Saturday, 20 July 2013

Contract Man - Homo Sacer Investigations II

1.  ‘Infamy’ in the Americas 
2.  Black Rites

1.  ‘Infamy’ in the Americas

For some obscure reason Deleuze and Guattari were very jealous of Borges – or they appear to bear him some kind of grudge – claiming he ruined, “botched” at least two books – only the titles were good – A Universal History of Infamy and The Book of Imaginary Beings.  They reprimand him twice almost in the same words: “Everything is infamy, but Borges botched his history of universal infamy.  He should have distinguished between the great realm of deceptions and the great realm of betrayals.  And also between the various figures of betrayals.” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, London, 2004, p. 138) Or: “Jorge Luis Borges, an author renowned for his excess of culture, botched at least two books, only the titles of which are nice: first, A Universal History of Infamy, because he did not see the sorcerer’s fundamental distinction between deception and treason (…)” (ibid., p. 266)
Deleuze and Guattari imply that the phenomena of betrayal and deception – in themselves so ambiguous, so volatile, so chimeric – could be clearly differentiated.  Even Genet for whom treason belonged to the realm of religious transfiguration must concede through his character of Carmen in The Balcony – “One never knows whom one betrays – not even if one has betrayed.”

Leaving aside the phenomenon that some fidelities can have more terrible consequences than betrayals – why should Borges have written a book that Deleuze and Guattari think he should have written – or would have written in his stead had they had the good fortune to be Borges?  Borges was not writing a taxonomy or encyclopaedic treatment of betrayal or deception – he was if anything producing “pure appearance” – the opposite of all substantiality, essence, phyla and kingdoms – his betrayals were only literary – “falsifying and distorting stories” for his own amusement and possibly a reader’s – ‘mon hypocrite lecteur’.  He is a counterfeiter of stories, even of stories of betrayal.
The ruse (metis) is in the text itself – the conscious and unconscious ruse.  Of course as a falsifier Borges can also bear false witness to himself. (Metis is the characteristic associated with Ulysses – even polymetis.)  His stance is similar to the image of Hegel ‘the impostor’ conjured up by Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster.
As Borges is a counterfeiter of stories, Hegel (according to Blanchot) is a counterfeiter of truth.  “(…) – the death of reading, the death of writing – which leaves Hegel living: the living travesty of completed Meaning.  (Hegel the impostor: this is what makes him invincible, mad with his seriousness, counterfeiter of Truth: ‘putting one over’ to the point of becoming, all unbeknownst to him, master of irony…) (Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, p. 79 quoted in Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle, Cambridge/Oxford, 1992, p. 4)

Borges declares his intentions quite explicitly in a preface to A Universal Book of Infamy: “The theologians of the Great Vehicle point out that the essence of the universe is emptiness.  Insofar as they refer to the particle of the universe which is this book, they are entirely right.  Scaffolds and pirates populate it, and the word ‘infamy’ in the title is thunderous, but behind the sound and fury is nothing.” (A Universal Book of Infamy, London, 1975, p. 12) Deleuze and Guattari like the title the most – or only the title – they were fooled by the sound of thunderous nothing.  Borges’ writing inhabits another plane – a plateau without depth.  Perhaps for this reason so eminently suited to divining and perpetrating betrayals and deceptions.  The authors Deleuze and Guattari have been successfully duped into thinking that Borges’ stories have a profundity of soundings – but this is mere illusion – a betrayal of depth.  “The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable.” (ibid.)  Borges is simply describing the sort of book that Deleuze and Guattari would like to think they have written – he exercises that liberty of the author they so aptly circumscribe in their opening pages: “A book has neither object nor subject: it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds.  To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations.” (Deleuze and Guattari, ibid., p. 4)  And yet Deleuze and Guattari would force Borges – if the book were not to be a ‘botched’ one – to stick to his ‘subject’ – the nice title – and make sure that he produces an ‘exhaustive’ catalogue of all possible variations of the theme.  Adorno mocked such writers who imagine it is their duty to always start from “Adam and Eve”.  They had no understanding of the ‘essay’ – it starts anywhere and finishes nowhere.  In principle, Deleuze and Guattari even allow for such mapless writing – a book is “unattributable” whilst still “attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity.” (ibid.)  And even if Borges would have said nothing more about infamy than what resounds in his title – he did so with such sorcery, that Deleuze and Guattari are still scavenging for clues as to its whereabouts.

Besides the tales of infamy are not just ‘about’ treason – how to classify the story of the 47 loyal retainers – a fable of supreme vengeance – and fidelity beyond mere individual valour.  The retainers avenge their master who was condemned to commit hara-kiri because he aimed a grazing blow to the head of the imperial master of etiquette.  The enemy-villain – the infamous Kôtsuké no Suké himself is neither a deceiver nor a traitor – merely a courtier, a rude master of etiquette who insulted the unfortunate lord of the castle, whilst on an official visit to instruct the lord on how to receive the imperial envoy. His elevated position allowed him to indulge his greed and cruelty to an extreme degree.  The loyalty of the retainers verges on the supernatural – especially their pact of vengeance.  Finally after a year of preparation and the ‘simulation of infamy’ (shows of disloyalty to the memory of the dead master), the retainers march on the castle of the master of etiquette.  They slaughter most of his household – but he is nowhere to be found.  They notice that his bed is still warm and look down into a gloomy courtyard where a man in a nightshirt stands with his sword in a trembling hand.  He is too cowardly to commit hara-kiri when the retainers offer him this honour – so “as the day dawned, they are forced to cut his throat.” (Borges, ibid, p. 75)
Borges addresses the reader and himself as those who are not loyal, who will always drift off into some kind of betrayal – treason is the normal lot for most of us.  The story for us has no end because the retainers’ inimitable loyalty betrays us, the disloyal majority. 

Borges’ history of infamy is far more complicated than mere ‘realms of deception’ and ‘realms of treason’ – (insofar as one can speak of a type) his figures belong more to the type of the ‘desperado’, infamous in the pursuit of a dubious ‘respectability’ – a character more familiar to the Americas than in Europe. The desperado himself has infinite varieties – the impostor, the con-man, the hustler, the horse thief, the card shark, the pool shark, the Bible salesman, the preacher, the hustler’s manager, the pimp etc.  
For Deleuze and Guatarri treason and deception always end up either in a state apparatus or a ‘war machine’ – as they demonstrate on the next page – even Richard the Third their ultimate example of an “absolute traitor”, one of Shakespeare’s most anomalous characters – “the traitor springing from the great nomads and their secrecy” – whose secret project infinitely surpasses the conquest of power – all he finally is said to want is “to return the war machine both to the fragile State and pacified couples.” (ibid., p. 139)

How much more perverse and polytropic than Richard the Third is Borges’ character Lazarus Morell – despite even more humble origins – sprung from poor white stock out of the rotting bayous in the alluvial fish graveyards around the dead waters of the Mississippi – who devises an ingenious ‘philanthropic’ scheme to resell black slaves after enticing them to run away from their masters.  The blacks were promised freedom and cash after running away a second time.  Of course this does not happen - the runaway slave is eventually consigned to the Mississippi.  Morell’s nemesis – a nephew of a plantation owner, who had many slaves ‘emancipated’ in this fashion, poses as a ‘confederate’ of Morell (he becomes renowned for his vicious and cruel ways) and exposes his scam.  Morell manages to escape arrest even as the police surround his town house in New Orleans – and whilst riding the horse and wearing the good boots of a man he has just murdered on his way to Natchez  – he decides to (truly) lead a rebellion of the blacks against the whites and conquer the territory.  Morell mutates from brutal scoundrel to a dastardly poor white Don Quixote:  “His scheme was foolhardy.  He planned to enlist the services of the last men still to owe him honour – the South’s obliging blacks.  They had watched their companions run off and never seen them reappear.  Their freedom, therefore, was real.  Morell’s object was to raise the blacks against the whites, to capture and sack New Orleans, and to take possession of the territory.  Morell, brought down and nearly destroyed by Stewart’s betrayal, contemplated a nationwide response – a response in which criminal elements would be exalted to the point of redemption and a place in history.” (“The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morell” in ibid., p. 28)  In Borges’ account the ‘real’ traitor is the fake confederate who sets up Morell – but his betrayal is the impetus for Morell’s grand scheme of redemption.  The criminal class has its own strict code of honour – and its behaviour cannot merely be assimilated to the rigid operations and calculations of a war machine or a state – nor is it simply ‘treason’ or ‘deception’.   Similarly Borges defends the more gentlemanly style of speech in the story “Streetcorner Man” against those who would claim a ‘hoodlum’ would not use such language:  “In that story, which is about life on the outer edge of old-time Buenos Aires, it will be noted that I have introduced a few cultivated words – ‘intestines’, ‘involutions’, and so forth.  I did so because the hoodlum aspires to refinement, or (this reason invalidates the other but is perhaps the true one) because hoodlums are individuals and do not always speak like The Hoodlum, who is a platonic type.” (ibid., p. 12)

Perhaps these other non-typical paradigms of infamy (the multiplicity of which are found in Borges’ universal history) appear flawed to Deleuze and Guattari because they originate in experience from the other side of the ‘abyssal line’ (de Sousa Santos) – the one between the new world and the old, colonies and ex-colonial masters – north and south – wherever one can look up at the night sky and see the southern cross.  On the North side of the line is where the western subject and his western modernity are valid (legal systems, criteria of truth and falsehood, loyalty and betrayal - science, theology, philosophy).  On the South Side of the line none of this applies.  The North is also the location of ‘civil society’, ‘humanity, ‘civilization’.  The other side of this geographical, navigational, ontological line is the ‘state of nature’ or rather a no man’s land, the outside of the law.  The ‘state of nature’ against which Hobbes devises his Leviathan – reflects at least in part reports of the time on the way of life of the “savage people” in America – who “(…) have no government at all and live in this day in that brutish manner.” (Thomas Hobbes, Chapter XIII, Leviathan 1909 edition [1651], The Online Library of Liberty)

The ‘North’ discovered its own ‘state of nature’ in the ‘South’ – later the South became a refuge from law and government for European adventurers and hasardeurs.

The 19th century Europeans, especially the government of Emperor Napoleon III, must have still believed what Hobbes wrote about the Americas – sending a Habsburg for instance to become the emperor of Mexico – as if they had no government of their own.  It shows that one emperor tends to breed another. The pretext for the French invasion of Mexico was the decision of the government of President Benito Juárez to suspend interest payments on its debts to its creditors in particular France, Spain and England.  The creditor nations were united in an invasion coalition called “The Treaty of London”.  But the Spanish and English soon withdrew when they realized the French wanted to seize all of Mexico – especially its silver mines.
The Mexicans endured the reign of the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian the First of Mexico briefly before they followed the example of the French Revolution and in 1867 executed him.  Napoleon III had already prudently abandoned his protégé, withdrawing his invasion troops the year before. 

For Nietzsche writing mid 19th century – the abyssal line ran through the middle of Europe itself.  He uses the cartography of North and South (not east and west) – seeing himself as an escapee from the stifling sickly North (in particular Bismarck’s Germany) seeking health and gaiety (le gai savoir) in the South.  The Americas don’t seem to exist for Nietzsche. 

But nowadays during the reign of the ‘Troika’ – the abyssal line of demarcation in Europe is between the ‘PIIGS’ plus Cyprus and the imperators of the North. “Der Ab-grund ist Ab-grund”. (“the a-byss is a-byss”, Heidegger)  It is an abyssal line of ‘sovereign debt’.  In the case of Greece many analysts consider this sovereign debt to be of the category of ‘odious debt’ or illegitimate debt.  The debt regime Greece has been made to endure by the European Commission etc is thus regarded by a majority of the population as a renewed German ‘occupation’ of Greece. 
(see the Greek documentary films Debtocracy and Katastroika, Directors/Writers Katerina Kitidi and Aris Chatzistefanou, online) 

Carl Schmitt foresaw the time when a people could be proscribed (Ächtung) - not just for alleged “Menschenfleisch fressen” (cannibalism), as Bacon ordained for the Indians of the Americas (and which was seconded by Pufendorff), but for lesser more harmless aberrations such as when a “people can not pay their debts.” (see Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen, Berlin, 2009, (1932), footnote pp. 52-53)]  Naturally, when Schmitt wrote his treatise in 1932 – he was not thinking of the American Indians, but of the “Schuldnernation” (debtor nation) Germany and its heavy burden of war reparations from World War I – dictated by the Versailles Treaty.      

Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of treason and deception presupposes (although they would deny this strongly) a unified Cartesian cogito/subject/certainty (a subject of certainty and its pendant doubt) – equivalent to the One of the State or its Grand Rival the War Machine - in turn sprouting/spawning/generating its own established/familiar forms of transgression, haunted by its too familiar ‘evil genius’ or ‘deceitful god’.           

Badiou clearly and emphatically refutes the notion of Deleuze as the philosopher of lavish/riotous confusion or the chaotic multiplicity of the organic and inorganic world – rather one must recognize in his work a “metaphysics of the One“ – a distinctly Heideggerian ‘clamor’ from the great univocity of Being. (see Alain Badiou, The Clamor of Being, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, Chapter 1. “Which Deleuze?”, Chapter 2. “Univocity of Being and Multiplicity of Names”)

Balibar has coined the term “ideality” for this sort of necessary transcendence – hegemonic violence cannot do without it, he contends, neither can revolutionary organizations insofar as they are implicitly contained in the idea of the State as the immanent ‘counter-violence’ to sovereign institutions. 

“Ideality” is another revamping of what Deleuze and Guattari would call the double subject of “modern or Christian philosophy” – Descartes’ Cogito, whose ‘heteronomous’ point of subjectification is transposed to and dependent on the Infinite or the Absolute.  The first subject is the Cogito itself (subject of enunciation) – the I of I think, assume, perceive etc – the second subject is the I of feeling or sensing (the subject of statement) who forms propositions concerning one’s self.  The second subject is often hidden by the first, but dependent upon it as the guarantor of interpretation – but has potentially a more immediate relation to the material world.  No matter how many times this subject is declared dead and defunct it resurrects itself zombie-like in a certain French theory or western philosophy – the word in Deleuze for this self-correcting resurrection is ‘recommencing’ -  “The cogito is a proceeding that must always be recommenced, (…)” (A Thousand Plateaus, ibid.,  p. 142)  The recommencing is a safety mechanism/device against its own ‘brokenness’ – the split between the norm, its inner legality and the darker face of its own transgressive potential.  One can thus never comprehend transgression (or more simply evil) according to this paradigm without relating it to the proper recommencing of cogito.  Evil or transgression though is the impetus for the recommencing – almost a purged reunifying of cogito with itself, or its reunion with the Absolute.

The double subjects in Balibar’s analysis of violence are compressed into one state subject of power  – potentially also encompassing what is not-state or counter-power  (rebellion, revolution, anti-systemic movements) – so that any ‘legitimate violence’ (is that also a vestige of the subject of statement?) must appeal to its own transcendence (the subject of enunciation) to truly appear/function as legitimate.  Such power or power apparatuses may appear multiple – but per force of quasi-gravity will inevitably act to reduce complexity (meaning to crush all internal and external resistance to it)  – and how?  “(…) not only by virtue of its material force, which would never suffice (subject of statement again sm), or could never be sufficiently focused, but by virtue of its own transcendence (the subject of enunciation sm).  I would say: by virtue of the ‘tautological power’ and violence of its ideality, as expressed in such formulas as God is God, the Law is the Law, which try to encapsulate the Absolute.” (Étienne Balibar, “Violence, Ideality and Cruelty” in Politics and the Other Scene, London/Brooklyn, 2002, p. 136) 
Voilà – “ideality” is also a ‘metaphysics of the One’.
 (In a slight variation of this metaphysical twist: Lacoue-Labarthe in his analysis of Heidegger’s Rectoral Address of 1933 “Transcendence Ends in Politics” concludes that Heideggerian politics is nothing but the continuation of metaphysics by other means – as opposed to Balibar’s more Clausewitzian approach to the relation of transcendence and politics – which might be abbreviated – metaphysics is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means.)      

Counter-violence ‘haunts’ the state body as its necessary chimera – for all state violence in Balibar’s assessment is “preventive counter-violence” against an anticipated quasi-transcendental primary counter-violence – which need not ever materialize.  This presumed counter-violence is the source of its legitimacy.  The counter-violent forces belong to the realm of the imaginary – mythically predating the state’s foundation and as such ever present as a potential recurrence.  This is the classic Hobbesian “state of nature”.  But foundational state violence alias “preventive counter-violence” cannot just remain possible or potential – it must become actual – for its own sake, for the self-preservation of its being.  “And basically, I think, that if the so-called ‘foundational violence of state power’ is to exist (or appear as foundational), it must not only be idealized or sacralized – that goes without saying – but also actually exercised and implemented at some points and times, in some visible ‘zones’ of the system…”(ibid. p. 138)  Foundational state violence - like any other machinery – if it is not tested at its limits once in awhile – it will rust and eventually fall apart.  Theoretically, Balibar would imply, preventive counter-violence must occur periodically with or without a counter-violent pretext.

The ‘South’ or “state of nature”, the declared outside of the law for the ‘North’, was historically a most efficacious zone (although not always so visible) for exercising European foundational state violence in the sense recommended by Balibar.  One could indulge there in material practices where violence crosses the border to transgressive cruelty – much more freely than if one were to be restricted to ‘normal’ European policing.  But still says Balibar – this is only possible because of the authority of an extreme ideality (not its abandonment/absence) – as one can see in the history of the Spanish conquest of South America – the practices of the conquistadores. 
“(…) the conquistadores were acting in the framework of an extremely powerful hegemony  – under the authority of an extremely powerful ideality, namely the Catholic religion, combining legal apparatus and messianic faith, which allowed them to subsume the practices of cruelty under the discourses of hegemony – that is, a spiritual and material violence which could be disciplined and ‘civilized’.” (ibid.)  But is that really the case?  Balibar overlooks that these discourses of hegemony were established elsewhere – not yet in the Americas – the conquistadores were in the process of transferring them there from the ‘motherland’, that was their practice of conquest – as an imported hegemony.  Their actions thus already assumed a discourse of hegemony, which was not yet established, they cannot be said to have been acting within an existing one.  The ‘zone’ in which they were operating could be better described as ‘anomic’, extrajuridical, (a sort of ‘primitive accumulation’ of legitimacy) rather than hegemonic (not even a ‘state of exception’) – or at least from the conquistadorial point of view there was not any law or right except their own. And within that law – the conquistadores were practicing cruelty in the encapsulated zone of the system which Agamben calls “pure violence without logos”. (Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Chicago, 2005, p. 40)
The actions of the conquistadores were pre-hegemonic, – the period of conquest was rather a de facto tyranny.  Tyranny is a phenomenon of the ‘state of nature’, it is not civilizable – it substitutes for a legal apparatus, it is its own legal apparatus.  In that sense tyranny is devoid of ideality – it is rather empirical, pure facticity or contingency – but not to be confused with chance, or the aleatory.  Tyranny is not adequately described as the rule of the One – the One suggests a coherent unity, an omniscient Singularity, the sovereign Individual (whatever form).  But tyranny is precisely the body cancelling this unity – diffuseness rules, not the One.  

For the Aztecs and Incas the presence of the conquistadores would have seemed rather like an invasion from another planet. Precisely because they were completely ignorant of any ‘framework of hegemony’ – they would have regarded the conquistadores as supernatural beings.  The brutal incursions of the conquistadors were inexplicable occurrences for the autochthonous populations, more like oracles than material events; – but whatever motivation the conquerors drew from “messianic faith” or “ideality” – this was their ‘past’.  Their onslaught, as Adorno notes in Negative Dialectic came from their future even if it took the antiquated form of a bloody Inquisition and Crusade.  The conquistadores unfolded an historical teleological principle immanent in nascent bourgeois society: the ‘irrational’ expansion of bourgeois rational society until it could achieve its ultimate conceptual limits of “one world” (see Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, Frankfurt, 1982, p. 297).   

‘Ideality’ is one of many terms forged by ‘western metaphysics’ to embody the logic of the Absolute; in this example of the transplanting of dominion from the ‘old world’ to the ‘new’ –it magically converts any ‘hegemonic’ act of cruelty or ‘infamy’ against populations whether in one’s own territory or anywhere else on the globe into a civilizing process.  In the mother country such ‘ideality’ is also a prerequisite for biopolitics.  

Obviously then, Deleuze and Guattari who come from the same school of thought as Balibar – will not have found this ‘ideality’ of transgression in Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy - thus they cannot identify the infamy and betrayal in his stories according to their customary models of cogito and its infinitude of transgressive renewal.

Borges does not situate infamy in a firmly hegemonic ideality or ‘ontotheology’ – as is customary in Europe.  His history of infamy is much closer to a ‘state of nature’ than to civilization – norms and systems are as mutable as clouds or rivers.  Perhaps as the ‘treacherous’ literary anthropologist or purveyor of counterfeit anthropologies and “baroque” histories of the ‘South’ – Borges, the untitled ‘infamous’ compiler of his history of infamy (itself a forgery, a false history) –unconsciously confirms the traveller’s tales about the new world Montaigne reports in his essay Of Cannibals “This is a nation, I should say to Plato, in which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat.  The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon—unheard of.” (The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Stanford, 1998, p. 153)

How then could one satisfy the criteria of a European canon of treason or deception when grounded in such a void?

2.  Black Rites

Is the exalted position of the traitor in Deleuze, Genet etc analogous to the ‘outside of thought’?  The traitor is the inside outside or (like homo sacer) – the included excluded, not to be mistaken with resistance?  If there is a deep state, there is certainly a deep society, which has already consumed the state.   Would what deep society then regurgitates – be the factum brutum of a new biopolitical state of nature?

Bob Trivors, Huey Newton’s instructor at UC Santa Cruz and occasional ‘confessor’ never heard him unequivocally confess to any act of murder – although Newton would frequently tell him ‘I feel so guilty’.  Ever cognizant of the law, he would explain almost coquettishly – the statute of limitations never runs out on murder – meaning the state never relinquishes its right to punish the crime of murder – but this sentence was true not of the state but of that other ‘revolutionary court’ who in the end had the longest memory.

When the Black Panther Party was still just staking its claim to overlordship over all of black power - with the consciousness of a demiurge of history – Newton himself called the revolutionary court into being.  He publicly drafted Stokely Carmichael of the SNCC into the Black Panther Party – assigning him the rank of field marshal in charge of “revolutionary law, order and justice” for the territory east of the continental divide – just as the Black Panther Party was the supreme adjudicator for the western parts.  The title of field marshal was perhaps also an inside joke – Carmichael had recently been demoted to ‘field secretary’ of SNCC.   

Bobby Seale, cofounder of the Party, read out this official act of vestment at a press conference in San Francisco in 1967.  The Black Panthers had a precocious sense of legal diction and representation, ranks, titles and party bureaucracy – even in their early phase when members numbered only a dozen or so.  They were desirous of a merger with SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) a veteran organization of the civil rights movement.  In the world of rival black militants of those days – this public act of reading out Newton’s “executive mandate” was the Black Panther Party’s symbolic claiming of authority over the entire black movement.  The proclamation implies - The Black Panther Party is vested with the complete authority and can bestow at its discretion portions of this authority upon chosen others.  They styled themselves already as a quasi-state authority/body, an incipient state apparatus of a separate black nation.

The “10 point program” ended with a long unidentified direct quotation from the introduction and the preamble of the American colonies’ “Declaration of Independence” from the British Crown – “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, (…)”  This passage also includes the “(…) the right of the people to institute a new government (…)” -  and the first act of the ‘new government’ instituted as the Black Panther Party was to grant themselves titles – Bobby Seale became Chairman – Newton chose Minister of Defense.

Perhaps the idea to become Minister of Defense was inspired by Malcolm X’s public statement on the occasion of his break with the Nation of Islam in 1964.   In it, he asserts the right of the American Negro to “fight back in self-defense” (Malcolm X Speaks, Selected Speeches and Statements, New York, 1990, pp. 18-22).  Point 7 of the Panther’s 10-point program similarly declares: “We (…) believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.” (Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, New York, 2009, p. 124)

In Newton’s autobiography Revolutionary Suicide he marvels at the speed – 20 minutes – with which he and Bobby Seale composed this document in October 1966 – not mentioning that the second half of this short document is a patriotic ‘plagiarism’.  The quotation must have seemed very natural – as they deemed themselves “black colonial subjects”, not in the sense of the anti-colonial movements of the Third World, but in the way the American colonists had been ‘white colonial subjects’ of the British monarchy – and their party platform and program was an imitation of that historical declaration of separation.
Contrary to Badiou’s theory that the Organization arises after an Event as the vehicle of a militant subject’s ‘fidelity to the event’ of the rebellion, riot etc – the founding of the Black Panther Party was itself the Event – or a prelude to a phantom (black American) 18th century revolution.  In other words – if one can speak of an Event, which transfixed their fidelity, it would be the American Revolution of 1776 – making them seem closer in their constitutive origins to The Daughters of the American Revolution or the later Tea Party Movement – than to Mao or Fanon.  
(Genet has little sympathy for the interviewers from Ramparts who punctured his romantic view of the Black Panther’s menacing shadow play – they ask him “‘Was the Panthers’ failure due to the fact that they adopted a ‘brand image’ before they’d earned it in action?’ (Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, London, 1990, p. 84) – but the question reflects the impression of the time – the Panthers were an organization – or a new brand of black - in the search of an Event – not yet the militant ‘subjects of an exception’.) 

It was also during this time that Eldridge Cleaver staged a publicity photograph of Huey Newton wearing his Black Panther uniform (black leather jacket and beret) but transfigured as an ‘African king’ - sitting in a wicker seat, two shields leaning against either side of the ‘throne’, an animal pelt on the floor, holding a spear in one hand and a shotgun in the other. 

The Black Panther Party inhabited a vanishing point between theatrical rites, military bravado and a nascent mandarin style civil service.
Hugh Pearson, in his critical study of Huey Newton’s life and career, The Shadow of the Panther, calls this proclamation of “revolutionary law, order and justice” simply “more cosmetic than anything else” – for the internal reason that: “The Panthers and SNCC didn’t hold serious discussions about a coalition until after Newton was arrested and charged with the shooting death of Officer Frey.” (Hugh Pearson, The Shadow of the Panther Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America, Cambridge, 1996, p. 142)
When Stokely Carmichael though resigned from the party in 1969 in the wake of allegations that the Black Panther leadership had tortured fellow SNCC member James Forman with a gun - he alluded precisely to an authoritarian manner already evident in that earlier proclamation, dubbing him ‘field marshal’: “I cannot support the present tactics and methods which the party is using to coerce and force everyone to submit to its authority.” (ibid., p. 164)   

The Black Panther Party might have been a “phantom bureaucracy and a shadow administration” (Edmund White, Introduction to Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, ibid., p. xiii) but they could generate real fear.

Genet, whom they courted in the sixties, was so impressed by their ‘spectacle’: how striking the colour black looked clothed in shades of mauve, pink, gold and azure, their massive hairdos, as if pubic hair were growing everywhere (“furry sex on their heads”), their ithyphallic moldings in “Florentine trousers” (like the ‘stage pants’ of ancient Greek comedy) – their theatre of extreme visibility – he could not see that the same excessive carnivalesque appearance was perhaps merely the inversion (like carnival itself) of a puritanical drive to rule the black community.  He identified them rather with the Palestinians – two ‘homeless’ people in a permanent diaspora.
“But even if they themselves had been the masters, or had had sovereignty over some territory, they probably wouldn’t have formed a government complete with president, minister for war, minister of education, field marshals and Newton as ‘supreme commander’ as soon as he got out of jail.” (Prisoner of Love, ibid., p. 85)
But that’s precisely what happened.  The Oakland neighbourhood – the ‘flatlands’ was their territory.  Newton gave himself various titles – after Minister of Defense he changed himself into the Supreme Commander, then Servant of the People, after that Supreme Servant of the People.  Or just The Servant.  In the first phase – when he was Minister of Defense – their rule tended to martial law, but this intimidated the black community as Newton himself notes.  They then switched (after his release from prison) to ‘civilian rule’ implementing ‘survival programs’ (free breakfasts for schoolchildren, an education centre) in the community – but that was when mafiaesque ‘enforcement’ also flourished well hidden behind the scenes of the ‘legit’ community services – against members of the party and the general black community.  Behind the visible public benefits of these programs, the Black Panther Party had evolved its own ‘deep state’.  Those closely associated with the movement regarded the Black Panther Party as having changed from a people’s organization to Newton’s “private army”. (see Lee Lew-Lee ‘s documentary All Power to the People! The Black Panther Party and Beyond…, online)     

Was the Black Panther Party’s typical American gangster pragmatism one metamorphosis Genet did not care to look at?

If Newton’s first law book was the California state legal/penal code – his second was Kafka’s The Trial.  He mentions it in his autobiography as one of those books, which he read in his early college years. Another was Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
One can imagine that for someone as experienced with courts, court officials and prisons as he was – Kafka would have become an intimate companion, his fables of the law writing themselves on Newton’s body just as indelibly as the execution apparatus scored the bodies of the condemned in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony.  Part Five of Revolutionary Suicide contains two chapters titles clearly echoing Kafka: “The Trial” – his trial for first degree murder of the police officer Frey and “The Penal Colony” – one of the California prisons in which Newton served time for the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter after his first trial.     

But Kafka returns in two other crucial passages directly reflecting Newton’s experience of the unreality of his imprisonment and numerous court appearances.

As one of that rare breed amongst blacks (of that time), being both a ‘brother off the block’ and an intellectual – a ‘streetcorner man’ and someone who cultivated his ‘bourgeois skills’ like reading novels - Newton could easily see himself as a character in a work of art.  So when he re-entered the same courtroom where two years earlier he had been tried for the capital offence – he is reminded of some lines from The Trial – quoting K. as if he were another one of his brothers.  
“Going into the packed courtroom (…) was like a flashback to the same scene two years before.  The whole thing seemed to be starting over again.  It reminded me of a line from Kafka’s The Trial that I think of when events seem to be repeating themselves.  When K., the hero of the novel, is about to be executed, he says “…at the beginning of my case I wanted it to finish and at the end of it [I] wanted it to begin again.”  At first K. is bothered by the confusion of going through the court system—the slow wheels of justice or injustice, the questioning, the stifling routine.  It is a slow, draining process, which K. equates with the absurd toil and the endless striving of life.  I felt the same emotions—wanting the absurdities and the eternal toil to end.  Then, at the end, I was not quite ready for it to be over, and I felt a vague desire for it to start all over again.” (Revolutionary Suicide, ibid., p. 310)

When he was released from the Penal Colony to await his retrial Newton sees the scene during which the prison authorities hand him over to his escort of sheriffs as reminiscent of Genet’s The Balcony and Kafka.  The warden and his assistant see him off, wishing him luck upon his release:  “It was like a scene from Kafka or Genet’s The Balcony—normal and logical on the surface but nightmarish and phantasmagorical in essence.  It had the quality of a symbolic ritual; no one was truly involved or affected.” (ibid., pp. 291-292)   
(Most of Genet’s theatricality draws on the naturally occurring  ‘command performance’ of the prisoner for his guards and punishers – also for fellow prisoners - and vice versa.  The most thrilling spectacle is the state execution – although in Genet’s work it takes place mostly off-stage – unlike in Kafka.)

In the prison system one is always under immediate physical surveillance (the paradigm is the Panopticon) – as a captive actor the prisoner is totally exposed (360°) to his captive audience of punitive officials.  Rituals and repetitiveness mark both prison and the court system – each causes one to lose track of time – the life-time one is meant to lose when punished by confinement or when standing trial.  The loss of time and repetitive sequences create detachment from one’s surroundings – and one’s self.  Repetition is both what is happening now – and an augury of the predictable future, how it will be.  One is in the scene and not – one is less real than the institutional correctional mask one has become.
But still why The Balcony? – where the uprising, the revolting masses are invisibly raging outside – they besiege the brothel, the symbolic state (‘the house of illusions’), with its cast of auxiliary masquerade notables (the Queen, the Bishop, the Judge, the General) – and the real hero is the police president, the only one who is still himself, but who will also be duly sacrificed, entombed alive in his mausoleum. 

Had Newton psychically traded places (swapped souls) with the warden at the moment of his departure, his rite de passage – his spirit remaining with the warden in the prison/brothel – while the warden’s spirit went out inside his body into the revolt?  And when sudden enlightenment comes – it also has the form of repetition…

(Contract Man – Homo Sacer Investigations III will follow.)

© Shannee Marks, July 2013 

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