billy woods: Red Dust

Existing alongside and within punitive structures appears to have left an indelible mark on (among other things) our moral thought. As antagonistic as they may be, both the status quo of carcerality and our desire to change it are products of this world. If we believe in abolition not as the telos of a utopian thought exercise, but as an attainable point we might reach in our lifetimes, what is to be done with these indelible marks within us: gestures towards baseness, cruelty, and revenge? Assuming that the improvement of a world without cops and prisons cannot purify us of these capacities, what will become of them in abolitionist futures?

At the end of Abolitionist Alternatives, Angela Davis gives an example of a successful reconciliation achieved within the system: the story of a family who came to forgive their daughter’s killers, had them pardoned, and eventually met and declared love for them.[10] In an unjust, carceral world, this reconciliation is surely a good thing. But this single example doesn’t speak for itself as Davis might intend it to. Philosophically, to overextend this example as some grand telos of abolitionism: evidence of a final terminus that can be achieved as part of every healing process, a glimpse of the improved moral climate inherent to abolition, feels like an oversimplification.

Whether initiated by revolution or reform, a system founded upon forgiveness instead of punishment is not really a morally radical alternative to the status quo, but is merely a reconfiguration of it, something still rooted in the old system’s foundational logic of Christian morality. As the father in Davis’s example says, “we tried to explain that sometimes it pays to shut up and listen to what other people have to say, to ask: ‘Why do these terrible things happen?’ instead of simply reacting.” [11] This approach makes sense in his case of forgiveness following a wanton killing. But might there be a place for reactiveness?

On the second verse of Red Dust, billy woods clearly chooses violence, professing:

you on the list
planet ain’t big enough, we can’t coexist

From the beginning, reconciliation is not an option—one of us has to go. His preoccupation with revenge is deep, taking on libidinal forms of prayer, sex, writing, memory:

say my prayers e’ry night, you be in the mix
I can’t wait, dream about it like sex
etch you off the writ
help you remember what you’re trying to forget

woods further fleshes out what he hopes to achieve from this act of violence, which is less about the sadism of torture, and more about corresponding with the other in a way that can only happen alongside their destruction. Maybe woods’ showing the sea of hate inside himself through this violence functions as catharsis, a mimetic release of trauma from the violence he’s experienced (from “the worst people” and from the police) ending in the obliteration of the unknown subject:

I want us to be alone in your home
I want to suck the marrow out your bones
I want to show you what I learned from the worst people I ever known
I want to follow you like the Jakes
I want to swallow you
show the hate inside, it’s a lake
so cold, so deep
I see you, you never saw me
transferred to the sea
so close I can see a nick from shavin’
your neck so exposed, your throat would open like a hose
eyes wide open I would watch you go

woods expresses his priority to killing this person, even if he goes to hell for it, even if it’s the last thing he does:

seein’ you in hell all I think about when they say woods
that’s all she wrote
I know the list long
I put you at the fuckin’ top though!

woods’ verse is delivered with a resonating intensity, poetically stated but not overdone. Simply, it makes me wonder: free from our carceral reality which is founded upon logics of revenge—is no revenge justified? What would it look like to seriously incorporate such a sober commitment to revenge into a politics of abolition? If obsession with revenge is an intoxication, how is an obsession with forgiveness any less so? Maybe woods’ act invokes Benjamin’s divine violence, transcending moral assessment in its destructive fury. Maybe not. Either way, the current legal system’s regime of stamping all cases of violence into reactive tragedies through manufactured abstractions—(carceral) guilt, (carceral) retribution, (carceral) justice, all while continuing its own practices of violence, is entirely toxic to our moral senses. Under a system that leaves people to die in cages, forgiveness between citizens becomes something profane. Abolition is the only option forward, not only because it is the only path toward forgiveness, but because it legitimizes the potential for revenge and forgiveness alike, making it the only path leading out of the rut of routine state violences.

Pat LeGates

[10]     Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2011), 114-5.
[11]     Davis, 115.

Violence and Nonviolence

MIKE: October Baby

Elsa Dorlin’s What a body can do begins with a depiction of the torture of Millet de la Girardière. Confined to an iron cage and straddling a blade, he must maintain his strength to keep his legs straight and resist injury. Per the design of this apparatus, his strength will inevitably fail and lead him to wounds that he will succumb to; unique to this mode of violence is the fact that his impulse to survive will directly contribute towards his annihilation. Importantly, Dorlin contrasts this scene with the execution of Robert-François Damiens to highlight a framework of punishment that cruelly regards the power of its subjects: unlike Damiens, we can conceive of Girardière as “capable of doing something,” even though he is still defeated in the end.[7] Dorlin reflects on the “unhappy mechanics” of physical action leading to Girardière’s demise to posit a fundamental anxiety on the relationship between self-defense and defeat, hence her poignant question: “if every effort to save myself leads to my ruin, what can I do?” [8]

Holding Dorlin’s observations close to mind, how does the relationship between self-preservation and self-destruction change if their struggle manifests as part of everyday life, outside of the determined space of the torture chamber? On October Baby, Brooklyn rapper MIKE hazily reflects on daily forms of malaise, and living in proximity to various hazards:

praying this ain’t death in my sleep
shit, I been stressing for weeks
in this world without a lesson to teach
they try to prosper while they negative, mean
and well I ain’t a doctor but they nearly deceased
I only think about revenge when I barely can eat

For MIKE, destruction isn’t crystallized so clearly in the form of a blade. Instead of facing death from a single event he is afflicted by more pervasive factors, nightmares, stress, the negativity of others in his environment, and hunger.

at the end lies the scariest beast
there’s police in this area
be careful where you carry your feet
I be scared to lose my life but be caring to leave

In these lyrics, a more looming threat comes into focus, that of the police. As opposed to the psychological and emotional threats to survival that wear MIKE down in previous lines, police here directly signify a loss of life. Unlike the event-based examples Dorlin describes, where action immediately impacts one’s defenses, MIKE’s contemplation and action take place hoping to preclude any event of violence. “Caring to leave,” he emphasizes his own freedom of movement while acting on his capacity to do something—taking care to avoid an encounter with police in the first place. Though not taking to self-defense in a typical sense, MIKE’s decision to leave embodies Dorlin’s injunction “to begin from muscle rather than law” in his priority of the physical impulse over a reasonable fear of death.[9] MIKE’s movement is not a passivity, but a fugitive act of self-preservation to avoid conflict under conditions of policing.

with the lead I really could embarrass your team
my poppa wanted peace and I inherit his dream

MIKE vocalizes a commitment to peace in spite of his awareness of the power of a weapon. Still, his outlook is not fully non-violent—in the song’s sampled outro, a computerized voice reads a list of symptoms then states, “war is not always physical, sometimes internal—” he wages an internal war with the everyway.  

Pat LeGates

[7] Elsa Dorlin, ‘What a body can do’, trans. Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 205, Autumn 2019, 3.
[8] Dorlin, 4.
[9] Dorlin, 8.

Racial Violence and Representation

Pharoah Sanders: You’ve Got To Have Freedom

Introducing jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln’s self narrative, Fred Moten writes, “[w]here shriek turns speech turns song—remote from the impossible comfort of origin—lies the trace of our descent.”[1] I can’t help but think of where shriek turns speech turns song as a most apt description of the beginning of Pharoah Sanders’ You’ve Got to Have Freedom, leading me to consider the piece as an example of what Moten calls black performance.

In the first second of You’ve Got to Have Freedom, Sanders’ overblown, screaming tone stands alone [shriek]—he then repeats the initial phrase, giving a semantic structure to his performance [speech]—and then the band comes in behind him [song]. After taking a short 8-bar respite from screaming, Sanders reappears with an amazingly rich and dark tone, only to return to the overblown phrase from the beginning. The music here seems to fill in the gaps of Moten’s writing, making clear the role of the sonic in his work; after hearing Pharaoh Sanders blow, it feels more-than-obvious to conclude that his playing contains echoes of Aunt Hester’s scream. Thus, I’m more interested in the limits to Moten’s argument: as he suggests, the primal shriek echoes in the music of James Brown, and Albert Ayler, whose sound is comparable to Pharoah’s (the link between them is nontrivial, note Ayler’s oft-quoted, “Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”), it’s easy to make the connection between echoes of the scream and an overblown horn, and from there to other sorts of screams in black performance, but how can the echo appear in other musical textures? [2], [3]

Maybe this echo fixation misses the point, though. On You’ve Got to Have Freedom, does the rhythm section echo the scream as well? They certainly add layers of tension to the performance, giving supplemental context to Sanders’ playing, and in a way, they mediate how we hear and receive the scream. But, I think to reduce all jazz performance to echoes of Aunt Hester’s scream is to see the expression of jazz as something repressive, and to miss the ultimate goal of Moten’s project. He aims beyond representation, recreation, repression of the primal scene to ask: “is there a way to subject this unavoidable model of subjection to a radical breakdown?”[4] Thus, the screaming saxophone tone is not a mere representation, but that very breakdown. “If we return again and again to a certain passion, a passionate response to a passionate utterance, horn-voice-horn over percussion, a protest, an objection, it is because it is more than another violent scene of subjection too terrible to pass on; it is the ongoing performance, the prefigurative scene of a (re)appropriation—the deconstruction and reconstruction, the improvisational recording and revaluation—of value, of the theory of value, of the theories of value.”[5] Pharoah’s playing, obviously pure power, does not work to recreate the primal scene of subjection, but exists in the break, breaking from subjection, redirecting the excess of the scene towards something other than repression, to fight that repression. It records, rewrites over previous theories of value, as an outpouring of passion, repetition put in motion by repression that is somehow not the return of the repressed. To rephrase this paradox in Moten’s words, “[t]hat black radicalism cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis is true; it cannot be understood outside that context either.”[6] In line with this thought, one cannot truly be free from their past, yet they aren’t permanently tethered to it either; like Sanders they can repeatedly perform in the break, for the break, iterating towards freedom.

Pat LeGates

[1] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 22.
[2] Moten, 22.
[3] Frank Kofsky, “Liner Notes to Albert Ayler’s ‘Love Cry,’” 1968,
[4] Moten, 5.
[5] Moten, 14.
[6] Moten, 24.

Gendered Violence

Throbbing Gristle: Convincing People

Over a steadily plodding synth bassline and kick drum punctuated by intermittent guitar fuzz, a chant begins:

There’s never a way
And there’s never a day
To convince people
You can play their game
You can say their name
But won’t convince people

The vocals are delayed, creating a hypnotic call and response over the electronics in the background. The chanted message contradicts itself:

There’s several ways
And there’s several days
To convince people

This is the initial tension of Throbbing Gristle’s Convincing People. At first, there was no way, no time, to convince people—now suddenly there is. I want to use the convoluted concept of convincing found in Convincing People as a starting place to consider the origins and mystification of structural violences found in neoliberalism.

Now you’re people
And we’re people
We’ve gotta be
To convince people
It’s the name of the game
It’s the game of the name
Convincing people

In the song, the act of convincing people is explicitly described in three ways: as an impossibility (“there’s never a way”), as something attainable through multiple possibilities (“there’s several ways”), and as a larger phenomenon (“the name of the game”). By the end of the song, we never learn about any of the “several” ways to convince people; we actually hear about a way that you’ll never convince people (by telling people what to be convinced of), but for the most part, the means of convincing are fundamentally ambiguous: it’s not what is seems, or is it? So maybe the song is nonsense, and it doesn’t have a properly argumentative claim regarding convincing people—but still, the song’s hypnotic instrumental and its droning vocals work to convince the listener of something, producing a mood which vacillates between the trivial and sinister.

As Francoise Vergès observes, neoliberal capitalism arrives enters into communion with popular feminisms by “coopting” universalist forms of the latter, and ignoring “combat based” feminisms.[1] She writes, “[d]riven by market logics, the structural adjustment programs imposed by international institutions on the Global South had devastating consequences, particularly for working-class racialized women and for Indigenous peoples.”[2] This is essentially a description of structural violence, which aptly exemplifies the aforementioned “vacillation” of convincing people: here the banal intricacies of financial and political policy generate the sinister in the form of immediate and long term consequences for racialized people. At perhaps the smallest level, “market logics”—inherently ones of persuasion—have convinced state and corporate actors to compile, revise, and enact policy. The same market logics lead to the economically-touted notion of consumers as rational actors, while knowing that rationality is subject to persuasion. Policy legitimizes and abstracts violence, it convinces while simultaneously condemning the act of convincing. Outwardly, there’s never a way to convince people, but in fact there are several ways: for neoliberalism, convincing people is the name of the game.

Likewise, neoliberalism is the game of the name. Practices of nomenclature, identification, and subjectivation work to legitimize its regime, while discrediting anything that is not named. Do you believe in a better alternative? Name it—how else could anyone be convinced to take you seriously? No one wants to buy an unnamed product. Against convincing, perhaps we can thwart its regime by denying subjectification, desubjectivizing ourselves, always refusing to be convinced.

Like the song convincing people, the neoliberal machine covers its own tracks, mystifying the banality of policymaking as a completely rational one, in spite of its violence. As Vergès identifies, it sacrifices blameable “violent men” as bad apples to remain structurally intact, to “generate abominable violence.”[3] We don’t want to convince people…

Pat LeGates


[1]     Françoise Vergès, A Feminist Theory of Violence: A Decolonial Perspective, trans. Melissa Thackway (London: Pluto Press, 2022), 5.
[2]     Vergès, 6
[3]     Vergès, 8

Border Violence

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma: Were I End and You Begin; Body Within Body; Where You End and I Begin


Of the many binary correspondences which we may readily consider, one, inside/outside quite visually and literally contains an object which mediates its dualisms. The forward slash, a membrane, is the very border which keeps its terms apart, the side which orients in from out. The slash-border makes it easy to differentiate the terms as two separate entities as opposed to one insideoutside. Is this violence yet? At the scale of nation-states and their sovereignty, both law-positing and law-preserving violences accompany protocols of border control and protection. An electrified fence at the borderline of some property evokes the police’s/policing’s spectral ability to create legal situations where “no clear situation exists.”[1] Yet unlike the more static territorial borders upon which electric fences are built, nation-states alter the territoriality of their boundaries to inflict violence beyond their limits. As Laleh Khalili writes, “the US assumed Guantanamo Bay was exempt from the writ of habeas corpus because of its ambiguous territorial status: at once a perpetual holding of the US under an indefinite lease, and not included within the boundaries of the US between it is non-annexed colonial space.”[2] . Ambiguity between territory and legal sovereignty has permitted the US regime to inflict acts of atrocity against the people detained at Guantanamo Bay. Violence need not be inflicted only through legal loopholes though—in an example of imperialist territory externalization, “the EU is training a new counterterrorism and anti-migration force, called the G5 Sahel Cross-Border Joint Force, with Burkina Faso, Chad Mali, Mauritania, and Niger… UK soldiers are training Tunisian armed forces; Italy has redeployed troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to Niger, Libya, and Tunisia; France has forces in Tunisia and Niger; Germany is training border guards in Libya; and French and German militaries are training agents in Mali.”[3] In these cases of “Europe’s new border guards”, the border as a legal, carceral entity is extended, expedited to punish migrants before they even reach the de facto limits of their destinations.[4] From within the nation-state, recycled myths of the outsider as a pathogenic threat prevail to justify criminalizing immigration.[5] Di Cesare powerfully recalls Hobbes’ Leviathan as a symbol of the savage and lawless wilderness, the perpetual virtual war raging beyond the borders.[6] But perversely, it is not desperate migrants who embody the Leviathan when inhospitable states relegate them to be held in asylum aboard floating cruise ships.[7]


In Migrants and the State, Donna Di Cesare makes a philosophical move towards rejecting the boundary-as-cudgel seen above, starting with the the intersubjective: “[w]hat must be put into question is the metaphysical dichotomy between the internal and the external – the foundation of political separation… A philosophy of the migrant requires a spectator capable of moving from the internal to the external, and vice versa; able not only to recount and redeem the shipwreck, but also to pass judgment on it.”[8]

The motion outlined in her description evokes three consecutive tracks on Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s album Love Is A Stream: Where I End & You Begin, Body Within Body, and Where You End & I Begin. Together, the pieces precisely call into question the self/other boundary, representing a movement from the internal to external and vice versa. In the first movement, a tangle of ambient reflections intensifies, perhaps joined by the timbre of a human voice before breaking open, erupting in a rumble while a delicately sustained melody soars overhead before the elements dissipate, ending abruptly The boundary is cracked apart, its contents ooze into the second piece, which drifts along to suggest an undifferentiated flow, a pure blending of subjectivity: insideoutside. A nagging harshness at the start of the third piece is soon smoothed away, assuaged by the presence of another. Balanced, the elements have returned to their respective bodies, but they fade out together. The pieces trace an affective outline of spectatorship toward a philosophy of migration, a solidarity beyond boundaries where no one subjectivity takes primacy over another. The sound pieces’ experiential traverse approximates Di Cesare’s alliance between the migrant and the spectator. But at what point in this “journey to the Other and back” does the citizen spectator gain more than just understanding of the other? How might such alliances between migrants and citizens, beginning in the abstract as metaphysical relations, convert into substantive actions?

Pat LeGates


[1]     Walter Benjamin, Peter D. Fenves, and Julia Ng, Toward the Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2021), 48.
[2]     Laleh Khalili, “Carceral Seas,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 49, no. 3 (June 2021): 462–471, accessed October 30, 2022,, 464.
[3]     Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism (Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2021), 12.
[4]     Walia, 12.
[5]     Not a direct quote, but thanks to Khalili’s “Carceral Seas” for this thought.
[6]     Donatella Di Cesare, Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, English edition. (Medford, MA: Polity, 2019), 14.
[7]     Daniel Boffey, “Dutch Plans to House Refugees on Cruise Ships Described as ‘Absurd’ and Illegal,” The Guardian, July 22, 2022, sec. World news, accessed October 31, 2022,
[8]     Di Cesare, 22. Italics mine.