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THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT Author(s): Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, III Source: Qui Parle, Vol.

13, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2003), pp. 183-201 Published by: University of Nebraska Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20686156 Accessed: 17/11/2010 01:54
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THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

An Interview with Saidiya V. Hartman Conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III

Frank B. Wilderson,

1 of the firstthings want to say ishow thankful Iam that you wrote Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, I and Self-Making inNineteenth-Century America. And want to say Ill- One

and as someone aspiring academic ingeneral, when one in the machine but not of it.Because caught one is another black scholar reads the work of black scholars - if one prepares oneself for a disappointment, or or a black student into the reading. And one doesn't have to works a disappointment uate studenta so-called do thatwith this particular book. 1 is that so often in black What mean, scholarship, people or unconsciously peel away from the strength and the consciously inorder to propose some kind of coherent, terrorof their evidence in moving through these hopeful solution to things. Your book,

a little about howmeaningful book istome as a black grad the bit

And

scenes of subjection as they take place in slavery, refuses to do that. to think that just as importantly, itdoes not allow the reader therewas

and courageousmove. And I think That isa tremendous Jubilee.1


what's

a radical enough break to reposition the black body after it, is that itcorroborates the experience of

and of strange black people likeyou black people today, ordinary andme intheacademy [Iaughter].
Qui Parle, Vol. 13, No. 2 Spring/Summer 2003

important about

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SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

the registers of subjectivity as being preconscious interest, or identifications, and positionality, then a lot unconscious identity of the work in the social sciences organizes itselfaround precon about interest; itassumes a subject of consent, and as you have a subject of exploitation, which you reposition as the subject said, of accumulation.2 Now when this sort of social science engages the itassumes that itcan if and when itdoes issue of positionality do so in an un-raced manner. That's the best of thework. The worst scious is a kind of multiculturalism that assumes we all have identities that can be put into a basket of stories, and analogous then that basket of stories can lead to similar interests. Forme, what you've done in this book is to split the hair here. In other words, this is not a book that celebrates an essential Afrocentrism that could be captured by the multicultural discourse. And yet it'snot a book that remains on the surface of preconscious

we at talkabout this the level methodologyand analysis. If think of

But there's something else that the book does, and

I want

to

of the work

which so much history and social science does. Instead, it interest, demands a radical racialization of any analysis of positionality. So. Why don't we talk about that? - Well! That's a lot, and a number of things Saidiya V Hartman come tomind. I think forme the book isabout the problem of craft

whole

issue of empathic identification is central forme. Because it seems that every attempt to emplot the slave in a narrative ulti just mately resulted in his or her obliteration, regardless of whether it was a leftistnarrative of political agency the slave stepping into or someone else's shoes and then becoming a political agent -

ing a narrative for the slave as subject, and in terms of positionali ty, asking, "Who does that narrative enable?" That's where the

was about being able to unveil the slave's humanity whether it by oneself inthat actuallyfinding position.
was was trying to do as a cultural historian Inmany ways, what I to narrate a certain impossibility, to illuminate those practices that speak to the limits of most available narratives to explain the one hand, the slave is the foundation

position of the enslaved. On

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

185

to without trying fill inthevoid? So much of our politicalvocabu

of the national order, and, on the other, the slave occupies the posi mean to try to tion of the unthought. So what does it bring that into view without making ita locus of positive value, or position

implicitly integrationist even lary/imaginary/desires have been when we imagine our claims are more radical. This goes to the sec ond part of the book that ultimately the metanarrative thrust is towards an integration into the national project, and partic always ularly when that project to affirm it. is in crisis, black people are called upon

What

this language enable? And once you realize then does

inthe limited of possibilities set thatthenationalprojectprovides.


the given language of freedomits limits and begin to see its inex

So certainly it'sabout more than the desire for inclusion with

orable

investment in certain notions of the subject and subjection, then that language of freedom no longer becomes thatwhich res cues the slave from his or her former condition, but the site of the re-elaboration of that condition, F.W This rather than its transformation.

isone of the reasons why your book has been called "pessimistic" by Anita Patterson.3 But it's interesting that she does n't say what I said when we first started talking, that it'senabling. I'm assuming that she's white I don't know, but it certainly sounds like it. integrationist rights agenda that subjects who are variously positioned on the color line can take up. And that project is something I consider obscene: the But I think there's a certain

S.VH. -

lastfewcenturies, but to stillfinda way to feelgood about our selves.That's notmy projectat all, though I thinkit's actually the of a numberof people. Unfortunately, kind of social the project revisionist undertaken many leftists the 1 in 970s, who history by were trying locate theagencyof dominatedgroups, resultedin to it narratives theoppressed.4 of celebratory Ultimately, bled intothis

attempt to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for cel ebration, the desire to look at the ravages and the brutality of the

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SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

celebration, as iftherewas a space you could carve out of the ter in order to exist outside its clutches and rorizing state apparatus some autonomy. My project is a different one. And in partic one of my hidden polemics in the book was an argument ular, against the notion of hegemony, and how that notion has been forge taken up in the context of looking at the status of the slave. it's something FW -

That's very interesting, because thinking about also in respect toGramsci. suggests that Gramsci

I've been

Because Anne Showstack

Harriet

Jacobs,6 a slave, and John Rankin,7 a white anti-slavery which to talk about this. Now, what's really Northerner, as ways in interesting is that in your chapter "Seduction and the Ruses of of Power," you not only explain how the positional ity black women and white women differs, but you also suggest how blackness dis we are to think of that notion as articulates the notion of consent, if

hegemony into three influence, leadership, and consent.5 Maybe we could categories: the discussion back to your text then, using the examples of bring

Sassoon

breaks down

master

"[B]eing forced to submit to the will of the in all things defines the predicament of slavery" (S, 110). In other words, the female slave isa possessed, accumulated, and fun gible object, which is to say that she isontologically different than universal. You write: who may, as a house servant or indentured labor er, be a subordinated subject. You go on to say, "The opportunity for a white woman nonconsent

[as regards, in this case, sex] is required to establish if refusal is not an option.... consent, for consent ismeaningless Consent is unseemly in a context in which the very notion of sub jectivity is predicated S. V.H. upon the negation of will" (S, 111).

white readership when her storyina way that's going to solicither


she has to efface her very condition tex in Jacobs' narrative, where in order to make

Once again, trying to fit into the other's shoes becomes the very possibility of narration. In the chapter "A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girl's Life," the question for Jacobs is how she can tell that story

to messymoment as kindof a vor intelligible them. I lookat this


in order to fashion herself as a desir

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

187

can tell a story about sexuality that's meaningful in a white domi nant frame. And I think this is why someone like Hortense Spillers

ing subject, she has to deny the very violence, which elsewhere she said defines her position as a slave: her status as a thing and the negation of her will. In one sense, she has to bracket that so she

Jacobs as an agent versus the objective conditions in which she finds herself. This is something you talk about in your work as well, this existence in the space of death, where negation is sion between the captive's central possibility for action, whether we think of that as a radical refusal of the terms of the social order or these acts that are sometimes called suicide or self-destruction, but which are real lyan embrace of death. Ultimately it'sabout the paradox of agency for those who are in these extreme circumstances. And basically, there are very few political narratives that can account for that.

raises the question of whether gender and sexuality are at all applicable to the condition of the captive community.8 I That's what was working with there, that impossibility or ten

F.W -And

world"9 and "puts the settler out of the picture."10 So, itdoesn't help

trajectory of our life (within our terrain of civil death) isbound up in sometimes individually, sometimes collectively the claiming violence which Fanon writes about in The Wretched of the Earth, that trajectory which, as he says, is "a splinter to the heart of the

we have to ask my own work, obviously I'm not why. In that in this space of negation, which isblackness, there is no saying We have tremendous life.But this life is not analogous to those life. touchstones of cohesion that hold civil society together. In fact, the

live isanalogous to how white positionality lives, because, as I think your book suggests, whites gain their coherence by knowing what

us politically psychologically try find or to to which howwe ways in

are on they not.There istremendous diversity theside ofwhiteness and tremendous conflict betweenwhite men and white women, between Jews and gentiles, and between classes, but thatconflict,
even in itsarticulation, has a certain solidarity. And I think that sol idarity comes from a near or far relation to the black body or bod ies. We give the nation itscoherence because we're itsunderbelly.1

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SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

S.V.H. Mbembe's

That's what's the way

work, colonized subject merly way of defining the predicament. the object F.W. to whom squandered with impunity.12

Essentially, he says, the slave is can be done, whose life can be anything

so interesting for me about Achille he thinks about the position of the for along the lines of the slave as an essential

nefarious uses of slave property" and then demonstrates how "there was no relation to blackness outside the terms of this use of, enti tlement to, and occupation of the captive body, for even the status of free blacks was shaped and compromised by the existence of are formally enslaved blacks proper slavery" (S, 24). So. Not only but so are formally free blacks. One could say that the possibil ty,

means to be a slave is to And he's suggesting thatwhat it a kind of complete appropriation, what you call be subject to "property of enjoyment." Your book illustrates the "myriad and

slave's own enjoyment of his/her performance: white people.13 S. VH. -

which you demonstrate how ing about your argument is theway in not only is the slave's performance (dance, music, etc.) the proper and this is really keythe ty of white enjoyment, but so is that too belongs

of ity becoming property isone of the essential elements that draws the line between blackness and whiteness. But what's most intrigu

to

which

the ability to occupy blackness was considered transgressive or as a way of refashioning whiteness, and therewere all these rad ical claims thatwere being made for it.14 And I thought, "Oh, no, this is just an extension of the master's prerogative." Itdoesn't mat terwhether you do good or you do bad, the crux is that you can

was writing Scenes of Subjection, Right. You know, as I there was a whole spate of books on nineteenth-century culture and on minstrelsy in particular. And there was a certain sense in

choose todo what youwish with theblack body.That's why think of material rela ingabout thedynamicsof enjoymentinterms the
tions of slavery was F.W -Yes, so key forme. that's clarifying. A body that you can do what you want

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

189

of the body as the property of enjoyment, what I really like iswhen you talk about Rankin. Here's a guylike the prototypical twentieth-century white progressive - who's anti-slavery and uses his powers of observation towrite for itsabo with.

In your discussion

in the South, he's lition, even to his slave-owning brother. He's a slave coffle, and he imagines that these slaves being looking at it beaten could be himself and his family. Through this process sense to him, itbecomes meaningful. His body and his fam members' white bodies become proxies for real enslaved black ily

makes

bodies and, as you point out, the actual object of identification, the slave, disappears. S.V.H. I think that gets at one of the fundamental ethical ques West: the status of difference and the tions/problems/crises for the status of the other. It's as though in order to come to any recogni tion of common humanity, the other must be assimilated, meaning in this case, utterly displaced and effaced: "Only if Ican see myself in that position can

state in order to see the racism of the racist state. You have to be .. . exemplary in your goodness, as opposed to F.W.[laughter] A nigga on the warpath!

I understand the crisis of that position." That is the logic of the moral and political discourses we see everyday the need for the innocent black subject to be victimized by a racist

was those moments thatwere the most S. V.H. Exactly! For me it the moments of the sympathetic ally, who in some ways telling is actually no more able to see the slave than the person who is exploiting him or her as their property. That is the work Rankin does and I think it suggests just how ubiquitous that kind of vio lence, in fact, is. F.W You've just thrown something into crisis, which

is very

much on the table today:the notionof allies.What you've said (and I'm so happy thatsomeone has come along to say it!) is that
the ally

than whites being theallies (rather merelya willful refusal) against

is not a stable category. There's a structural prohibition

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SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

to borrow from Fanon's The Wretched of of blacks, due to this means to be the Earth again "species" division between what it a means to be an object: a structural antago subject and what it

there isenough of a structural commonality between the black and the white (working class) position their mantra being: "We are forone to embark upon a political ped both exploited subjects" agogy thatwill somehow help whites become aware of this "com monality." White writers posit the presence of something they call "white skin privilege," and the possibility of "giving that up," as their gesture of being in solidarity with blacks. But what both ges tures disavow

nism. But everything in the academy on race works off of the ques tion, "How do we help white allies?" Black academics assume that

is that subjects just can't make common cause with objects. They can only become objects, say in the case of John Brown or Marilyn Buck, or further instantiate their subjectivity

through modalities of violence (lynching and the prison industrial complex), or through modalities of empathy. In other words, the essence of the white/black relation is that of the essential master/slave regardless of itshistorical or geographic specificity. And masters and slaves, even today, are never allies. S.V.H. a Right. I think of the book as an allegory; history of the present. itsargument is

F.W -

sent. Because

at the moment.

Thank you! I'm so glad you said it'san allegory of the pre now we've got two problems on the table, two crises we have many crises, but only two that I can identify or rather, One is how we deal with the common sense

be in teaching literature to undergraduates around allies, whether it or going to hear Cornel West speak with Michael Lerner, or listen

as is community actuallyas big an enemy toblack revolution Newt And theother I could put as, "How do you go to the Gingrich.
movies?" How does anything? Because going to communicate one, knowing what one it seems like every film knows, sit through if it is in any way can

ing to KPFA, since,

in point of fact, it may be that the progressive

some type of empathy that the audience

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

191

walk

away with

has to have black death as itsprecondition.

S.VH. -

Yes, yes. Monster's Ball is a great example.15 Not only is Leticia's husband executed, but her son must also die as the pre with her husband's executioner. And the condition for her new life

requirement is rendered as a romance. Rather than closing a note of ambivalence, the film actually ends with her smiling with over the romantic music, as ifto suggest that she's gotten over it, and the future awaits them. And I think that is the frightening death hypocrisy of the context we are living in. There's also the filmUnfaithful where the lover has to be mur

dered

inorder to protect the heterosexual family.16 The white bour can actually livewith murder in order to reconstitute geois family itsdomesticity. F.W Well, why does white in the visual? supremacy seem to be so bound up

I think that visually, the threat of blackness is somehow Fanon's "Look! A Negro": that's the formulation, and heightened. within the racial classificatory schema that is how much of the work isdone, especially in terms of theway racialization has oper ated: how itdisposes of bodies, how itappropriates their products, and how it fixes them in a visual grid. I think those are the three as, again, thiswhole

S.VH. -

ways Iwould explore that problem, as well dimension of the empathic. F.W One

of the things I wanted to bring up is how your book is talking to other very important books. It's talking to Fanon as you've said, and it's talking to Patterson's Slavery and Social Death.17 And of the '70s, and the univer

discourses you talked about the leftist

falls short helpingus of salizingofGramscianhegemonythatreally a position incivil society, notof civil society.Ithas but understand todo, Ithink, with how the idiom power that of black people expe
rience has different kinds of manifestations as we move from slav ery into the era of the Freedmen's Bureau, but there's an umbrella

of despotism

that remains. And when

you suggested earlier that the

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SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

book

was so refreshing, because one isan allegory of the present, it can read this book and begin to metaphorize the manifestations of itcontinues in

despotism in the past, and also to think about how the present. S.VH. -

It really is the pressing question of freedom. That's why for the last lines of the book summon up thatmoment of poten me,

tiality between the no longer and the not yet. "Not yet free": that articulation is from the space of the twenty-first century, not the the same nineteenth, and that's the way it's supposed to carry predicament, FW. -And was ass the same condition.

accused

in those termswe might think about how Rodney King of inviting his own beating; you know, he shook his an aggressive manner at a white woman. So maybe you in

could sketch out theway in which the black woman functions sim as somehow outside the statutory, or inside it: she ilarly in slavery, cannot be raped because invite the rapist. S. VH. she's a non-person yet she ispresumed

to

Yes. No crime can occur because

the slave statutes rec

ognize no such crime. Often when I'm looking through the crimi nal record of the nineteenth century, I'm seeing the text of black agency. The people who are resisting their masters and overseers

appear in the records as they're prosecuted for their crime, creating In this displacement of culpability that enables white innocence. the case of State ofMissouri v. Celia (1855), Celia is raped repeat edly by her owner from the moment she's purchased. She begs him to stop; he doesn't, so she kills him. Her crime is the crime on record: she is the culpable agent.18 So in this formulation of law and

and to makes thecrimesof property the transparent affirms rights


property in captives. And you're right, that displacement the slave, the native, the black. functions more generally.

itspunishment, blackness

is on the side of culpability, which

most part, it's Who is the responsible and culpable agent?For the
always

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

193

F.W -

Which

brings your allegory of the present to the prison

industrial complex. Actually, I've got an interesting tidbit. I think that Den mark Vesey was the first person ever imprisoned in the South Carolina Penitentiary. F.W S.V.H. comes Really? It's like a seamless transition from slavery to prison. S.VH. -

where the larger narrative of capitalism Right. And this is in the world, into play. Because, basically, inmost places you have a transition from slavery to other modes of involuntary servitude. Inmy work, I critique the received narrative about the transition from slavery to freedom in the American context, but we could also look at that same kind of transformation in relation to

the anti-slavery rhetoric that comes to legitimize the colonial pro ject inAfrica. By the nineteenth century, slavery was the dominant inWest Africa. Eventually, the European mode of production nations decided "This is an awful institution and we

given you your freedom, so now you're F.W -

it," so we get King Leopold masking his atrocities the discourse of anti-slavery, or British colonial figures inGhana effectively saying, "Well, we saved you from the slave raider so you should be grateful."19 In both cases, it's the same notion: "We've inour debt." in your book where

need to stop in the Congo in

And that brings us to Reconstruction you're talking about post-jubilee:

The good conduct encouraged by such counsels eased the transition from slavery to freedom by imploring the freed to continue in old forms of subservience, which primarily entailed remaining on the plantation as faith ful, hardworking, and obedient laborers, but also included manners, styles of comportment inwork rela

tions,objects of consumption, leisure,and domestic


relations. schoolbooks In their emphasis on proper conduct, these resuscitated the social roles of slavery, not in labor contracts or

unlike the regulation of behavior

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SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

the criminalization

to The pedagogical injunctions obedience and servility


cast the freed in a world which one in starkly similar to the the one had suffered under slavery. On they hand, these texts heralded the natural rightsof all men; and on the other, they advised blacks to refrain from

of impudence

in the Black Codes.

enjoying this newly conferred equality. Despite procla mations about the whip's demise, emergent forms of involuntary servitude, the coercive control of black labor, the repressive instrumentality of the law, and the social intercourse of everyday life revealed the entan glements of slavery and freedom. (S, 151) So. There's thiswhole army of white people missionaries, edu and the like who go down South to help rehabilitate the cators, Negro after slavery. And in reading that, a wave of cynicism swept over me, because all of a sudden I thought of Freedom Summer, and the white to have. S.V.H. students in SNCC, which is a blasphemous thought

be productive. And here as everywhere else in theworld, you need violence to make a working class. So what you see are the various means utilized to do that: forms of state violence, extra-state vio

It's too immediate, but yes. Imean, it's incredible: these have made the nation rich and have been working people or not they can actually suddenly there's this question of whether

lence, and the values propagated by moralizing and religious dis courses. And what's interesting is that the black elites become the purveyors of those very values. Kevin Gaines has shown inUplifting the Race how inmany ways the agenda of the black elite is reac

tionary and they are, in effect, the handmaidens of the state.20 For example, in the black feministwork on marriage, I think there's been a one-sided assessment of the institution: the enslaved denied

were

marriage, so now they have access to it and can secure the bonds of their love.21 But it'salso being enforced as part since of an agenda of social control. And it'salso being utilized -

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

195

to force black men to interracial marriages are prohibited assume the responsibility for the offspring of white men and black women. So in that context, what does itactually mean tomake the ex-slave into a certain kind of subject? And, again, who does that

serve? It is an agenda for creating dutiful workers, and instilling in them a desire for consumption so that they become dependent to the self-sufficient peasants that they upon wages, as opposed otherwise choose to be.

would F.W -

Now, it's really tricky here for us, as black intellectuals, we staywith the second half of the book, as you've said, if because we've got thiswave of do-gooders moving down to the South with these Freedmen Bureau books on everything from these tomes are white and hygiene, to how to speak and what to do. Some some are black. And this is very much like 1964 with SNCC and the white Freedom Riders, and maybe very much like 1999, with the prison abolition movement.22 But, you know, the black ...

S.V.H. -

If I'm clear about what you're getting at, I think it'sthe dif ference between those who wanted to aid the newly freed to fit into the social order and those who had a vision of black freedom that about transforming the social order, about the promise of the revolution, and ultimately, about Jubilee. So I think that's one way

was

solidarity forces in relation to the ambitions and desires of the for merly enslaved community. F.W -

to think about thedifferent models of communityimagined the by

But there is something that the people producing this lib eral discourse of accommodation don't seem to understand that I want to bring to the fore. Evelyn Hammonds in her article on black some kind of conflict a female sexuality suggests that there is

on of Wells prototype conflict the level ideas between the Ida B. are and theBessie Smithprototype.23 both prototypes doing But work on black femalesexuality under theumbrellaof despotism. we And in terms how thatdespotism of manifests itself visually, todeconstruct what Icall settler and by that I narratives, might try mean films like Frin Brockovich, which was reallyabout how

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SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

over brown and black people, but whose mise-en is reinscribed, at the level of the bodily code, with a whole plethora of Jacksonian white people.24 PG&E messed scene S.V.H. who You're right, because 99.5% of U.S. is a totally You're the only one cinema

instrumental pernicious propaganda machine. seems to realize that [laughter]! You know!

F. W

scenes of Rambo the despotism, get a job.25 S.VH. pernicious F.W allegory. S.VH. -

I'm categorically uninterested in those horrific I'm interested in is killing colored people. What trying to

the white supremacy, of Erin Brockovich

It's in those moments social

text is revealed.

of seeming innocence where the I don't know if you've seen

Minority Report?26 I went to see was it,but it sold-out. It seems like another

It is, and, of course, what's interesting is that you're in this future where one can pinpoint the "pre-crime." placed Spielberg, trying to be liberal, doesn't have criminals represented as black, but we know that the state machine is a

racializing machine, yet this fact iseffaced in the film. It's interesting that every crime that occurs in the film is a crime against the family.And like every Spielberg film, family values support a eugenics agenda the reconstitution of the white bourgeois family. Even the white working class ispathologized. The space of theworking poor is rife with nineteenth-century metaphors that could be right out of one of my Freedmen's primers: disorder, dirt, sexual impropriety [laugh ter]. This is the twenty-firstcentury anticipation of the future. culture,

So, Iagreewith you.And as a black intellectual livingin this

I think that there is a struggle to maintain one's sanity in a context in which your consciousness is at war with the given. There's nothing that's simple or taken for granted. EW No, it's all very complicated. And this iswhy Africans say

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

197

we're

are complex just too complex. They think black Americans I'm very jealous of the African position and moody and depressive. inmany ways. There are all these therapeutic grounding wires, so is slapping them down, they've got this whole when apartheid other psychic space S. V.H. doesn't that they just go into.

House, white people than Africans because colonialism didn't exact the same psychic damage.27 Idon't believe that, I think that's an untrue statement. I think that there's definitely a difference between we who are of theWest

Although I'm very suspicious of the notion that theAfrican also occupy that depressive personality. In InMy Father's are angrier at Anthony Appiah says thatAfrican-Americans

and people elsewhere, but I really challenge is the psychic damage of apartheid that supposition because tremendous. When you look at certain African writers, say Achille and the other so-called "Afro-Pessimists" who are

Mbembe

diag of the colonial nosticians of their society, you see the consequences as extreme or radical as inour case project. The trauma may not be because F.W we're

I still literally living inside this order, but would greatly qualify these positive assessments of African subjectivity. And in those living in this order, black people are still doing the innocent scenes. They're doing the work of dying; in are doing the work of recognizing white women in Mildred

work

black women their quests as

Pierce;28 and black men are performing thework of recognizing the sexual virility of white men. That's real to do and still live under ly importantwork thatwe're called upon the specter of despotism. So maybe we're still club was. We're

B.Wells

don't kill us. S. VH. And

- where the Ida and this isvery tragic so that they trying to make ourselves over is, "Where do we go

I think the underlying question

from here?" W F. S.VH. Is that leading us to reparations? Yes. I've been thinking about the notion of focusing one's

198

SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

The reparations appeal to the very state that has inflicted the injury. movement puts itself in this contradictory or impossible position, because reparations are not going to solve the systemic ongoing or any other terms. And production of racial inequality, inmaterial like inequality, racial domination and racial abjection are pro

across generations. In that sense, reparations seem like a very limited reform: a liberal scheme based upon certain notions of commensurability that reinscribe the power of the law and of the duced state to make

once

a right certain situation, when, clearly, itcannot. I think too that such thinking reveals an idealist trap; it'sas if Americans know how the wealth of the country was

mantled, even though it's actually going to affect more white women and children than black people? Because ithas to do with an antipathy to blackness that structures .. . that political will and FW. -

are owed something. My acquired, they'll decide that black people God! Why would you assume that? Like housing segregation is an I think that logic of "if they only knew otherwise" is accident! is the welfare state dis about the disavowal of political will. Why

That structures institutions. And your work on empathy shows that; ithelps us to understand how important blackness is to the libidinal economy of white institutionality.Now, I think I'm fair in generally characterizing the reparations debate and those who've renewed it Randall Robinson and company by saying that they got a tiger by the tail, and then didn't want the tiger to do reparations people present the issue to blacks as is an essentially historical phenomenon that ended, though slavery but the effects ofwhich put blacks at what they call, you know, "an its thing.29 The unfair disadvantage" ing theAmerican

waste a political dull theknife, weapon, they they keep the literally
tiger in the cage, because

to those inother positions who are also chas dream. Through such a move the reparations folks here is a weapon which

in untold directions: I'm thinking here of Nat Turner'sgreatest


is a denuded or, maybe a policed

could spew forth

to mobilize method of conveyance.They'retrying simultaneously


and manage black rage. Ifreparations were thought of not as some

night. Instead, that weapon

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

199

differently from the way it'spresented. One could present a repa rations agenda in theway in which you present your book, dealing moves from genera with the despotism of black positionality as it tion to generation, from historical moment to historical moment with despotism beirig the almost ahistorical constant. Unleash the

as a weapon that could precipitate a cri thing to be achieved, but sis inAmerican institutionality, then itcould be worked out a lot

and let it its do tiger thing.

S. VH. -- At the very least thatwould social order. F.W. -Yes, theywould

entail a transformation of the

have to call for revolution. Berkeley, California, July6, 2002

must be understood Scenes

troubles any Rather, Hartman argues that the contiguity of forms of subjection and freedom, so that the text of freedom absolute division between slavery as of Subjection: laden with the vestiges of slavery. Saidiya V. Hartman, in Nineteenth-Century Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making

America (NewYork: Oxford University cited paren Press, 1997). Hereafter


2 thetically as S. For Hartman, the slave as subject unsettles and primitive accumulation, ty production the distinction because between commodi the the slave embodies

form. The slave is thus the object that must be de-ani changing commodity inorder to be exchanged and thatwhich, by contrast, defines the mean mated ing of free labor. Anita Patterson, "Scenes Nineteenth-Century America/' of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making African-American vol. 33, no. Review,

in 4

Slave

(Winter 1999): 683. See, for example,George Rawick,FromSundown toSunup: The Making of the The Slave Community: AntebellumSouth (Oxford: Ox PlantationLife in the ford and Press,1979);Herbert Gutman,TheBlack FamilyinSlavery University
(New York: Pantheon, 1976); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture, Black Community (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1973); John Blassingame,

Freedom

Anne

Consciousness (Oxford: Slave OxfordUniversity Press, 1977); Sterling Stuckey, Culture (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1987).
Showstack 1982). Sassoon, Approaches to Gramsci (London: Writers and

6
7

in HarrietJacobs,Incidents theLife a SlaveGirl, of Written Herself,ed. Jean by Yellin (1861; reprint, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 1987). Fagan Cambridge,
John Rankin, Letters on American Universities Press, 1970). Slavery (1837; reprint, Westport, CT: Negro

Readers,

200

SAIDIYAV. HARTMAN

8 9 10 11

An American Grammar J. Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: 17 (Summer 1987): 65-81. Book," Diacritics trans. Charles Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Lam Markmann (New as B. York: Grove Press, 1967), Hereafter cited parentetica!ly Frantz Fanon, York: Grove Wilderson The Wretched 1968), 44. of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New Press,

Hortense

mean tobe white? But tion: What does it what's remarkableisthediversity of that debates thisquestionon opinions surrounding question: as each territory one finds uniform no its definition the way to statehood, regarding inside/out
or even But from territory of whiteness, side, the boundaries quasi-whiteness. to territory there is absolute consistency in the relegation of blackness towhat Fanon calls a Even the dereliction dereliction. of the position of absolute is often best understood, libidinally, through the black body.

It's interesting to note how, in the nineteenth century, as expands: ? etc. ? the Jacksonians Scots, Irish, Catholics, farmers, cowboys, yeomen are access to civil society, those demands are enabled demanding by the ques

Native American

I'm thinking graffiti a men's bathroom:The Indian is living of in proof thatthe fuckedthebuffalo. nigger 12 See AchilleMbembe, On thePostcolony (Berkeley: of University California
13 "[EJnjoyment was attributed to the slave in order to deny, dis the violence of slavery. . . .Thus the efficacy of violence place, and minimize was indicated precisely by its invisibility or transparency and in the copious ... As Slavoj Zizek notes, fantasies about the other's display of slave agency. are ways for us to (25). enjoyment organize our own enjoyment" Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and See, for example, American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). Marc Forster, Monster's Ball, 35mm, 111 min., Lion's Gate Films, 2002. Adrian Lyne, Unfaithful, 35mm, 124 min., tion with Fox 2000 Pictures, 2002. Patterson, Slavery and Social a Slave, Epsilon Motion (Cambridge, Pictures MA: the Press, 2002). Hartman writes:

14 15 16 17 18

in associa Uni

Orlando

Death

Harvard

versity Press, 1982). v. Celia, State ofMissouri Term, 1855, Callaway

File 4496,

19 See Patrick West Africa (Cambridge: Manning,Slaveryin CambridgeUniversity Mariner Press, 1987), andAdam Hochschild,King Leopold'sGhost (NewYork: 20
21

County

Courthouse,

Callaway County Fulton, MO.

Court, October

KevinGaines, UpliftingtheRace (ChapelHill: University NorthCarolina of


Press, 1996). See Ann DuCille, Convention The Coupling (New York: Oxford University of Female Desire (New Press, 1993), and Claudia Tate, Domestic Allegories York: Oxford Wilderson University Press, 1992). refuses expands: At a certain level, the prison abolition movement to be led by the energy and esprit de corps of prisoners themselves ? it some times even refuses to be led by the agenda of prisoners, i.e., abolition. The ? an exercise in racial Freedom Riders were part of a civil rights exercise

Books,

1999).

22

THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT

201

to institutionality (civil society). In both these twentieth-centu rygestures, just as Hartman points out with respect to the Freedmen's Bureau of the nineteenth century, the oppositional force and desire of black antago not that demand to which all other positions must succumb, Prince, and be assimilat

uplift, in access

what leads, is nism,the forceand desireof objects ina world subjects, isnor
or Gramsci's Bureau

ed by or perishbeneath (the that way it isagreed,on theLeft, Marx's dictator


between

or Therein liesthehistorical shouldassimilate crushthecapitalists). continuity


the Freedmen's and the Freedom Riders and prison abolition

ship of the proletariat,

Modern

the revolutionary

party,

movements

23

24

in Feminist Genealogies, of Silence," Colonial Legacies, Demo cratic Futures, eds. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpad? Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997). Problematic Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich, 35 mm, 130 min., Universal Studios, 2000.

a M. The Evelynn, Hammonds, "Toward Genealogy of Black FemaleSexuality:

of the twentieth century.

was foundational to 25 Wilderson further white supremacy suggests:In real life, consumers who thestory California's largest of poisoningand killingits utility were people of color. But inthe film,literally all thecases that of Brockovich mom and a to (as a whiteworkingclasswoman trying be a single investigates speak to atmass paralegal),and 99% of thebodieswhich she and theattorney We're right with small merchantsand yeomen back to thenineteenth century
the railroads, and farmers, homesteaders, tyrannized by the big corporations, the national bank: a national tragedy made possible only by the disavowal of slavery's intensification and the Trail of Tears. Report, 35mm, 146 min., 20th Century Fox, 2002. meetings ? of the plaintiffs, are white the white American ruralworking class.

26

27
28 29

K. House: Africa in thePhilosophy Culture of My Father's Anthony Appiah, In


Michael (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). Curtiz, Mildred Pierce, 35 mm, 113 min., Warner Bros., to Blacks The Debt: What America Owes Randall Robinson, Plume, 2001). 1945. (New York:

Steven Spielberg, Minority