May 2, 2013
Here is a video document of the drawing of a ponto riscado for the deity Banbha Mooira made by Roberto N. Peyre and myself in June 2012. It was inspired by our shared interest in Atlantic religions and Northern Soul dance culture, particularly their common metaphysical foundations in the transatlantic slave trade and trafficking, the importance of ritual dance/possession trance in both traditions and processes of subject formation within industrial labour. The work was conceived as a mystic re- or counter-communion with antedeluvian origins and alliances in order to break the chains of assembly lines and loop holes guarded by certain demonic forces.
It was exhibited on the floor of the ASC gallery in London in a show curated by Plastique Fantastique. As you will see, when the drawing is complete we ‘re-draw’ it by dancing and spinning on it to the sound of Spirit by Third Point, a Northern Soul tune, rarely heard these days, but once a big hit in the Highland Room at Blackpool Mecca, one of the most important Northern Soul venues in the 1970’s. The drawing is finished by 39.15. Then the dancing starts.
The project began with a view to making a vévé – a ritual signature of a Loa (God/Spirit) drawn in powder on the ground during Vodou ceremonies. Roberto suggested we think about what a Northern Soul vévé would be made of. The content of the powders should be in keeping with the work to be done and the spirits to be summoned/placated. The obvious choices were talcum powder, which Northern Soul dancers sprinkle on the floor to make it easier to perform their dance moves, and amphetamine sulphate, the stimulant of choice for scene.
At the time we were developing this project I was exploring the history and symbolism of the red cross after rumors had begun circulating that the International Red Cross was planning to build a hotel and conference centre in Haiti with money raised from public donations for post-earthquake disaster relief, allegedly with the intention of creating jobs for Haitians. At that time the red cross had become emblematic of the mutual interdependence of military violence and charitable aid that had been cast into stark relief in post-earthquake Haiti. Given that the ASC gallery is located in Southwark, an area with a notorious history of vice, prostitution and the early presence of black Africans in London as a consequence of the transatlantic slave trade, Roberto suggested twinning the area with the other side of the river and its square mile of notorious Templar power and financial necromancy. He also suggested we start to think about spiritual power centres in the vicinity of the gallery where we could perform ritual works. Specifically we should look for a Pomba Gira “hot-spot”. Pomba Gira is a deity within the Umbanda, Quimbanda and Candomble spiritual traditions of Brazil. Her name means “spinning” or “turning dove” in Portuguese. She is a powerful warrior-queen who takes many forms and “paths” through which she commands formidable legions of the dead. She is often associated with “wayward” female behavior like promiscuity, prostitution, hedonism, intoxication and violence and she inhabits liminal spaces like forests, riverbanks, crossroads and graveyards. She is the consort of Exu, spirit of the forest and prime spirit of change, first action, streets, roads, transmissions and crossings and the name given to a phallanx of spirits on the lowest level of the spiritual hierarchy in the Qiumbanda tradition.
As I began to reflect on the nature of the vévé powder and the quest for a Pomba Gira hot-spot in Southwark an image of a skull and cross-bones came to mind, the bones being ground into a white powder in a mortar and pestle. Cross-bones and graveyards. And then I remembered The Cross Bones graveyard, a ceremonial site for the memory of the outcast dead (especially, for prostitutes), made popular by the mystic, visionary poet and playwrite John Constable (aka John Crow), whose Southwark Mysteries were channeled to him by the spirit of a dead prostitute called The Goose. And it was on Redcross Way, in the parish of St. Saviour’s, no more than seven streets from the gallery.
Over the next two weeks – during the transit of Venus – we performed a number of rituals in recognition of Pomba Gira dos Sete Cruzeiros de Kalunga (Pomba Gira of the Seven Crosses of Kalunga) at the gates of the Cross Bones burial ground, and to Exu Quebra Galho (Exu of the Broken Twig) at the base of a fig tree in All Hallows Church yard. We then designed a ponto riscado, the ritual signatures of deities and forces within Quimbanda, for a transatlantic Northern Soul deity that Roberto named Banbha Mooira after the legendary warrior queen and giantess founder of Ireland and a fateful, Moorish Moira. The ponto contains a number of elements: the tree of life encircled by a double-headed serpent, the graveyard oceans of Kalunga, the cross of the Knights Templar and the trident of Pomba Gira. The ponto was worshipfully drawn to our new queen on the Diamond Jubilee of another queen, Elizabeth II of Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Kitts and Nevis.
In the rendering above the ponto is inverted.
April 9, 2013
Here’s a trailer for what I presume may be the first full-length documentary about the “zombie emulator” phenomenon. My favorite comment has to be George A Romero’s, which raises a fundamental problem for any would-be “zombie ethnographer”:
“I’ve been to Mexico City and 5,000 zombies showed up. And I can’t get any of these people to answer the basic question of “WHY DO YOU DO IT?”"
April 3, 2013
Documentation of the ‘Morpeth School – Art Power’ project has been posted on the Portman Gallery website. Thanks to everyone who supported the project.
March 26, 2013
Here is a PDF of my essay ‘The Militarization of Aid as an Act of Religious Violence’ which was recently published in the Transmission Annual publication on Catastrophe. In the essay I reflect upon the militarization of aid in post-earthquake Haiti from the perspective of George Bataille’s Theory of Religion.
March 10, 2013
Next week I will be working with students from Morpeth School in Bethnal Green to produce a large scale banner based on the working methods and styles of Haitian tap tap painters. The finished banner will be shown alongside the sign made for Tele Geto during the last Ghetto Biennale and the video documentation of its making. The exhibition will take place at the Portman Gallery, Morpeth School, Portman Place, London E2 0PX. There will be a wine reception in the gallery from 6 till 8 on Thursday March 21st. All welcome.
January 21, 2013
This is a trailer for the exquisite Achantè, a short film-portrait of Haitian Vodou made by Emily McMehen and Geoffry Sautner (aka Mazibel Productions) in collaboration with a small international production team and four Vodou communities in the South of Haiti. Emily showed an earlier version of the film at the 2nd Ghetto Biennale. More information about this hypnotically beautiful film can be found here.
January 16, 2013
In the article a representative from the Local Data Company – which collects nation wide data on the use of retail and leisure premises – tells the BBC “Shops are having to change their use – distinction is the key word – consumers really want something different from their High Streets.” So it looks like your local run-down shopping mall may soon be filled with gyms, crèches, art galleries and zombie emulators, “putting the heart back into the High Street”.
(Zed Events, the company that organizes the zombie apocalypse emulation activities, is currently looking for would-be zombies who will be eradicated by the other fee-paying participants. They are charging a fee of £119.00 for the pleasure.)
January 5, 2013
This is the second of a three-part summary of the excellent 1804 and Its Afterlives conference that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on December 7th and 8th 2012 as part of the events program accompanying the Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou exhibition. Video recordings of the sessions can be found on the above link. The focus here is on salient points from the talks that touch upon issues of direct relevance for the Zombi Diaspora narrative and the Ghetto Biennale.
Saturday 8th (Day Two, Morning Session)
This session was introduced by Philip Kaisary, assistant professor of Law at the University of Warwick who has written about representations of the Haitian Revolution in the work of Aimé Cesaire and C.L.R. James from the perspectives of human rights discourse and historiography. He spoke briefly about “the extraordinary diversity of the Haitian revolutions afterlives” not only in literature but also in film, music and dance, these latter being the focus of the morning’s papers.
The first speaker was Michael Largey, Professor and Chair of Musicology at the University of Michigan and author of Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism (2006) whose paper - ‘1804 and Musical Memory: Occide Jeanty and Recombinant Mythology in Haiti’ – explored how Haitian art music has been used to underscore concepts of nationalism there. In Vodou Nation he claimed that elite Haitian composers employed “modes of cultural memory to engage issues from Haitian history as a way to make significant claims about Haiti’s place in the world”. Today he spoke about one such mode, “recombinant mythology”, to show how “mythological ideas” have a powerful shaping influence on how Haitians understand their political realities. He focussed on Haitian military band director Occide Jeanty (1860 – 1936) who was seen by Haitian audiences as a defender of the Haitian nation during the 1915-1934 US military occupation. In order to understand the importance of Jeanty it is necessary to develop a historical model that examines “legendary accounts of his life that have been infused with Haitian myths”. “Myth and history” he says “are elements of larger discursive processes that forge relationships with the past”.
Jeanty’s career began when Haitian politicians were actively cultivating connections with the deceased heroes of the Haitian revolutionary war, in particular Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Late 19th century Haitian intellectuals identified rhetorically with Dessaline’s “bravery, courage and industry” while lower class Haitians had begun incorporating his legends into the practices of Vodou focusing less on his heroism than on his death and dismemberment at the hands of political rivals in 1806. The figure of Ogoun Dessalines fuses two contradictory ideas: a powerful general and national protector, and a dismembered corpse torn apart by his enemies. Despite differences between the elite and lower class embrace of Dessalines, both connected contemporary Haitians with the “rhetorical power of politics and myth”, and through such rhetoric Haitian politicians have often found themselves incorporated into the myths they sought to exploit. Such is the case with Jeanty, whose mythic narratives draw on the recombinant myths of Dessalines and Ogoun. Although it is not a substitute for formal historical methodologies, in regions like the Caribbean, where written history has privileged colonialist perspectives, the analysis of recombinant myths forms an important part of the “construction of historical consciousness”. Largey quotes Dayan who has coined the term “Vodou history” as a corollary for the combination of mythical and historical narratives in Haiti, calling them “sinkholes of excess…crystalizations of unwritten history [that] force us acknowledge the inventions of mind and memory that destroy the illusions of mastery, that circumvent and confound any master narrative”.
Largey recounts the story of Florvil Hyppolite, Haitian president from 1889-1896, who died of a heart attack on the way to confront a civil revolt in Jacmel. Popular songs that record this event fuse myths about Dessalines and Hyppolite, the most famous being ‘Panama M’ Tombé’, a merengue whose lyrics tell of how, at a crossroads on the way to Jacmel, “my hat fell down”, a metaphor for impending fate and a reference to the “pays san chapeau” (“land without hats”), the Haitian land of the dead. Philome Obin’s 1954 painting Les Cacos de Leconte (The Cacos Rebels of Leconte), exhibited in Kafou, makes reference to Dessaline’s untimely death on Pont Rouge (Red Bridge), Florvil Hyppolite is seen carrying his hat in his hand.
Largey defines recombinant mythology as “the process whereby people in the present use mythologically orientated language to highlight praiseworthy characteristics of cultural heroes”, a process which makes “historical events more culturally saturated and hence more subject to interpretation by culturally competent audiences”. Ogoun is a particularly effective “point of connection” for recombinant mythology in Haiti. Known primarily as a soldier he wears the sash of a Haitian military officer and brandishes a machete during possession rituals. He is also, Largey adds, the patron of taxi drivers. Both Dessallines and Ogoun are identified as brave and selfless soldiers “willing to put themselves in physical danger despite the risks”.
Recombinant myths exist in what Homi Bhahba calls “the third space”, combining present and past, where they are “available for use” in multiple and at times contradictory ways. In Haiti Vodou loa are often used as sources of recombinant myths, and can act as “moral exemplars” (Karen McCarthy Brown). Recombinant myths are not arbitrary but rely on “the alignment of salient traits between appropriate subjects”, made to work between ideas that are “good to think together”. Ogoun, for example, combines with Haitian generals and presidents whose power eventually overcame them. Louverture and Christoph are rarely depicted as having Ogoun characteristics. Commenting on the previous day’s discussion about the difference between the revolutionary afterlives of Louverture and Dessalines, Largey notes that, for many Haitians and black artists outside of Haiti, Dessalines promotes a view of black agency that does not try to flatter white audiences. “The final stage of recombinant mythology is transformation” Largey continues ”the emergence of a recombinant myth in a specific place and time”. When this happens the myth becomes part of a “concatenated chain of narratives, each of which is simultaneously linked to specific historical and mythological antecedents”.
Following Rolph Trouillout’s description of Haitian intellectuals from the upper echelons of Haitian society, who participate in the creation of Haitian historical consciousness through the recounting of mythological Haitian events, as “alchemists of memory” – “proud guardians of a past they neither lived nor wished to have shared” – Largey suggests this same name could be used for those members of Haitian society who use Vodou mythology as part of their cultural vocabulary despite personally repudiating Haitian traditional religion. As such they use Vodou as a cultural resource to enliven their writing and “saturate their prose with culturally resonant ideas”. Some of the works of painters in the Kafou exhibition, like that of Salnave Philippe-Auguste featured in Jørgen Leth’s Dreamers documentary (2000), who repudiate Vodou, are still informed by its cultural practices, which they use as a shared resource.
For elite audiences, Largey claims, Vodou spirits are “too volatile for use in their competing and contradictory forms” and must be “diluted into forms” that stir the patriotic passions of Haitian audiences and “connect them to salient cultural images”. Occide Jeanty’s importance has to do with what VèVè Clark, co-editor of The Legend of Maya Deren (1985) and Anti-Feminism in the Academy (1996), has called “milieux de mémoire”, “discrete regional remembrance beyond the pale of official Haitian history, so insignificant as to be known only to practitioners, a living chronology, revealed to members only”. These include myths about Jeanty, personal narratives by colleagues which amplified his traits through heroic rhetoric, poems written about him and “experiential programs”, Largey’s term for personal interpretative statements made by audience members after listening to his works. During his fieldwork in Haiti in the 1980’s Largey documented many such anecdotes.
Between 1922 and the end of the US occupation in 1934 Jeanty composed works that “contributed to the rhetorical resistance toward the US occupation”. His most famous composition, 1804, though written to celebrate the centennial of Haitian independence, became an unofficial anthem of resistance and Haitian political autonomy. Haitian audiences heard in it a connection between the presence of the US occupying forces and the period of colonial slavery. It became an anthem of anti-American resistance and continues to have revolutionary connotations for Haitian audiences. There are various accounts of such audiences spontaneously rioting in Port-au-Prince when 1804 was played by the presidential band with Jeanty directing. This urban response to 1804 was particularly significant because most previous resistance to the US occupation was restricted to rural areas where bands of Cacos engaged US marines in small skirmishes. Towards the end of the US occupation Jeanty was forbidden to play 1804 during the band’s popular Sunday concerts in Port-au-Prince’s Champs de Mars. Several authors have tried to account for the power of 1804. One journalist, Felix Erisay (?) wrote a program for a performance of 1804 that linked the musical gestures of the march to the struggles of Dessalines against the French army, climaxing in the general’s battle cry “Dessalines pa vlé wè Blan” (“Dessalines doesn’t want to see whites”), which unites the two Haitian heroes in their call for the expulsion of the white invader.
Largey played an early recording of 1804 pointing out the section with which Dessaline’s battle cry has been associated (this can be heard at 24.00 in the video documentation of the talk). When heard by Haitian audiences today 1804 can illicit “dramatic visceral reactions”, one listener describing the feeling as like having all the hair on one’s head and arms stand up with the message “we are not going to accept an invasion that will return us to slavery”. Such sensitivity however had to be learned. What Haitian audiences hear, Largey claims, has been conditioned by the social and political contexts in which 1804 has been played. He quotes ethno-musicologist Tom Turino, author of Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (2008), who wrote: “the affective potential of music is constantly utilized and in some cases manipulated for a variety of highly significant social ends including the mobilization of collectivities to create or defend a nation”.
“Even during a military occupation of their country” Largey continues “Haitian audiences were able imagine themselves resisting political oppression, the wild shouts of contemporary listeners connect them with cultural values of independence, rejection of colonialism and resistance to the re-imposition of slavery”. Haitian performative genres send messages, or “throw points”, of insider cultural knowledge to their audiences when direct communication would be too dangerous. In the case of 1804 “Haitians could symbolically re-enact the struggle for independence as long as their enthusiasm remained within the bounds of acceptable behavior for the US marines”. 1804 was rumored to contain quotations referencing different regiments from the Haitian army with their own identifying themes, quotations that had the power to excite local crowds.
In conclusion Largey argues that Jeanty’s music continues to be a focus for Haitian nationalist sentiments and that his invocation of the Emporer Dessalines allowed Haitian audiences to enjoy the thrill of Haitian nationalist resistance without having to resort to combat. An image has been created of him that combines historical and folkloric ideas that place him in the historic past, while equating him with the heroes of Haitian independence, “in his own time a defender of the Haitian state, and in the present as a symbol of resistance against oppression”.
The next speaker was Martin Munro, Professor of Francophone Caribbean literature and culture at Florida State University, author of Shaping and Reshaping the Caribbean: The Work of Aimé Césaire and René Depestre (2000), Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature: Alexis, Depestre, Ollivier, Laferrière, Danticat (2007) and co-editor of Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and its Cultural Aftershocks (2006) and Echoes of the Haitian Revolution (2008). His talk ‘The Revolution’s Ghosts: Dessalines, The Chimères and Apocalyptic Creolization’ explored the idea of “the hybrid Creolized subject in Haiti as a kind of living phantom”. He moves forward in time 200 years from 1804 to just before the bicentenary “a time which seemed to usher back into Haitian society figures that appear to echo…the figure of the Creole Dessalines in their ambiguous, contradictory values, actions and relations to broader Haitian society”.
I must admit to having an instant reflex reaction to the opening gambit, sensing in it one of those structures that implicitly denies agency to the very subjects it assumes to be speaking about or for. Any subject assumed to be “a kind of living phantom” by one who is, presumably, not such a thing immediately places the burden of the phantasmatic onto the other, a function which the term chimères and the film Ghosts of Cité Soleil, which Munro discusses, both perform. The issue boils down to something like this: “Who gets to speak of others as if they were phantoms?” I was also concerned in this introduction by the use of so many spectral figures of speech (‘seems’, ‘appears’, ‘ambiguous’, ‘echoes’ and indeed ‘figure’ itself), semantically structuring them ‘as if’ being real, endowing them with active, if “contradictory”, values and actions. An extension of the first question would therefore be “On what kind of entity is agency being conferred here, the actual subjects identified as chimères, or the phantasmatic figures of mythic speech?” Through Munro’s exogenous ‘chimerical optic‘, actual people labelled as chimères are made to coincide with the mythical properties of fantasies about them in ways that occlude the structural and political dimensions of the literary and cinematic media through which ‘they’ are depicted. In this way Munro’s ‘literary’ analysis of the chimères had discomforting, and presumably unconscious, parallels with the explicitly repressive function the term was generated to serve i.e. a justification for military intervention in Haiti during the planned removal from office of the democratically elected, but publicly demonized, President Aristide.
In his article ‘Epithets Without Borders’ Richard Sanders traces the history of the term chimères in Haiti, relating it to similar names like “gook” or “slant” used during the Vietnam war to dehumanize and vilify members of the Viet Cong. “Such verbal abuse is also valuable in preparing the general public for the cognitive dissonance that will arise with the growing awareness of their fiscal and electoral complicity in the crimes of war”. In the case of chimères, Sanders claims, it was the aspersion of choice used by all those who opposed President Aristide to describe his supporters during the 2004 coup. Traditionally referring to a violent monster, ghoul or ghost, and often used by the elites as a class slur against the poor, the term was mobilized specifically in statements by Haiti’s former military, the armed rebels, police, judges, businessmen, journalists and “all other anti-Aristide proponents of regime change”. It also gained unquestioned currency within “Elite-owned Haitian media and their foreign counterparts, Haiti’s corporate-backed politicians and their Canadian and U.S. mentors and Anti-Aristide “NGOs” in Haiti and their government-funded partners abroad”. Sanders quotes an interview with Haitian human rights lawyer and activist Mario Joseph who said “Since the kidnapping of Aristide, the process of legal accusation has been reduced to name calling: the word “chimère” is used like a death sentence. This is how all the political prisoners, members of Lavalas, were rounded up during the coup”. By not acknowledging the historical and political context of the term’s emergence one comes dangerously close to complicity with the violence it was created to mask.
Although Munro later acknowledges that those labelled with the term chimères neither chose nor accepted it, that they recognized it as a label invented by the opposition to demonize them, he still claims that “perhaps fittingly the genesis of the chimères is difficult to trace and is tied up in the intimate history of street gangs and their political affiliations”. The genesis is not actually so difficult to trace, and it is not primarily “tied to the intimate history of street gangs” as far as I know. Perhaps Munro has other information. But it was not forthcoming. He then defines the term as referring to “the gangs from the shanty towns of Port-au-Prince who were used at times in the service of Jean Bertrand Aristides’ government and who gained a reputation for extreme violence used against the anti-government popular movement”, explicitly placing himself on the side of the ‘demonic’ naming powers identified by Sanders. Not only does Munro propose that the genesis of the term/identity lies with the people labelled by others with it, but by associating the phantom-like figure of the chimères with that of the “Creole Dessalines”, he makes the term transition seamlessly between the registers of the fantastical and mythical to the historically and socially concrete, and in so doing unwittingly reveals a key mechanism of the demonizing-naming operation described above, one that was fundamental to the propaganda machine used against the supporters of Lavalas, and an operation that has been used repeatedly against various Haitian revolutionary insurgencies since the colonial era, through terms like ‘cannibal’, ‘fetish worshiper’, ‘Voudouist’ and ‘bandit’.
Munro focussed on three representations of the chimères in popular culture: Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic’s 2006 film Ghosts of Cité Soleil (discussed briefly in the previous 1804 and Its Afterlives post), Charles Najman’s 2004 documentary film Haïti: La Fin des Chimères? and Lyonel Trouillot’s 2004 novel Bicentenaire. In each case he looked only at the figure of the chimères as depicted in the texts, paying no attention to either the politics of cultural production intrinsic to the works themselves or to the broader social and cultural networks in which they operate. In short he treated the chimères ostensibly as “literal fictions” with actual human/cinematic embodiments. He points out that both films discussed feature the same pair of chimère brothers, James Petit-Frere and Winston Jean-Bart, aka “Billy” and “2Pac” which, Munro suggests, “allows one to move from general conceptions of the chimères to the particular realities of these individual lives”. But does it really? This seems like a naively “realist” assertion, as if somehow being represented in film confers upon a figure the status of concrete actuality. Cinema is a notoriously spectral medium and those who get to be captured by it acquire an explicitly phantasmatic immortality. To assume that one moves from the general (mythic) to the particular (concrete) through the medium of film seems to occlude the fundamentally phantasmatic and constructed nature of cinematic works. In the case of documentary films we have to be even more vigilant in this regard than with overtly fictional forms. Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a particularly problematic choice of film given its overtly voyeuristic and sensationalist tendencies and explicitly anti-Aristide message. It is in many ways an important component of the propaganda machine described by Sanders and as such really ought not to be taken on face-value as an in any way objective representation of the so-called chimères. In fact, I would argue, Ghosts of Cité Soleil constitutes the most important international vehicle for the damning of Aristide and his supporters, and the subsequent justification for international military intervention and occupation of Haiti, that has yet been made. This ought really to be born in mind before discussing its representations of people who do not call themselves chimères. Even if this were not the case, that both films should use the same two characters to represent a highly contested social identity, raises fairly obvious questions about the politics of representation at play in this selection of works.
Munro explained his notion of the “Creole Dessalines” by making reference to a recent article by Deborah Jenson – ‘Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the African Character of the Haitian Revolution’ – which questions the standard historiography (such as Dayan’s) that claims he was “literally Creole” but “performatively and ideologically African”. Having heard the talk several times now I still can’t understand why he does this or its relevance for the representation of the chimères. But I will re-state the argument as he puts it. Maybe readers will understand this better than I.
In the standard narrative Dessalines is an island-born Creole, brutally treated by a white master, who would “gesturally” become African in order to relate to the majority African-born population. Jenson however points to contemporary accounts of Dessalines’ life that suggest he was born in Africa and “became Creole” only in later historiography. Different accounts of his birth, Jenson argues, have shaped interpretations of the Haitian revolution. If Dessalines was taken as a slave from Africa to Haiti, where he used his knowledge of African social groups for the revolution, he would represent “a critical suppressed link, if an endlessly oblique one, in our understanding of how these experiences informed African revolutionary agency in colonial Saint Domingue” (Jenson). This is an interesting proposition. But unfortunately the theme of African revolutionary agency, which was also discussed in the previous day’s talks, is not developed here and falls away almost completely when Munro discusses representations of the chimères.
If Dessalines was African, Munro argues, his story would be simplified. Dessalines the Creole, on the other hand, “is a chameleon that comes into being through metamorphosis…a shapeshifter of unverifiable origins and contradictory motivations, unknowable and ambiguous, a kind of ghost, even as he lived”. Once again this seems like a stretch. Are we speaking here about Dessalines the concrete ‘living’ individual, the contested historiographic Dessaline’s or Dessalines the myth? Clarity is essential here if were are not to fall into a self-fulfilling phantasmatic loop. Would an African Dessalines really be so much more simple to narrate? Surely not. What Munro seems to be suggesting here is something mysterious and capricious about the label “Creole”. Once again we need to ask what kind of thing this ‘Creole’ is? Who is using the term, how specifically and for what reasons? Munro seems to be reading it through the same chimerical optic as he does the word chimères. “The very name chimères” he claims later in the talk, implies an “apocalyptic form of Creolization in its suggestion of a being made up of composite parts…a monster that is only in part human, or indeed a ghost, a phantom that is aware that it is not fully alive, existing somewhere between life and death, existence and oblivion”. In short, for Munro it seems to be primarily a mythic literary figure, secondly a term of cultural abuse in the context of Haitian society and thirdly a term used to identify the militant, slum-dwelling supporters of President Aristide in 2003-4. But what does this have to do with Dessalines or “Creolization”?
Munro invites us to fast forward 200 years from 1804, with this contradictory, ghost-like chameleon spirit of the “Creole Dessalines” in mind, to the cinematic and literary chimères of 21st century Port-au-Prince who appear as “apocalyptic figures, grotesque, nihilistic refigurations of the Creolized anti-hero”. Here we can see how the “Creole Dessalines” operates as an historical filter for Munro’s exogenous chimerical lens, giving a mythical Haitian revolutionary form to the so-called chimères. But why “apocalyptic”, “grotesque” and “nihilistic”? Whose optic is this? Whose judgement?
Speaking of the characters Billy and 2Pac, “two of the most notorious chimères”, Munro proposes that the paradoxes of Haitian politics complicate the question of ethics “so that it’s difficult to judge if the anti-hero is completely on the right side”. But in what political situation is it ever possible to judge an anti-hero on “the right side”? And what would that be in this situation? When we look in more detail at the actual political situation on the ground in Haiti during the ousting/departure of President Aristide, it seems clear that Billy and 2Pac were in a highly compromised, volatile, chaotic and violently unstable situation, not the kind in which “the right side” is likely to be found for any length of time. Perhaps Munro is suggesting that Haitian politics are particularly paradoxical. But then what politics aren’t, especially in a militant slum area during a para-military coup d’état?
Munro explains that Billy and 2Pac are said to have been alumni of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi institute for street children, founded in the mid 1980’s, and centred on an orphanage for street boys in the La Saline district of Port-au-Prince. The claim is supported by Michael Diebert, an ardent critique of Fanmi Lavalas and author of the Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (2005), who knew Billy personally. 2Pac and Billy, orphaned through the politically motivated killings of their parents (their mother, according to Diebert, was a community activist killed in Cité Soleil shortly after the coup against Aristide in 1991, their father killed during a FRAPH paramilitary raid on Cité Soleil in December 1993) had become, according to Munro, “children of Aristide”. “Guided by a philosophy of education that developed a radically politicized child identity” Lafanmi Selavi “held a unique ambition of not only feeding street children but also creating…citizen children”. Forcibly closed by government paramilitaries in 1999 Lafanmi still produced “cohorts of young men for whom street violence had been a means of survival” and who allied that defensive instinct “to the political sensibility that the education program had fostered”. Although “there appears to be no evidence that all those attached to Lafanmi became chimères” its links to 2Pac and Billy suggest to Munro that it was a “training ground” for its “most prominent figures”, an argument also made by those involved in the vilification campaign against Fanmi Lavalas in 2003.
January 2, 2013
At long last Leah Gordon & Anne Parisio’s inspirational film A Pig’s Tail (1997) is up on Vimeo. Thanks for that!
There have been several references to the story of the Haitian pig here at Zombi Diaspora. It is the “same pig” that Reginald Jean Francois spoke about in his story about the 2004 defacing of the replica of the Florentine Boar by UN troops in Haiti. The story resonates very strongly with Colin Dayan’s talk at the 1804 and Its Afterlives conference discussed in the previous post, especially in terms of the competing justifications and rationales for animal slaughter/sacrifice. The description of the ceremonial welcoming of the all-new American pig to the island sounds like the kind of legal ritual she has been writing so insightfully about. It is also, on a more optimistic note, probably the ancestor the the ‘hybrid’ pig she encountered when she was last in Haiti.
Although it was “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes who carried out the extermination program, we should note too the central role played by USAID, whose director from 1977-79, two years prior to the total eradication of the creole pig from the country, was Lawrence Harrison also mentioned by Dayan, who in the interview linked to in the previous post and elsewhere, argues for a “cultural revolution” in Haiti (and Benin) to totally eradicate Vodou from the minds of its people on the grounds that it “gets in the way of democratic governance, social justice and prosperity”. The irony of this claim is made painfully clear by the Haitian’s interviewed in Leah and Anne’s film who explain how the Haitian pig helped them put their children through school, pay for medicine, buy land or build a house. As A Pig’s Tail shows so well, the pragmatic realms of utility and mysterious realms of the sacred are not so easily separated in Haiti.
Great to see once again the meeting of Edgar Jean Louis, Vodou priest and flag-maker, and Andre Pierre, the person who taught him “the way of the spirits” who is one of the key painters exhibited in Kafou exhibition.
December 20, 2012
This is the first of a three-part summary of the excellent 1804 and Its Afterlives conference that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on December 7th and 8th as part of the events programming accompanying the Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou exhibition. Video recordings of the sessions can be found on the above link. I will focus here only on salient points from the many inspiring talks that touch upon issues of direct relevance for the Zombi Diaspora narrative and the work of the Ghetto Biennale.
Friday 7th (Day One)
The keynote lecture – ‘The Gods in the Trunk (or Writing in a Belittered World)’ – was given by Colin Dayan, author of Haiti, History and the Gods (1995) and the recent The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011). Her talk offered “a context for reconfiguring our understanding of the supernatural…that asks: What could we feel if we could feel what we experience sufficiently?” Prompted by her knowledge and experience of Vodou practice she questions the meaning of justice, the reach of cruelty and the uses of reason within the generally decorous and polite academic discussions of ‘humanism’, ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘human rights’, in an attempt to “breach the gap between body and mind, dead and living, human and non-human”.
Her focus on the language of ‘humanism’ and ‘humanitarianism’ has bearings for earlier posts that have addressed post-earthquake disaster relief as a form of neoimperialist violence that masks and intensifies the suffering of the populations it claims to be aiding. As I have argued in a forthcoming text for the Transmission annual on Catastrophe, the militarization of aid in post-earthquake Haiti was an intensification of the strategic utilization of humanitarian aid as part of an ongoing neoliberal strategy that has been undermining the possibility of Haitian popular sovereignty since the Duvalier era. There is a kind of humanitarian wall built around Haiti that hides and prevents access to the real violence being waged there in the interests of a tiny international, capitalist elite. The systematic suppression of Vodou, despite not beginning with it, seems to intensify during periods of occupation, significantly during the US occupation of 1915 to 1934, the UN occupation beginning in 2004 and the second phase of US occupation that began after the earthquake in 2010. President Martelly’s recent repeal of Article 297 of the Haitian constitution, and the arrest of Ougan Zaza and nine other participants at the annual Bwa Kayiman ceremony this year, suggest that a renewal of the anti-Vodou program may be underway. At the same time, as Reginald Jean Francois’ account of the defacing of the Florentine boar in Plaza Italia by UN peace-keepers in 2004 suggests, there are aspects of the MINUSTAH mission that exceed ‘pure’ security and stability objectives.
Dayan began her lecture with a question – “What is the particular terrain for human cruelty and who gets to command its shifts in terms of species and race?” – which she contextualized in terms of a turn towards a “political metaphysics” of the sacred which affirms the “concreteness of Vodou practice” and attemptins to locate “in granular and theoretical registers” the “often invisible nexus of animality and human marginalization”. In a gesture evocative of the ‘surrealist ethnogapher’ Michel Leiris’ 1938 essay The Sacred in Everyday Life, Dayan proposes that “the unlikely and extraordinary are part and parcel of the commonplace” and “how rituals thought bizarre become ordinary”. She asks how we might re-figure our understandings of the supernatural to include “everyday practices of casual cruelty and commonplace harm” sketching out a landscape of that “defies reason” and “skirts transcendence”.
Dayan based her talk on Haitian novelist Marie Vieux Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, Colère, Folie (“Love, Anger, Madness”), completed and first published in 1969, but unavailable until 2009 due to fears of reprisal against Chauvet’s family by representatives of the Duvalier regime. Focussing on the final novella of the trilogy – Madness – Dayan uses Chauvet’s works to stage a series of fundamental ethical and historical questions about what we consider to be human, and what happens when the poles of magical and the juridical, supernatural and rational are ritually reversed. “Are we prepared” she asked “to re-adjust ourselves to a conception of human life that turns our own reality upside down?” Within what she calls the “precincts of Chuavet’s fiction” that exist in the nightmare landscape of Duvalier’s Haiti, “the immediate thing is the supernatural” and the real is “no more than a symbolization of events in the world of ritual”. In such circumstances “the most incorporeal is re-cast as reasonable” and this “relentless acceptance of unreality” Dayan claims is a necessary part if Haitian history and crucial to its mythology.
Dayan addresses the management of “societal refuse” in which distinctions are drawn between “the free and the bound, the familiar and the strange, the privileged and the stigmatized”. There was something very Bataillian about this formulation of “an unreal rationality of racism” depending for its power on “the conceptual force of the superfluous, what can be rendered as remnants or waste or dirt”. Given Dayan’s response to the show’s curator Alex Farquharson’s question about ‘the abject’ during the Q&A session, and her evident aversion to ready-made and over-used theoretical terms that often work to cover-over and obscure the very things they claim to be addressing, I propose this reference with some circumspection. Bataille is undoubtedly a philosopher whose concepts (like ‘formless’, ‘transgression’, ‘dépense’, ‘sovereignty’ etc.) have been used in precisely this fashion in respectable academic and artworld circles for many years now. That said, I think it is worth re-stating here the general thesis of a polarity of the sacred in which the impure elements are associated precisely with filth, waste and other forms of repellent ‘base matter’ that threaten, unsettle and destabilize those modes of “civility, consensus and rationality” upon which academic claims to decency are made. The Psychological Structure of Fascism, for instance, written in 1934, attempts to account for the role of imperative ‘pure’ forms of heterogeneity (loosely, the sacred) in the formation of Fascistic totalitarianisms, that depend upon the violent suppression and elimination of material (human, animal or otherwise) deemed unclean, abhorrent and ignoble. Bataille was concerned particularly with the affective register of sacred forces, going so far as to suggest that “the object of any affective reaction is necessarily heterogeneous”. Informed by Alexander Kojève’s lectures on Hegel which he was attending at the time of writing, he developed an idiosyncratic, psychoanalytically inflected account of the master-slave dialectic, deeply resonant with Dayan’s reading of Chauvet. According to Bataille “the heterogenous nature of the slave is akin to that of the filth in which his material situation condemns him to live” while “that of the master is formed by an act of excluding all filth: an act pure in direction but sadistic in form”.
As those familiar with Bataille’s work will know, the spectacle of sacrifice and the “making of the sacred” were fundamental concerns for him, as they are for Dayan. “In the spectacles of sacrifice that concern me today” she said “to be disposable is not having the capacity to be dispossessed, to be nothing more than dispensable stuff”. With this in mind she made reference to the medieval law of the deodand, literally a “thing given up to God” symbolizing “forfeiture and power, loss and gain” and “an object or thing that becomes endowed with intent and malice and thus must be sacrificed or forfeited to the state, church or king”. Then, in a gesture which recalls the thought experiment known in consciousness studies as ‘the zombie problem’, she asked us to “imagine that this thing-like-thing returns in the shape of things that look like humans but are really evacuated of all characteristics that make social personhood possible…just at the moment that their life, their resistance is most present and visible”. For Dayan Wilson Bigaud’s portrait of a bull – Conflicts and Tensions (1957) – exhibited in the Kafou show captures what this thing-like-thing, that is so filled with spirit, might be.
Although Dayan was not intending to reference the philosophical problem of zombies, her argument makes an uncanny inference from these ‘imaginary’ but ‘visibly resistant’ beings, evacuated of social personhood, but for whom:
different from the zombie, what thinks, suffers, gets destroyed in such bodies, has been rendered fully inconsequential, in one sense, but it’s made to perform tremendous symbolic labour in the fictions that uphold the violence of legal language. It unleashes upon what I call walking meat, an inflection of witchcraft, that Chauvet understood as a subjection both linguistic and social.
I’m not sure I understand what the ‘it’ is here that unleashes this “inflection of witchcraft”: the human thing-like-thing, the gift given over to god, the violence of legal language, or the thing-in-the-thing-like-thing that gets destroyed and made to perform symbolic labour. Whatever the case, I wonder how different this difference is between zombies and human-like things, this walking meat, “inflected with witchcraft”. Much, of course, depends on how the term zombie is being used in this context, something I attempted to communicate during the zombie metaphor talk and the discussion that followed. Precision of meaning is not simply a didactic issue here, rather it allows us to recognize the chimerical nature of the figure, which like the human thing-like-thing evoked by Dayan, has been made to perform diverse symbolic work in different cultural and historical contexts. In the transition from popular folkloric accounts of zombis to their classic cinematic incarnation, a legal article from the Haitian constitution performs a juridical-epistemological justification for the existence of a narcotically induced, and “witchcraft inflected”, state of being seemingly dead. When considered from the perspective of people in actual disaster zones like post-earthquake Haiti, the current trend for disaster preparedness programs, based on apocalyptic scenarios derived from post-Romero cannibal zombie movies, however tongue-in-cheek their representation in the popular media may be, take on an ominous and only too real a meaning. As Dayan put it “in a morally disenchanted world, cruelty and violence accompany the call for order” and at times “the need for security” entails a “systematic disposal of creatures deemed threatening or unfit”. Especially, one might add, if these poor, filthy and borderline creatures appear to be threatening, or resistant to, the order being imposed upon them.
Dayan goes on to propose a “sorcery of law” constituted by the rules of the Haitian lwa (the gods or spirits of Haitian Vodou, from the French loi or “law”) “which depends on a re-enforcement of control, while giving the appearance of channeling a docility, that is always fictive”. Despite the quasi-juridical violence enacted by Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes, the real demons to be feared rather than the lwa, “resistance is never shattered, it is only put away or forgotten” just as the gods for Chauvet are “never gone, but shut up in a trunk and held tight in the mind”.
I was reminded here of a section from Spencer St John’s 1884 Hayti, or the Black Republic, an exemplary racist account of Haitian historical decadence and alleged cultural atavism written by the former British Consul and resident minister there. During the “long civil war” under President Sylvain Salnave St. John had observed that the “more civilized” Haitians were moving to the cities, leaving the rural districts to the “fetish worship and cannibalism” of the “barbarous lower orders” of negro. One of the many horrific stories of human sacrifice and cannibalism, given juridical credibility by the legal trial attended by the author, involved the murder of a young girl who had allegedly been killed for sacrifice and cannibalism by a group of Vaudoux fetish worshipers. The prisoners were brought into a courtroom where, on a table before the judge was the skull of the victim, her calcined bones and, in a jar, the remains of a soup made from her flesh. At first the defendants denied the charges, claiming their confessions had been extracted under torture, which, the author asserted, without concern, they had. He recounts how the judge, sensing the anxiety of a young girl amongst those accused of the murder, asks her to come closer to him: “He placed her with her back to the prisoners, and putting his arm around her, drew her gently to him, and said in a soft voice, “Tell me, chère, what occurred”.” She seemed to be whispering something to the judge, and, though no one in the courtroom heard what it was, all, including the young girl, were quickly found guilty and publicly executed by firing squad the following day. To prevent their bodies being carried away during the night, picquets of troops were placed round the spot. But in the morning, according to St John, the bodies of the two priests and the priestess had disappeared.
Chauvet, Dayan explains, repeatedly demonstrates in the repetition compulsions of her characters, the ritual and irrational nature of moments of reason that “turn the personality inside out” and “discipline the rawness of blood and sex”. Her characters “take what others would hide or throw away and turn these pieces of matter, whether fecal or just rotten into something that can be cherished”. “What many political theorists refuse to recognize” Dayan claims, “is not only the attachment of rational agency to the magical but most of all, that the fusion of the two, the fantastic and the rational, is never far from the values of enlightened society.”
For Dayan there is no such thing as an a-political natural history, and the institutions of slavery and Vodou – “the ritual practice born of its terrors” – shaped the way in which the earth – “its landscape, its flora and fauna, its animals” – was imagined historically (a point underlined by the curators decision to include the native trees associated with particular lwa in the chart that accompanied the exhibition). In a gesture that once again recalls the philosophy of Georges Bataille, Dayan suggested that an alternative title to her talk could have been “Predatory Animism”, a quality of Chauvet’s writing that “confuses substances, matter and mind, material and ideal, reason and madness”. For Bataille religion is founded upon what he calls “animal intimacy” (and at other times ‘immediacy’ or ‘immanence’) which is given when one animal eats another. When this happens it is always a fellow creature that is eaten and no affirmation of difference can be made between them, no relation of subordination, such as occurs when men reduce others to slavery. Although humans are generally separated from the continuum of animal intimacy, they seek ritual means, like blood sacrifice, to open themselves to its vastness. “Something tender, secret, and painful draws out the intimacy which keeps vigil in us” he writes, “extending its glimmer into that animal darkness” (Theory of Religion).
Clermont Julien Orange Figure with Yellow Stomach (1989)
In the work of artists in the Kafou exhibition Dayan senses a stance that shares the “spectral vitality” of Chauvet’s fiction, one that aims to grant “supreme intentionality to various and disparate entities of the cosmos” involving “a strange seepage between subjectivities” both human and non-human, and an ethics of seamless division between humans, animals and gods, sacred and profane, physicality and mysticism. “We have to recognize” she proposes, “how inhuman we are for opposing humans to animals” and asks “Why does a sense of unreality block our attempts to understand our moral relation with other animals?” This is not an animal rights position, she tells us. It has more to do with Hannah Arendt’s questioning of humanism and a language of ‘human rights’ that can lead to denying the enemy the quality of being a human being. She asks, with reference to the presence of UN peace keeping forces, NGO’s and local charities in Haiti “What are the implications of a logic at the heart of an illegality that is moderated, legitimized and reproduced by the humanitarian concern that is analogous to it?”
Under the mantle of civility and reasonableness, the Haitian government, in league with foreign interests, continues its assault on those who are always hit with the kind of violence that controls everyday life, whether in the camps or evicted from the only homes remaining after the earthquake. The abuse of life, as Chauvet knew, is a lethal magic that relies on the claims of culture in order to guarantee its malignancy.
By way of conclusion Dayan recounts the story of a personal encounter with a monster pig “grown out of extinction”, a hybrid of the creole pigs that were almost completely eradicated by USAID and the Haitian government in 1980 to prevent an outbreak of swine fever, and the much larger, greedier and environmentally ill-adapted US pigs brought in to replace them. It is an emblem of Haiti. Like the Gods, the Creole pigs are not gone, they have changed “adapted to a new Haiti that always bears traces of the old”
Dayan concluded with four points:
1. Nothing she can write can capture the horror IDP camps in Haiti.
2. She was there when MINUSTAH arrived in Cite Soleil in 2004 killing young and old alike and leaving their bodies in the street. MINUSTAH are still in Haiti and have not been brought to justice for their crimes. Instead they remain, as was their UN mandate, to ensure stability and security in Haiti, with the added responsibility to ‘speed up the implementation of the government’s resettlement strategy for displaced persons’.
3. Cholera was brought to post earthquake Haiti by Nepalese UN soldiers who dumped their excrement in the Artibonite, Haiti’s main river, causing an epidemic that has killed more than 7,000 people and sickened 5% of the population.
4. There are rumours that US security service companies are planning to build new prisons in the remote rural areas of Haiti where resistance to the neo-liberal business plan is strongest.
Michel Rolph Trouillaut, Dayan tells us, once called Haiti “the earliest testing ground of colonialism” and it’s excesses “have always forced our imaginations high and low, the pearl of the Antilles, or the sewer of the western world”. But now, “pockets of misery are everywhere…in plain sight” and “they signal, as if in a deposit of history, the fruition of all the hate and the prejudice, of both insiders and outsiders, the conversion of years of nasty rhetoric into the facts of death”.
She asks, finally, “Where can one go to find a history that can help correct the present?” We must “hunt out, in the acceptable scripts of civility, what is harrowing, what is spurred on, by unalleviated greed”.
Our task today is to engage our hearts and our minds, through the force of Haiti, the seriousness and depth of discrimination, in its history, its art, and its ever adaptive and resilient ritual practice. Vodou, though threatened and repressed, again now, as numerous places are being trashed, Vodou takes a stance to the world and life that upends our preconception, and most of all its rituals, dredge up the dead and the disregarded, and they prompt the return of everything that had been buried for so long under a tide of good feelings and bad faith.
In the Q&A session that followed Dayan was joined by Alex Farquharson and Leah Gordon, the curators of the exhibition. Leah asked, given the ‘radical materiality’ of Vodou pratice and the centrality of material in Haitian art, what Colin Dayan thought about the future of Haitian art as the squalor starts to overtake the splendour in the current extreme conditions she describes. She responded that in 1987 Vodou was recognized as a religion but under President Martelly the Haitian government is planning to remove that allowance and put back into law what used to be called the “anti-superstition campaign” which was a way to get rid of all practices that were considered heathen. That he would do this while so many missions (usually evangelical Christian) are setting up shop in Haiti is a matter for real concern. Under these circumstances the radical materiality of Vodou, inspired by a sense of the spirit that pervades every day, every hour of your life, is at great risk. Atis Rezistans, she proposes, are the witnesses to, and remarkable transformers of, this word of increased dispossession and terror. Haiti, and Haitians in particular, the majority at least, have always lived under the sign of foreign interests and the presence of their own elite who have made their lives very difficult. Their art has been produced out of the remnants, what remained. The real question has to do with the kind of ‘resistance’, though this is perhaps too easy a word, that Leah captures in her photographs of Kanaval, “a particular encounter with catastrophe on the part of Haitians”.
Leah proposes that perhaps the biggest threat to Haitian creativity is not so much the extreme conditions but neocolonial, multi-national companies like Digicel, the first Haitian companies to treat the Haitian poor as potential consumers, creating them as consumers through advertising. Dayan responds that Macys (who now have a ‘Heart of Haiti’ Fair Trade product range) and Donna Karan (who is currently working with the Clinton Foundation to find “creative business development opportunities in Haiti) have a big effect too, reducing Haitian art to “mere exotica” on a large level.
Leah explains how big companies like Digicel are effecting carnival by encouraging people to wear their t-shirts rather than their traditional costumes, as has happened already in Trinidad where traditional aspects of carnival, like degizmen (disguises), have already been effected. Dayan responds that there is a real “hatred of blackness” in the corporate media’s promotion of a “whitened world” reminiscent of what happened in Jamaica where media representations of the desirable look, permissible skin colour, stance, etc., all of which were coming from the US, were more destructive than anything a government could have done. To be recognized, to have a presence, you were expected to mime and become like the image of beauty. Dayan herself finds it difficult to “live through the onslaught…of US ceremonial celebrity culture”. How much more difficult for people in Haiti.
In places like Haiti, this form of culture comes to “substitute for history”, because once you begin to despise a certain colour, characters like Dessalines, who claimed themselves black and made of that colour something particularly Haitian, saying that to be human is to be black, “that entire reflection upon what it means to be alive is being…destroyed [and] your whole interior life is being controlled”. But this she says, is something we all experience to some extent, certainly in the US.
Alex then asks Dayan about the proximity of the abject and the opulent, which, he claims, is unusual from the perspective of European culture and European mind, and asks if the “political category of the abject” is a term she recognizes as covering words like stench and squalor, because it is very different from the political resources of the civil rights or Black Power struggles, whose emphasis was on ‘power’ and ‘beauty’, while at the same time there is a “wider, international, anti-colonial…anti-discriminatory political abject” common to people like Aimé Césaire or Jean Genet. Does she consider the term abject a culturally and politically militant category that “holds for her thought” about Haiti?
In response Dayan says it is a term she adamantly refuses to use, not for what it holds, but because there is a certain kind of terminology that makes her, as a professor, go wild because you end up in classrooms where a term like the abject “covers over everything and anything discomforting”, like all theoretical terms that have been accepted by the academy. “It becomes an alternative world that suppresses the world that you claim to be speaking for, and it silences those you claim to be speaking for”. In terms of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements the legal tools they could use were very distinct from the kind of remnants, remains and matter that Chauvet reclaims in her fictions, as offering “a possibility for meaningful change”.
Looking back on her work on legal ritual practice, Dayan realizes that when one is thinking and writing about the law, though one might imagine rejecting its worst excesses, “there is something about the frame of mind it allows that makes you colder or less attuned to the facts on the ground”. Is there another means of thinking and writing, she asks, that could include many things seen by our western minds as “not salient or enlightened or central to our concerns”?’ Could we “think through them to get to the histories that are hidden and silenced”? The more she lives with and thinks through Vodou practice, and what she calls its real philosophy of mind, she continues, “the more I recognize that we all have so much to learn from the…ritual approach…to life that you might get if you spend some time with people…who inhabit a space that is informed by the gods”. The conversion of everyday waste into something extraordinary or sacred comes out of an experience of ritual, repetition and faith. She is arguing for a spirituality that comes along with practical change.
Alex asked a second question about the theme of ‘radical animism’, which has recently gained currency in the contemporary art world, in the context of recent attention paid to the Haitian revolution by political philosophy, which see it as a challenge to the revolutions of France and America, and standing for the realization of a truer form of radical humanism. Does the concept of ‘predatory animism’ not contradict this representation of revolutionary Haiti as “radically humanist”?
She responds that she does not intend the term to be applied to those of us outside Haiti, which has been “mediated through its bones with colonial myths and modernity”, that she is writing against the terminology that comes out of Enlightenment humanism. The term “predatory animism” has less to do with the magical eating of animals and more a gesture of “throwing down a gauntlet” to a language of humanitarianism that covers up the true nature of those who use such terms. The term animism certainly captures the non-duality of things we like to keep separate, but the term predatory is the one we really need to think through. She gives the example of Dessalines, who, despite being the founder of Haiti, is rarely written about by western authors, which focus almost exclusively on Louverture and Henri Christoph. What is it about Dessalines, she asks, that offended so many and for so long? “Why is his bloodletting so savage and the bloodletting of others not? In other words, who gets to be cruel?”
Leah points out that in the community of Grand Rue, or Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines, everyone identifies with him. Dayan responds that Papa Dessalines is, or used to be, one of the most potent loa in Haiti. She then asks Leah what she sees of Vodou now. It depends on where you are she says. The flag-makers of Bel Air in Port-au-Prince were all Ogou while those in Grand Rue are Gede, and no doubt see Dessalines as one too. The biggest change has been the fashion of the celebrants who now wear Calvin Klein. In Gonâve, Dayan tells us, they still have a three-day celebration of Dessalines. She quotes Edmund Wilson, American author of Red, Black, Blond and Olive (1956), who once wrote that “Vodou would never… disappear from Haiti unless the Protestants came…because without rum the gods are not going to come”. Now we have an onslaught of Protestant missions in Haiti. One of the reasons MINUSTAH trucks are going through the countryside in Léogâne, rather than for so-called ‘stability’, is to create an atmosphere so fearful for people that they begin to self-censor what they do.
Leah asked Dayan why she thinks Martelly repealed the freedom of religion laws. She responded that writers like Lawrence Harrison (formerly of USAID, now Director of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University and author of The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (2006)) make the argument that true progress can only occur if these “savage practices” are eliminated, that it is a retrograde way of living, in other words, it is claimed, Vodou practices are holding Haiti back from entering the 21st century. Dayan “goes on record” to say that Martelly is an instrument of foreign interests with this agenda. Isobel Whitelegg, one of the co-ordinators of this event asked Dayan if she thought the authorities fear forms of resistance coming from Vodou. She responds that Vodou is not only always resistant but is also part of the land that many people still live on. As Jean Dominique (the agronomist/Radio Haiti journalist assassinated in 2000 and the subject of Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist (2003)) understood, if you want to start agribusiness and ensure that industrialized farming practices take root, you have to destroy belief in the gods and in the land in which they reside. And you have to teach people that thinking about the dead and their ancestors on that land doesn’t matter. “Vodou practice is a daily discipline that links people to their pasts, to what matters most to those who have been dispossessed. It is also another kind of history of resistance that Vodou holds for so long”. The “US Protestant Mission Conquest” is wiping out years of history and the identity that matters to so many.
I asked a question from the floor about the role of the myth of cannibalism in the denigration of Vodou by foreign interests, and its relevance for her concept of ‘predatory animism’. She responded that during the AID’s crisis there was a lot of writing about the campaigns against Haitians because of the role of blood in Vodou. The idea of predatory, no-holds barred consumption on the part of Vodou practitioners is crucial, and, in the current campaign, the issue sacrifice is central. She gives the example of showing footage of sacrifice from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen to students, who turn their heads so as not to see the cruelty. She argues that both animal sacrifice and cannibalism “are taken up by humanist and good, well-meaning liberal folks to be cruelty”. What she is trying to do is go back to what we find most “primitive” and think through what those practices are and how we might speak of them because, once you can describe and label what is primitive, a symbol or metaphor for the dispensable, “you then have the perfect cover for state practices that are far more genocidal, far more far reaching…really pervasive and cruel, and have nothing to do…with a religious belief in something…beyond the self.”. What we are witnessing is “greed made manifest, nothing beyond the self, the self writ large through the destruction of others…that you have demonized”. That’s why it is crucial to think through what it means to sacrifice a particular animal, in a particular context, in this case Vodou, and from this to “re-read the ways in which history has been written in order to silence large groups of people…and to justify the ravages against them”.
She compares with situation in Haiti with Gaza and the incredible destruction visited upon innocent civilians that goes largely unnoticed in the US. This is why one wants to recuperate other ways into discourse so that we are not silenced. Our typical way of thinking is though dichotomies, we’re either for or against something like ‘terror’, whereas Dayan is trying to promote a ‘both/and’ way of thinking, so that one can speak about “the horrors of Gaza” without being accused of being an anti-semite. We should counter the language of dichotomy with one of proliferation, she suggests.
From the floor Milory Polyné, author of From Douglas to Duvalier (2010), asks, given the value and usefulness of human rights discourse for things like the Civil Rights movement, how does Dayan square this in relation to her criticism of humanitarian language. She responds that she is not talking against human rights in this sense, but what happens to them when certain organizations who claim to offer them, use it as a mask to impose conditions of change for the people they help that they didn’t ask for. The offering of charity often gives more to the givers than the receivers and reaffirms hierarchies in ways that are damaging to those in receipt of aid. She quotes from Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, who wrote, thinking of a portrait of a suffering Rwandan infant, and prefiguring Renzo Marten’s Enjoy Poverty III, “it is only by putting the humanitarian into the inhumanitarian context from which it comes, that you understand its true inhumanity”.
Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool, asked a two-part question about the construction of prisons in Haiti, which he proposes may constitute “the insertion of Haiti into a new global order”, and the privatization of infrastructure as a means of undermining Haitian popular sovereignty. She responded that a month after the earthquake a contract for prison construction was given to GEO Group, awarded by the Department for Homeland Security, through the Bureau of Immigration and Enforcement, for “guard services”. Prisons seem to be forerunners of social change within the new global order, and far more is spent on them than on finding homes for the displaced population or on health care and education. It is part of the means by which so much wealth can continue to be put in the hands of so few people while so many others are put out of their lives and homes. In the wake of the war on terror, the penal regime has become part of a permanent state of warfare. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, envisioning the liberation of slaves in the south, the new order must find “receptacles for that race of men”.
A question from the floor asked if the prison contracts mentioned were an explicit response to the growing awareness of Haiti in the rest of the world. Dayan responded by saying how incredible what France, the US and Canada have done against Aristide since he was elected in 1991. His presence not only brought hope to many Haitians but also allowed for a growth of intelligence about the daily practices of injustice there. The US state department was aware of this which is why it limited aid at this time. There was great fear at the time on the part of those who have always feared the majority, a fear that involves a remembrance of Haiti’s possibility for radical change, including the bloodless revolution of 1946. A “fabric of containment” is being planned in precisely those areas where resistance is expected to be strongest.
Isobel asked a final question about the ‘reservoir of resistance’ in Haiti. Dayan responded that the very people who are being most reduced by the current regime are those most feared. It is the “forms of thinking that are feared”. As Gramsci once said, speaking about professors, “we are all experts in legitimation” and in that sense help to preserve the status-quo. But there are counter-methods. ‘Civility’ and ‘reasonable consensus’ are great silencing methods. What happens, she asks finally, if we just erase them and affirm instead ‘conflict’, ‘collision’ and ‘fighting’ rather than polished and polite academic practices?
The next speaker was Nick Nesbitt, author of Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (2008). He was introduced by Charles Forsdick who spoke about the rapid expansion of Haitian historiography in the last decade, with which several of the conference speakers have been associated, that has effectively challenged what Michel Rolph Trouillot famously called “silencing the past” of Haiti. Forsdick suggests that this has been accompanied by parallel achievements in popular culture, similar to that last enjoyed by Haiti in the inter-war period following the Harlem Renaissance and the first US occupation, and exemplified by the works of Madison Smartt Bell, revolution inspired music by Courtney Pine and Wyclef Jean, the planned bio-pic of Toussaint L’Ouverture by Danny Glover and a forthcoming RSC production of Anthony and Cleopatra, set in Haiti on the eve of the Revolution.
There are several difficulties with this claim, not least that non of the artists associated with this new Haitian renaissance, with the exception of Wyclef Jean, are actually Haitian. This is more than just nitpicking. Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been lecturing in contextual studies in UK art schools for the last decade, despite a diverse international and generally culture-wealthy student population, I rarely encounter students with any substantial awareness of either contemporary or historical Haitian culture. Leah Gordon’s Kanival work is an exception, as is her work with Atiz Rezistans and the Ghetto Biennale, or Soul Jazz records’ release of the ‘Rara in Haiti ‘collection. These, I would argue, have done more to bring awareness about contemporary cultural production in Haiti to the UK art world (which I use here to include both educational and gallery contexts), than the artists proposed by Forsdick (again, perhaps with the exception of Wyclef Jean). Most widely known, I would suggest, is Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic’s 2007 sensationalist mockumentary feature film Ghosts of Cité Soleil which is set in the immediate aftermath of the second overthrowing of President Aritside in 2004. Although this is a deeply problematic film on many levels, and, as with previous examples, was neither made nor funded by Haitians or Haitian cultural institutions (despite a cameo appearance from Wyclef Jean), it is a film that exported a rare representation of the complexity and extremity of life for some people in Haiti to popular international audiences.The film-maker Raoul Peck, who was briefly Haitian minister of Culture in 1990, is also known by some students, particularly for his film Moloch Tropical (2009) which transplants Aleksandr Sokurov’s film about Hitler and Eva Braun set in the Bavarian alps, to Citadelle Laferrière sometime in the second half of the 20th century, where a recently elected Haitian president celebrates a short lived victory.
Perspectives, contexts and opinions differ, obviously, and it is notoriously difficult to assess this thing called ‘the popular.’ But given the context of the Kafou exhibition it seems important to be precise about this. The social and political conditions in Haiti since the Duvaliers have not been the kind that foster an optimistic cultural sphere or a parallel academic culture, and there are few of the kinds of cultural institutions we take for granted in the metropoles of North America and Europe. Political turmoil, military coups, occupations, anti-democratic foreign interests, and natural disasters have all contributed to prevent an internationally-orientated culture industry developing in Haiti. Anyone who has visited Lakou Cheri where the Atis Rezistans community live and work will be only to aware of how different from ours their ‘live-work’ conditions are. Given these circumstances it was an incredible achievement for artists from Atis Rezistans to exhibit their work in the first Haiti Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. But let us not forget, as the Ghetto Biennale continues to remind us, the great economic, cultural and infra-structural differences between our world and that of the majority of Haitians, and how this fundamentally effects the kinds of works that can be made, circulated and exhibited, and the kinds of critical-theoretical discourse associated with them. One of the great challenges of any cultural initiative that seeks to collaborate with contemporary Haitian artists today, is how to accommodate, account for and theoretically engage these extreme cultural and economic differences without recourse to the kinds of polite cultural, artworld decorum, like that challenged in academic circles by Dayan, that inadvertently obscures these concrete life conditions and extreme socio-cultural differences.
As Forsdick points out, Haiti is probably most known to the outside world because of the dramatic political and calamitous events that have been broadcast via the international news media. It is a country associated with extremes, as Dayan pointed out, of wealth, poverty, environment, and political violence. Vodou, which I would argue, is Haiti’s most powerful and important cultural export, is woven into these representations, sometimes in nuanced and at others blatantly racist and xenophobic ways. One of the tasks for international artists, academics and curators working for and with Haitian artists, is to think through the importance of Vodou, not only as a ‘reservoir of (creative) resistance’ for Haitian people and their arts, but as a vector for the internationalization of contemporary Haitian identity, art and culture. Shows like The Sacred Arts of Vodou at the Fowler Museum in 1996, the current In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art (also at the Fowler) and the 2008 Le Vodou, Un Art de Vivre exhibition in Geneva, have all made important contributions in this direction.
Forsdick argues that the revolution of 1804 is central to the current interest in Haiti and recounts the story of President Aristide, ousted for the second time in 2004, after touching down on the runway in the Central African Republic, giving a speech in which he claimed that those who had overthrown him had “cut down the tree of peace”. “But it will grow again” he continued “because its roots are Louverturian”. The tree-roots metaphor, often used by Aristide, echoes the words of Louverture in 1802 before returning to France who said: “in overthrowing me you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty, it will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous and deep”. Such are the legacies of the revolution too. Gary asks us to acknowledge, using an intriguing infrastructural metaphor “the various vehicles by which the ideas, the spirit and the meanings of the revolution are freighted”. One such vehicle is the visual arts, like those exhibited in Kafou, where heroes from the revolution figure directly in the works, like Séneque Obin’s equestrian portrait of Touissant Louverture (1950)
or Frantz Zépherin’s painting of The Slave Ship Brooks (2007).
He concludes his introduction with two points: the first concerns the divisive legacy of the revolution in Haiti, particularly between Louverturian and Dessalinian interpretations of history and the ideological positions to which they lead. The second has to to with the revolution as a privileged foundational event within a network of other interconnected events, like the land reforms of 1809, the US Occupation of 1915 to 1934, the Duvalier Regime and the earthquake of 2010. All were seismic events that raise questions about the place of the revolution in the new narratives of Haitian history.
Nick Nesbitt’s talk – ‘Vastey and the paradoxes of Haitian Independence’ – focussed on Pompée Valentin Vastey’s 1814 treatise Le Système Colonial Dévoilé (or ‘The Colonial System Unveiled’) which he proposed was an early example, perhaps the first, of a Caribbean, post-colonial critical theory. Vastey, the ‘public scribe’ of Haiti’s first president Henri Christof, attempted to justify his patron’s legitimate right to rule during the Thermidorian Reaction in France (the name given to the conservative response to the excesses of the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror) which led to the fall of the Jacobins and the subsequent repeal of their universal abolition of slavery. As a consequence, in 1802, the French Consulate under Napoleon, re-introduced slavery to France and its colonies.