Posts Tagged ‘plantation violence’

“Any historical account of the rise of modern terror needs to address slavery,
which could be considered one of the first instances of biopolitical experimentation.
In many respects, the very structure of the plantation system and its aftermath
manifests the emblematic and paradoxical figure of the state of exception. This figure is paradoxical here for two reasons. First, in the context of the plantation,
the humanity of the slave appears as the perfect figure of a shadow. Indeed,
the slave condition results from a triple loss: loss of a “home,” loss of rights over
his or her body, and loss of political status. This triple loss is identical with absolute
domination, natal alienation, and social death (expulsion from humanity altogether).
To be sure, as a political-juridical structure, the plantation is a space where the
slave belongs to a master. It is not a community if only because by definition, a
community implies the exercise of the power of speech and thought. As Paul
Gilroy says, “The extreme patterns of communication defined by the institution
of plantation slavery dictate that we recognize the anti-discursive and extralinguistic
ramifications of power at work in shaping communicative acts. There
may, after all, be no reciprocity on the plantation outside of the possibilities of
rebellion and suicide, flight and silent mourning, and there is certainly no grammatical
unity of speech to mediate communicative reason. In many respects, the
plantation inhabitants live non-synchronously.” As an instrument of labor, the
slave has a price. As a property, he or she has a value. His or her labor is needed
and used. The slave is therefore kept alive but in a state of injury, in a phantomlike
world of horrors and intense cruelty and profanity. The violent tenor of the
slave’s life is manifested through the overseer’s disposition to behave in a cruel
and intemperate manner and in the spectacle of pain inflicted on the slave’s

Violence, here, becomes an element in manners, like whipping or taking
of the slave’s life itself: an act of caprice and pure destruction aimed at instilling
terror. Slave life, in many ways, is a form of death-in-life. As Susan Buck
Morss has suggested, the slave condition produces a contradiction between freedom
of property and freedom of person. An unequal relationship is established
along with the inequality of the power over life. This power over the life of
another takes the form of commerce: a person’s humanity is dissolved to the point
where it becomes possible to say that the slave’s life is possessed by the master. Because the slave’s life is like a “thing,” possessed by another person, the slave
existence appears as a perfect figure of a shadow. 

In spite of the terror and the symbolic sealing off of the slave, he or she maintains
alternative perspectives toward time, work, and self. This is the second
paradoxical element of the plantation world as a manifestation of the state of
exception. Treated as if he or she no longer existed except as a mere tool and
instrument of production, the slave nevertheless is able to draw almost any object,
instrument, language, or gesture into a performance and then stylize it. Breaking
with uprootedness and the pure world of things of which he or she is but a fragment,
the slave is able to demonstrate the protean capabilities of the human bond
through music and the very body that was supposedly possessed by another. 

If the relations between life and death, the politics of cruelty, and the symbolics
of profanity are blurred in the plantation system, it is notably in the colony
and under the apartheid regime that there comes into being a peculiar terror formation
I will now turn to. The most original feature of this terror formation is
its concatenation of biopower, the state of exception, and the state of siege. Crucial
to this concatenation is, once again, race. In fact, in most instances, the selection of races, the prohibition of mixed marriages, forced sterilization, even
the extermination of vanquished peoples are to find their first testing ground in
the colonial world. Here we see the first syntheses between massacre and bureaucracy,
that incarnation of Western rationality. Arendt develops the thesis that
there is a link between national-socialism and traditional imperialism. According
to her, the colonial conquest revealed a potential for violence previously unknown.
What one witnesses in World War II is the extension to the “civilized” peoples of
Europe of the methods previously reserved for the “savages.” 

That the technologies which ended up producing Nazism should have originated
in the plantation or in the colony or that, on the contrary—Foucault’s thesis—Nazism
and Stalinism did no more than amplify a series of mechanisms that
already existed in Western European social and political formations (subjugation
of the body, health regulations, social Darwinism, eugenics, medico-legal theories
on heredity, degeneration, and race) is, in the end, irrelevant. A fact remains,
though: in modern philosophical thought and European political practice and
imaginary, the colony represents the site where sovereignty consists fundamentally
in the exercise of a power outside the law (ab legibus solutus) and where
“peace” is more likely to take on the face of a “war without end.” 

Indeed, such a view corresponds to Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty at
the beginning of the twentieth century, namely, the power to decide on the state of
exception. To properly assess the efficacy of the colony as a formation of terror,
we need to take a detour into the European imaginary itself as it relates to the critical
issue of the domestication of war and the creation of a European juridical
order (Jus publicum Europaeum). At the basis of this order were two key principles.
The first postulated the juridical equality of all states. This equality was
notably applied to the right to wage war (the taking of life). The right to war meant
two things. On the one hand, to kill or to conclude peace was recognized as one of
the preeminent functions of any state. It went hand in hand with the recognition
of the fact that no state could make claims to rule outside of its borders. But conversely,
the state could recognize no authority above it within its own borders. On
the other hand, the state, for its part, undertook to “civilize” the ways of killing
and to attribute rational objectives to the very act of killing.
The second principle related to the territorialization of the sovereign state, that
is, to the determination of its frontiers within the context of a newly imposed
global order. In this context, the Jus publicum rapidly assumed the form of a distinction
between, on the one hand, those parts of the globe available for colonial appropriation and, on the other, Europe itself (where the Jus publicum was to
hold sway). This distinction, as we will see, is crucial in terms of assessing the
efficacy of the colony as a terror formation. Under Jus publicum, a legitimate war
is, to a large extent, a war conducted by one state against another or, more precisely,
a war between “civilized” states. The centrality of the state in the calculus
of war derives from the fact that the state is the model of political unity, a principle
of rational organization, the embodiment of the idea of the universal, and a
moral sign.

In the same context, colonies are similar to the frontiers. They are inhabited by
“savages.” The colonies are not organized in a state form and have not created a
human world. Their armies do not form a distinct entity, and their wars are not
wars between regular armies. They do not imply the mobilization of sovereign
subjects (citizens) who respect each other as enemies. They do not establish a distinction
between combatants and noncombatants, or again between an “enemy”
and a “criminal.” It is thus impossible to conclude peace with them. In sum,
colonies are zones in which war and disorder, internal and external figures of the
political, stand side by side or alternate with each other. As such, the colonies are
the location par excellence where the controls and guarantees of judicial order
can be suspended—the zone where the violence of the state of exception is
deemed to operate in the service of “civilization.” 

That colonies might be ruled over in absolute lawlessness stems from the
racial denial of any common bond between the conqueror and the native. In the
eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life, a horrifying
experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension. In fact, according
to Arendt, what makes the savages different from other human beings is less
the color of their skin than the fear that they behave like a part of nature, that
they treat nature as their undisputed master. Nature thus remains, in all its majesty,
an overwhelming reality compared to which they appear to be phantoms, unreal
and ghostlike. The savages are, as it were, “natural” human beings who lack the
specifically human character, the specifically human reality, “so that when European
men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed

For all the above reasons, the sovereign right to kill is not subject to any rule
in the colonies. In the colonies, the sovereign might kill at any time or in any
manner. Colonial warfare is not subject to legal and institutional rules. It is not a
legally codified activity. Instead, colonial terror constantly intertwines with colonially
generated fantasies of wilderness and death and fictions to create the effect
of the real. Peace is not necessarily the natural outcome of a colonial war. In
fact, the distinction between war and peace does not avail. Colonial wars are conceived
of as the expression of an absolute hostility that sets the conqueror against
an absolute enemy. All manifestations of war and hostility that had been marginalized
by a European legal imaginary find a place to reemerge in the colonies.
Here, the fiction of a distinction between “the ends of war” and the “means of
war” collapses; so does the fiction that war functions as a rule-governed contest,
as opposed to pure slaughter without risk or instrumental justification. It becomes
futile, therefore, to attempt to resolve one of the intractable paradoxes of war
well captured by Alexandre Kojève in his reinterpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology
of the Spirit
: its simultaneous idealism and apparent inhumanity.”

– Achille Mbembe, translated by Libby Meintjes, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 21-25.

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