On Violence, Power, and Citizenship

“It seems to be a peculiar privilege of white political subjectivity that it periodically claims to intellectually understand and affectively identify with the social and historical positionalities of racial genocide’s survivors, social inheritors, historical objects, and political antagonists while inhabiting none of the material and affective conditions that such deep violences create.”

—     Dylan Rodríguez, Goldwater’s left hand: Post-raciality and the roots of the post-racial racist state

“Shared history” is one of those stock expressions Dutch Caribbeans use to refer to, if not explain, our presence in the Netherlands, quite often without giving it a second thought. I myself have used the term “shared history” on several occasions without really grappling with its implications, the familiarity it intimates. The truth of the matter is that “shared history” is a fiction: the descendants of enslaved Africans do not have an equal share in the narration of “Dutch history.” Our consent has never been solicited. What is often elided by the use of “shared history” is the reality that intimacy and familiarity, which the cosy term “shared history” presupposes, were established under duress and a regime of terror. What does intimacy, familiarity, a “shared history” mean in the context of coercion, violence, and precarity?

The familiarity and intimacy we often refer to under the sign “shared history” are not comfortable states. Intimacy, familiarity, and affective states were significant factors in the colonial calculus of the Netherlands. Dutch colonial governmentality was primarily concerned with the assessment and manufacture of appropriate sentiments—as well as the management of excess sentiments that threatened to overwhelm the abilities of colonial authorities to control felt relations. Ann Stoler notes that Dutch colonial authorities were obsessed with figuring out whether the affective attachments of colonial agents and subjects to family, language, and homeland were at odds and “whether they should—and could ever—be under the state’s control.”

In order to better understand the oppressive affective expectations of gezelligheid, it is important to attend to the “sensually concrete spaces of power, where the machinations of state and the embodied subject collide.” It is at the nexus of intimacy and terror, “engendered by the everyday zones of contact between embodied subjects and the political state apparatus,” that “the political enters subjective experience.” These intimate, affective zones of contact are “sites for the making of subjectivities through the production of terror and violence.” Dutch colonial governmentality operated through affect and it reproduced in feeling. As such, it not only acted on the body, but it also came to inhabit the body. Colonial control should therefore be understood as an embodied affective practice. What’s more, racial terror is deeply implicated in a pornography of the senses, which is “domination-based and destructive of intimacy.”

The fear underlying the obsession with affective attachments still governs contemporary politics; this is, perhaps, most apparent in debates on citizenship. In defence of tightening regulations, Piet Hein Donner, former minister of Home Affairs, stated that “Dutch citizenship is the crown on participation and integration into society.” The main question debated was, “Can you, while serving public interest, be loyal to the Netherlands when you have two passports?” The disciplinary power of the state, and “the imaginaries of the state take on a social life through the subjects’ capacity to perceive, feel, and interpret.” Our legal relationship to the Dutch state is translated into a capacity to show faithfulness. This capacity to adhere to the affective cluster of loyalty (that is the feelings associated with loyalty) can be understood as the ability to hold proper perceptions, feelings, and interpretations regarding the nation-state. (Capacity is derived from Middle French capacité “ability to hold.”) Or to put it differently, the Netherlands, as an affective and far-seeing entity, is brought into being not only through bodily practices, and spatial configurations, but also somatic norms, which privilege White bodies, and a grammar of national sentiment (a sentiment for the nation).

In this constellation of somatic and affective norms, the Black body, a figuration of excess and extremes, emerges as an event horizon, a “site of absolute dereliction at the level of the Real,” and “confronted with an excess, the system interiorizes what exceeds it through an interdiction and in this way ‘designates itself as exterior to itself’.” As such, the Black body is locked in “the space of the legally anomalous,” and, thus, Black activity is always-already seen as suspect, transgressing against the norm, the law, Life itself.Dutch governmentality has, therefore, not only been geared toward preventing transgressions of its affective norms—to such an extent that it broke down the fictive barrier between the public and private sphere—but also the curtailment of Black activity. Curtailment of Black activity translated, for instance, in an ad hoc way of governing that centred on punishing specific slave ‘crimes’ as these occurred. Moreover, the movement of enslaved Africans, and even those of free Black folk, were regulated “by restricting their access to certain places or requiring written passes.”

In the attic of a white family’s large mansion there was a jar containing a black doll; black means power, health.
In the attic of a white family’s large mansion there was a jar containing a black doll; black means power, health.

The containment of the Black body, whether symbolic or concrete, becomes a precondition for the coherence of White sociality and embodiment. In 1872 the Dutch sanctioned an ordinance on Curaçao which “empowered white authorities to use physical force against any Afro Curaçaoan perceived [of] endangering the public order, tranquillity, and safety.” According to Nanette de Jong, “this ordinance basically empowered vigilante whites to judge and punish blacks as they saw fit without fear of personal legal consequence.” Black(ened) bodies are, thus, under constant surveillance, and open to gratuitous violence. Blackness is relegated to the outside within the borders of the law. The Black body is, therefore, always surrounded by a territory owned by another, and the properties associated with Blackness serve as boundary conditions. In Homo Sacer Giorgio Agamben cites Maurice Blanchot, who speaks of society’s constant effort “to ‘confine the outside’ (enfermer le dehors), that is, to constitute it in an ‘interiority of expectation or of exception’.” The Black subject is not only expected to transgress, as I have mentioned before, it is always-already transgressing.

The structural position of the Black within anti-black structures of terror is, as argued by Patricia Schor, best described as an enclave (from Old French enclaver “enclose, comprise, include”). Schor’s take of the enclave differs (slightly) from its geographical meaning. She asserts that “the enclave is constituted by fencing the Black body within.” The enclave becomes “a bodily marker,” and as such “the enclave is not only encountered in a fixed space, but moves along with the racialized body.” Schor’s argument converges with and supports João Costa Vargas’s position that “Black folks always already inhabit prisons.” Thus, in the Dutch nation state’s process of regulating sentiments as well as Black activity, the political gaze conflates the zone of intimacy with the carceral zone—not only conceptually, but also practically: zones of intimacy and carceral zones become indistinguishable, and “awful intimate and monstrous configurations.” As such, seeing and feeling are wedded with terror and surveillance. The Black body, then, is reduced to an object that magnetizes intensely affective debates about violence, criminality, policing the nation’s territory.(What Sara Ahmed would term “sticky” bodies.)

For a better understanding of racial violence in the Netherlands we must contend with the nature of Dutch imperial violence and the logics of Dutch imperialism. The Dutch ethical imperialism project—which argued for imperial rule on a moral basis—rationalized, legitimized, as well as justified Dutch imperial violence on moral grounds. Racial violence in the Netherlands is “rooted in the Dutch tradition of paternalism, in which great value is attributed to ‘caring’ forms of supervision.” The fact that the West India Company had fixed minimum standards of ‘care’ for enslaved Africans did not and does not mitigate the conditions under which enslaved Africans were held. Under the regime of racial terror, coercion and control became closely associated with a form of ‘care’ that was often inadequate, unreliable, or deadly.

Violence need not manifest itself as harsh or cruel treatment. Saidiya Hartman argues that “the barbarism of slavery did not express itself singularly in the constitution of the slave as object but also in the forms of subjectivity and circumscribed humanity imputed to the enslaved.” Hartman notes,

“Even when the entreaty made in the name of the public good acted minimally on the behalf of the enslaved, it did so, not surprisingly, by granting these limited entitlements in a manner that ‘recognized’ black humanity in accordance with minimal standards of existence. This truncated construction of the slave as person rather than lessening the constraints of chattel status enhanced them by making personhood coterminous with injury.”

The personhood of the slave, “the calculation of black humanity,” came to rely on her ability to narrate injury; she was recognized as a subject “only as she violated the law or was violated (wounded flesh or pained body).” Dutch abolitionists structured the better part of their case against slavery on accounts of violated Black flesh and the capacity of slaves to experience sentimental emotions. The Dutch abolitionist writing Slaven en Vrijen onder de Nederlansche Wet contains a tissue of lurid descriptions of Black suffering, which “reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering.” Hartman writes that “the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering required that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible.” As such, Black suffering only registers when mediated through the White body. Empathy, then, serves as a pretext for the bodily ‘enjoyment’ of Black suffering. The demand for the materialization of Black suffering is insistent and persistent; it is embedded in the question: how does it feel like to experience racism?

Susan Maslan posits that “the primary qualification for inclusion within the category of the human was the capacity to feel, not the capacity to reason.” Maslan argues that feeling offers “a means to bridge the violent division between ‘politically qualified life’ and ‘simple, natural life.’” For Maslan, sentimentality bridges the gap between Man and citizenship, and gives rise to what she calls the figure of the “man-citizen.” She observes,

“This division could be, and was, mapped onto specific groups on the basis of race, class, gender, ethnicity. Thus for example, in some political scenarios all women belonged to the domain of “simple, natural life.” The “politically qualified life” could be perceived as obtaining solely to the property-owning white men.”

The subject of human rights materialized through sentiment. However, for the Black subject, whose humanity centred on Whites’ recognition of her capacity to feel, this dependence on sentiment is fraught—because “claims to Black humanity are mediated through the frameworks of Whiteness.” Hartman observes that “whites’ recognition that blacks could feel both physical and emotional pain (a question up for much debate before antislavery images of slave suffering), opened up new possibilities for racial oppression.” Attending to the Dutch colonial control of intimacy and the process of turning formerly enslaved into “productive citizens” not only exposes the scales of coercion involved into manufacturing the “citizen,” but also the new ways in which Black folks could be oppressed.

Citizenship, whose limits the formerly enslaved proved, works as a technology of oppression. After the abolition of slavery the Black subject had to be re-imagined as “citizen,” through coercive means. Member of Parliament J. Dirks argued in 1862 that “preventive and repressive transitional measures before, during and after the emancipation [are] absolutely necessary.” Despite her new status as legal citizen the life the Black subject was not considered “politically qualified life.” As Jared Sexton notes,

“black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonized, of all that capital has in common with labor—the modern world system.”

In order for the Black subject to function (i.e. be intelligible) in civil society, she needed to be imbued with citizenship and civic rights. In essence, citizenship functions as a technology of humanization, that is a means to make intelligible the Black subject, who lacks “the properties of Man.” Citizenship, thus, acts as a prosthetics, a ‘foreign’ part whose addition allows a subject to function; as such, prosthetic citizenship “remains visibly an adjunct to the non-white body.” Citizenship, then, can be understood as a structural adjustment imposed on the Black subject. As a disciplinary regime of governing populations, citizenship has forced Black people into a social discourse that was never designed to apply to our situation; it was “designed to fail” Black folks.

The capacity of the Black to enter into contract should not be mistaken as our being ‘normalized’ subjects of civil society. As Frank Wilderson notes “signing on the dotted line means feigning ontological capacity regardless of the fact that Blackness is incapacity in its most pure and unadulterated form.” The ontological status of the Black as anti-human inaugurated the Black subject not as citizen but as “anti-citizen,” that is “someone both profoundly excluded and, at the same time, made to hold still as an icon of the risk posed by dangerous ‘others’.” In short, the Black subject can never truly hold the properties of Man, nor can citizenship offset Blackness as a condition of social death.

As such, the humanizing prosthetics of citizenship offers Black people only ambiguous, if any, protection against complete obliteration. Guno Jones writes that “the possession of formal citizenship does not guarantee all citizens inclusion in the nation-state.” As Jones notes, “the Moluccans were excluded from political rights.” Jones’ observation echoes Saidiya Hartman’s assertion that “citizenship did not imply or confer an equality of political rights,” rather it merely offered protection of citizenship rights. Moreover, our voices only register due to the prosthetics of citizenship, which allows us to shift from “the sound of natal alienation” to an ordinary speech register which brings us “closer to being a real human being.” There is no Black speech outside of coercion, by which I mean “the only way to speak is to mirror back to non-Black people that which they are willing to hear.”

“With every lash she received, the slave [sic.] had to call out: Thank you master, thank you overseer. Thank you master, thank you overseer.”

We must show signs of being happy with the situation in which we find ourselves. As a Black subject, incorporation in civil society by way of citizenship is always “conditional and intended only for those with the right social attitude.”

In Feminist Killjoy, Sara Ahmed citing Marilyn Frye notes, “anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous.” Negative affects leave us open to dismissal. First and foremost, “citizenship provides,” as Sara Ahmed writes, “a technology for deciding whose happiness comes first,” which is not unsurprising since happiness and unhappiness played a prominent role in the first formal declaration of human rights, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Hence, in order to be read as “human” the Black subject, who is empowered, or enhanced by the prosthetics of citizenship, needs to display superhuman qualities.

The Black subject is only imbued with the ability to vote, that is the ability to exert “citizen power,” when she is able to embody citizenship “in the material, learned, and habitual ways” required by civil society. Thus, the citizen is not, as Barbara Cruikshank asserts, “simply a participant in politics,” but “an effect and an instrument of political power.” Even though Black folk in the Dutch Caribbean were citizens, they weren’t allowed to vote until 1937—when they were granted only partial suffrage. It was not until 1948 that universal suffrage was granted to all men and women. Cruikshank further notes that, “The measure of democracy is not the extent to which citizens participate in politics rather than stand back in fear or apathy.” We should not “mistake power for what it excludes,” rather we should pay attention to “what it produces.”

Power produces the social and political death of Black and non-Black people of colour through networks of restriction, and exclusion. The formulation of a ‘benevolent’ necropower which Achille Mbembe mentions in a footnote in Necropolitics is salient here. Citing David Theo Goldberg, Mbembe writes “necropower can take multiple forms: the terror of actual death; or a more ‘benevolent’ form—the result of which is the destruction of a culture in order to ‘save the people’ from themselves.” In 2006 Marianne van den Anker, a mother of two who served as Alderwoman in Rotterdam, advocated forced abortions for Antillean teen mothers, people with a cognitive, intellectual, or psychological disability, and mothers with a drug and/or alcohol addiction to “prevent someone from being traumatized for the rest of their life.” Pastor Polhuis said in response to the criticism that ensued that “as regards abating the immense suffering and the inability to prevent she was perfectly right, albeit the proposed solution could not pass muster.” According to the pastor, what Van den Anker had meant to say was that we should be able to discuss “stretching the legal limits in individual cases.” Notwithstanding her good intentions, Van den Anker’s proposal tapped into the libidinal economy of anti-Blackness and reified “a racial construction of blacks as already unruly, violent, contaminated, and mentally deficient.”

The recent move to renegotiate the terms of citizenship of Dutch Caribbeans has exposed our tenuous inclusion. It is imperative that we think through the interplay between conceptions of citizenship, representations of Black pain and suffering and Black visibility. Kwame Turé famously noted that “Black visibility is not Black power.” As I have argued, in order for the Black subject to become “intelligible” she has to transcend her body; she must mask the blackness of her body while paradoxically affirm and deny Black pain and suffering. She must at once wail and show gratitude. To quote Audre Lorde, even “our feelings were not meant to survive.” Black pain and suffering, then, “operate as excess, with the black body acting as a site that masks power’s ultimate transference.” Moreover, the language of libidinal excess marks the ruptured Black body not only as Other, but also as not Dutch. Dutchness requires the subjected Black body. Black pain functions not only as a metaphor of exclusion, but also as that which makes the “good White person” possible, who profits from Black suffering and turns it into symbolic capital. In other words, White benevolence is parasitic on Black pain. Paying attention to the history of racial terror “sheds light on the ways painful racial histories hold in them the possibility to organize our collective futures.”


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