The video found on the website of The Guardian, has a “tag” of Eric Garner’s name right above the full title: “‘I can’t breathe’: Eric Garner put in chokehold by NYPD officer – video.” The British newspaper’s logo sits in the top right corner of the video frame, while in the bottom is another designation: “Daily News.” These watermarks, proprietary claims on the video and its contents remain throughout the whole of the two minutes and forty-eight seconds video – not so subtle reminders of who owns this particular iteration of this specific event. There’s a title card disclaimer: “Warning: contains distressing images,” just before the video starts. The video itself is relatively low resolution – there is none of the crispness of high definition capture – and shot in portrait rather than wide-screen landscape, leaving the video itself to be columned by two large black empty spaces. The first sounds beyond the hiss of background noise consist of two voices – one diegetic (Eric Garner) and one non-diegetic – saying almost simultaneously “I aint do shit” and “he was just sitting here.” Eric Garner is flanked by two cops, one with a visible faux-tribal sleeve tattoo. “Every time you see me, you’re going to mess with me,” Garner asks, but the inflection and pitch of his voice reveals it as a declarative statement, and also a plea to stave off the threat that surrounds him in the officers, still repeating the plea of “I aint do shit.” The video is edited for time using cross-dissolve transitions. The voice behind the camera, later revealed to be Ramsey Orta, sounds out calmly over and through Garner’s voice and its increasing agitation. Orta narrates the event sporadically, as one officer grabs his arm and Garner jerks away. An additional three cops gather around as one tries to wrestle Garner down in a chokehold and then they are on him. Each officer vies for a position to touch – head, back, arms, legs – packed around so thickly that Garner’s big frame is eclipsed, even as his voice is heard struggling to say, “I can’t breathe.” More officers crowd around – one stepping in front of the camera, “back up” – as if to offer privacy and distance to the scene of colliding, entangled bodies, or perhaps to join. It appears that Garner’s body, scene/seen through the legs of officers, jerks or writhes, and Orta narrates, perhaps mistakenly, that Garner is having, or rather has been given a seizure. Moments later a shift in camera position shows us the lower half of Garner’s still, spent body, then the officer who initiated the chokehold waves and the “end credits” reaffirms that The Guardian gives us the “whole picture” which would not be explicitly “complete” until, almost two-thousand miles away and several months later an officer murdered Eric Harris, answering his plead of “losing his breath” with “fuck your breath.” Yet while one set of police officers may not have been heard to utter the phrase, what else was this violent collision of bodies, of hands and knees and fingers digging, pressing, and holding writhing, seizing flesh and robbing it of its breath if not the phrase in its gestural form? The transcription of rhetoric into performance; practical re-application of the “slur,” or rather the “verbal form” of a violence’s “genocidal trajectory.”1
In On Black Men, David Marriott reads through the moments of conviviality and subject-making that was a lynching. “Smoking, drinking, eating, sexing, the crowd looked on the scene of a black man’s body, tarred, feathered, burned…,” eager participants would take, at first, their prizes, gifts of the flesh, and then, in the “technological moment which gives us the Kodak,” a photograph. A technological advance, the Kodak would become crucial component in the celebration of the lynching that would successfully freeze the moment, memorializing this rite (or right) of passage as “[a]n image of white identity emerges from the spectacle of annihilation.”2 “More than an aid to memory (though it is that too), the photograph is a part of the process, another form of racist slur which can travel through time to do its work…”3 The slur in its excrementalizing and epidermalizing capacities, in its decoration of the black body, founds the libidinal economies of both black and white psyches.
It’s in the capacity to facilitate the sublimation and alleviation of the anxieties of castration and death (through its ritual re-enactment), that the photograph’s existence as possession finds its apex, generalizing even the notion of possession in the process. In “The Systems of Collecting,” Jean Baudrillard notes that possession is a process of passionate abstraction that is enabled only once an object has been “divested of its function and made relative to a subject.”4 This “abstractive operation” empties the object of its utility, allowing for it to become the “ideal mirror,” whereby “the subject seeks to assert himself as an autonomous totality outside the world.”5 In other words, the possession or rather the act of possessing, becomes a subject-making practice. This subject-making, however, has as its telos the transference and maintenance of anxieties relating to castration and death, of powerlessness and temporality. The object offers the illusion of mastery in its “implied […] prospect of limitless substitution and play.”6 The uniqueness of the lynching photograph, then, is in that it comes into existence as always already a possession, its utility imbricated in, especially as it reflects, the maintenance of libidinal energies. The lynching photograph comes into being as a general possession, a free-floating, accumulable and fungible object, an “ideal mirror” for society. The photograph, as the body-made-flesh that it collapses into, has already been emptied, providing a space that, rather than frustrating the subject, augments a need to fill it, adorn it, and decorate it. The impossibility of filling it, prefigured by the absence that it signifies, re-marks its vulnerability to all subjects. Everyone can lay claim and all claims are equally valid and legitimate. The need for possession as such is interrupted as the lynching photo becomes a truly cosmopolitan object, the event defying spatiotemporal logics as it is continually consumed in irresistible identification. In this way death seems defeated, rendered meaningless – a thrilling prospect for the white body, that seeks reprieve from it. Simultaneously, “death” becomes a dire turn of affairs for the black body, in its endless destruction, which would seek reprieve in it. In particular, Selamawit Terrefe reminds us of how unimportant physical death is in regards to the socially dead slave for whom physical death, thanks to technological advances, offers no reprieve:
Violence determines not only the specter of the Black body, constantly open to violation, but also its haunting: the negation of an existence prior to its (arrested) arrival. The work of contemporary modes of representation serves to mediate our racial analytics while technological advancements have rendered means to capture, harness, and utilize runaway slaves from beyond the grave.7
For the black body “the crypt comprises a space wherein Black abjection fails to cease,” effectively dislodging death from its place as privileged moment of resistance.8 The specific moment that Terrefe is speaking to – that of the technological resurrection of Tupac to perform at Coachella, a music concert in 2012 – demonstrates the libidinal investments in owning, for pleasure, the image (or rather simulacra, to use Terrefe’s wording) of the rapper, which is intertwined with his death. This is not unlike the watermarking of the Garner video in that both gestures work toward realizing this generalized category of possession regarding images of, and the representation of, black death.9 It is, as well, important not to overlook the connection between the production of life and the violent abject negation of the black body that Terrefe and Marriott have proffered – the link between physical violence, libidinal and political economies, and what Frank Wilderson terms political ontology.10
The centrality of the black body in philosophical imaginaries of the modern episteme is effectively mirrored in the libidinal investments described by the movement of the object in the world by Baudrillard. He would later assert in “The Systems of Collecting” that, “the possession of an object […] is both satisfying and frustrating” as its fungibility – and here we must note that there is a disturbing interchangeability between the dead flesh and the photographs that keep the act frozen – simultaneously offers a paradigm of (potential) perfection (the ideal mirror) while upsetting “the solitary status” of the object.11 Launching the desire for accumulation, a drive to collect, to possess an object made open in general, where, in the maintenance of neurotic equilibrium, the “final term must always be the person of the collector,” the black body, having been unmoored metaphysically and this act reverberating across political and libidinal economies, becomes the living, breathing object at the limits of even Baudrillard’s own metaphysical imaginary. In the production of a coherence and equilibrium macrocosmically (at the site of the Human) as well as microcosmically (at the site of the individual), the existence of the black body, and the gratuitous violence it appears to welcome, desire and deserve, provides a grounding metaphor, the expression of which is the act of violence manifesting sometimes as the lynching photograph, other times as the video shot on a cell phone, and sometimes as a hologram made of mirrors and lights. A crucial takeaway here is that these are spectacular expressions, the spectacle of which serves the libidinal investments, the limits of which are bound to the technological innovations of the moments in which these expressions are produced.
The focus on technology however can, and in our current moment I would argue does, aid in mystification rather than clarification. That is, the proliferation of images of these bodies on different media platforms rather than strictly evidencing the mere fact of an expression of a structure of violent domination, becomes complicit in obscuring its necessary banality. Put another way, the excessiveness of the murder of Eric Garner should be found not in the act of killing but rather “in the fact that these cops were there on the street looking for this event in the first place, as a matter of routine business.”12 This is what Garner’s pleas tried to enunciate. The problem he faced was that his pleas (like that inherent in #BlackLivesMatter) were illegible and imminently ignorable to those who could “bear witness” and therefore offer redress.13 Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot aid us in understanding the structure of spectacle and its relationship to positivist arguments requiring “evidence”:
The spectacular event camouflages the operation of police law as contempt, as terror, its occupation of neighbourhoods; the secret of police law is the fact that there is no recourse to the disruption of people’s lives by these activities. In fact, to focus on the spectacular event of police violence is to deploy (and thereby reaffirm) the logic of police profiling itself. Yet we can’t avoid this logic once we submit to the demand to provide examples or images of the paradigm. As a result, the attempt to articulate the paradigm of policing renders itself non-paradigmatic, reaffirms the logic of police profiling, and thereby reduces itself to the fraudulent ethics by which white civil society rationalises its existence.14
Taking this into account, the proliferation of the tape of Garner’s death and those before and after, if analyzed paradigmatically, does not signify a progressive shift in the apprehension of the structures of violence but mirrors the technological innovations regarding methods of capture and distribution. It’s the promise of the free-floating signifier appearing to come into its always already realized fullness, not the beginning of a greater understanding of the nature and structures of violence, which is the current common progress narrative reigning supreme in the discourse on social justice (the very notion of which relies on a coherency that is only offered within civil society – the Human fold). In other words the video of Eric Garner’s death is as banal as the event of Eric Garner’s death, and it’s in the video, it’s distribution and openness, the expression of a general fungibility and accumulability that harkens back to being an “object in the midst of other objects,” that we can begin to understand the hyperreality of the black body.15
Jerome Dent, Jr.
Graduate Student in the Visual and Cultural Studies Program at the University of Rochester.
- Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 9, no. 2 (2003), 174. ↩
- D. S. Marriott, On Black Men (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 6. ↩
- Ibid., 9. ↩
- Jean Baudrillard, “The Systems of Collecting,” in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 7. ↩
- Ibid., 8. ↩
- Ibid., 10. ↩
- Selamawit D. Terrefe, “Phantasmagoria; or, the World Is a Haunted Plantation,” The Feminist Wire (2012), http://thefeministwire.com/2012/10/phantasmagoria/. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- An addendum here: elsewhere, I argue, following the work of David Marriott, that the lines between viewer and participant, is a tenuous one at best, that must be reconsidered in the context of a society in which images of black dereliction and abjection are omnipresent. In this way, everyone, from the police to Ramsey Orta to Eric Garner himself, becomes complicit in the making of the video. ↩
- Wilderson grounds his analysis by highlighting the centrality of violence as a matrix of ontology. Together with Patrice Douglass he outlines why a “focus on violence should be at the center of [the project of critical theory] because violence not only makes thought possible, but it makes black metaphysical being and black relationality impossible, while simultaneously giving rise to the philosophical contemplation of metaphysics and the thick description of human relations.” (Patrice Douglass and Frank Wilderson, “The Violence of Presence,” Black Scholar 43, no. 4 : 117.) They continue, “[without] violence, critical theory and pure philosophy would be impossible. Marx and others have intimated as much.” The question concerning the meaning of suffering – which is the question that guides Wilderson’s work, brings to the fore the intricacies of this violence. For Wilderson and Douglass, the black body marks the beginning and end of gratuitous violence and as such marks both the end and beginning of modernity’s episteme, remaining at the incipience of modernity and fueling both its political and libidinal economies. Pain which follows violence into the modality of the gratuitous, and becomes torture, “aspires to the totality of pain,” incessantly multiplying “its resources and means of access until the room and everything in it becomes a giant externalized map of the prisoner’s feelings,” where the “room” “…is the world.” (Anthony Paul Farley, “The Black Body as Fetish Object,” Oregon Law Review 76, no. 3 , 471.) Power is, in part, the capacity to bring pain into the modality of the gratuitous thereby delimiting the world – ontologies and epistemologies, being and knowing. Just as understanding and coherence, in terms of semiotics, requires a violent reduction of all possible meanings into one (e.g. I know what is human because I know what is not human), the Human finds itself only in that which it is not – the black body. The peculiarity of the black body should be understood however in the way that it breaches the gulf between concept and experience. That is, it was born through violence at the intersection of fantasy and reality. The black body is subjected not only to gratuitous physical violence – marking it so that this body becomes the vanishing point of “law” in general — but also, and just as significant, to theoretical and metaphysical violence, a “necessary fiction.” In essence we are talking about violence “which turns a body into flesh, ripped apart literally and imaginatively, destroy[ing] the possibility of ontology because it positions the Black in an infinite and indeterminately horrifying and open vulnerability, an object made available (which is to say fungible) for any subject.” (Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black : Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010], 18.) Every event of collision is a re-iteration of this originary moment, whether physical or psychic. ↩
- Baudrillard, “The Systems of Collecting,” 8. ↩
- Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” 171. ↩
- “The structural violence that positions [the black subject] paradigmatically, makes the degree of psychic integration required in order to bear witness all but impossible, thereby undermining the status of his claims at the level of identity and, by extension, undermining his capacity to offer a testimony on trauma or a narrative of redress, be it juridical or political.” (Frank B. Wilderson, “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the Political Trials of Black Insurgents,” InTensions 1, no. 5 .) Additionally, Martinot and Sexton argue, “The impunity of racist police violence is the first implication of its ignorability to white civil society. The ignorability of police impunity is what renders it inarticulable outside of that hegemonic formation. If ethics is possible for white civil society within its social discourses, it is rendered irrelevant to the systematic violence deployed against the outside precisely because it is ignorable. Indeed, that ignorability becomes the condition of possibility for the ethical coherence of the inside. The dichotomy between a white ethical dimension and its irrelevance to the violence of police profiling is the very structure of racialisation today.” (Martinot and Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” 172.) ↩
- Ibid., 173. ↩
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, 1st ed. (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 109. ↩