This post is a response to the module ‘Being Human’, from the course ‘Visual Culture: Imagery and the Body’, a online course of the European Race and Imagery Foundation. www.erifonline.org
“Everyone who’s anyone”. A conceptual relic of aristocracy, of the brutal transactions of marriage, of the honeyed, moneyed seductions of commerce. Those of us who do not exist in the world of the great inheritors feel we can afford to laugh at the phrase, knowing we are someone, that we exist here, somewhere. The powerful are not real to us. Outside the dream of gleaming offices our untidy lives leave debris in each others’ homes.
People spill much thought on who can be entered into the category of personhood. Those bloody thoughts leak redly at the edges of reproductive health clinics, of laboratories and zoos, nature reserves and indigenous reservations, of logged deserts in the dripping Amazon, and the mighty industrial prison houses of the USA. Categories such as “human” and “person” are porous. An individual formerly thought to be in one of these categories can be written out of it, erased from the ledger of acknowledged persons. Giorgio Agamben talks of the caesura – a break between functioning as socially human – seen as human – and the state of being mere flesh, mere life. He points to a category of human existence external to the the class of humans as social beings. But where Agamben sees this category as existing beyond ideas of race, Alexander Weheliye points to this division as the very mechanism of racialisation. *1
While mulling over this I’m oddly reminded of the novel Clan of the Cave Bear, in which Jean M. Auel’s imagined Neanderthals assign death as a social category to those who have transgressed beyond pardon. A person who is named as dead is exiled both practically and conceptually from the group. Other group members will not acknowledge them: they will not even see them. After a person has been named as dead, they no longer exist. The sense of corporeal being they may continue to experience is an ontological confusion on the part of the dead, not an error on the part of the living. This frames the refusal to see those declared dead as a compulsory skill on the part of the seer. Their ability to ignore the evidence of the ghost before them is their ability to remain identified with their culture. One’s cultural status is determined by what one rejects, what one chooses not to see. To see the ghost hovering at the edge of the fire is to display weakness, to be not quite one of us, and so to call one’s own personhood into question.
The agreements that shape our lives are made by people who have declared us all dead, and when ghosts howl at their windows, those spectres are pacified and distracted with the division of our spectral ranks into degrees of more or less visible existence, the borders of which we police viciously against each other. We are only unstably real – to one another as well as to those with power. Racialising and gendering practices put selected people – and peoples – beyond a terminal caesura. Where the break falls varies, but those existing beyond it are rendered “socially dead”: not citizens, not human, not anyone. *2
*1 Weheliye, Alexander. ‘After Man’.
*2 Jackson, Zakkiyah Iman. ‘Animal: New Directions in the Theories of Race and Posthumanism’.