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Beacons of Fury: Dehumanized Bodies (Experimental Essay 2)

meerajay's picture

Beacons of Fury

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting the National September 11th Memorial. The museum opened in late 2011, and is built on the World Trade Center site, the former location of the Twin Towers, which were destroyed during the September 11th attacks. The museum architects strove to preserve what was remaining of the wreckage after 9/11, and many of the original architectural structure of the building, such as the survivor staircase, are still remaining. Central to the museum was an enormous exhibition art piece shaped like a cube, with another inner cube. When entering, visitors can see, projected on the vast walls, the faces of the almost 3,000 who died. In the inner cube, visitors can sit and listen to each of the stories of the lives of the victims narrated by a loved one. The 9/11 memorial museum inspires, even honors, a very public grieving (the museum is free to law enforcement and the families of those who passed in the attacks). It pushes to keep the 9/11 attacks as a part of the present, unable to be forgotten. The victims of the attacks are meticulously humanized, their stories given the privilege of being grounded into the American historical canon. Most importantly, they are given dignity in death.

Certain other bodies, usually black and brown bodies, are treated as ahistorical beings, not afforded humanity by the media and therefore by the world: for example; victims of terrorism by ISIS such as the very recent attacks in Lebanon. These black and brown bodies are already lifeless corpses in the eyes of Western media and are therefore ghosts in Western imagination; meanwhile, the victims of the 9/11 attack and other acts of terrorism in the West (recent happenings in France, Charlie Hebdo, etc.) are humanized, still not seen as part of the past but of the present, still bestowed the honor of being mourned. In this paper, I seek to question why we choose certain bodies and narratives as deserving of the label of humanity.

Why we choose certain bodies to humanize depends on the “we” in question and how we define choice. It is up to us to question whether this choice is something that is dictated to us or whether we have the free will to create. The media brings to the forefront news that the public will consume; it is not the media that is at fault but, inherently, the people. These ahistoricized, brown bodies function as beacons of fury, living in order only to be a counteract in death, going through life only for the purpose of becoming ghosts. Renee Bergland describes, in her article “Indian Ghosts and American Subjects”, the essentiality of these ghosts in American society: “When America denied the civil existence of the disenfranchised without denying their actual existence, it constructed them as simultaneously there and not there…[confining] them to a spectral role in American politics. In some basic senses, their presence was denied…but they haunted American polity.” During America’s construction, the creation of these ghosts in the bodies of the marginalized served as a process through which the mainstream absolved itself of guilt for being complicit in America’s issues around race, class, and gender. In modern times, as the media and technology create an even smaller world, both brown bodies internationally and those in the national sensibility must be created as ghosts to maintain white supremacy.

In a recently released article, Judith Butler explores the underlying orientalism that allows the West to separate itself in body and therefore humanity with the East. Her theories are written so that they can also be applied to others with ahistoricized bodies of the West who are forced to live life in the margins. She states:

“In contemporary conditions of war and heightened nationalism, we imagine that our existence is bound up with others with whom we can find national affinity, who are recognizable to us, and who conform to certain culturally specific notions about what the culturally recognizable human is… Consider how this is compounded under those conditions in which Islam is seen as barbaric or pre-modern, as not yet having conformed to those norms that make the human recognizable. Those we kill are not quite human, and not quite alive, which means that we do not feel the same horror and outrage over the loss of their lives as we do over the loss of those lives that bear national or religious similarity to our own.” (Butler)

Butler expands on the reason why we are trained to respond with grief at the loss of certain bodies and not others. She uses “we” to speak from the point of the mainstream, with the voice that is listened to the most. It is true that the cis, white, able-bodied men hold the majority of positions of power, and that we live in an affective regime which polices public emotion, but power still depends on people’s acquiescence to what they believe to be power. We (in this case referring to the radicals, the marginalized, the subaltern and their allies) have the power to create counter-spaces to the affective regime’s policing, and have consistently done so throughout history.[1] Butler overlooks the plurality of the US and the many-layered identities that we all share.

In Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, Sara Evans discusses the concept of “consciousness raising,” as a “primary structure” of the women’s movement, as grounded in humanization. Consciousness-raising led to “the creation of small groups within which women could share with mutual trust the intimate details of their lives…they provided a place, a “free space” in which women could examine the nature of their own oppression and share the growing knowledge that they were not alone” (215). The identity-affirming counter-space as separate from the mainstream was the most powerful way to build kinship among those with a shared identity, and so could offer a potential strategy to building support for the ahistoricized bodies both abroad and within the US. Moments in history such as Freedom Summer, where young white people by the thousands traveled in support of a cause, prove that counter-spaces can and have been affective through consciousness-raising, providing a space of education and support.

The process of consciousness-raising as developed through the civil rights and women’s movement and applied to this particular moment of xenophobia and racism is not a permanent, all-encompassing solution. But it can be a response, one step towards it. These are enormous issues perpetuated by the xenophobic cis heteropatriarchy, a system that will not be dismantled quickly or easily. Consciousness-raising is a balm, slowly beginning the healing that must happen first. 

[1] Consider, for example, the passing of the black lesbian scholar and poet Audre Lorde in the 1990s. It received little to no coverage by the mainstream media because of the radical ideas that Lorde wrote and spoke of. Regardless, people mourned publicly for Lorde and marched by the thousands. These public affective spaces functioned as identity affirming counter spaces to the mainstream. 



Works Cited

Bergland, Renée L. "Chapter 1: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects." The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 2000. 1-22. Print.

Butler, Judith. "Judith Butler: Precariousness and Grievability-When Is Life Grievable?" Verso Books, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Evans, Sara M. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.


jschlosser's picture

Two quotations here add up to something really important and powerful. You write:

"The media brings to the forefront news that the public will consume; it is not the media that is at fault but, inherently, the people."


"It is true that the cis, white, able-bodied men hold the majority of positions of power, and that we live in an affective regime which polices public emotion, but power still depends on people’s acquiescence to what they believe to be power."

Not only can consciousness-raising heighten awareness of particular issues but it also serves precisely what you're describing here: seeing power where previously one felt powerless; recognizing that each of us can deviate the paths of least resistance -- finding solidarity only where it feels easiest, treating others as disposable, and so forth -- and that to do so with others creates new possibilities for genuine power.