This is the first of a three-part summary of the excellent 1804 and Its Afterlives conference that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on December 7th and 8th as part of the events programming accompanying the Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou exhibition. Video recordings of the sessions can be found on the above link. I will focus here only on salient points from the many inspiring talks that touch upon issues of direct relevance for the Zombi Diaspora narrative and the work of the Ghetto Biennale.
Friday 7th (Day One)
The keynote lecture – ‘The Gods in the Trunk (or Writing in a Belittered World)’ – was given by Colin Dayan, author of Haiti, History and the Gods (1995) and the recent The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011). Her talk offered “a context for reconfiguring our understanding of the supernatural…that asks: What could we feel if we could feel what we experience sufficiently?” Prompted by her knowledge and experience of Vodou practice she questions the meaning of justice, the reach of cruelty and the uses of reason within the generally decorous and polite academic discussions of ‘humanism’, ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘human rights’, in an attempt to “breach the gap between body and mind, dead and living, human and non-human”.
Her focus on the language of ‘humanism’ and ‘humanitarianism’ has bearings for earlier posts that have addressed post-earthquake disaster relief as a form of neoimperialist violence that masks and intensifies the suffering of the populations it claims to be aiding. As I have argued in a forthcoming text for the Transmission annual on Catastrophe, the militarization of aid in post-earthquake Haiti was an intensification of the strategic utilization of humanitarian aid as part of an ongoing neoliberal strategy that has been undermining the possibility of Haitian popular sovereignty since the Duvalier era. There is a kind of humanitarian wall built around Haiti that hides and prevents access to the real violence being waged there in the interests of a tiny international, capitalist elite. The systematic suppression of Vodou, despite not beginning with it, seems to intensify during periods of occupation, significantly during the US occupation of 1915 to 1934, the UN occupation beginning in 2004 and the second phase of US occupation that began after the earthquake in 2010. President Martelly’s recent repeal of Article 297 of the Haitian constitution, and the arrest of Ougan Zaza and nine other participants at the annual Bwa Kayiman ceremony this year, suggest that a renewal of the anti-Vodou program may be underway. At the same time, as Reginald Jean Francois’ account of the defacing of the Florentine boar in Plaza Italia by UN peace-keepers in 2004 suggests, there are aspects of the MINUSTAH mission that exceed ‘pure’ security and stability objectives.
Dayan began her lecture with a question – “What is the particular terrain for human cruelty and who gets to command its shifts in terms of species and race?” – which she contextualized in terms of a turn towards a “political metaphysics” of the sacred which affirms the “concreteness of Vodou practice” and attemptins to locate “in granular and theoretical registers” the “often invisible nexus of animality and human marginalization”. In a gesture evocative of the ‘surrealist ethnogapher’ Michel Leiris’ 1938 essay The Sacred in Everyday Life, Dayan proposes that “the unlikely and extraordinary are part and parcel of the commonplace” and “how rituals thought bizarre become ordinary”. She asks how we might re-figure our understandings of the supernatural to include “everyday practices of casual cruelty and commonplace harm” sketching out a landscape of that “defies reason” and “skirts transcendence”.
Dayan based her talk on Haitian novelist Marie Vieux Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, Colère, Folie (“Love, Anger, Madness”), completed and first published in 1969, but unavailable until 2009 due to fears of reprisal against Chauvet’s family by representatives of the Duvalier regime. Focussing on the final novella of the trilogy – Madness – Dayan uses Chauvet’s works to stage a series of fundamental ethical and historical questions about what we consider to be human, and what happens when the poles of magical and the juridical, supernatural and rational are ritually reversed. “Are we prepared” she asked “to re-adjust ourselves to a conception of human life that turns our own reality upside down?” Within what she calls the “precincts of Chuavet’s fiction” that exist in the nightmare landscape of Duvalier’s Haiti, “the immediate thing is the supernatural” and the real is “no more than a symbolization of events in the world of ritual”. In such circumstances “the most incorporeal is re-cast as reasonable” and this “relentless acceptance of unreality” Dayan claims is a necessary part if Haitian history and crucial to its mythology.
Dayan addresses the management of “societal refuse” in which distinctions are drawn between “the free and the bound, the familiar and the strange, the privileged and the stigmatized”. There was something very Bataillian about this formulation of “an unreal rationality of racism” depending for its power on “the conceptual force of the superfluous, what can be rendered as remnants or waste or dirt”. Given Dayan’s response to the show’s curator Alex Farquharson’s question about ‘the abject’ during the Q&A session, and her evident aversion to ready-made and over-used theoretical terms that often work to cover-over and obscure the very things they claim to be addressing, I propose this reference with some circumspection. Bataille is undoubtedly a philosopher whose concepts (like ‘formless’, ‘transgression’, ‘dépense’, ‘sovereignty’ etc.) have been used in precisely this fashion in respectable academic and artworld circles for many years now. That said, I think it is worth re-stating here the general thesis of a polarity of the sacred in which the impure elements are associated precisely with filth, waste and other forms of repellent ‘base matter’ that threaten, unsettle and destabilize those modes of “civility, consensus and rationality” upon which academic claims to decency are made. The Psychological Structure of Fascism, for instance, written in 1934, attempts to account for the role of imperative ‘pure’ forms of heterogeneity (loosely, the sacred) in the formation of Fascistic totalitarianisms, that depend upon the violent suppression and elimination of material (human, animal or otherwise) deemed unclean, abhorrent and ignoble. Bataille was concerned particularly with the affective register of sacred forces, going so far as to suggest that “the object of any affective reaction is necessarily heterogeneous”. Informed by Alexander Kojève’s lectures on Hegel which he was attending at the time of writing, he developed an idiosyncratic, psychoanalytically inflected account of the master-slave dialectic, deeply resonant with Dayan’s reading of Chauvet. According to Bataille “the heterogenous nature of the slave is akin to that of the filth in which his material situation condemns him to live” while “that of the master is formed by an act of excluding all filth: an act pure in direction but sadistic in form”.
As those familiar with Bataille’s work will know, the spectacle of sacrifice and the “making of the sacred” were fundamental concerns for him, as they are for Dayan. “In the spectacles of sacrifice that concern me today” she said “to be disposable is not having the capacity to be dispossessed, to be nothing more than dispensable stuff”. With this in mind she made reference to the medieval law of the deodand, literally a “thing given up to God” symbolizing “forfeiture and power, loss and gain” and “an object or thing that becomes endowed with intent and malice and thus must be sacrificed or forfeited to the state, church or king”. Then, in a gesture which recalls the thought experiment known in consciousness studies as ‘the zombie problem’, she asked us to “imagine that this thing-like-thing returns in the shape of things that look like humans but are really evacuated of all characteristics that make social personhood possible…just at the moment that their life, their resistance is most present and visible”. For Dayan Wilson Bigaud’s portrait of a bull – Conflicts and Tensions (1957) – exhibited in the Kafou show captures what this thing-like-thing, that is so filled with spirit, might be.