Social Death of Black People Through the Theory of Slavery

Many may argue that different kinds of raids, plunder, genocide and capture have occurred in many parts of the world during various periods of conquest. Perhaps, however, Orlando Patterson’s study is crucial in making a distinction between the regime of violence which subtends slaveries throughout the world and that which saturates black life under modern racial slavery. His concept of Social Death spells out this distinction and is crucial for the purposes of this work. 

The ocean of violence that establishes modernity, did so on the slave. Every other structural position came in relation to the slave, she who is without consent, sovereignty, recognition and she who is fungible, propertised and violated without boundary or socially accepted tolerance. It is according to Patterson a prelogical violence that remains relogical because it has a utility that is more than just establishing the master and slave relation. That utility is an ontological one, which is to say, the violence that subtends the slave is one which produces knowledge about what it means to be. Without it, or with its undoing, the social death of black people, we would be on the cusp of an epistemological break. The psychic ideas which are infused into the notion of what it means to be, Human, in the modern era structured blackness as the base against which everyone else can know themselves to be. Blackness as produced by slavery then is a necessary abjection from which the preconciouse cannot strategise itself from. It is a concept that cannot be generalised, “it is indexed to slave and it does not travel. That is to say there are problems in the formulation of the relation of power from which slavery arises and there are problems in the formulation of the relation of this relation of power to other relations of power.’’  

“The mere fact of slavery makes black Americans different, no amount of tortured logic could permit the analogy to be drawn between a slave population and an immigrant population no matter how low flung the latter group.’’ Ross Baker makes this comment at the realisation of the ‘bleak totality’ of slavery in Patterson’s description and distinction between racial slavery and all other historic forms of slavery.

We form a part of ‘The long duree of Social death in Atlantic history’. We have to disabuse ourselves from thinking blackness in the first instance as “a variously and unconsciously interpolated identity, or as a conscious social actor animated by legible political interests. But rather as a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions.’’ emanating from what Mbembe marks as the symbolic sealing off of the slave. The procedure of Afro-pessimism involves the abstraction of a conceptual framework regarding structural positionality. It’s methodology regards paradigmatic analysis and a structure of feeling regarding the politics of antagonism. It draws from the work of luminary in the field of black studies such as Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, David Marriott, Ronald Judy. The full implications of this perspective become evident when this lense is rais to another level of abstraction. While my attempt here is to reach analytical description for blackness and its constituting history in South Africa, I make no sincere attempts at providing political prescription.

That’s a very difficult thing for people to get their heads around, but what it means is that Black people stand in a different relationship to the police or the university, so even though the homicidal murderous violence of the police can be meted out to the white working class in the 1920s, white women, foreign national immigrants, Asian South Africans—and they can die from that violence, just as Blacks can die from that violence—the generative mechanism of the same acts of violence are not of the same structure. The generative mechanism is different. For those people, the generative mechanism is disciplining them back into correct behaviour, correct thoughts, and it kicks in when their consent to the hegemony of civil society has been broken; it comes in after they break consent. And as Hartman points out, Black consent is never solicited but coerced. The police actually enforce the laws on all these other groups, but the police make the laws on Black bodies when they produce violence. They make the laws—and 'I don’t mean law in the literal sense of the word—but what I mean is the law as in ‘who is in’ and ‘who is out’ with respect to civil society. It is necessary for this violence to repeat itself against Black people.  

Orlando Patterson was the first who developed the concept of Social Death in his 1982 study, Slavery and Social Death. There, Paterson broke slavery down to more than just an event in an era or a place in spaces in the world but as a relational dynamic. The first distinction he draws from all other forms of slavery is a relational structure of gratuitous violence. That is to say, the slave is now structure to the world in terms of a violence and a violence which is no contingent on transgression (war between groups or stepping outside of the boundaries of agreed upon codes) but is instead whimsical.

07 July 2022
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