A Toolkit for Reading Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (2014)
By Marianela Munoz and Charles Holm
1. Alexander Weheliye: Biography
Dr. Weheliye is an Associate Professor of African American Studies, and is the director of Graduate Studies in the African American Studies Department at Northwestern University. He received his PhD from Rutgers University. His first book, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke University Press, 2005), won the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Study of Black American Literature or Culture. Habeous Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biolpolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press, 2014) is Weheliye’s second book. Weheliye’s current projects include a study on the thought of W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter Benjamin, and a historical study on the relationship between R&B music and technology from the 1970s to today. More information and links to Weheliye’s writings, syllabi, and current projects can be found on his personal website.
2. Unpacking and understanding Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human
Weheliye’s work seeks to intervene in “rectifying the short comings of ‘bare life and biopolitics discourse,’” suggesting that Black Studies proposes “alternate ways of conceptualizing the place of race, or racializing assemblages, within the domain of modern politics” (1). Weheliye takes an intersectional, and often global perspective, and counters others who have theorized “bare life,” “biopolitics, “social death,” and “necropolitics” for neglecting or disputing “the existence of alternative modes of life alongside the violence, subjection, exploitation, and racialization that define the modern human” (1-2). Interested in abolishing the systems that define the modern human, Weheliye insists his analysis does not work “within the lexicons of resistance and agency,” because “these concepts have a tendency to blind us, whether through strenuous denials or exalted celebrations of their existence, to the manifold occurrences of freedom in zones of indistinction” (emphasis added, 2).
First tool: Black Studies and Black Feminist Thought
Weheliye works within Black Studies, describing it as a “(non)disciplinary formation” (3). Working in Black Studies provides his work with alternative perspectives regarding “bare life” and “biopolitics” as Weheliye makes “blackness, and racializing assemblages” central to his theorization, and contributes to his understanding racial assemblages themselves as “political relations that require…the barring of nonwhite subjects from the category of the human as it is performed in the modern west” (emphasis added, 3). Black Studies presents a global critique of Western modernity and Western modes of knowledge production, while constructing alternative modes of thought and working for abolishing the West’s conception of Man.
Weheliye notes how Black Feminist thought has been dismissed and disavowed, not only within traditional disciplines, but also within Black Studies itself. Habeus Viscus draws on the work of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynters, Black Feminist scholars who share the goal of disrupting the “conception of humanity as synonymous with western Man” and who bring to this project “analytic tools for thinking the deeply gendered and sexualized provenances of racializing assemblages” (5). Weheliye also cites W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963) as informing his understanding of racialization and racializing assemblages.
Second tool: Revisiting Agambem and Foucault
Habeas Viscus engages with the work of Giorgio Agambem and Michel Foucault, problematizing how theorizations about sovereignty, states of exception, homo sacer, bare life, on the one hand, and biopolitics in general, on the other, tend to be deracialized or have a narrow definition of racism. “How would Foucault’s and Agambem’s theories of modern violence differ if they took the Middle Passage as their point of departure rather than remaining entrapped within the historiographical cum philosophical precincts of fortress Europe?”, Weheliye asks.
By establishing Nazi racism and European biopolitics as the paradigmatic example of biopolitical racialization, both Agambem and Foucault fail to consider “the historical relationality and conceptual contiguity between Nazi racism and the other forms of biopolitics… those perfected in colonialism, indigenous genocide, racialized indentured servitude, and racial slavery, for instance.” (59).
Check this video about some of Agamben’s theoretical foundations (and bias), and think about how the sole images selected may enrich Weheliye arguments: AGAMBEN HOMO SACER ANIMATIC
Additionally, we recommend to read the following quotes to understand the entanglement of sovereignty- biopower and biopolitics for Foucault’s theorization on the formation of power and the practice of modern nation states in Western societies:
Biopolitics: “The power of European state to “make live and let die” (... ) a new technology of power...[that] exists at a different level, on a different scale, and [that] has a different bearing area, and makes use of very different instruments." (Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. 1997: 242)
Biopower: "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations". (The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. 1998: 140). “By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species. This is what I have called biopower.” (Security, Territory, Population 2007: 1)
Third tool: Understanding “Habeas Corpus” as the Great Writ
Habeas corpus: From Latin habeas, 2nd person singular present subjunctive active of habere, "to have", "to hold"; and corpus, accusative singular of corpus "body". Literally the phrase means "you shall have the body". The complete phrase habeas corpus ad subjiciendum means "you shall have the person for the purpose of subjecting him/her to (examination)". These are the opening words of writs in 14th century Anglo-French documents requiring a person to be brought before a court or judge, especially to determine if that person is being legally detained. ("Etymology Online". Habeas Corpus Etymology.)
Watch the following video of the Military Commission Act of 2006 (President Bush) and think about how “Habeas Corpus” historically represents a limit to the arbitrariness of the Sovereign: Habeas Corpus. What are the possibilities of reading Habeas Viscus in dialogue with a Constitutional right?
Fourth tool: Poetics of the Image
The cover art of Habeas Viscus is a Collage from the Kenyan Artist Wangechi Mutu: http://wangechimutu.com/
Her work has been described as feminist centered and Afro-futurist. We suggest a visit to her web site, having in mind Weheliye Arguments about the hieroglyphics of the flesh
Rae Adeleye, Julia Detchon and Thomas Edwards
Frank Wilderson is an Associate professor of African American Studies and Drama at U.C. Irvine. He is also a filmmaker, critic and writer. He earned his M.F.A. from Columbia University in Creative Writing (1991) followed by a Ph.D.in Rhetoric/Film Studies from U.C. Berkeley (2004). His research interests are in film theory, Marxism, Black Political Theory, Dramaturgy and Cultural studies. He received many awards for his writing as the author of the book Incognegro: A memoir of Exiles & Apartheid (2008).
Afro-pessimism - Wilderson’s website “Incognegro” states “rather than celebrate Blackness as a cultural identity, Afro-Pessimism theorizes it as a position of accumulation and fungibility (Saidiya Hartman); that is, as condition-- or relation of ontological death” (Incognegro). Wilderson says that because “Afro-Pessimists are framed as such...because they theorize an antagonism, rather than a conflict -- i.e. they perform a kind of ‘work of understanding’ rather than that of liberation” (Incognegro Interview). Wilderson’s website has a suggested reading list for those interested in works exploring the ideas of Afro-Pessimism.
The first part of Red, White & Black, entitled “Structural Antagonisms,” is a dense and extended discussion intended to locate theoretical foundation and methodology. Key figures presented in the two chapters, “The Ruse of the Analogy” and “The Narcissistic Slave” include Fanon, Agamben, Ronald Judy, Hortense Spillers, Equiano, Lacan (particularly his analysand), Hartman, Thomists and Spanish explorers, hooks, and Tommy Lott. These two chapters cover a lot of ground, so instead of an exhaustive summary here, we’ll address the concepts upon which we may find the most grounds for debate.
Antwone Fisher (2002) is Wilderson’s case study of a Slave film in the book, where he uses Afro-pessimism to “scrutinize Black cinema’s insistence that Blackness can be disaggregated from social death” (95). Building upon his conclusions in the two prior chapters, Wilderson examines how this film
Bush Mama (made 1975, released 1979) is for Wilderson an admirable depiction of black female suffering transmitted through white institutional oppression qua Dorothy’s experiences in Los Angeles. Wilderson finds Bush Mama an indictment of hegemonic violence. Wilderson identifies this film among a rare cumulative moment in the 1970s where radical Blacks emerged to embrace violence in an unprecedented way. Radical Blacks, he argues, formed a structure of articulation between their “unflinching” political movement (BLA and militancy) and cinematic fantasies (124).
Monster’s Ball (2001) - Wilderson’s interview with Dr. Pamela Brewer on the topic of Fanon, discusses the “need for the world to know itself” and the centrality of the black/white binary to self-understanding. In the hour long interview, Wilderson touches upon Monster’s Ball and just as he does in part 4 of Red, White and Black he discusses black parenting, and locates the failure as a structural rather than a performative problem. In the interview Wilderson says,
“as a parent who is not black […] one of the things Fanon is suggesting is that you can […] offer your child a reasonable framework/schema of how to live life faithfully, which is to say how to incur violence on your body from the institution, and how to not incur that violence. One thing that you cannot do as a black parent, with a black child is how to tell your child how to live life safely.”
From an Afro-Pessimistic perspective the recognition for a black parent, that they cannot keep their children safe in the world in which they live is a bleak and scary one. The world in which they live in one that tells them to “be white or disappear.” The inability for a black body to ever be white suggests they they must do that latter. This is Leticia’s experience in Monster’s Ball.The discussion of the mulatta as the mediation between black and white is discussed at length in part 4 of Red, White and Black.
The construction of the mulatta, neither black nor white, as vacuous as a shadow and as a prop complicates the black/white binary as black bodies are “borrowed” to perform as mulattas. Although Leticia is presented as a “mulatta” she is a “borrowed black body” and thus must be “rescued” from blackness by whiteness; cinema imagines her body as “a corpse with a pulse” (290).
In order to understand her “excess of fear” it is important to recognize the moment of rupture that occurs in the scene where Berry’s “unscripted and unforeseen” rant challenges the scripting of the film by replacing scripted words with her own. This partial clip of the “Make Me Feel Good” scene allows us to listen to/see the “grammar” of her suffering (as both character and actress).
Katheryne Bedecarre, Lucia Palmer and Mickey Cox
There are numerous videos of Achille Mbembe’s lectures available online and we find that they present an interesting compliment to his work in The Postcolony. In the interest of time we highlight, “Achille Mbembe: Revolts and Resistance –A Pan African Perspective,” an edited 15 minute clip of a much larger lecture and interview. We suggest watching around 6:48 as the interviewer asks Mbembe to elaborate on his idea of a “Democratic Avant-garde” and Mbembe adamantly rejects the moniker of Afro-pessimism.
Additionally, we recommend the very brief editorial, “A Critical Humanism” by Achille Mbembe and Deborah Posel that better articulates Mbembe’s “politics of hope” and contextualizes his enamorment with the South African project.
As a group we've identified an intriguing tension between such evidence of Mbembe's optimistic commitment to the South African democratic project (where he spent 11 years living and teaching) and his work in The Postcolony. Like Fanon, Mbembe grapples with the question, how can you bring about mutual recognition? How can the colonized refuse to be mediators for the colonizer's subjectivity? In many ways, Mbembe shares a similar productive irresolution with Fanon. On the one hand, he seems to express a sort of undying skepticism that we can ever escape racism and colonialism ---especially when the (post) colonial state, and the way in which its apparatus has infiltrated the everyday, requires the participation in and complicity with a constant production of black death. And on the other hand, his lectures and other publications illustrate his investment in a liberatory praxis and project. Mbembe, however, refuses the insistence on violence as antidote to the colonial relationship. Instead, he insists on the possibility of the (utopic) multiracial/cultural democratic project and calls for a critical analysis of the condition of the enslaved.
In addition to exploring this ambivalence, we would like our seminar discussion to address Mbembe's gender politics. Is it problematic to use rape as a metaphor for colonialism? What do we make of his gendered/sexualized language? Does he adequately engage with women theorists? For example, Jared Sexton’s,“People-of-Color-Blindess: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery” critiques Mbembe's dismissive reading of Saidiya Hartman’s work in his canonical 2003 article, “Necropolitics.”
By Daniela Gomes and Marianela Muñoz
Our debate this week will engage with Frantz Fanon’s work, Black Skin White Masks and Achille Mbembe reading of it presented in his article Metamorphic Thought: The works of Frantz Fanon.
1. Revisiting Theory: Approaching to Black Skin White Masks in terms of Performance
In order to examine Fanon piece from a performance approach, we propose a second read to the work of De Certau, The Practice of Everyday Life and Carlson, Peformance a critical introduction. Both works present some key ideas that may frame our discussion such as:
2. Black Skin White Masks
A reading of Black Skin White Masks under the perspective of the performance studies, involves the comprehension that Fanon writes from his own experiences, from his practices and from his frustrations. Presenting the masks as a kind of character that black people need to create in order for being accepted in the society, Fanon tries to approach different explanations to the relationship between blackness and whiteness and the unhealthy fascination that one have for another.
His analysis engages with his own practice as a Psychiatrist and the cases that he heard from his patients, but also narrates his own experiences as someone from Martinique who moved to France thinking about himself as equal and realizing what was his real condition as son of the middle class in his country who spent his whole life wearing the white masks. His masks only is removed when a child, which can be considered a bearer of the truth look at him and define him as a “negro”, exposing him to his blackness and helping him to understand what that involves. From this moment, he decides to embrace the image of the scary black man that the child is afraid of and use his anger to perform blackness as the freak show expected by the society.
It is possible to read Fanon under the perspective of different scenarios and scenes presented over the book; as well as a group of characters that are put together to illustrate his concept of “negrophobia”. Furthermore, Fanon also engages in conversation with different art expressions, such as poetry, intending to present veracity to his words and to problematize the scope of being, embodying, and performing blackness and whiteness.
3. Césaire’s Poetry and Fanon
As suggested, literary sources are part of Fanon effort for comprehend the psycho-existential complex derived from the juxtaposition of the black and white races (2008: xvi). One of the figures that inspired Fanon works is Aimé Césaire, not only as an intellectual and political leader of the Negritude movement in Martinique, but also as a poet. We include an extract from Return to My Native Land, and a performance of one of his poems. The poem echoes Fanon analysis of the lived experience and psychopathology of black man.
“In a tram one night, facing me, a Negro.
He was a Negro tall as a pongo who tried to make himself very small on a tram seat. On that filthy tram seat he tried to abandon his gigantic legs and his starved boxer’s trembling hands. And everything had left him, was leaving him. His nose was like a peninsula off its moorings; even his negritude was losing its colour through the effects of a perpetual tanner’s bleach. And the tanner was Poverty. A great sudden long-eared bat whose claw-marks on that face were scarred, scabby islands. or perhaps Poverty was a tireless workman fashioning some deformed cartridge. You could see how clearly the industrious malevolent thumb had modelled the lump of the forehead, pierced two tunnels -parallel and disturbing- through the nose, drawn out the disproportion of the upper lip, and by a masterstroke of caricature had planned, polished, varnished the smallest, neatest little ears in all creation.
He was an ungainly Negro without rhythm or measure. A Negro without shame, and his big smelly toes snigered in the deep gaping lair of his shoes.
Poverty, it has to be said, had taken great pains to finish him off.
She had stretched the empty space between the solid hinge of the jaws and the bone of an old, worn cheek. On this she had planted the shiny little bristles of several days’ beard. She had maddened the heart and bent the back.
And the whole thing added up perfectly to a hideous Negro, a peevish Negro, a melancholy Negro, a slumped Negro, hands folded as in a prayer upon a knotty stick. A Negro shrouded in an old, threadbare jacket. A Negro who was comical and ugly, and behind me women giggled as they looked at him.
He was COMICAL AND UGLY.
COMICAL AND UGLY, for a fact.
I sported a great smile of complicity…” (Césaire, 1969 Transl. 68-69)
4. Black Skin White Masks – Documentary
In order to complement our readings we propose to watch in class the documentary Black Skin White Masks. The fifty minutes documentary bring scholars, artists and relatives presenting different perspectives of Fanon’s work and life experiences and will help us to have a better comprehension of the book. If you are not able to watch the whole documentary, we strongly recommend you try Video 2 of 5.