Below is the text I submitted for my senior capstone term paper.
Birthing a Community without Organs:
Resistance in neo-Slave Narratives as a Discursive and Sexual Act
“The literary machine thus becomes the relay for a revolutionary machine-to-come, not at all for ideological reasons but because the literary machine alone is determined to fill the conditions of a collective enunciation that is lacking elsewhere in this milieu: literature is the people’s concern.”
- Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, 18
As it is not a question of whether or not slavery happened or continues to happen, our line of questioning must go towards how these events occurred and what conditions allowed for such events. Simultaneously, we must address how individuals and texts that attempt to make progress against injustice operate in the same milieu that produced the logic of slavery. How does the concept of ‘commodified freedom’ give the potential for resistance, specifically with regards to female sexuality and gendered reproduction? In these novels the representational power of discourse, specifically its capacity to commodify and exploit a human body, is interrogated in narrative and re-represented in the literary format. Where the oppressor, paradigmatically male, engages in a drive to deprive life the female in these narratives find their capacity to resistance in a will to give life and truth. As these relationships are social, our stakes in this analysis become political; understanding that there is no outside to capital, we can understand the stakes to be as totalizing as the structures which oppress.
Here it will be imperative to distinguish between affirmative and negative actions, where a negative action to power would merely reinforce the dialectical system that is seen as oppressive. That is, pairing the affirmative and active against negative and reactive. The dialectical strategy is to identify moments of freedom actualized and to discern whether or not the tactic is of a life-affirming mode, Eros, or life-taking, Thanatos. It is being argued that freedoms which are reactive and violent merely affirm the dominant modality of structured violence under capital, and so it would follow that an actively authentic mode of resistance would be one that promotes life.
As we see in ‘Commodified Freedom,’ capital possesses the power to represent anything as an object of exchange - abstracting particular qualities and placing quantifiable value to them - for the marketplace. There is a process of signification inherent to representation, in this case the signification of a human body in terms of exchange and use value. Of course, keeping in mind that signification is a play of differences there is always the possibility of meaning other than what is imposed. Representation has positive and negative characteristics. While its extensive characteristics always manifest in what has been chosen to be displayed, what has been obscured remains intensely dormant underneath the directed image. Slavery is the instance where “the most singular of beings” can be consumed by this logic. (Smallwood, 296) It is slavery’s representational process to remove, obscure, and abstract the human experience from the body in order to leave a blank slate to inscribe value upon. The practice of branding chattel slaves with a permanent mark is a potent image of this soul murder.
Understanding un-freedom as having oneself be commodified, represented without consent or agency towards an end of exploitation places the dominant power in discourse. As such, resistance to power is always related in some way to discourse, “writing - commanding dominant systems of representation - was a necessary tool for those who would resist their commodification.” (Smallwood, 295) Producing narratives, generations, dreams, songs, and a multitude of other tactics become forms of resistance to power.
In the simplest reduction, the master’s power over a slave woman is coordinated towards two categorical ends. First, the material concerns of producing the next generation of slaves. This is to form a factory of sexuality, which is supported by additional coerced labor in the fields, homes, and kitchens, and ensures continuity of the economic regime which is in place. Second, rape, where the master’s desires are violently realized on his property, is a devastating motif in these histories. The conditions that provided the possibility for such acts are still rooted in representation and are maintained by real violence, but the memory of such events does not limit the possibilities allowed by such conditions. Gendered violence against women gives rise to the possibilities of their resistance.
What is abstracted and commodified, the sexuality of black women, is that which also contains the potential for resistance. These power relations of domination and submission can be inverted, and this is what can be observed in the novels at hand. In both Bulter and Jones, women have the unique ability to produce the future either through creative imaginings or by producing offspring. Appropriating violence into the sexual relations on the part of the woman is a tactic employed by Jones’ protagonist(s). The means of (re)production are reclaimed by these women in distinctly different manners, where Ursa’s resistance occurs in a more reactionary modality than Anyanwu’s programmatic approach.
In Jones’ Corregidora, Ursa and her ancestors take part in a linear, shared experience of sexualized oppression: power is exercised on their bodies by forced sexual encounters for pleasure and production. Part of their capacity for resistance is embedded in this act of reproduction, as it is the constant reprise of the novel for women to submit to these master figures to make future generations of conscious black women; but another aspect is the repetition of negative discourse, which affirms and feeds back systematic violence. As Ursa’s Mama channels Great Gran in a scene of re-memory, a moment of simultaneous submission and resistance to Corregidora is played out in the sexual field. While being raped by Corregidora, Great Gran realizes the limited relationship to her current position and that of another slave currently on the run. In response to Corregidora’s crass language she replies negatively. “I said, ‘Naw.’ I just kept naying Naw, and he just kept squeezing on my ass and fucking. And then somehow it got in my mind that each time he kept going down in me would be that boy’s feets running.” (Jones, 128) Her pained enunciations become part of the larger discourse of freedom, it is a shift in consciousness for the entire lineage of Great Gran to perceive a relationship between agency in one’s speech and another’s bodily freedom. The content of the resistance is imaginative - Great Gran did not, and could not, have a direct hand in the escape or future of that man - but it is the emergence of a shared consciousness of conflict that is resonant. Here resistance is reactionary at the limits of the female body’s potential: Great Gran, Mama, and Ursa after her all share the common experience of intense physical limitation imposed by power. As the scenes of violence are often paired with sexuality, the relationships between freedom, slavery, sex and violence blend.
With the breaking down of distinct differences between freedom, violence, slavery, and sexuality comes Ursa’s realization of her greatest capacity for power. Throughout the novel she returns to question what action could constitute absolute love and hate in one moment. As she realizes her limited freedom in sexual situations - that is, her limited choice of partner and consent to fulfill her own carnal desires - the text returns to the phallus and the woman’s power relationships to it. Instead of allowing continued rape like Great Gran, Ursa finds the potential for resistance in a different sexual act. While performing oral sex on Mutt in the final scene of the novel, she applies her teeth in a technique commonly called “edging” to produce a different affect than pure pleasure. “A moment of pleasure and excruciating pain at the same time, a moment of broken skin but not sexless, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness, a moment that stops before it breaks the skin: ‘I could kill you.’” (Jones, 184) Ursa’s act, which doesn’t literally enunciate the words “I could kill you” but does send that message with her mouth, operates as a neat synthesis of her (shared) experiences regarding unfreedom. If the anticipated result for Mutt (and Corregidora) is blissful, transcendent release, the unexpected introduction of teeth serves to reject the paternal logic of sexual violence. No alternative is posed by Ursa’s resistance, though her capacity to gain limited freedom is realized in a becoming conscious of her sexual potential beyond reproduction.
Anyanwu’s project of resistance seen in Wildseed is that of exploring the potentialities of “her people.” In the same milieu as Doro’s power to kill and make any body his subject is Anyanwu’s power to give life and reimagine the body she inhabits. While remaining within the larger system of capitalism and Doro’s reach, Anyanwu re-imagines the vocabulary of the plantation in her eugenics project. Maintaining the image and voice of a white slave owner provides her the freedom to explore new forms of power among a people whose common relationship is autonomy and consent. This strategy constitutes a deterritorialization from the usual logic of capitalist exploitation. To consider this movement, we must identify the constructions being resisted by Anyanwu. Doro desires sexual pleasure and offspring he can exploit for breeding and later consumption. As he possesses the ultimate power in the narrative he directs the flows of production and desire towards his transcendent position, that is: he develops a vertical structure with a superstructure constituted by value. In his words, when speaking to Anyanwu he says, “I’m thinking about you and your potential value to me.” (Butler, 231) Ever the capitalist, Doro’s primary motivation is to signify whatever he see in the language of value.
Anyanwu desires for a society of sexual liberty and mutual healing: a will to life, a representation of Eros. Though she appears as the figurehead for this new utopia, and she is referred to as the ultimate arbiter of justice and protection by “her people,” Anyanwu’s program includes instruction for medicines which would lessen dependence on her unique abilities. When questioned by Doro regarding these practices, she shrugs of the issue and says, “They should learn to help themselves.” (Butler, 286) This is not all Anyanwu includes in her education program, as she creates this society she brings aspects of their surrounding conditions such as Christianity and reappropriates them to reinforce her imagined community. With respect to institutionalized ideology, Anyanwu remarkably does not completely distance herself from entrenched tradition, instead harnessing the scriptures to promote her project. “ ‘I see to it that they learn some of the less popular ones,’ Anyanwu answered. ‘There is another: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee.” ’ ” (Butler, 286) The less popular verse - biblical law, if taken radically - taken from the Christian bible is very poignant not only in the context of Anyanwu’s impending (re)capture but in its significance for the ideology being constructed by Anyanwu. Both in praxis and poesis, Anyanwu’s imagination of a future is dependent on the active principle that once an individual has asserted their freedom it has become real. This is to return to the commodity form and its process, to absolutely reject the abstraction which would make one a subject of capital, and to form one’s own subjectivity in a continual activity of becoming free.
Considering commodified freedom in relation to the novels Corregidora by Jones and Wild Seed by Butler raises many complex problems regarding freedom and resistance. Understanding the differences between active and reactive resistance, where active resistance produces new futures, presents compelling differences in the results of resistance by the protagonists. Both protagonists adopt strategies of resistance which are inextricably linked to their gendered means of production, their sexuality, and the flows of desire which intend to make the women subjects of exploitation and sexual violence. Jones’ character Ursa and her inherited experiences assume an attitude of resistance at the limits of their physical capacity; these women only find limited sexual agency in which they can produce generations or narratives for the future as a byproduct of violences. Corregidora’s women form a collective story which speaks truth to their experiences. Anyanwu from Butler’s novel assumes a different strategy which takes advantage of her fantastic uniqueness. Instead of re-representing the former modalities of enslavement, she takes up an active project of imagining a new futurity without violence which emphasizes the value of the individual for benefit of all.