Sadomasochism and the Colorline
Reflections on the Million Man March
Anthony Paul Farley
The world of the spectacle has reached its apogee. New forms of resistance are beginning to break out everywhere. These are anything but well known since the whole point of spectacle is to portray universal and hypnotic submission. But resistance exists and is spreading.
ADDICTION IS THE watchword of our age. We are addicted to images of ourselves. We gaze upon the spectacle of our assigned identities, and we are transfixed by the images we have been ordered to become. These orders, like our aching hunger to fulfill them, seem to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Power’s mechanism hides itself in our oppression sickness. The colorline is the object of our most desperate desires. As we gaze upon the colorline, we encounter ourselves, black and white together, as racialized beings. The spectacle of the colorline fills us with itself, and we become its justification.
Whiteness is nothing more than an addiction to the spectacle of black inferiority. Yesterday, that spectacle was produced through the humiliation of segregation. Today, that same spectacle is produced through the manufacture of actual inferiority through neosegregation. That is, yesterday’s segregation statutes were an accusation of inferiority, while today’s neosegregation statutes are intended to produce inferiority. The spectacle of the real has replaced the spectacle of realism.
The production of the spectacle under today’s neosegregation regime is a three-part process. First, black inferiority is produced through myriad oppressive institutional and cultural devices. Second, the fact of production is denied by the producers. Finally, the product of this oppression, the black body, is made to perform its so-called natural inferiority as its white audience gazes upon the spectacle. Just as the consumption of spectacle can become an addiction, the production of spectacle can become an addiction. The black body, once formed to perform its inferiority, has now been made to enjoy its performance. Stability, in any oppressive regime, is a result of this coming together of the torturer and the tortured, of force and pleasure.
It is a story as old as the colorline. Whites have been willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the maintenance of the colorline. Whites invest, without limit, in a criminal-industrial complex that produces black recidivism and an education bureaucracy that produces black illiteracy. The latter spectacle, of course, speeds the plow with regard to the former and vice versa. The spectacle of millions of black men in chains places a black face on criminality, just as the spectacle of millions of unemployed black men places a black face on incompetence. It is only by watching these forced performances in blackface that whites are able to see whiteness as law abiding and competent. Whites need images of black abjection in order to see themselves as white. Whiteness is the moment of addiction. This ecstatic moment, the moment of capture, the moment of the spectacle, is like heroin. Like heroin, whiteness is a form of pleasure. It is a peculiar drug, however, in that it is produced only through the black body’s time on the cross. Our blood, as it turns bitter from anger and frustration or bleeds into the asphalt because of frustrated anger, is their narcotic.
Under neosegregation, blacks are made to perform a more complicated role in the production of the spectacle upon which whites depend for their whiteness. The spectacle of our modern Golgotha gives the black body two crosses to bear: the criminal’s and the minstrel’s. Ineffective civil rights statutes guarantee that white racism will leave blacks the last hired and the first fired. These statutes, however, purport to be effective. Why, then, do the heathen rage? Those who accept that the statutes are effective can only conclude that blacks must really be inferior. That is, if no one comes forward to claim the victory that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is said to have won, then it means that blacks are truly children of a lesser god. Today’s civil rights statutes do not produce equality; rather, they function to produce the illusion of equality. In the light of this illusion, black poverty appears to be a result of black inferiority. "You have equal rights, so why are you still at the bottom?" a white nation sneers, bloated by its feast on our blood and flesh. Their delicious "fact" of black inferiority is the end result of the minstrelization process.
The first crucification is complete; we can turn to the next. On the next cross we see the criminal. He is there for the same reason as the first—because the colorline needs him. The minstrel inspires pity, and pity inspires charity and charity transforms. Charity is, therefore, dangerous to a color-lined order of things. Charity must have a limit: enter the black criminal. Black criminality is the point at which white pity turns to contempt. Our hallucinogenic war on drugs has been fought to build this second cross.
White America desires black criminality. James Baldwin, over twenty-five years ago, began an "Open Letter" to Angela Y. Davis by declaring:
One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on Black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.2
They glory in their chains and use their pseudofear of criminality to mask their titillation before the spectacle. The body of the black criminal is produced, in fantasy, in enticing crime drama after drama. In living rooms everywhere we see the counterrevolution televised. Whites luxuriate in the spectacle paradise of television as they gaze upon their Others. "Look, a Nigger! why, it doesn’t even deserve freedom—what a savage! Ahhh, the duties and burdens of whiteness. . ."
We live in the videodrome. The body of the black criminal is produced, in fact and not just fantasy, in ghetto after ghetto after ghetto. The savage inequities of urban schools, the flat asphalt oceans of antiopportunity that are our cities, the monuments to abandonment that rise up from those asphalt waters in the form of hideous undermaintained yet overoccupied tenements along with ostentatiously vacant buildings, the literally toxic environments—whirlwinds of trash, the anti-aesthetic of consumer-culture neon, brain-damaging lead paint, brain-damaging antiblack newspapers, magazines, novels, films, and television programs, air heavy with roach fecal matter and other contaminants, the endless supply of deadly firearms, the ubiquity of ra – zorwire, windowless high walls and guard dogs, the cacophony of car alarms and police sirens, and the semioticity of it all. Everyone knows these details are carefully arranged to garland the black body with disdain. Doing this to ourselves, however, can feel like freedom. When we are lucky, death may deliver us from this imitation of life.
Let the black body choose to attack itself through crime and watch as infinite resources are made available to educate its self-hatred. A prosecutor and a defense lawyer, a judge and a court recorder, a psychiatrist and a probation officer, a U. S. marshall and a city detective, a jury of near-peers and a galley of friends and strangers, and oak-lined courtroom in a beautiful courthouse, and, finally, a room of one’s own in prison will all be made available, for free, to the black body that heeds its master’s voice and turns against itself through crime. This process educates the black body that it is criminal—the criminal justice system produces recidivism and nothing else. Thus, the system produces the very spectacle—black criminality—upon which it relies to justify its existence.
These twins—"Sambo" (the Minstrel) and "Bigger Thomas" (the Criminal)—are both fictions made flesh only by the process of spec – tacularization. The spectacle is both the origin and the justification of the colorline. Things could not be otherwise, for it is only by means of the spectacle that whites become and remain white. And it is only by means of the spectacle that blacks become and remain black. Each of these colors is a script that we are forced to perform.
The race-pleasure experienced by whites is a sadistic pleasure in that it can be produced only by the pain experienced by those whom the system marks as black. Under classic segregation, signs such as "Whites Only" accomplished the marking. Under modern neosegregation, the segregated are made to mark themselves. I am speaking today of millions of bodies made to perform the work of spectacle production by a nation addicted to whiteness. How does the ordeal work? Urban areas are first strip-mined of opportunities of any kind and left, quite literally, toxic with lead paint, carbon dioxide, rat and roach fecal matter, and a host of other organic and inorganic pathogens. These urban areas, defoliated as if to reveal some secret Ho Chi Minh trail, are then marked as bantustans for black bodies. I call these areas, collectively, the Neocolony or Golgotha. Black bodies are then banished, like lepers, to the Neocolony. Not every black body resides in the Neocolony; however, those that exist in other sites are, like plague victims in the Middle Ages, quarantined. Let a black body move through a white-identified space and watch the enforcers of the quarantine, police and private citizens alike, move into action and use their prophylactic suspicions to prevent the black plague from crossing the colorline. Thus the stage is set for the peculiar passion play required of blacks by whites, the performance of spectacle.
The colorline is the boundary of a site of production: the Neocolony is not simply a wasteland. The Neocolony, which simultaneously exists in the nonspaces of banishment and quarantine, is a factory. The black body is made to produce the spectacle of its own degradation. The bodies within the Neocolony are turned, each against the other, by the very desperation of the situation. In a mass surrender to their torturers they often become that which their masters require them to be: inferior. Black criminality and black incompetence are not accidents; rather, they are demands. We should think of them as production orders, or stage directions, from white America to the Neocolony.
The auction block of the fin de siecle videodrome has replaced its wooden predecessor. A nation addicted to our suffering washes its hands of our blood by forcing us to nail ourselves to its cross. We nail ourselves to its cross every time we view our problem as ourselves. In our conversation, a conversation from one cross to the other, we say, "education is the key," as though education will open the doors to opportunity in a caste system. We say, "we’ve got to stop killing each other," as though inverted violence was not the sine qua non of a caste system. We, as Sambo, say to ourselves that if we could only recite the Constitution, like yesterday’s prayerful civil rights Negroes as they stood before the white voting registrars, somehow the nails would be removed from our palms. We, as Bigger Thomas, say to ourselves that if we could only resist the temptation to lash out at our spectacle-shrouded brothers and sisters, somehow the crown of thorns would be removed from our heads. As our dried voices whisper together, Good Negro and Bad, an entire nation is rinsed white by our blood. And it all takes place on television.
Resistance is futile. It is futile so long as it takes place in a context that renders it intelligible to the system. That which makes sense, that which is not a Zen slap in the face, is already defeated by the terrible anticipatory logic of hierarchy. Hierarchy begets the very struggles that are raised up against it. Are you oppressed because you are low caste? Gather together your brethren in caste and demand caste rights. Demand equal rights. Negotiate for a new era of understanding. Fine, and when you have changed the hearts and minds of your masters, look up at the banner of caste under which you have fought. Are you still a creature of caste? Frankenstein’s monster, enslaved to the apostrophe long after the death of the physician who stitched him together. Who made you this creature of caste? The system against which one fights is within and without. Revolution must involve a destruction of one’s self and one’s context. Revolution is total. Revolution is a break with reality:
When you started in January, did you ever think this movement would become so great and would capture all of Mexico?
What would you have thought if I had said to you on December 31, "Tomorrow morning we’re going to launch an attack on eight municipalities. We’re going to start a war with the objective of overthrowing the Mexican government and installing a transition government that would hold free and fair elections." If I had said that "we’re going to have ten thousand people in arms, and have many more in reserve," what would you say to me?
Exactly. You’d say that armed struggle doesn’t work anymore, that we’d never be able to win, etc. It’s not a logical thing to do. But there are things you can’t understand until they happen (he laughs).3
The outcome of a revolution cannot be predicted or charted because revolution requires the destruction of the very basis of predictions and charts: revolution requires the destruction of the spectacle. And it is only within the spectacle that the weary drama of the status quo becomes real. Any strike against a spectacle, armed or otherwise, is a strike against reality as it is experienced by our masters.
In revolution we discover that the world we have only been dreaming about is as real as the moment we wake from the collective nightmare we have been having about ourselves. The Million Man March was, perhaps, the first subversive wave of a movement as yet unnamed.
Come, then, comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness into which we were plunged, and leave it behind.4
The March was an expression of this need to change everything all at once.
The Million Man March was a General Strike against the race – pleasure system. For one day, there was a refusal to cooperate in the production of the Spectacle. For one day, the distribution of race – pleasure was halted. For one day, the native bearers put down their burdens. For one day, the curtain was drawn on the performance upon which the libidinal-economy of the colorline depends. For one day, the native bearers formed One Big Union. For one day, the society of the spectacle stood still. That one day may lead to others.