viewer an escape route, for Denmark’s past and present responsibilities for the cruelties of chattel slavery.

presented at Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2015.