A Topography of Misreadings: Mistaking the Map for the Territory


“If the strength of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the strength of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror; terror without virtue is disastrous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a particular principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the most urgent needs of the fatherland.” — Maximilien Robespierre, Republic of Virtue

We have a tendency to think of “human” as a bounded, discrete complex organism that has the “attributes of Man,” as opposed to those of animals. However, the “human” is neither a fixed, homogeneous, stable or bounded entity, nor “distinct from or superior to animal or machine.” What we think of as “human” is, contrary to received opinion, a set of interrelated and cumulative processes that unfold across as well as in space and time. What’s more, both “animals” and machines act on and—to a greater or lesser extent—participate in the complex processes that give rise to the “human.” And although, animals and machines participate in the complex processes that help determine the “human,” neither is perceived as a “member of humankind.”

The “human,” Frantz Fanon exhorts, “must put an end to the narcissism on which he [sic.] relies in order to imagine that he is different from the other ‘animals’.” The label “human” has not only served to separate “humans” from “animals” and machines, but also humans (those who possess the attributes of Man) from other sets of complex human-like organisms (those who do not possess the attributes of Man). The category “human” is, in essence, premised on the exclusion of Black people, Natives, disabled persons, poor folks, trans identified people whose being compromises their ability to attain the status “human.”

Race and ability have proven to be two of the most salient vectors that determine one’s place on the scale from “human being” to non-human being. Black and disabled people have for a very long time inhabited a spot at the far-end spectrum of the scale: both groups were not considered “human,” and the policing of the borders of the “human” has served to place Black/blackened and disabled subjects who do not possess “the attributes of Man” firmly outside Western humanity. To be assigned the label “human” is, then, to not have any “non-human properties”; it is to be given a claim to the properties of Man, and thus rights. Those excluded from Western humanity, that is those in the zone of non-being, to reference Fanon, are forced into a permanent state of precarity.

The power and capacity to define who “belongs” to humanity (the zone of being), that is “who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” is, as Achille Mbembe notes in Necropolitics, a defining aspect of sovereignty. In a similar vein, Sylvia Wynter observes in On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being that the exclusion of “the waste products of all modern political practice whether capitalist or Marxist” is indispensible to the reproduction of the present conception of the “human.” The relationship between sovereignty and space, between the map and the territory, between the desirable and the disposable takes acute form in Dutch political language with its distinction between “Autochtoon” (those from this soil, or territory) and “Allochtoon” (those from a foreign soil) with a further distinction between Western and non-Western—unsurprisingly, these distinctions fall along racial lines.

The capacity of governments “to manipulate the masses of people, to shape the public space, is now tied exclusively to a larger hegemony of terror.” Governments are now pursuing the elimination of every non-productive element from civil society under the guise of a “civilized morality,” which Colin Campbell defines as “a morality of self-preservation and self control.” The use of terror has been an essential modern political practice; its use was instrumental in the creation and maintenance of colonial reality and identity. State-sanctioned terror (for instance, police terror) should not be seen as an aberration, rather it is inherent to the preservation of “sovereignty” and the “territory.”

Territory itself is defined as “the land and waters belonging to or under the jurisdiction of a state, or sovereign,” or as “a field or sphere of action, thought, etc.; domain or province of something.” Interestingly, Etymology Online’s alternative theory of the origin of the word territory alludes to a possible natural link between terror and territory. Etymology online suggests that territory might be a “derivation from terrere ‘to frighten’ (see terrible); thus territorium would mean ‘a place from which people are warned off’.” Territory is not only the spatial conditions that allow a nation-state to be, to reference Joel Wainwright, but also the sphere of action and thought (for example, laws, and treaties) that produce the effect of a spatial-ontological separation between one nation-state and another. Moreover, the spatial conditions on which the nation-state is premised produce also a spatial-epistemic separation, through epistemic violence, that creates that nation-state’s “Others” and excludes them from body politic.

Denise Ferreira da Silva underscores in Notes for a Critique of the ‘Metaphysics of Race’ this fluent epistemic dynamic of inclusion via exclusion. She notes that “racial difference is not a given trait but an object of knowledge, and as such a political signifier produced as a scientific (onto-epistemological) referent of a fundamental link between mind (intellectual and moral attributes), bodily attributes and place.” Both ontological and epistemic violence play an instrumental role in establishing which bodies fall under the jurisdiction, and thus “belong,” to the nation-state—an aspect which Max Weber gestures toward in Politics as a Vocation. Weber defines a state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” [his italics]

Sovereignty is, then, not only bound up with “the properties of Man,” and, as such, with the separation of the human from the non-human, but also with a particular orientation toward territory, which translates as the security and preservation of the homeland. Although, Weber’s definition of the state is problematic for several reasons (for example, state violence is not always physical, or legitimate), I would like to link his definition to Wynter’s use of the metaphor “mistaking the map for the territory” in order to push further and rethink the category “humanity,” territory, and the state. Drawing on the previous points, territory can be defined as a field or sphere of action, and/or thought under the jurisdiction of Man, or a community of Man, which produces as its effect a spatial onto-epistemic separation—a place where “the waste products of all modern political practice” are purposefully kept out. Terror is a necessary function of territory, or a consequence of territorialization.

Blackness, as always-already external—whether in terms of the legal, ethical, or moral—to the territory of the universal Man, is a perpetual state of exception. As Lewis Gordon notes, “Blackness functions as the prime racial signifier. It is the element that enters a room and frightens Reason out.” Anti-blackness functions as the binding agent that holds together various differentially positioned exploited and excluded (and thus blackened) subjects in the zone of non-being.

Nick BradyThe fact that non-Black people of colour and undesirable Whites are grouped under the label “black” in the Netherlands does not mean that we all inhabit the same structural position, or that which is “done to us” registers on the same level. The difference in popular response to Wilders’ anti-Moroccan statements and Bosman’s anti-Black political agenda, which aims to take away civil rights of Dutch Antilleans by way of a law (Bosman has also proposed a different passport for Dutch Caribbeans), is a good illustration of differential responses to and racial patterns in what is cause for public concern, or outrage—or, to put it differently: it illustrates the already outside-ness of Blackness. Blackness is, to riff off of Marx, “in civil society but not of civil society.”

Wilders’ promise to rid the Netherlands of Moroccans, however horrible, is, at best, fantastical. Wilders lacks, as opposed to André Bosman who is a member of the ruling VVD party, political power to turn his promise into law. This is not an exercise in “Oppression Olympics”; it is to expose the specificity of the structural position of the Black, and unravel the presumption of “the monolithic characteristics of victimization under white supremacy.” The proposed removal of Black bodies through state control in order to keep the Netherlands free of “disadvantaged Antilleans” scripts the Black body as peripheral, disposable, without inalienable rights—without the properties of Man.

The libidinal economy of anti-blackness is, as Jared Sexton notes, pervasive, and has, in many instances, preceded White supremacy. In the Western imaginary, the figure of the Black signifies the anti-human, “a being torn from [native] time and space and caught in the netherworld between tradition and modernity,” sentient flesh on which violence is enacted. Images of the abused and violated and dishonoured (and thus “powerless”) American Negro circulated widely in Europe. In Racism in Europe Neil MacMaster observes that “racist stereotyping of blacks was generalized even within those European societies that had no direct involvement in colonialism, the phenomenon of what Sander Gilman has called ‘blackness without blacks’.”

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 19th century Europe, and news reports of lynchings in the USA, which featured heavily in Dutch newspapers, as I have mentioned in a previous post, firmly cemented the image of Blackness as subjection and abjection. Blackness has become synonymous with “the attributes of the expression of generalized dishonor.” As such, dehumanization is, in effect, not something that is being done to the figure of the Black per se, but a permanent state of being for the Black. As Lewis Gordon remarks: “in our anti-Black world, Blacks are pathology.”

These scenes of subjection played an important role not only in establishing the popular image of the Nigger, but also in strengthening White dominance. Anti-blackness, then, functions as a technology to secure the coherence of Whiteness. The ideological coherence of Whiteness, which requires the continuous subjection and expulsion of Black subjectivity, is brought about with and through political terror.

Sylvia Wynter’s engagement with the “human” as a conceptual category draws our attention to a deeper onto-epistemic facet of terror. Wynter understands both gender and race as functions of “genres,” or sociogenic kinds, of being human. Wynter notes that when we use “human” (the map) we are not referring to, nor representing, the various ‘genres’ or modes of being human, rather we are gesturing toward a reified universal discourse (the territory)—we are “simply” conflating the two and, thus, mistaking the map for the territory. Wynter points out that all of the –isms flow from the concept of Man, because Man’s sociogenic code (White European male) is used as the base. “Man” has basically monopolized the meaning of “humanity.” (P. Bourdieu 1984)

Thus, when we take “human” as a reference point, we lose sight of the particularities of Blackness, because they are eclipsed by the properties of universal Man. As a result, Black folk are not merely seen as deviations from the genre of Man, we are structurally positioned as the antipode of Man: anti-human. Wynter insightfully remarks that Black self-alienation is a function of the institutionalization of the concept of Man.

Wynter notes that “one cannot revalorize oneself in the terms of one’s racial blackness and therefore of one’s biological characteristics, however inversely so, given that it is precisely the biocentric nature of the sociogenic code of our present genre of being human, which imperatively calls for the devalorization of the characteristic of blackness.” She further notes that the systemic debasement of Blackness and the correlated privileging of Whiteness “are themselves only proximate functions of the overall devalorization of the human species that is indispensable to the encoding of our present hegemonic Western-bourgeois biocentric descriptive statement of the human.” [emphasis mine]

Thus, attempts to rescue “Black humanity” that use the current map to find their way to liberation are bound to fail. Denise Ferreira da Silva underwrites Wynter’s argument by arguing that “universality, as understood in Kant’s formal or Hegel’s existential formulation, cannot sustain an ethical project concerned with racial/global emancipation.” Similarly, Walter Johnson points out in his essay On Agency the limitations of affirming “Black humanity” in terms set by universal Man, that is “a liberal notion of selfhood, with its emphasis on independence and choice.” Johnson writes that,

“By continuing to frame their works as ‘discoveries’ of Black humanity, indeed, historians unwittingly reproduce the incised terms and analytical limits of a field of contest (black humanity: for or against) framed by the white-supremacist assumptions which made it possible to ask such a question in the first place.”

“And out of this misleading entanglement of the categories of “humanity” and (liberal) ‘agency’ has emerged a strange syllogism in which the bare fact (as opposed to the self-conscious assertion) of enslaved ‘humanity’ has come to be seen as ‘resistance’ to slavery.”

The figure of the Black can only become legible as a sentient being “under ‘cleaning’ conditions of violence.” In the afterlife of slavery, the figure of the Black is still held as an object in service of “White humanity,” both in a literal and metaphorical sense. The Black, as Frank Wilderson tells us, “has sentient capacity but no relational capacity.” In other words, the figure of the Black, as an accumulated and fungible object, is nothing more than her productive capacity. As such, the figure of the Black is a social non-person; claims to Black humanity are mediated through the frameworks of Whiteness.

Recently, Paul de Leeuw, of Shithead fame, had a Vuijsje-like epiphany after seeing 12 Years a Slave, and has come out against Zwarte Piet. De Leeuw has, prior to his epiphany, used Black suffering as a source of entertainment in his TV show De Kwis. He has dismissed Black protest, but after having seen 12 Years a Slave he now understands. The voice of the Black is not heard, except where her vocalizations work against her. As Wynter, Ferreira da Silva, and Mbembe have shown, the political ontology of anti-black terror goes beyond the dead bodies it creates through various acts of violence, or the fear it induces in the living who bear witness to its violence.



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