Violence and Nonviolence

The Carters: Black Effect

Black Effect starts off with a philosophical exploration of love by L’Antoinette Stines. As a first intro- duction to the effect of blackness (i.e. the black effect), it sheds a light on the thoughtful, articulate and romantic facets of this black effect. The song transitions to an upbeat rap, with Jay-Z announcing he’s “good on any MLK boulevard”, indicating an awareness of the historical injustice suffered by black people, while also contrasting this with the status quo, i.e. the time when MLK is commemorated with a boulevard.

In a stylistically identical manner, the song proceeds:

Get your hands up high like a false arrest

Let me see ’em up high, this is not a test

Yes, put ’em up, this is not a test

Now hands where I can see them, fuck a false arrest

Interestingly, this is all sung at approximately the same pitch and following the same melodic structure, which blurs the differences between the different parts of these lines, but in doing so, in removing any musical differentiation between them, isolates and highlights the semantic differences between them: “get your hands up high”, suggesting a scene in which the artist is encouraging the listener to engage with the music, abruptly followed by “like a false arrest”, confronting the listener with an unexpected, horrifying resemblance. This, in its turn, is followed by “Let me see ’em up high, this is not a test. Yes, put ’em up, this is not a test.”. The resemblance with a false arrest is reified, the false arrest starts to take shape. “Now hands where I can see them” sets a completely different scene: the false arrest has materialised, the artist has been replaced by the police officer.

The discontinuity within the meaning of the call to put one’s hand up throughout the text, in no way foreclosed by changes in rhythm, melody, or pitch, takes the listener by surprise, instils them with fear and confusion — by dramatising the parallels between a false arrest and a concert, by oscillating in an almost continuous manner between an event of entertainment and one of police arrest, the listener is put in a bind: The entertainer and the police officer have become one, the scenes of crime and enjoyment have melted together, and the neutrality of one’s normal posture or gestures (e.g. putting with their hands in their pockets, fumbling) and the time one usually takes to process a command (like “put your hands up”) and respond to it become charged, loaded with the threat of being misperceived as indicative of hostility during an arrest, is brought into question. We cannot refrain ourselves from seeing the analogy with the countless other deadly false arrests, much like the arrest of Rodney King (Dorlin 2019). What persists, however, is the bind: how are we to deal with this facet of the black effect?

This verse is later reiterated by Beyoncé in a manner in which the musical dimension is radically altered. Her pitch is higher and the tone of her voice encouraging as she takes on the perspective of the artist (“get your hands up high (…) let me see them up high”), while her pitch becomes lower and the tone of her voice ominous and almost threatening when she takes on the perspective of the police officer (“like a false arrest, (…) this is not a test”).

This explicit splitting of the scene of the concert and the artist, and the scene of the false arrest and police officer, can be read as a response to and a resolution of the bind imposed by Jay-Z’s take on this verse. The juxtaposition of these now clearly separated situations — putting one’s hand up in a concert or during an arrest — denies any meaning to the bodily acts of black people that is always already there, and rather, shows the situational inscription of meaning occurring. In doing so, the real perpetrator is identified: it is the police officer who feels threatened by blackness, who misreads it as danger or hostility. This view ties into the works of Butler and Dorlin: for them, the black body is not in and of itself hostile or dangerous, but rather, the perception of the black body is informed by a “racialised schema” (Dorlin 2019, p.5-6), an “interpretive casing”, a lens through which the black body is “enfolded” (Butler 2020, p.10). What is responded to is therefore not merely the body, but, in fact, a “racialised phantasm”(Butler 2020, p.13) of the black body, loaded with presuppositions regarding its nature (as aggressive or dangerous), and hence, the actions of the body are instilled with these presuppositions by the perceiver.

Stephan Loor

Racial Violence and Representation

Faya Ston no Bron mi so (Surinamese Folk song)

Faya Ston no Bron mi so is a traditional children’s song taught to and sung by virtually every child growing up in Suriname, often while playing a game called faya ston. Containing just two lines, this happily-sounding song does not seem very impressive at first glance. Unravelling its historical origins, however, reveals depths in it initially unseen.

As might have become clear already from the fact that the two sources referenced thus far were Youtube videos, there is very little written documentation of the experience of slavery in Suriname from the per- spective of slaves. Slaves were never taught to read and write, and, even after the abolition of slavery there, the colonial rulers did not allow any room for them to freely speak about (the traumas of) slavery. The knowledge that remains, therefore, consists of what has been preserved within the oral tradition of the descendants of slaves (C. McLeod 2019)

The meaning of the text, however, is more gruesome than one would initially expect. The first line literally translates to “fire stone do not burn me so [much].” What is referred to as a fire stone, however, is the stamp using which slaves were branded with the initials of their owner (C. McLeod 2019). The first line is thus to be understood as the cry by a slave, being branded as the property of his new master. The second line translates to “again master Jantje is killing someone’s child”. The killing here, is not to be understood literally, but has a twofold meaning: on the one hand, it can be read as expressing the loss of subjectivity, of freedom that is instated by the branding, the formal completion of the slave’s reduction to property. Secondly, it is used in a dramatic effort to express the excruciating pain of the victim, while also putting the pain at or even beyond the limits of rational and empathetic understanding — much like how one can never truly understand what it is like to be murdered, one can also never truly understand what it is like to be marked.

Having understood the meaning of the second line, another avenue within the first line opens up. The opposition between the third person in the second line (“someone’s child”) and the first person (“me”) that is suffering in the first line, expresses a reliving of the horror of having been marked, of that trauma, by slaves during the marking of another, a new slave.

The repetition of the two lines also produces meaning. The raw screams of the slaves, much like the screams of Aunt Hester (Douglass 2009), are reproduced through repetition of the first line: the emphasis placed on the assonance in “no bron mi so” frees up the o-sound from its mere linguistic function and turning it into a stage for expression. This can be read along the lines of Moten’s analysis of the “irre- ducibility of sound” (Moten 2003, p.1), joined together with Butler’s theory of performativity in saying that performance, in particular its phonic nature, provides a means of (re)producing ourselves (Moten 2003, p.4, 6–7). Similarly, the repetition of the second line expresses at the same time the mechanical nature of branding (again someone’s child is killed, again, again,…) as well as the abundance of death and violence in the lives of slaves.
The melodic, carefree form of the song contrasts greatly with its contents, because of the prohibition on explicit discussion of one’s suffering endured in slavery. The song, sung and resung by slaves and their descendants, allowed them to verbalise their suffering and traumata, to retell the story of slavery within the bounds set by the colonial rulers, precisely by sterilising the contents through the aestheticisation of the form. Siding with Moten, this is an exemplar of Black performance as black production, as a means of (re)producing one’s black identity over and against any prohibition to do so.

Stephan Loor

Gendered Violence

Angèle: Balance ton Quoi

In francophone countries, the #MeToo-movement expressed itself using the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, which can loosely be translated as “denounce your pig”, where pig stands for the perpetrators of sexual abuse and aggression against women. With Balance ton Quoi, Angèle places herself at the centre of this discussion.

Balance ton quoi both captures and exposes double standards within the #MeToo-debate. Firstly, the song starts with the observation that “they all speak like animals, pottymouthing all the pussies”1. By maintaining that men speak like animals about pussies, Angèle shows how the objectified percep- tion of women (i.e. the reduction of women to chattes, i.e. pussies) differs from the perception of men (who merely act like animals). This difference in perception is an example of a broader class of divisive structures that Vergès identifies in our social world, a class of structures that produce a “division between a humanity considered entitled to protection and those (almost by nature) excluded from it.” (Vergès 2022).

That men are the ones deemed worthy of protection produces an issue that can be retraced in Balance ton Quoi, namely, the excessive emphasis on and concern about the aesthetics of the political debate that often absolves men from the obligation of engaging with the actual content of the debate. From a theoretical standpoint, this can be understood in terms of Rancière’s notion of the distribution of the sensible, the political constellation of what is sayable and unsayable, of who is worthy of speaking and of being heard, seen, and being taken seriously. (Rancière 2004). Indeed, Angèle explicitly states that she will not be invited to speak on radio stations, because her words are not very nice, and, moreover, states that she will remain polite on television, implying that the opportunity to speak on the issue hinges on the very choice of her words.2. Evidently, however, the real problem at hand is not the way in which the issue is raised, but the issue itself. The emphasis on form over content which derives from the differential perception of men as subjects to be protected, however, reinforces their position within the already existing patriarchal structure.

There are also other, more implicit manners in which this double standard, this skewed distribution of the sensible, is brought to light in Balance ton Quoi. Firstly, the song has myriad instances of deliberate self-censorship: the replacement of the word “porc” for the word “quoi” (i.e. what) throughout the song, and the decision to never finish the sentence “to go fuck oneself ”3. Additionally, this can also be seen in the stylistic choices in the song: melodically, the song sounds girly, light-hearted, and at times even happy. Angèle sings with a highly pitched voice presenting herself in a non-threatening, innocent, almost infantile, “traditional” feminine manner. The intention seems clear, however: by embracing the role relegated to women within the distribution of the sensible, as being worthy of speaking and of being heard only when presenting themselves in such a non-threatening manner, Angèle (re)aestheticises the demands of the #BalanceTonPorc-protesters by establishing herself as an interlocutor worthy of being heard.

While this recentring of the political debate on the content instead of the form is certainly useful, there is, however, room for criticism. Angèle’s method of transposing a “traditional” notion of feminity onto the #BalanceTonPorc-discussion excludes victims of sexual violence that do not and/or cannot be embedded within this prescribed notion of feminity, like black, working class women, who are not traditionally seen as non-threatening or girly, but rather as e.g. aggressive. We argue with Vèrges that any “conversation about women’s protection from systemic violence cannot adopt a binary female victim/male perpetrator approach”(Vergès 2022), because such an approach is blind to the axes of race and class. In excluding these axes from consideration, one remains within the logic of racial and class domination, and therefore, ultimately, preserves a system of dominance centred around them.

Stephan Loor


1 In French: Ils parlent tous comme des animaux, de toutes les chattes ça parle mal
2 In French: Ouais je passerai pas à la radio, parce que mes mots sont pas très beaux. (…) Ouais je serai polie pour la télé.
3 In French: aller te faire en-hmmmm.

Border Violence

Hadestown Original Broadway Company: Why Do We Build a Wall

Why do we Build a Wall is structured as a dialogue between a figure, to whom we will refer as the Father, and his children. We will unpack the meaning of this song by reading notions from the work of Di Cesare into it.

The dialogue starts with a simple question from the Father: Why do we build a wall, my children, my children? The children answer in unison: why do we build a wall?  We build the wall to keep us free—that’s why we build a wall, we build the wall to keep us free!. Here, already, one finds an interesting opposition that is also identified by di Cesare, namely the opposition of state sovereignty — the power to rule over whatever is within the state’s borders — and human rights (Cesare 2020, p.10). The wall — and therefore also the nation-state inscribed into the wall — is needed in order to guarantee the human rights of its citizens. This perspective, however, establishes those within the walls of the border as subjects a priori worthy of freedom, and as such, establishes those beyond the borders as not worthy of human rights. (Cesare 2020, p.11).

In what follows, the workings of the wall as a guarantee of freedom are slowly unpacked through repeated questioning by the Father. This dialogue reveals that the wall keeps the children free by keeping out the enemy. The enemy, in its turn, is poverty. But then, the dynamics of the dialogue change. The Father no longer poses a question, but rather, takes the stage, and forcefully states:

Because we have, and they have not, my children, my children, Because they want what we have got!

Again in unison, the children respond by reiterating and hence affirming Father’s words. Interestingly enough, the enemy, first identified as the abstract notion of poverty, is reified in the form of a concrete “they” by Father, a threatening they, “a dangerous foreigner” (Cesare 2020, p.12). The conflation of the migrant with poverty essentialises the migrant as the source of poverty. The question of migration, thus, is completely “articulated in the grammar of the possessive”(Cesare 2020, p.13), and as such, the discourse around migration is contraposed from a question of humanity, of equality, of (the legitimacy of) statehood, to a merely economic one.

Father then poses a final question: “what do we have that they should want, my children, my children?” The answer is given starkly:

We have a wall to work upon! We have work, and they have none.

To which the Father adds: “and our work is never done!” The inverted logic of the children becomes blatantly clear: they justify the construction of the wall by posing it as a necessary response to the threat of poverty (embodied by the migrant), while the migrant, and migration as such, is the effect of statehood, of territorialisation (Cesare 2020, p.11), rather than its cause.

As Di Cesare rightfully remarks, the poverty of the migrant is never questioned, nor is their suffering ever fully considered. Yet, the nation-state as we know it today has not arisen merely out of abstract theorising, but rather, has a particular, historical construction heavily dependent on the logic of capitalism and colonialism (Cesare 2020, p.64). Historicising the position of the migrant, thus, flips the roles of victim and perpetrator: it is not the members of the state who are the victims to the threat of the migrant, but rather, it is the migrants who have fallen victim to the exploitation of the state. The Father, speaking in a sinister, authoritative manner, reveals himself not as an equal interlocutor of a dialogue, but rather, as a force of indoctrination. By identifying the enemy as residing outside the borders of the state, the idea that there could be an enemy within of the borders is pre-emptively deflected.

Stephan Loor