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.

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