by John Murillo III
Allow me to preface this, briefly, by acknowledging the nature of the essay to be winding in its set up and its stylistics. I concede to the complexity of it. I attempt to mitigate that with overt markers of clarification and simplification—e.g. “Clarify:” and “Simplify:” among others, with the same intent. The piece moves, from a marker of my own breaking, my own fracture, to the fracture that is blackness, to how that works psychologically or psychically, and how that is sutured to the equality between blackness and slaveness. This allows me to setup the engagement with the enjoyment and praise of the film from the direction of an engagement with black enjoyment.
“Nothing doing. I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me.”
—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
“…I am broken,
I am open,
I am broken open”
I am split, passing the event horizon, mid-spaghettification. Being black, or, reminded of Christina Sharpe’s introduction to Monstrous Intimacies, black(ened) being—blackened red and brown, in my case—submits my being to the perpetuity of political ontological breaking with and by inescapable gravity and absolute darkness, such that, on orders of time and space both macro and micro—being, life, existence, knowledge, ethics, as they are framed by the permanence promised by capital “D” Death (social death) and the temporariness inherent in lower-case “d” death (corporeal death)—I, we, break. Blackness breaches, is breach impervious to breaching. It, to draw from David Marriott and Frantz Fanon, breaks from within and without, shatters the potential or capacities for relationality and humanity (read: Human subjectivity), marking an approach to a negative infinity in and of the space-time of black psychic, maintained by both splitting and shattering, and by (re)memory.
Clarify: Fanon writes, at the outset of the most well-known and (in)famous of chapters from Black Skin, White Masks, that the forthcoming account—a recollection—of what happens after the even more infamous hailing,“Dirty Nigger!” or “Look! A Negro!”, will be told and dissected as a piecing together of fragments, performed by another Fanon, one that is split from and yet internal to Fanon (BSWM, 89). Clarify further: He recognizes this on the train, almost jokingly, and familiarly, noting that this other him that is also him, the first person Fanon reflecting on the third person Fanon (which, I wager, alters the understanding of perspective when asking who wrote this account—I believe it to be both Fanons, simultaneously first and third persons)—noting that this other him collapses/splits/shatters/breaks again, “no longer in the third person but in triple,” and, the joke in the visualization of it, that “in the train, instead of one seat on the train, they left [him] two or three” (92). Expand: Marriott works to unpack this in the final chapter of Haunted Life, “Bonding Over Phobia,” which importantly and skillfully dissects the psychic operations of this breaking, this joke, adding to the mix the consideration of “location” or, more broadly, space, which allows for a particular theorizing of and/or/as line of inquiry about black(ened) psychic space—How does it look? What dwells there? How are the imagoes and egos oriented? Are there multiple planes/dimensions to it, specifically as they might relate to repeated breakings like Fanon’s and Fanon’s?
More importantly—which is saying something—Marriott, though seemingly in passing, also adds to the mix the consideration of time via the invocation of memory as a mechanism for repetition and permanence. Clarify: Memory, via either conscious recall or external and/or subconscious evocation, allows the hailing, “Dirty Nigger!”, to bore into psychic storage, to lie dormant there, and to reemerge via its availability for conscious access or because of some internal(ized) or external stimulus or trigger. Clarify further, question: If the (re)marking of blackness from outside Fanon recalls—“Dirty Nigger!”—acts as an emblem for any such occurrence at any such moment in time for any such black, a symbol, a reality meant to be allegorized (without ever forgetting the reality), and if these moments cause psychic ruptures, shatters or splits of black psychic space, splitting them (me, us) into first and third persons, and then into triple, ad infinitum (as life events permit), what happens when they are remembered? If black psychic time, or at least the psychic time, the psychic longevity or temporal durability, of these moments, is, then, infinite, or approaches infinity via memory, and if these moments relate to black psychic space by repeated rupture…Begin again: If, at each version or reemergence of “Dirty Nigger!” in encounters with Human or subaltern subjects, or anti-Human objects (Blacks, pace Wilderson) with media, with and within the state, its institutions and its agents, and in memory, the psychic space breaks again and again, does not the rupture of black psychic space approach infinity? Do I, we, not experience a breaking over and over again toward infinity, from within and without? Is the world of Human and subaltern subjects not a black hole, and is this not spaghettification, absolute, from within and without, across the duration of black social death—capital—and extending even beyond the moment of black corporeal death—lower-case?
Simplify: The reemergence of blackness in moments like “Dirty Nigger!”—and I use very “moments” broadly to include “events” as well as (engagements or encounters with) “objects/subjects”—as a form of breaking, splitting the black (psychic, political and ontological) self, performs this breaking ceaselessly, in both the actuality of the event (when the “Dirty Nigger!” moment happens) and in the memory of the event and its effects (when the “Dirty Nigger!” moment is remembered, or externally or subconsciously evoked). This produces a kind of infinite breaching, or at least a breaching that approaches infinity, that happens psychically, within the space and time (space-time) of the mind, over and over again, and has effects upon or contributes to or remains entangled with the political and the ontological ruptures that comprise blackness. I, we, find kinship not just in the shared impossibility of kinship, but in the infinity of the spaghettification, the atomization, of being that blackness marks as it emerges and reemerges and reemerges and reemerges and reemerges and reemerges and reemerges and…I, we, experience and remember personal or public iteration of “Dirty Nigger!” and, each time, ceaselessly, break. The vicious circle, the black mamba Ouroboros, the event horizon of the black hole; the vacuum breaking, devouring, spaghetti al nero di seppia off the fork.
This to explain the beginning, which demands repetition, which as reification promises its own kind of ‘new’ rupture: I, we, break. Blackness breaches, is breach impervious to, beyond, breaching. Clarify: blackness is absolute in its breaching; its triptych breaching—psychic, political, ontological—is total, happening always and over and over again, from within and without, personally (as is Fanon’s case) or impersonally (of or about blacks or blackness in general, ‘fictional’ or ‘actual’) breaking down being, for the black, to…let’s call them psycho-politico-ontological atoms, without the hope of recovery or redress, like the black crossed the event horizon of a black hole, or began to, and spaghettified, or began to; the black hole being a useful metaphor, since the gravity of blackness, once the threshold is crossed, is absolute, no light (no being) is able to escape. Simplify, contextualize, a question, a stage for staging: “events,” like the search for and burning alive of Christopher Dorner following declaration of war against the LAPD, and “objects/subjects” like Django Unchained and its director, actors and actresses, and supporters and critics, I suggest, operate in conjunction with one another (are interrelated) as markers and makers of this kind of “reminding” I’ve been thinking about, as versions of “Dirty Nigger!” made anew, reformulated, re-emergent, and re-breaching, collapsed into one another as fragments of a whole context, a world-scale antiblack space-time, both spaghettifying.
What will follow is a discussion of the latter, Django, and how the above, its marking and making of the permanence (via absoluteness and repetition)—the infinity—of blackness breaching, as breach, becomes entangled with the support for, and justification and enjoyment of the film. Need a map. Plotting the trajectory of this thought vector demands, on the one hand, acknowledging its origin point somewhere around and in recognition of the singularity of the black hole, which demands a recognition of the spatiotemporal—state, or quantum—entanglement of blackness and slaveness on the level of the psychic and political ontological. On the other hand, plotting this thought vector’s trajectory demands a holistic account of the nature of the relevant topography—that is, it demands a contextualization via its relation to, passing through and beyond, the general content and scope of the discourse surrounding Django already spoken and written, particularly that which expresses sentiments like support or enjoyment, or any of their iterations. Hope—what is hope to the pessimist?—‘lives’ in that the above will allow for the most accurate approximation of the destination: What we talk about when we talk about enjoying Django (by any name), and where, when, and with and for whom that enjoyment rests.
Is This Why We Can’t Have Nice Things?
What we talk about when we talk about (black) enjoyment (e.g. of Django) remains haunted, as all things do, by the presence of the afterlife of slavery—presence, in double: in the overtly clear sense, marking its existence in the “present;” and, since for blacks, time and space collapse, cease to mean or move, break, in the sense that it is the present, insofar as a ghost implies a past-ness, and, when the past itself remains alive, becomes present. The black’s enjoyment of its ‘own’ performances, traces ‘back to’ the plantation, the coffle, both of which remain chained to the silver screen, or the laughter or joy at, and support and praise for, whatever it reveals. Clarify: The slaves singing their songs on the coffle, dancing, once ‘emancipated,’ for whites, and, in this case, acting on and off screen in and for, writing in service and praise of, Django, insofar as they mark a kind of enjoyment, overlap, tangle, and become contextually unique fragments of an element of antiblackness. Clarify: The notion that the slave’s abjection is so deep that even the enjoyment of its own performances, pre and post (the non-event, to summon Hartman, of) emancipation, is owned by the master, by the antiblack world, maps onto the black’s relation to—in our consideration, enjoyment of—Django Unchained and ‘moments’ like it. Simplify, reduce: Blackness equals slaveness (and all the spatiotemporal implications considered above); slave/black enjoyment does not belong to, or is not for, blacks, but always already for (ripped away, in the rupture, by) the antiblack world and its masters; Django and enjoyment and support and praise of it is not, never was, never will be—all those at once—‘ours.’ But/and it is and isn’t more complicated than that.
Pause, setup, summon: Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection allows for a historicization of this political ontology of blackness (as breach, as rupture) as it relates to the slave’s enjoyment of its performances. She begins her entanglement by weaving with two needles: in one hand, she wields questions levied at the nature of performance, seeking to elongate the notion of the performative to the every day being of slaves via their visibility as slaves on the coffle and the plantation, and in the quotidian nature of their minor transgressive acts; in the other, she wields a pin pushing pressure upon the concept of agency (which puts pressure on the concept of resistance), throwing the term and its applications to blacks into crisis. Increase pressure: Black performance and/as black agency intertwine with one another, and their intertwinement entangles with the intertwinement mapped above, between psychic space, psychic time, blackness, and infinity. This tertiary and triple entanglement deepens Hartman’s inquiry, and allows us to dissect the nature of black enjoyment, for our purposes, of Django Unchained, with the hopes of complicating its present manifestations and deployments in discourse surrounding the movie, primarily focusing the core sentiments about the narrative (a slave who, as Django puts it, “[kills] white people and gets paid for it…what’s not to like?”) and the consequences of the narrative’s thematic orientation (it, in Tarantino’s words, is novel because he “thought it (slavery) could be better if it was wrapped up in genre”). Simplify: Hartman’s work in the second chapter of Scenes of Subjection provides a place to set up camp; all of the above (about psychic space and time and blackness and breach and infinity) can illuminate (or darken) some of the shadows around the campfire. This pause will be brief.
Repeat: Hartman’s engagement moves on two fronts, both intertwined; one calls into question what constitutes the slave’s performance, extending it to the quotidian (everyday) being of the black (just being visibly black renders all acts performative), and the other throws into crisis the applicability and meaning of the concept of ‘agency’ (in relation) to the slave, the black. In the first instance, Hartman relocates the category of black performance to the performativity of blackness—blackness as always a performance, black as always performative. With clarion brilliance, she writes: “the performance of blackness is inseparable from the brute force that rapes, and tears open the flesh in the racial inscription of the body” (58). This elongation of the stage in all directions of the dark, of blackness, binds into itself the notion of agency and the question of “how”—How might this agency manifest if, first, blackness is performative, and, second, slavery totalizes the subjection of the black in such a way that blackness (and thereby black performance and performativity) belongs to masters without the possibility or hope of, or opening for the assertion of, redress? Simplify: If blacks are objects, and these objects are inherently performative because they are black, how does—rather, how can agency ‘happen’—how is ‘agency’ a word in the lexicon of the black?
Hartman (and this is the second instance, if one is to keep track), provides a very nuanced, archival account of the slave’s agency, the black’s movement, how it manifested on micro and macro scales, everyday and spectacular. In particular, she approaches from the plane of the micro: frequent, repeated, commonplace acts of everyday resistance and transgression the slaves carried out as coded acts of protest, as glimpses into what some might call action or “agency.” Songs changed, songs of their own, dances, music, collective gatherings, stealing away—these comprise a field of everyday practice engaged by—acted out—by the slave. As evidenced by the accounts she presents, and by some of Hartman’s work, itself, the import of these small acts to the enslaved holds great importance relative to the ability of the slaves to disrupt the everyday totality of domination with senses of community and freedom that no doubt contributed to their ability to endure. Internally, psychically, in terms of the breaches of space (shattering the self) and ruptures of time (memory of the shattering), these might provide a slowing or a stifling of the breaking that, otherwise, hurtles toward infinity, which might manifest as something called “pleasure” (more on this in a bit). But, as Hartman stages in questions and accounts and analyses again and again, these practices, this agency, and this pleasure remain compromised at all times by the totality of domination and terror against which they rise. Again, with simplicity and brilliance: “the forms of action taken do not transcend but rather are an index of the particular figurations of power and modes of subjection” (56). Songs, dances, music, gatherings, though sung, though produced by the slaves’ voices, marked the slaves’ relation to their enjoyment from without as a kind of festivity and amusement—they enjoyed their subjection; plainly, their supposed enjoyment was captive to masters and tooled to further their subjection. Or they were performed in the presence of the master(s) in what D. Davis (the subject of one of the slave narratives Hartman includes in her analysis) calls, “going before the king” (45), in a procession that effectively locates blackness, black performance and performativity, in the hands and before the throne of the master. Or they stole away stealthily in the night in community gatherings, singing songs and practicing faith and simply ‘being’ together absent the visibility of the sun and the whip, but even this is automatically and preemptively criminalized—stealing away—in such a way that agency, here, if it is here, is that of the perpetual thief; they move, and that movement, if not overtly for the master, is criminalized by the master. On every level, these acts “are an index” of slavery, of terror and subjection, entangled.
Which entangles the slaves’ pleasure, as well. The enjoyment of the slaves of their actions, however small, does not escape the frame of subjection. Hartman recognizes this in her juxtaposition (read: entanglement) of the “sense of possibility” (57), which might foster something like ‘pleasure’ or ‘enjoyment’ in (non)beings for whom all possibility—for agency, thought, liberation, Humanity—remains impossible, with the trajectory of the performative, of blackness, and of ‘enjoyment’ not as modes or forms of transcendence, but as indexes of totalized subjugation and collective enunciations of shared pain (51). This catapults us back into the psychic, as it is a psychic entanglement, primarily—though it has political and ontological consequences—and invites us to extend an invitation to David Marriott into the camp (or onto the plantation). A thought from his work on lynching photography, On Black Men—a thought which inspired this entire piece, its many previous and failed iterations, which is to say it is ‘important’ (which might an understatement)—proves foundational (that might be the right measure) to understanding why and how enjoyment might arise within the black; tellingly, and conveniently, his object of focus is the black’s revenge fantasy and its relation to the real of the black’s subjection. As if prophetically engaging Django Unchained’s narrative from before (primarily because Django is neither novel nor unique, neither historically or aesthetically), Marriott recalls a quote from Richard Wright, which he unpacks. I quote at length:
‘My spontaneous fantasies lived in my mind…because I felt completely helpless in the face of this threat that might come upon me at any time, and because there did not exist to my knowledge any possible course of action which could have saved me if I had ever been confronted by a white mob.’ No possible action, so Wright needs (and it is need rather than, say, wish) his defensive fantasy, his way of defending himself psychically against the death of a thousand lynchings. But no defense, either, because Wright knows that this fantasy has no ‘objective value’: it cannot be made real, unlike the racist fantasy which structures reality for both whites and blacks. (OBM, 11)
Marriott points to the psychic, to the protective necessity of fantasy as it manifests in the mind, either primarily from the imagination and memory, within, or from stimulation of the imagination from without. This protective necessity, while necessary, runs counter to the logics and actualities of the real, which, for blacks, remains totalizing domination and terror, like slavery, but of a different name, absent physical chains, but soaked with the ink of bondage even after the “liberation” of blacks (“and we need not pretend that even the quotation-marks do not matter”).
Extend, plainly: What Marriot points to is nothing but another form of psychic fracture (of space and time). The creation of the fantasy modulated by the memory and actuality of the event against which it is positioned creates a split in understanding, or recognition, such that the understanding of the real, the knowledge that the present state of danger remains terrible and total, splits from—or, if there isn’t a total split, there is a cracking, a formation of the beginnings or the possibility of a split—the belief in and necessity of the possibility of the fantasy. Simplify: Which is not to suggest that, on the one hand, the black recognizes the real, and on the other the black believes in this fantasy, but that the perpetuity of the entanglement and breaking between the two signifies a splitting, or a beginning or a possibility of a splitting, in and of psychic space. The memory of this fantasy, maintained as one of many plates of a suit of armor, or sections of a shield—as a necessary psychic defense against the actuality of terror and subjection—reenacts this splitting again and again; and as moments emerge and are recalled and summon the fantasy, again, (a new “Dirty Nigger!”, or a different version experience of a lynching, and the memory of the invocation or the event), the fantasy meets revisions, gains new friends or kin, and itself, breaks, or creates breakages in psychic space and across psychic time. Simplify: Psychic time and psychic space for the black, themselves fractured by blackness’ emergence and reemergence in the mind (from within or without, memory or event), fracture more and more because of the fantasy, however necessary it is, however deep the recognition of its fantasy, not-real status. Simplify still: The fantasy, too, becomes a kind of “Dirty Nigger!” moment, with similar effects, though almost completely psychic in its origin.
Preempted: This seems to map neatly over Django, given its narrative, given that is, in so many ways, a revenge fantasy with which blacks can identify, which blacks can enjoy, which blacks can add to that necessary suit of psychic armor as some part of psychic defense, stealing away within, fashioning a protective sense of enjoyment. But map it does not. From within and without, Django is a white fantasy, an emblem of the continued and totalizing subjection and terrorization of blacks in, by, the antiblack world. From without: very simply, the movie’s writer and director, Quentin Tarantino is white (despite his absurd claims about reincarnation and a past life as a slave). The narrative is his (which is not totally the case, since he plumbs heavily from other sources). The words and voices and bodies move as he directs them. No matter Foxx’s, or Washington’s, or Jackson’s, or anyone else’s repeated assertions that this is of their own volition, their blackness, very literally their blackness’ performance and performativity, belongs in his narrative and is subject to his will. Just as the slaves sang, danced, stole away, their performances remain compromised by the actuality of the contexts in which they emerge (that of the film set, the film’s narrative, the antiblack world). From within, the very trajectory and motivation of Django as a character is owned and structured by Waltz’s character. From the moment he frees Django and guides the other slaves’ anger, which does not appear to be theirs since Waltz is the one who instructs them in directing it; to the moment he tells Django the story of Broomhilda, which serves as the skeleton for the entirety of Django’s motivation and progression throughout the narrative; to when he trains Django and prophetically names him the ‘fastest gun in the South;’ to the moment he devises the plan that ultimately comprises the bulk of the action of the film; to the moment he kills Candie and sets up a vacuous battle between Django, a bunch of nameless whites, and Stephen (an engagement that demands its own, complete analysis); to the moment, even after death, that his voice echoes with his naming of Django as that “fastest gun in the South” in a flashback—all of this locates Django as slave, no matter his nominal liberation or his masterful (ha!) gun slinging.
What this does to the above is shift it: not only does this fantasy fracture as it is internalized in order to protect, but it is always already at every level outside ‘our’ possession, which multiplies the intensity and scope of the fractures in psychic space and time. Simplify: Not even the (revenge) fantasy belongs to blacks. This is a double crisis in ownership. In the analysis of fantasy Marriott presents, even if the fantasy is “ours” (i.e. emerges from within, or, in this case, had been written/directed by blacks), it causes or begins fractures, splits or cracks, via its inherent impossibility relative to the actuality of the terror and subjection of the real, which keeps it from being completely “ours”—one foot bound by the world, and one trying to steal away. But in this instance, when the fantasy is in every sense already not “ours,” the initial fracture happens because the fantasy calls to be internalized, to be added to the armor—even in the deepest rejection of the film dwells, or might, all other things wrought as they are, resonance with the idea of a slave killing white people on a rampage for black love; then, concurrently, a second fracture might occur, due to the compromised nature of the narrative and the maintenance of slavery throughout—a crisis in the psychic as the fantasy that the fantasy of Django is ever “ours” at all. Simplify: Not even the fantasy that the fantasy belongs to or is for blacks, the fantasy of the fantasy, escapes being anything but fantasy, and that double fantasy causes a suitably doubled fracture (not that I presume to know the measure of the initial one).
“Enjoyment” of Django Unchained, for blacks, then, is fraught and fracturing. At any level of identification with the film, I, we, break; rather, at any level of recognition of the presence and problem of the film, I, we, break. It is a critical doubling of the psychic fractures experienced by blacks in encounters with moments like “Dirty Nigger!”, Fanonian moments, black moments, because, while in Fanon’s case and in the reifications of blackness like it the pathologizing, or revealing of the already present pathology, of blackness is readily apparent and totally available to thought (which isn’t to say that it is thought), Django Unchained, as well as the blindness of the praise and support for the film, works to maintain the mask, itself donning a black mask over its pallid narrative, doubly fracturing the psychic space and time of blacks via its constitutive lie. Simplify: Enjoyment, in this sense, is compromised, at once in service of the maintenance and problem of the constitutive lie of Django Unchained, and in service of the protective hope that the lie of the lie is not lying; this is a split, a psychic fracture of a different order, double because of the lie and blackness’ enjoyment’s relation to it. Reduce: Blackness’ enjoyment is split because it always remains betwixt and between the unjustified hope that the liar (Quentin Tarantino, and/or Django Unchained) is not lying, or will not lie again, and the actual support for/belief in the lie, witting or unwitting. Which might lead one to say that, in this way, Django Unchained, in its manifestation of this double breaking, is as unique, and new, and important to the discourse about slavery as Tarantino and others believe it is. But to say that–even that—would be to lie.
And so, in encountering this film, the discourse about it, the unwavering support of it, the call to only recognize its art, or the other call to recognize the brilliance of the narrative and acting, or the other call to enjoy the black man killing white men…In encountering all of this in a context in which blacks remain unfree, this unfreedom remains unthought, Trayvon’s body remains facedown on the ground, lifeless in the yard of my memory, next to the jailhouse floor where Anna Brown’s body stops moaning and dies over and over again, where the burned and headless corpse of Christopher Dorner keeps burning, and countless other corpses, named and unnamed, keep piling up, toward infinity—all this happening on every single broken psychic plane of my mind, toward infinity—and…In encountering all of this, outside and inside, out in the world and within the mind, I, we, break. Over and over again, we shatter at blackness’ juggernaut force—and this is only psychically, not even to mention politically or ontologically—we break because blacks’ blackness breaks; in a different sense, or maybe in precisely right sense, than Moten might mean, we are forever, ‘in the break.’ And so I turn to Alike, from the film, Pariah, whose poem speaks volumes; the whole poem:
“Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise for even breaking is opening
and I am broken,
I am open.
Broken into the new life without pushing in,
open to the possibilities within,
See the love shine in through my cracks?
See the light shine out through me?
I am broken,
I am open,
I am broken open.
See the love light shining through me,
shining through my cracks,
through the gaps.
My spirit takes journey,
my spirit takes flight,
could not have risen otherwise
and I am not running,
I am choosing.
Running is not a choice from the breaking.
Breaking is freeing,
broken is freedom.”
Am I, are we, open to the “possibilities within?” Is breaking freeing? Is broken freedom? Dare I, we, cling to the hope, to the sunlight, to the fantasy? My, our, psychic continuum shatters again and again and again infinity but breaking is freedom and broken is freedom so I, we, must be infinitely free or growing free toward the sunlight of infinity—no!—not a black hole vacuuming everything in infinite gravity but the sun shining through my cracks with infinite light—yes!—I am, we are, free!—yes…!
But then I, we, remember again, break again, hear the words again, see the body and the noose above my head again. I, we, try to believe the lie of the lie of the lie of the lie of the lie…one foot in, one foot out, try to keep both feet in; trying, trying, trying. But “nothing doing…I explode.” Again and again and again—I, we, explode. Sun goes supernova, or collapses into…into…a black hole with the gravity of the death of a thousand lynchings, or…And here are the fragments of fragments of fragments of fragments of a smile undun, spaghettified and strewn across some pages.