Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Use it or Lose It: Back to Reproduction
Illuminations, Walter Benjamin, 1966
Reflections, Walter Benjamin, 1976
Turning the Beat Around: Lesbian Parenting 1986, Audre Lorde, 1988
Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities, Rhoda Reddock, 2004
Dexterity, Julie Dexter, 2002
Real Women Have Curves, Patricia Cordoso, 2002
Born into Brothels Zana Briski and Rob Kauffman, 2003
Conscious, Julie Dexter, 2004
Memoirs of a Geisha, Rob Marshall, 2005
Tsosti, Gavin Hood, 2005
Game Theory, The Roots, 2006
Lovers, Dreamers and Me, Alice Smith, 2006
Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman, 2007
Saidiya Hartman's book Lose Your Mother, came in the mail and held me captive. Including breaks for a planning meeting about a curriculum for a mother/daughter program (seriously) and reluctant sleep, I was in Saidiya's hold for two days. It would be unfair and innappropriate to say, based on the critique that Hartman offers of love, of kinship, of brith of everything to simply say that my interpretation of these of other items was born out of Hartman's analysis. But as Hartmant herself is the first to point out: everything is unfair.
I have been listening to Hartman read excerpts from this book for four years now. Thus my concession to pre-ordering the book on Amazon months in advance. It's the first book that I have bought new in quite some time. This book, titled in the form of an impossible command, Lose Your Mother, commands more than my attention. It demands a certain rigor from me in every articulation I make from now on about race, about Africa, about the differences between the ways in which I am needed by my family (an institution) and needed by my university (an institution). It calls into question every voice I myself heard screaming while I was in the slave dungeons at Elmina. It makes me ask exactly what it was that knocked my voice out of me afterwards...and what exactly brought it back.
Alongside her memoiristic and rhythmic account of her time in Ghana as a "stranger", alongside her rehistoricization of a past that has become mythic: an economic system of violent and a logic in which certain humans were expendable that preceded and constituted race instead of the tragic story through which a race split apart from itself...alongside this challenge to what diaspora could be (she explains that when her African colleagues mentioned "the diaspora" they might as well have been saying "stranger" which meant "slave", she explains that for them the African in African American (the Afro in Afro-Caribbean?) was not the same African they meant when they said themselves, she explains that for them Africa ended at the boundaries of the continent. Period.) Alongside this problematization of a dreamt of black solidarity based on race that she must replace with a logic of fugivity (flight, failure and huntedness with an oppositional dream of connection as the basis for a politics) she places a narrative about her mother. About losing her mother. About rejecting the (slave?) name that her mother gave her, rejecting the job (slave) that her mother wanted (her) to have, rejecting every rule that her Mississippi raised mother tried to use to save her from the ravenous Brooklyn police. (Her father was not loss...he is loss itself. She describes Caribbean migration as something with no time for dreams of Africa, explaining that their own loss of landedness or belonging was too recent on that side, inadvertently (or intentionally?) cementing the diachronic break between those transatlantic points on the Triangle trade). And at the same time, Hartman haunts us with a new mother, a means of intellectual and economic production through which "a slave is born". The historical narrative is mother inasmuch as it produces subjectivity and longing. Capitalism is mother, as it produces slaves as a thing to possibly be. Most challenging, most disturbing, slavemaster is mother creating a bond of bonds and bondage impelling the slave which he has "made" to stay within the network that sustains him.
Because the metaphor of birth, that painful pushing out of something that was not there before from a womb and shitting, the pushing out of something that was not there before through the colon is never quite distinguished in this text. Like a racist joke about black maternity and bowel movement, this radical demythification of the affect of motherhood makes this text a fulfillment of its command and a challenge to she (to me) who would theorize motherhood, who would theorize love, who would look there for some miracle of being related. For Hartman the possibility of the fungible slave (called odonkor--"love" "don't go") changes forever what love can mean. Calls into question whether love can mean. At all. Because the mother wants the child to stay in the mortal world...not to be possessed by the spirits...not to return into death and the slavemaster wants the slave to stay too. Because need (like the colon pushed up against the uterus) is right up under, right there next to love. Right there.
So Hartman's text reminds me of why I need Lorde's theorization of difference. Because though difference (already existing) was used to justifiy raiding and selling Other humans into slavery for no real return, for no possible return, Lorde insists that difference is a creative energy, challenging us to create relationships to each other, across it. Challenging us to be impossible parents against the extermination that AIDS, racism, apartheid etc threaten.Hartman's revelation of the links between kinship and enslavement is also a challenge to create relationship in a different way (for those of us who love in doorways)...because I cannot believe it is refusal of relationship as such. I do not believe that Hartman's text gives up. Hartman is not, in this text, teaching me to give up.
Benjamin says that the author who does not teach writers teaches no one, and so these writers become teachers as they inform my action. And I heed Benjamin's call (not) to (be a) hack author. To make art that in itself is a different relationship to production. I wrote the proposal for my part of the forthcoming Love Production project of the International Black Youth Summit while listening to Julie Dexter and foreshadowing my own renewed reading of what is for me the essential and classic Benjamin, "The Author as Producer". So in fact the only thing that I should write about is that. Is the way that writers, the writers that teach and (re)produce me do that, make that relation. In the age of cybernetic reproduction. And at the same time I have to ask what reproductions make the same.
Does Born in Brothels...countering the unaccepted (always pathologized in this film) non-reproductive sex work of mothers with the reproductive training of photography really produce something new. Is a crusade to get eight kids "out of the brothels" reproducing the abjection that their mothers are already facing? As if the still images that the kids make and that win the directors an Academy Award can actually stop the cycles of impoverishment on a global scale that make life unsafe or miserable or whatever it is besides colorful in a brothel. In fact the project of the film itself repeats Hartman's command, "Lose Your Mother", this children MUST be admitted to boarding schools. Must not live with their contaminated mothers. Must be given up towards the dream of a "holistic" environment on land bought for a school funded by the photos that these children have taken away from the grief of their mothers.
Does Tsotsi, with its compelling story of an infantalized grown up street child in South Africa who is attracted by fate and failed maturity to baby from the black upper classes do more than reinvoke the family as the only thing, as the site of failure and the reason for criminality. What do these fetishizations of children and demonizations of poor families do to condone a structure that can fund more and more film so long as the status quo gets reproduced? Tsotsi runs away from home as his mother lies of her death bed as his father quardrapeligiazes a dog because he can. Tsotsi raises his hands into a cross...gives back the baby, gives himself up to the cops.
And Memoirs of a Geisha are you kidding me? What bankruptcy to relationships between women become when the institutionalized version of a predominant production of women as commodities becomes a cinderella story where the deserving bluest eyed girl can become the top commodity and be saved by the CEO and only the CEO of a power plant. Another story of dubious salvation that has to begin with the death of a mother.
And how do we put it back together the Roots put this historicization of violent relationships in context when they say "Pilgrim, Slave, Indian, Mexican...it looks real fucked up for your next of kin." Indeed the dominant kinships, disavowed and denied again and again are those of violent use, where women and children and the affect they can bring become commodities, make surplus...are expendable. It looks real fucked up. This is the imperative we have to change relationships to refuse reproduction or to listen to the teachings that the writers have been making and make something different out of the difference we relate across. Julie Dexter does this by insisting on some kind of diasporic home ('home' she says 'is who you know') and the Roots do it again on the way out. With their voicemail, piecemeal mixtape of tributes to J Dilla taken, like Flannery O Conner and so many other genuises by lupus, with their beautifully orchestrated gut bass, crashmixed tribute to he greatest composer contemporary, heartbeat to hiphop stopped, the Roots are trying to put it back together Benjamin and Hartman repeat it. Even the dead are not safe if we ignore them. If we lose.