Thursday, November 19, 2009

... and now for today's lecture

***while it's still warm and fresh in my head***

The need to reinvent narratives forms, aside from keeping our perceptions of social realities and constructs relevant and reproducing, also gives historians something to do - we can't, as a society, quite allow individuals like them to run around with nothing to do; they'd rule the world otherwise. (or maybe they do)

Reassessment, I believe, happens all the time. Some reassessments turn narratives on their head, others defy and restrict information, while others more become canon. Some narratives become so pervasive, so instructive, and so illustrative that they seep in to become an indivisible concept of our modern existence - capitalism, in its current inception, is often treated as being endogenous to human activity (if you believe the liberal narrative); we know instead that markets had to be created (Durkheim, but arguably, every economic theorist since Locke - and I count him as an economic theorist).

If I listened in correctly, such narratives base their worldviews on "natural" foundations - that at the heart of any argument lies an irreducible kernel of truth, from the superiority of races to the intrinsic desires of the individual. This claim to naturalism is the claim to truth - but that implies an infinite, constant commodity.

Narratives that don't allow for certainties are seen as incomplete; narratives that do are subject o different interpretations. But all narratives require some fundamental back story, the raison d'etre of their existence. They explain and proliferate a certain conception of the "way things are" - not in themselves sinister, but self-serving and, if constructed correctly, reproducing.


But anyway, on to the real gist of this post - the concepts of slavery and the social death.

To understand the social death of enslavement is to understand the trauma of forced passage and unrequited social connections. The following is an excerpt for a paper I wrote in a class on slavery in the Western world:

    The Middle Passage’s trauma inflicted so heavy a price on the enslaved that the very identity and affinity of the victims was effectively destroyed upon arrival in the Western Hemisphere. So far removed from their homes, their sense of belonging suffered a transition of immense stress into a life as a commoditized unit of labor. Stripped of recognition and socially-reinforcible meaning, the enslaved had only one means of cognitive escape. Held in a society where they were permanently treated as a commoditized “Other”, the only space the enslaved could imagine liberty was in between their ears and deep in their hearts. Spirituality, first imparted Christianity and then, in Haiti, with the importation and rediscovery of Voodoo, provided not only the means to grasp a new reality and recognize the self within and without it, but also the re-characterization of the species-being  towards a new sense of liberty and eventual emancipation as in the Haitian Revolution.
    The majority of the African Diaspora we see in the Western Hemisphere today are the descendants of unwilling migrants. The first generation of enslaved individuals suffered varying degrees of Hell on the voyage, an (un?)intentional effort by the slave industry to dehumanize and commoditize what they would term “human cargo”. Aside from the physical trauma and the appalling mortality rate, the journey had the perverse effect of invalidating and societally denying the Atlantic enslaved – a “social death” of isolation and extreme alienation . For those who survived the Passage, the displacement was permanent and harsh. The practice of slavery was not unknown in West Africa but the modern form was far more extreme and alienating. The sheer act of displacing entire populations with complete disregard for the people thus moved must have generated an amazing distress. Cultural tools and memories of association were impossible given the near total social upheaval of this cognitive displacement . The individuals thus left were upright versions of waiting-death, not fully alive and not fully members of the community. The commoditization of labor was never so truly accomplished with such blatant disregard for the health, mental and physical, of labor. What the Middle Passage served to accomplish was the disintegration of previously naturally assumed social ties, obligations and accomplishments, and replaced them with the sheer destabilizing terror of dictated social conditions and human helplessness.
    The enslavement process created an impossible abstraction. The enslaved was not recognized within the plurality of humanity and abstracted on different terms as an aspect of an economy rather than as from a society. The new relationship the enslaved had to deal with was one based on pure coercive power between the “master” and oneself; society for the enslaved had ceased to be. As Smallwater describes, even death was by no means a certain form of escape for the initial slave; death was a release from the physical but cognitively, the enslaved had already died once on the Passage and death subsequently would lack the fulfillment of true social closure . Enslavement also had the desensitizing way of distending meaning and purpose from the enslaved’s existence. By creating a being that had no society, no recognition and no subjectivity beyond the realm of the commodity, the enslaved became a means rather than an end in itself; the enslaved suffers from the total alienation from nature owning nothing and being nothing.

How do narratives play into this? The social construct of narratives reasserts an association with society, justifying and claiming to certain rights and access to groups. A disjuncture from the narrative produces a concept of a dehumanized individual - in my opinion - greater than an imposed narrative. To create a narrative requires concerted efforts of generations - even the relatively "natural" narrative of capitalism was not born immediately after Adam Smith's Birth, but was merely an aspect of a larger story being woven and is continuing to this day. Having a narrative imposed is also, likewise, an effort of generations, creating through its methods the seeds of resistance, acquiescence, and authority and arbitration. Narratives come after the fact and is a social process not a mission statement.

- aaron

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