The Black as the Thing in Deck-Erinnerung – The Feminist Wire

The Black as the Thing in Deck-Erinnerung

By Athi Mongezeleli Joja

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“For the Negro who works on a sugar plantation in Le Robert, there is only one solution: to fight.” – Frantz Fanon

In Psychoanalysis, the term Deck-Erinnerung (screen memory), introduced by Sigmund Freud, is basically an arbitrary image that stands in as a reminder of the unsettling otherness that must be kept at a safe distance. It is an ersatz whose ostensible substitutional use is disproportional to the imposed subjective content that engulfs it. Isn’t this exactly what the black subject position is, that is, as deck-erinnerung – the screen dramatizing the “bottomless abyss where everything is noise” that Achille Mbembe talks of, which whites resist falling into? Or we can say a supplementary object that is sacrificed, as “scandal to ontology,” as the means to conceal the hollow and fallible existence of whiteness?

Blackness isn’t only the annulled underside that provides white corporeal integrity, in more explicit terms; the black’s “raw life” persists as a way of sustaining white experiential value. The absolute fall of humanity into what Hegel called the “dark mantle of night” is precisely the fall into the tragicomedy of niggerness or what Fanon called “absolute dereliction.” It is the open pigsty that threatens to swallow humanity, and according to Hegel is “poisonous to Europeans.”[1] It is this resistance against falling we can safely attribute to the invention of this screen memory, that is, the object that stands in as a visual trope against falling to its own creation. It is a resistance against descending into the yelping noise of the pre-Edenic darkness – a fall back into whiteness’ own repressed niggerness.

But can we also say that the screen isn’t always a passive object or a docile body in the Foucauldian sense? That it is pensive and it screams? Operated from a distance, it sporadically interrupts audiovisuality by “shrieking” according to Fred Moten. It moves, annoys, disturbs, traumatizes us (subjects): at its most radical, the object is that which objects, that which disturbs the smooth running of things.[2] Or like any screen, it flickers and twinkles as it torments our aural faculty with incomprehensible audio, like a television with no antenna? It spoils regularity and disorganizes familiarity. The screen’s scream is like the toilet pot in Coppola’s The Conversation or Borat’s shit, it returns the excremental excess that should have been flushed into the unknown black hole back to the world of the living. Didn’t Franz Fanon argue in Black Skin, White Masks that “the Negro is a toy in the white man’s hands; so, in order to shatter the hellish cycle, he explodes” (140)?

Can this help us explain the absurdity of Barack Obama’s escalating bounties on Assata Shakur? Isn’t the restless trembling of the self-reflexive object amongst objects the very transgressive behavior that threatens subjects with its suicide, its own death, which also is the death of the white power structure? First, we must move from a position that all blacks are structurally objects of captivity. That is, in a rather precarious manner, we are vulnerably positioned and accessible to gratuitous violence. The options aren’t many; it’s adjustment or death. But for Assata, the black revolutionary, the drawn dichotomy between adjustment and death is artificial in an anti black world.  Existence through adjustment isn’t opposed or much different from death. It is another form of death, “a fatal way of being alive” (David Marriott, On Black Men). It is mummification – a corpse made not to die. And her fight, much like that of her radical predecessors was to end this falsity. This is more evident in her tape she recorded while in prison in 1973 titled “To My People”: “I am a black revolutionary, and as such, I am a victim of all the wrath, hatred and slander that amerika is capable of. Like all other black revolutionaries, amerika is trying to lynch me.”[3] Isn’t this precisely an atavistic revival the global non-conformist trajectory? In more precise terms, she positions herself within a genealogical lineage of revolutionaries and radicals within the black radical block[4].

This very return of the unfamiliar or ungovernable object, in its unpredictable aura, repeats the attitude of the 1804 revolution in Haiti, which was the first slave society to achieve the permanent destruction of a slave system.[5] The Haitian revolution emerged as an “event” in Badiou’s sense that shut down the trajectory of imperial domination, and creating new possibility. But most importantly, it propelled a revolution in black consciousness throughout the New Wor1d and the old.[6] It is no wonder that the world has not exonerated Haiti til this day; self-emancipation of the slave entailed what Steve Biko would have characterized as white supremacy’s inevitable downfall. Unto this very day, Haiti is encroached in wanton structural alienation and strictures dating back to this victory of 1804. Wasn’t this recently the position occupied by Zimbabwe? Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said in his interview with Peter Hallward, “something irreversible has been achieved, something that works its way through the collective consciousness. This is the meaning of Toussaint’s famous claim, after he had been captured by the French, that they had cut down the trunk of the tree of liberty but that its roots remained deep.”

The desire to be free is first instinctive before it is a matter of consciousness. In South Africa where I come from, the reverberations of Haitian revolutionary moments were both felt and repeated, but without much success. In the thick of colonial repression, subsequent to precolonial wars and in the eve of the native land act, Bambatha arose. That is Bambatha of the so-called Bambatha rebellion of 1906 when Zulus violently rose against the colonialist and later Bambatha’s head was chopped and paraded like it were a souvenir. The dramatic carnivalesque of Bambatha’s decapitated head served as the lesson to preempt further instability. By the way, the colonialist prior to Bambatha had made a habit of chopping African heads and limbs – as in the case of King Leopold’s Congo or the still controversial missing head of King Hintsa of the Xhosas. And after Bambatha’s brutal death, events of protests often took, as a matter of principle, the routine of the popularized nonviolent stance, as influenced by the then-in-vogue-Gandhi’s Satyagraha.[7] Wasn’t the popular decree of the poet Citashe that of replacing the revolver with a pen, or even the subsequent political agitations who posed themselves contra the violent insurrection, a clear indication of marking distance from Bambatha’s gory orgy? Little is mentioned that the underside of this consequent nonviolence alternative was the then still lingering theater of violence shown in 1906.

It is only with the emergence of Poqo (as embodied by the Pan Africanist Congress), or even Mandela’s call for armed struggle and much later with black consciousness, that Bambatha’s legacy was reignited, or, to put it more crudely, that violence was a possible strategic necessity. This evocation more or less characterizes and resonates with the various splits and instabilities in the attempts to gain liberation in South Africa. That is, though blacks are paradigmatically overdetermined by “social death,” at a programmatic level the distance from violence could be glibly argued as first a resistance to true liberation. Remember The Negro in Sartre’s play The Respectful Prostitute who resists against killing whites who are unambigiously willing kill him? That is to say, though we are all paradigmatically barred from the zone of the living, some rebel against the status quo and some want in. The infamous injunction about Mandela and Biko alludes to this: Mandela was the rebel that merited jail but Biko was a rebel that merited death.

By way of paradigmatic analysis, with which we must always begin our explanatory move, blacks are indiscriminately fated to structural violence. This issue is the one Bloke Modisane notes in his famous text Blame Me On History, that the black’s transgression is, first, blackness, before any tangible act of recalcitrance. Or as Frank Wilderson would say, the black is guilty because he was there. This brings us to our preliminary remark on screen memory: black, is the ignominious void of absolute negation, which, in the white collective unconscious, is an index of the constantly traumatic possibility that should always be avoided. In screen memory, black is the signifier of a repressed and threatening immanence in white fallibility, and therefore black emancipation stands in as an agent that exerts white descendance into niggerness. Simultaneously, we should concede that despite the generalized antiblack violence that indiscriminately wages war against the black body, some black bodies are blacker than others.

In Wretched of the Earth when Fanon mentions that The Thing becomes man by the same way it extirpates the enemy, though he seemingly and rightfully treats this as a generality, he’s not oblivious to the inherent voluntary and existential revolutionary choice of the individual. Assata Shakur is the typical example of such an individual. Today we cannot wonder why the US government wants Assata Shakur’s head or has a bounty on her, a case that isn’t different from that of Haiti, Bambatha, or Biko. Shakur’s head or death is the reminder of the thinking head of a slave that was not supposed to think. The head of the thinking and moving object, better described by the expression “touch is move.” The bounty on Assata Shakur’s head is both realistically and metaphorically a demand to take possession of the autocritical and self-reflexive black revolutionary. It is a decapitation similar to Bambatha, or the police bashings on Biko’s head. After all, Steve Biko once pointed out that most important weapon the enemy has is the mind of the oppressed. It is from this perspective or angle that Obama wants to “lynch” Assata, like it was for the post-Bambatha era, a nullification of the emancipatory spirit which is ipso facto a reinscription of the black as the object in screen memory.


[1] See Hegel’s introduction to Philosophy of History

[2] Zizek, Slavoj 2006. The Parallax View pg 17

[3] See Assata Shakur’s autobiography titled the same.

[4] Joy James’ body of work makes remarkable contribution in trying to situate Assata Shakur within a historical trajectory of black radical tradition from Harriet Tubman and the prison intellectuals.

[5] See CRL James’ works – the black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution and a history of pan Africanist revolt (with preface by Robin DG Kelley).

[6] Robinson, Cedric. 2000. The black Marxism: the making of the black radical tradition with Robin DG Kelley’s forward.   


Joja HEADSHOT (3)Athi Mongezeleli Joja is an art critic, an editorial member of New Frank Talk and also a member of the black consciousness movement called September National Imbizo (SNI).