The reader needs to be prompted that the narrator has a conscience. That he is and has been, perhaps for a long time, engaged with these questions. And this is why the main scenes of horror [in the holocaust] are never directly addressed [in The Rings of Saturn]. I think it is sufficient to remind people because we’ve all seen images, but these images militate against our capacity for discursive thinking, for reflecting upon these things, and also paralyze our moral capacity. So the only way one can approach these things in my view is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by direct confrontation.
… one recognizes that writing the history of the dominated requires not only the interrogation of dominant narratives and the exposure of their contingent and partisan character but also the reclamation of archival material for contrary purposes. As Gayatri Spivak remarks, “The ‘sub-altern’ cannot speak without the thought of the ‘elite.’” In other words, there is no access to the sub-altern consciousness outside dominant representations or elite documents. Accordingly, this examination of the cultural practices of the dominated is possible only because of the accounts provided by literate black autobiographers, white amanuenses, plantation journals and documents, newspaper accounts, missionary tracts, travel writing, amateur ethnographies, government reports, et cetera. Because these documents are “not free from barbarism,” I have tried to read them against the grain in order to write a different account of the past, while realizing the limits imposed by employing these sources, the impossibility of fully recovering the experience of the enslaved and the emancipated, and the risk of the reinforcing the authority of these documents even as I try to use them for contrary purposes.
The effort to “brush history against the grain” requires excavations at the margins of monumental history in order that the ruins of the dismembered past be retrieved, turning to forms of knowledge and practice not generally considered legitimate objects of historical inquiry or appropriate or adequate sources for history making and attending to the cultivated silence, exclusions, relations of violence and domination that engender the official accounts. Therefore the documents, fragments, and accounts considered here, although claimed for purposes contrary to those for which they were gathered, nonetheless remain entangled with the politics of domination. In this regard, the effort to reconstruct the history of the dominated is not discontinuous with dominant accounts or official history but, rather, is a struggle within and against the constraints and silences imposed by the nature of the archive—the system that governs the appearance of statements and generates social meaning.
I have not chosen to reproduce Douglass’s account of the beating of Aunt Hester in order to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of this routine display of the slave’s ravaged body. Rather than inciting indignation, too often they immure us to pain by virtue of familiarity—the oft-repeated or restored character of these accounts and our distance from them are signaled by the theatrical language usually resorted to in describing these instances—and especially because they reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering. What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes. Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution”? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator.
The Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth makes two points concerning violence. The first point is that violence is a precondition for thought, meaning that without violence the reigning episteme and its elaborated social structures cannot be called into question paradigmatically. Without revolutionary violence, politics is always predicated on the ensemble of existing questions (and these questions are in service to reformist, not revolutionary, projects). The second point is that this absolute, or in Afropessimist parlance gratuitous, violence is not so absolute and gratuitous after all—not, that is, in Frantz Fanon’s Algeria or in Edward Said’s Palestine. It comes with a therapeutic grounding wire, a purpose that can be articulated: the restoration of the native’s land. One can read Fanon’s second gesture as either an alibi for or a concession toward his hosts, the Algerians; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is an irreconcilable difference between the violence that positions and is performed on the Slave in social death and the violence that positions and is performed on the (non-Black) native in civil society.
In short, the violence inflicted upon Black people is not the effect of symbolic transgressions, nor is it the result (as Allen Feldman would have it) of a new, global shift in political economy—it is an “extension of the master’s prerogative.” Orlando Patterson clarifies this distinction between violence that positions and punishes the Human (worker, postcolonial subject, woman, or queer, for example) and violence that positions and punishes the Slave (the Black) by emphasizing the difference between the violence that constitutes capitalism and the violence that constitutes slavery.
The worker who is fired remains a worker, to be hired elsewhere. The slave who was freed was no longer a slave. Thus, it was necessary continually to repeat the original, violent act of transforming free person into slave. This act of violence constitutes the prehistory of all stratified societies … but it determines both the prehistory and (concurrent) history of slavery.