The (Bio)Politics of Respectability: Thoughts on the Theater of Non-Violence

“Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?” – Arundhati Roy


I’ve been thinking on this all year- the concept of non-violence and its reliance on the ways that certain bodies are valued more than others. This is why non-violent protesters were carefully chosen to be educated, well-dressed, etc people without arrest/conviction records (see: SNCC, and more recently, the Dream9). Maybe, just maybe, if these “respectable” people were assaulted by agents of the State, then maybe the world would see the fundamental ills of the society they sought to change. Perhaps it is a way of rendering subjects who’ve been un-seen ‘seen.’ Proffering these bodies to the gaze of the camera, they appeal to the consciousness of a society whose machinations have effectively segregated them, marginalized them, and otherwise mutilated or killed them, rendering them something less than “second-class.” 

Indeed, as Assata Shakur said, ”Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people that were oppressing them.” Here, I feel a need to stop and address the conflation of self-defense and oppressive aggression (one example is the popularity of a quote by Malala Yousafzai). The conflation elides the reality that marginalized people are effaced such that they are seen as not having any “self” to defend. This is not a new idea either. Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, a Chicago-based advocacy organization whose expressed goal is to “to dramatically reduce the reliance on arrest, detention, and incarceration for addressing youth crime and violence,” recently wrote and released a curriculum entitled, “No Selves to Defend: Curriculum for Marissa Alexander Teach-In.

 The idea of “social death” (a slippery concept which, if applied as in Patterson’s “Slavery and Social Death” means the willful effacement of the agency of the subjected) or the socially-dead inhabiting the polis of society is relevant here also. I am reminded of Jared Sexton’s “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts” in which he writes:

“In recent years, social death has emerged from a period of latency as a notion useful for the critical theory of racial slavery as a matrix of social, political, and economic relations surviving the era of abolition in the nineteenth century, “a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.” This “afterlife of slavery,” as Saidiya Hartman terms it, challenges practitioners in the field to question the prevailing understanding of a post-emancipation society and to revisit the most basic questions about the structural conditions of anti-blackness in the modern world. To ask what it means to speak of “the tragic continuity between slavery and freedom” or “the incomplete nature of emancipation”, indeed to speak of about a type of living on that survives after a type of death.”




“To speak of black social life and black social death, black social life against black social death, black social life as black social death, black social life in black social death – all of this is to find oneself in the midst of an argument that is also a profound agreement, an agreement that takes shape in (between) meconnaissance and (dis)belief. Black optimism is not the negation of the negation that is afro-pessimism, just as black social life does not negate black social death by vitalizing it. 

A living death is a much a death as it is a living. Nothing in afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonized, of all that capital has in common with labor – the modern world system. [23]Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space. This is agreed. That is to say, what Moten asserts against afro-pessimism is a point already affirmed by afro-pessimism, is, in fact, one of the most polemical dimensions of afro-pessimism as a project: namely, that black life is not social, or rather that black life is lived in social death.”


At this point, I have nothing further to add.



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