June 26, 2014

“REacting shows a lack of control, an inability to stay cool/clearheaded under pressure. Pwen songs push the point in a way that circumvents the need for reaction.” – Houngan Matt

A recent twitter spat between Robin Mackay (Urbanomic) and Nick Land over at Outside/In has prompted me to write a second ‘In the Blood’ post.

On the surface the exchange is about whether there might be genetic factors determining the quality of electronic music created by certain races. It began with Nick’s suggestion that contemporary accelerationism would benefit from a ‘new pulse of darkside electronic music’ that, in his ‘hardcore racist’ opinion, would most likely come from the Black Atlantic. Robin’s surprised reaction to Nick’s claim that no such thing could come out of China prompted Nick to ask if this was because ‘the notion of overwhelming racial patterns in compulsive rhythmo-memetics is so obviously implausible?’ To Robin’s response ‘“Natural Rhythm” Omg, Omg, Omg’, Nick’s ‘Less-Evil’ twin shaded “Is “omg omg omg” supposed to be some kind of exhibition of natural rhythm?” After Robin’s fruitless search for any darkside, cyber-apocalyptic electronic music coming out of China, Nick duly noted that he’d perhaps been “Pwned by DNA”.

Now in Haitian folklore the word pwen has multiple cultural meanings and inflections. Derived from the Kreyol for “point”, it is specifically associated with the communication of meaning and the special “charge” of the mystères in Vodou song and ceremony. To be “pwened’ then, is to have pointed contact with energies of the loa (Vodou spirits). A pwen is a first brush with the loa that precedes full possession. It also means, in popular parlance, to be hexed, and, appropriately, given the conversation above, to be insulted (as in the contemporary ‘pwn’, on-line, gamer “elite-speak” for being defeated in a computer game, or “owned”).

Which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to the recent ‘Communities in Conversation’ event hosted by the Konsthalle C in Hökaränge suburb of Stockholm. The event included presentations from various people who had been involved in the Ghetto Biennale, including Leah Gordon, Roberto N. Peyre, André Eugène and Jean Claude Saintilus (both from Atis Rezistans). I presented, in diagram form, the basic schema for the current chapter of Undead Uprising, based loosely upon Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which attempts to describe and account for the bifurcation of the zombie complex around 1968, mentioned in this previous post. I had hoped that a public presentation might help me break the conceptual bottleneck I seemed to be stuck in. This post is a second shot at that.

Earlier in the day the Brooklyn-based “sound chemist” Val Jeanty gave a workshop demonstrating her ‘electronic’ Vodou drumming techniques. In the conversation that followed she suggested that the tradition of Haitian drumming she had known since a child “tuned her into frequencies” that were “in her DNA”. When I asked what particular strains of DNA she was referring too, she clarified that these frequencies were “in all our blood”, not just Haitians or those of African ancestry.

Ordinarily I might not have asked, but certain developments in the mapping of the zombie complex have led me to think more about questions of race, rhythm, and the culture-specific, trance-inducing rhythm patterns of Vodou drumming (which have something to do with Nick’s racial theories of  ‘compulsive rhythmo-memetics’). One of the issues I’m trying to untangle is the extent to which the behavioral characteristics of drumming-induced trance-possession within Vodou ritual are a consequence of specifically African genetics, a claim, as we shall see, that has been made repeatedly by commentators on Haitian society and culture.

Let me state in advance that this seems unlikely to me. Unlikely, but not beyond the realms of possibility. Accounts of the experience of possession-trance by people like Maya Deren (recounted in The Divine Horsemen), as well as the diverse cultures in which possession-trance occurs, suggest that the phenomena is universal rather than race-specific. Accounts of spirit possession occur in all cultures, regardless of where the people who practice it sit on the epidermal spectrum. What is special about Vodou possession trance is the central role of complex polyrhythmic drumming patterns that announce and respond to the perceived presence of the gods during the ritual; the highly formalized dancing that prepares the initiate for possession (dances which combine formal European and African elements); and the specific rhythmic signatures of the different nanchons (Nations) and their loa.

Here’s a clip from The Divine Horsemen shot by Deren in 1950 of a Congo ceremony in which the combination of European and African elements is evident:

Erika Bourguignon, who spent time in Haiti in the 1940’s researching the phenomena of possession-trance, found that it was more “class” than “race” related. The distinctly stratified, racial and gendered order of the country was however “built into” the Vodou universe in ritual and ceremonial ways (see Bourguignon ‘Spirit Possession and Altered States of Consciousness’, in The Making of Psychological Anthropology). Vodou has mainly been practiced by peasants and the urban poor who, as a consequence of the legacy of colonial slavery, are generally blacker than the wealthier mulatto classes, who speak French rather than Kreyol and tend to prefer the European rather than African influences on Haitian culture. In the words of a famous Haitian proverb:  Milat pov se neg, Neg rich se milat (A poor Mulatto is Black, a wealthy Black is Mulatto). I am reminded here of George Bataille’s suggestion, following Michelet, that witchcraft is generally the religion of an oppressed people.

Vodou, a term which was first historically used by Europeans to identify a particular ritual dance – the Vaudoux – performed by slaves in the pre-revolutionary era, seems to have been determined far more materially by the social structures of New World slavery, the plantation system and the cultural patterns they generated than any biologically determined “somatic metaphysics” (René Depestre). As Martin Munro has argued in Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas, the rhythm patterns of Haitian music and dance, though clearly informed by traditional African patterns, were determined most emphatically by the temporal disciplining of plantation life in which opportunities for “free expression” were strictly limited to Catholic feast days and Saturday night dances. Rather than an escape from the rigid rhythms of plantation life Munro reads Vodou music and dance as cultural re-configurations of those very rhythms: ‘the pain of which is in part purged through the rhythmic intensity of the dance and the drum’. In support of this he quotes Maya Deren who in 1950 observed Petro ceremonies dominated by the constant sound of a slave-whip being cracked, a ‘never-to-be-forgotten ghost’ of the disciplinary plantation regime. The sound of a slave whip is, incidentally, a very literal example of a pwen.

Although I don’t entirely reject the possibility of ancestral rhythmo-memetic gene expressions playing in a role in widely distributed cultural patterns across time (or even that a person’s propensity for possession-trance might, like other psychological propensities, be the consequence of an inherited genetic predisposition) biologically-deterministic and race-theoretical claims have tended to be used historically to support xenophobic and stereotypical formulations of “authentic Blackness” that have had a largely negative impact on people identified according  to such rubrics. Which is not to suggest that people thus identified have necessarily rejected the claims, as the case of Duvalierism in Haiti makes explicit.

For reasons which will hopefully become clear I subtitled my talk at Konsthalle C ‘Revolt of the Black Slave Fetish Machines’, a somewhat indirect zombic reference to the much discussed image of Darya “Dasha” Zhukova, the Russian philanthropist, businesswoman, fashion designer, magazine editor and art promoter, who was recently depicted sitting on an artwork (presumably one she owns) by the self-styled enfant terrible of the international art scene Norwegian artist, Bjarne Melgaard: a ‘Black’ version of Allen Jones 1969 ‘Chair.

To situate this image in the broader context of Zombi Diaspora and my own interests I need to flag-up a certain revival of interest in animism, fetishism and object-hood within the fields of contemporary art, curating and post critical theory, that has occurred over the last few years, one closely associated with the “speculative turn” in contemporary thought. For me the so-called “racist chair” episode has something to say about this general trend, the paradoxes of “new objecthood” in contemporary art and what I have been calling the Zombie Complex in contemporary popular culture. Three interwoven theoretical threads come together here.

The first is a particular history of fetishism which locates the emergence of its modern sense in trading relations between Africans and Europeans between the 16th and 18th centuries (William Pietz). During this time the word’s meaning shifted from one used to identify European witchcraft artifacts (and objects of “false-faith”) to one describing material goods and artifacts that were subject to “irrational” (loosely “non-utilitarian” or “uneconomic”) criteria and ritualistic processes of evaluation by Africans. It was on the basis of early accounts of African culture written by those involved in such trade that Charles De Brosses developed a general theory of fetishism to describe an ethnological category of magical beliefs shared by West Africans and Egyptians. This was the beginning of a universal theory of fetishism identifying it as developmental phase in the evolution of human civilization and thought. Eighty years later Karl Marx would use De Brosses formulation to theorize the fetish character of commodities and, later, the notion of capital-fetish, as survivals of this archaic and erroneous mode of thinking. Without labouring the point here, the exchange value of blue-chip contemporary artworks, like Melgaard’s chair, have notoriously obscure, secretive and mystical mechanisms that are particular to the societies and cultures in which they function.

The second theme is the development of the anthropological category of animism, associated primarily with E.B. Tylor, whose book Primitive Culture introduced the idea to modern anthropology in 1870. Like fetishism – which thirty years earlier Auguste Comte had proposed was the most “primitive” form of universal, epistemological development in human societies – animism was used to characterize the cosmological belief structures of people assumed to be at an earlier stage of psychological and social evolution. Such people, it was proposed, erroneously believed that natural and man-made objects were the repositories of deities or spirits which could have a direct and determining effect on their lives and destinies (much as Marx had proposed about the fetish-form of the commodity in capitalist societies, for which exchange value and market operations were mistakenly taken to be inherent properties of the objects themselves).  As with fetishism, this mode of thinking was seen to be pre-scientific, erroneous and characteristic of peoples (races, tribes, nations, classes, genders, age-groups) at a more primitive stage of psychological and philosophical development. It is, obviously, a belief that is still alive and kicking within the contemporary art sphere.

Finally, as Palmié and others have argued – (see for example Nick Nesbitt, ‘Pénser la Revolution Haïtienne’ in Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment) – there is an identifiable line of reasoning in European Enlightenment thought within which the nascent theories of fetishism and animism were directly implicated. This line of reasoning attempted to justify the continuation of the transatlantic slave trade on the basis of an assumed mental and cultural inferiority of Africans, only retrospectively associated with skin colour. Animism, fetishism and, later, the notion of a mentalité primitive (Lévy-Bruhl), were subsequently used to construct the racial category of the Negro as a being mired in sensuality and lacking the mental capacity for higher thinking. The roots of the natural rhythm myth of Black Africans emerges in the context of 19th century race theories that identify the Negro as having a natural aptitude for dance in proportion to its absence of intellectual faculties (Gobineau). This line of reasoning tends, in the hands of some European philosophers, to arrive at what might be called the Slaves by Blood hypothesis, intimated at by Hegel who, in his Philosophy of History, proposed that the middle passage effected the liberation of African slaves from the ‘indifference’ of African slavery, in which anyone could be a master or slave, to one in which there was a natural, evolutionary law determining who was naturally a slave and who rightfully a master. As such it was the Negro’s first step towards a “consciousness of  freedom” (Munro).

I won’t to spend any more time with these arguments here. Suffice to say my thoughts generally echo those of Palmié who argued in Wizards and Scientists that the emergence of the categories of fetishism, commodity-fetishism, reification and animism in European philosophical and economic thought during the 18th and 19th centuries cannot be extricated from the context of transatlantic slavery from which they emerged, and that the notion of a human-thing without rights, reason or the capacity for enlightenment, mired in irrational superstition, good only for labour and the extraction of surplus value, is an ontological correlate for the slave, the zombi and the ‘possessed dancer’ within the Black Atlantic system. All are figures that historically haunt the epistemological foundations of contemporary sociological, philosophical and scientific discourse as well as the ideals of the Enlightenment and the contemporary discourses of Liberalism, Democracy and Universal Human Rights. The slave-seat art-work on which the white Russian art promoter sits refers explicitly (if unintentionally or unconsciously) to this history of the reduction of black bodies to the level of objects, tools and beasts of burden within the Atlantic slave-economy. The seeming absence of irony in such a gesture indicates either a lack of political-historical awareness about these issues, an indifference towards them or a simple, organizational faux pas on the part of the sitter, stylist, photographer and editor of the fashion website on which it was first published…on Martin Luther King Day. As for accusations that the artist himself might be racist, these are clearly false because he used to have a black boyfriend.

Phew! So, where were we?

Oh, yes, the schema.

Bifurcation Diagram (trimmed)

What comes into existence around 1968 is the emergence of a distinctly ‘bi-polar’ myth of the zombie. The left branch indicates the continuum of the Romero sequence (Night, Dawn, Day, Land and Diary of the Dead) which arrives at the contemporary apocalyptic, flesh-eating (cannibal?) figure we all know and love. The right branch represents the continuity of the Haitian Folkloric zombi as it was represented and re-purposed as an image of Life-under-Black-Despotism during the Duvalier dictatorship.

Two claims need to be telegraphed here. The first is that the creation of the ACZ Romero effectively de-racinated and de-cultured the figure. Notwithstanding the implicit racial meanings encoded in Romero’s films from Night onwards – many commentators have noted the central role of Ben, a black actor who doesn’t ‘play black’, the explicit references at the end of the film to the suppression of civil rights protests earlier in the decade and the central role of black characters throughout the sequence – ACZs generally represent a kind of sub-human or zero-degree race-figure, and the zombie apocalypse is, to all intents and purposes, a total and final species war. But the zombie apocalypse heralded by Romero also needs to be situated historically, as many commentators have done, in terms of the horrors of the Vietnam war that were being broadcast into the living rooms of U.S. homes at the time. The cultural context in which Night flourished was primed much more by a general sense of globalized, cold war catastrophe than a generalized consciousness of new world racism or the colonial history of the Caribbean. In the new zombie films there are no more tom-toms, wanga charms or African sorcerers, no more sinister Mesmerists or evil media corporations controlling the zombies from a distance, and no particular demographic, racial or otherwise, is more or less prone to the terminal cannibalistic affliction. In this sense the de-racinated ACZ represents the complete, fantastical sublimation of human difference and identity into a total, insurrectionary and unreasoning modality of species-being.

Meanwhile the ZN branch continues to be informed by classical myths of the zombie as either a person risen from the dead by sorcery or a person subject to the hypnotic and will-depleting effects of some external power. In short it represents the continuity of a traditional zombie lineage of maximum passivity and compliance, starkly contrasting with the irrepressible new zombies of insurrectionary apocalypse.

The second related claim is that despite the general de-racination of the AC branch certain residual racial associations manage to escape into it, most significantly the motifs of possession, savage insurrectionary violence and cannibalism, the latter long associated with the most damning colonial stereotypes of African-Haitian atavism. 

The Black Power movement sits right on the cusp of this bifurcation for reasons I will try to explain. The politics of Black Power in 1960’s America were significantly informed by the example of the Haitian Revolution which had been largely disavowed (Sybille Fischer) and silenced (Rolph-Trouillot) by historians of modernity. There is a clear line of intellectual continuity running from the re-evaluation of Haitian history and politics in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Occupation; the development of a pan-African and nascent Black Power movement between the 30’s and 50’s in the form of Haitian Indigenism and the négritude movement; and the essentialist Black nationalism of Duvalier, back to the first successful over-throw of a colonial slave colony in the modern era (indicated by the dotted line connecting Zombie Nation to its African Ancestry). Moreover as Eldridge Cleaver noted in Soul on Ice  – written while Night was in production and itself containing several zombic references – the revolutionary confluence of Black Power, anti-war, anti-imperialist, free-speech and civil rights movements at the end of the 60’s suggested to many people in the U.S that, following the words of Norman Mailer, “There was a shit storm coming”. So although the apocalyptic branch de-racinates the zombie figure it does so at the expense of a black revolutionary politics that had been nascent in the figure up until that point.

Although Romero himself was at a loss to understand the decision, the connection between the two branches is clearly expressed by the choice of movie it was put on a double-bill with by cinema promoters in 1969: Slaves, a largely forgotten film about inter-racial sex and violence in the Antebellum South, directed by the black-listed Jewish director, communist activist and screenwriter Herbert Biberman.

Slaves:Night of the Living Dead

So while on the left-hand branch the zombie is ostensibly de-racinated, on the right it continues to have an explicitly racial meaning. This is not simply because of its roots in the historical reality of a racially rationalized, plantation slavery system or the explicit association between Vodou sorcery and zombiedom in the popular imagination of the Anglo-American world, but because the political ideology of Duvaliarism was overtly racist in orientation, explicitly affirming a hereditary and biologically deterministic ideology of Haitian identity as essentially African.

Noirisme, the name given by David Nicholls to this racist and nationalist tendency within Haitian politics, was an ideological movement built upon the idealization of an hereditary Haitian-African bed-rock that should form the basis for any form of government there. For the noiristes (who styled themselves as Les Griots, after the tradition of African story tellers and poets), the history of Haiti was one of revolutionary struggle between the mulatto (more European) elites and the black (more African) masses, and Vodou was the authentic religious and psychological expression of mass Haitian/African genes. The Griots had taken as their bible the writings of Jean Price-Mars, the key figure in modern Haitian ethnography, who, along with earlier writers like J.C.Dorsainvil, had argued for the defining influence of African cultural and hereditary traits on Haitian society, expressed most emphatically in the culture of Vodou. But unlike other Africanist intellectuals in Haiti during the 1930’s and 40’s, whose political orientations were more Marxist and Internationalist in orientation, the noiristes were generally anti-liberal, arguing that things like Roman Catholicism, Republicanism, ideals of a free press and public sphere, personal freedoms, constitutional opposition and democracy were ideological weapons used by the mulatto elite to deceive and suppress the black masses (Nicholls). These white, European political forms had no place in an ostensibly African nation and should be replaced by a system of dictatorship based on discipline and respect for black authority. And Vodou was the natural, national and popular religion of the black Haitian masses.

Significantly in 1944 Duvalier and his Griot colleague Lorimer Denis, then director of the Bureau of Ethnology (which had been set up by the founder of the Haitian communist party Jacques Roumain to counter the anti-superstition campaigns being waged by the Catholic church against Vodou at the time), co-authored The Gradual Evolution of Vodou: On the Popular Culture and Ethnic Origins of the Haitian People. In it they argued that Vodou was ‘the transcendental expression of racial consciousness before the enigmas of the world’ and the ‘crystalisation of the origins and the psychology of the Haitian people, which perpetuates the African past.’ Vodou, they proposed was the supreme factor in Haitian unity and the inspiration for Haitian independence. Black leaders of the past were portrayed as the heroic defenders of the Haitian masses and as the true guardians of national independence, while mulatto leaders like Pétion and Boyer had betrayed the people and turned the national interest into their own. From this perspective Jean-Jacques Dessalines became the iconic hero figure of noiriste mythology of Haitian independence and Vodou the driving force of the black, revolutionary independence movement (this despite the fact that both Toussaint Louverture and Dessalines openly opposed and suppressed Vodou practices in the new republic for much the same reasons it was suppressed by the French: i.e. it was African, anti-Christian, historically regressive and undermined the discipline of labour so necessary for the maintenance of the colony’s wealth). It was in the context of post-occupation political debates about the future of Haiti that the story of the Bwa Kayman ceremony was foregrounded as the central mythical event at the inception of the Haitian revolution, a myth that introduced the previously obscured role of Vodou, a religion of African origin, into the heroic story of Haitian national independence.

The internal race politics of Haiti from the U.S. occupation to Duvalierism are too complex to elaborate here (for thorough accounts see Nicholl’s From Dessalines to Duvalier and Matthew Smith’s The Red and the Black in Haiti). To oversimplify grossly, it can be read in terms of an internal debate between a revolutionary internationalism of a broadly communist kind, and a noiriste nationalism tending towards racial despotism. The more internationalist, social democratic and progressive thinkers at the time – people like Jacques Roumain and René Depestre – took as their inspiration the writing of the Haitian anthropologist and politician Auguste Anténor Firmin whose On the Equality of the Races was a direct response to Arthur de Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of Human Races of 1855. Gobineau, one of the founding fathers of 19th century European race theory, promoted the myth of an Ayran master race that was further along the evolutionary continuum of civilization than either the yellow or black races. Duvalier and the Griots, on the other hand, held an explicitly biological and race-specific vision of revolutionary Haitian politics influenced directly by the writings of Gobineau. Duvalierism therefore represented a form of racist Black nationalism that mobilized myths of an essential despotic and sensualist character within the African mentality to create a state of permanent exception in Haiti between 1957 and his death in 1986. One of the consequences of Duvalier’s open and sincere dislike of communism was that, despite widespread international recognition of systematic human rights violations, and the summary execution and imprisonment of potential  political opposition, Duvalier’s Haiti (as depicted famously in Graham Greene’s The Comedians) was largely ignored by the U.S. government because the dictatorship represented a powerful bulwark against communism in the Caribbean.

In very broad brush-strokes then, the ethnographic theories of Price-Mars, Herskovits, Roumain and others who identified with an international, pan-African and generally socialist politics of négritude were intimately interwoven with those of the Griots, their differences hinging on the extent to which the cultural traits of the blacker Haitian masses was a primarily biological or cultural inheritance. There is much to be said about this relationship and it’s too much to get into here. A great summary of the differences in relation to Haitian literature and politics, and in terms of the development of the zombie-myth of life under Duvalier, is the Haitian novelist and poet René Depestre’s 1984 essay ‘Bonjour et adieu à la négritude’ (Hello and Goodbye to Negritude) which can be found here

Perhaps the most important point to be made following Depestre is that négritude was an explicit attempt on the part of American, French and African intellectuals and artists to found an international Black politics in direct opposition to the White racism of international Eurocolonialism: ‘a form of revolt of the spirit against the historic vilification and denaturalization of a group of human beings, who, during the colonization process, were baptized generically and pejoratively as “Negroes”’ (Depestre). A concept initially invented to awaken and encourage self-esteem and confidence in the strength of the social groups that slavery had reduced to the status of beasts of burden, negritude now made them ‘evaporate into a somatic metaphysics’ (Depestre). As such it dissolves negroes and African negroes into an essentialism that is ‘perfectly inoffensive to a system that strips men and women of their identity’ (i.e. Capitalism). Ironically, it was the anthropology of Melville Herskovits – the Jewish-American father of African Studies and author of The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) – that Depestre identified as the principle source of the ‘epidermal metaphysics’ politically instituted by Duvalier.

As several commentators have noted, including Alan Whicker in this clip  from his 1969 documentary Papa Doc: The Black Sheep, François Duvalier, in his assumed role as Baron Samedi/Guede, legendary Master of the Cemetery, purportedly zombified the entire nation through his use of political terror under-pinned by Vodou mythology and an alleged use of necromantic sorcery. An important section of this branch occurs between 1985 and 1988 which saw the fall of Duvalier dictatorship facilitated significantly by the Ti Legliz movement and its Une Goute Sel literacy campaign (Salt is the universal cure for zombiedom in Haitian folkore). The 80‘s is also the decade when HIV/AIDS became strongly associated with Haiti, one of the four H’s first used to identify its “source”: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin-users and Haitians. Arthur Fournier, a Miami doctor who first encountered the disease in Haitian boat people attempting to flee the horrors of Duvalierism in 1979, spent twenty five years investigating the AIDS epidemic and called his account of the period The Zombie Curse (2006), a somewhat unfortunate, if understandable title that re-connected the folkloric Haitian zombie to its spectacular apocalyptic cannibal relative through the thematic vector of a mysterious, incurable “blood” disease of “African origins”. 1988 marks the cinematic return of the Haitian zombi in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, set in the “Voodoo Nation” of the Duvaliers. It also marks the date of the St Bosco Massacre in Haiti, when as many as fifty churchgoers were killed by masked men at the church where the Catholic priest, liberation theologist and future president of Haiti Jean-Bertrand Aristide gave regular services.

Returning to the ‘PWND by DNA’ thread, debates about the hereditary racial basis for the propensity for possession trance in Vodou have been made intermittently since Moreau de Saint-Méry’s famously thorough account of the country before the revolution of 1791, in which he not only gave some of the first accounts of Vaudoux dance and religious ceremonies (arguing for their suppression on the grounds of the threat such gatherings posed for colonial stability) but also first proposed that the cultural forms of Vodou ritual and dance were based on African hereditary traits. The discussion continued throughout the 19th century with most Haitian leaders openly suppressing Vodou gatherings while secretly practicing its rites (Munro). One of the most significant and influential modern accounts seems to be J.C. Dorsainvil Vodou et Névrose from 1913 (re-published in 1931), which looked to Vodou as a way of investigating Haitian mentality. It is generally considered the founding text of modern Haitian ethnology. Dorsainvil, like Price-Mars, hedged his bets on the degree to which the psychology of Vodou, and the Haitian people as a whole, were racially determined, the latter, he argued, being a Creole branch of the African race (Nicholls). Despite this affirmation of the genetic African inheritance of the Haitian people, and the consequent inappropriateness of European models of culture, politics and education there, Dorsainvil felt that the African strain was generally bad for Haitian politics because it drove Haitian peasants to seek ritualistic and magical solutions (sacrificial and ritual) to real social problems (Nicholls). It was from these ideas that Duvalier and the Griots developed a racist theory of black nationalism that took Gobineau’s theories of essential, black, African subjectivism, sensuality and rhythm, inverted his assumptions about the cultural inferiority of the black race and argued for a new, essentially African revolution of cultural values that would be bio-politically appropriate for the Haitian nation.

Since Dorsainvil several authors have attempted to account for the psychology of possession-trance in terms of specifically racial genetic traits, universal psychological propensities or a combination of both. Erika Bourguignon, who has probably investigated the phenomena more widely than others, convincingly demonstrates that possession-trance is a universal human potential with culturally relative forms of manifestation, sometimes involving music and drumming, and sometimes not. In Haiti those forms contain embedded histories of the nation – its heroes, battles, the African ancestors, tribal deities, etc. – in coded patterns of performed custom and ritual. That these customs and rituals have historically been performed by the blacker populations is a consequence of a cultural and racial hierarchy that has been present since the colonial era. In other words, the history of slavery, its revolutionary overcoming and the explicitly epidermal distributions of violence that characterized it, are ‘built-in’ at the level of culture, but there is no necessary reason to assume a specific race-determined gene-expression in these particular patterns.

Interestingly possession-trance, despite the ostensible de-racination of the figure mentioend earlier, is one of the residual traces of the Haitian folkloric zombi and Voodoo lore that has leaked into representations of the ACZ.

Compare Reginald Crosley’s description of the onset of a “crises de possession” from The Vodou Quantum Leap:

‘The possessed appears to have lost control of their nervous system, particularly the motor aspect. They are shaken by spasmodic fits or convulsive seizures. Then they stand up and jerk forward as if propelled by a spring, make a sharp about-face, then freeze for a moment with the trunk bent forward, stagger, totter, regain their equilibrium, then stagger again…The ill-prepared individual or bossal (like a wild horse) fights the invasion tooth and nail. The gesticulations are an attempt to get rid of that encircling magnetic force that is trying to subjugate him…the invasion of the loa is perceived by some as a blow to the back of the neck…or a grabbing cramp in the same area that is felt like a bite.’

with this sequence from World War Z

Talk about being pwned!

[Addendum to ‘In the Blood I’: I noted recently that Napoleon Chagnon, anthropologist and author of Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1968), the book which put forward the controversial claim, in some circles at least, that Yanomamö males had a genetic propensity towards homocidal behaviour driven by reproductive competition, himself participated in the shamanic ceremonies of the tribe. After snorting some ebene  (sometimes called yopo) a psychedelic snuff containing DMT, Changon was possessed by a hekura, the glowing jungle demons of the Yanomamö cosmos, going by the name of Rahakanariwä, an entity with marked propensity towards violence. (Changon quoted in Goodman How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World]


3 Responses to “IN THE BLOOD II (PWND BY DNA)”

  1. nydwracu Says:

    What strikes me about that first video there is: “it is the drumming that fuses together the fifty or more individuals into a single body…” — by means of dance.

    R.L. Dabney did not like dancing, and that’s a common thread within at least certain parts of Protestantism. Insofar as atomization (which can’t be understood merely as loss of ‘social capital’, but is more of an individualizing/de-thedening process, breaking down and preventing the fusion of many individuals into a single body) is a relevant force in history / the economy… well, I wonder if that’s relevant to the Protestant work ethic, as well as the Protestant/Germanic ‘super-outbred’ type that Land might have mentioned before.

    It’s a lot easier to speculate about biological reasons for this absence of dance than it is about specific forms of dance or the music that drives it: that’s the ‘super-outbred’ thesis. Universalism to clannishness = outbred to inbred, and the Anglo-Scandinavian sea-empire cluster in culturespace is as far out to the left side of that as anyone.

    But it’s still totally possible for the reverse of that sort of atomization to happen — I’ve seen it happen. (A useful tool for establishing brand-loyalty to summer camps.) So the model here wouldn’t be straight [genetics -> culture], but [genetics cultural patterns -> cultural forms], and then the debate is over whether there’s also [genetics -> cultural forms]… and in terms of practical action, I’m not sure how much it matters.

    I wonder how common it is for thedish/de-atomizing movements/states to promote dance or similar (marching seems to have a similar effect) as a tool toward increased thedishness/de-atomization…?

  2. John Cussans Says:

    Yes, I was struck by that quote too, particularly because it strikes a chord about how it feels to be part of a collective body of people dancing to the same music. I have probably had more experience of this than is reasonably healthy for a person of my age. It is an experience I share with Roberto. What is interesting about that experience, especially in terms of the Northern Soul subculture we have both been part of, is the feeling one gets when a relatively individual experience becomes part of a larger crowd, all moving singularly but in some kind of unison with the track. Hand claps and collective singing are the shared “pwen” of that mass unity. It’s difficult to find documentation of northern soul dance crowds at their ecstatic, collective best, but this material from 1984 is quite representative [].

    Like Dabney the Saint-Domingo and Haitian authorities didn’t like dancing much either. Or rather, they didn’t like the slaves and free slaves dancing after sundown. Kate Ramsey has written an excellent account of the legislation against “Le Vaudoux”, a term used in late 18th and 19th centuries to refer to a specific dance style as much as acts of sorcery (‘The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti’). Writing about fears of post-revolutionary “parallel powers” there, Ramsey quotes legislation enacted in 1814 by then President Alexander Pétion that prohibited all dance groups or associations that fostered an “esprit de corps” and “a hierarchy of position in their denomination”. In the imaginations of the post-colonial authorities “dances” and “secret societies” went together. (Ramsey notes that contemporary recent ethnographies of Chanpwèl secret societies, which reputedly date back to the revolutionary period, confirm fears of a “shadow government”, such groups being made up of kings and queens, various administrators, army officers and soldiers).

    My current perspective on these histories and general cultural patterns is that collective music and dancing may be more “progressive” in a broadly social sense (i.e. creating alliances, affiliations and connections between sub-altern races, tribes, families and individuals) than occult insurrectionary conspiracies favored by those of a black, pan-African nationalist persuasion in Haiti. This clearly has something to do with a certain bottom-up, inter-cultural idealism on my part, no doubt nurtured by my experiences living in very particular parts of London for the last twenty years or so, but I haven’t got round to unpacking that yet. I am conscious however, the more I read around NRx, how romantically anarcho-socialist my own political leanings have been.

    I don’t know much about Dabney, but I know something about Protestantism. The north of England, where the Northern Soul subculture emerged, is a broadly protestant region, Anglicanism, Methodism and Roman Catholicism being the main branches of Christianity there. Methodism [] was strongly associated with working class communities in the region’s mining and weaving towns, the co-operative and labour movements growing up in close relation to it. (I note in the Wikipedia entry on Methodism that the African American church in the U.S., which was set up by freed slaves, also shared Methodist teachings, which may explain certain under-currents between the Northern Soul and the Black Power movements that I’ll be exploring in later posts). I’ve always sensed a strong religiosity in the Northern Soul subculture. It’s catchphrase is ‘Keep the Faith’. I associate this religiosity partly with the discipline of factory labour and a certain pride therein, the ‘integrity’ of regional, working class culture, the singing of hymns in the local Christian churches and the black gospel roots of the scene’s music of choice (i.e “Black Soul” music).

    There is also a residual protestantism in the highly “methodical”, “atomized” and somewhat “sexless” nature of the dancing. Unusually for what may seem to be a relatively generic ‘dance’ culture, dancing with a partner is seriously frowned upon on the scene. A tradition of dance competitions [] has added to the sense of individuals trying to out-dance each other. But at the same time most people who have been immersed in the culture for any length of time speak about a certain “oceanic” feeling of unity when one is part of a crowded dance floor: the high rite of the Northern Soul church as it were. Being a traditionally working-class subculture it is characterized by a strong (parental) work ethic, but one channeled into all-night and weekend dancing. The first and probably the best documentary [] about the scene captures this well.

    Rather than being de-thedenic however, the Northern Soul subculture is extremely tribal and membership and status complexly policed within the scene. In the 70’s it was even more secretive and exclusive than it is today. One of the few sociologists to study it (Andrew Wilson, an ex-”Soulie” himself) has written about an inner-circle of “the sect” who were involved with drug-taking and distribution, a significant part of the scene still. But the scene was willfully exclusive in less obvious ways too, frowning upon anyone who tried to make the music popular or widely known. (I was once at an event where the DJ turned off the record mid track and asked people who were not dancing properly to leave the floor). Because records were valued for their rarity to hear them one had to travel to wherever the DJ who owned them was playing. Because of this cult of the DJ the early, major venues were seen as sites of pilgrimage. Suffice to say, despite our love of the Northern Soul scene, we do not see it as a shining example of multi-cultural pluralism and expressive openness.

    What, if anything, this has to do with Land’s ‘super-outbred’ type I’m not sure. I’ll need to read more about HBD first I think. Thanks for the precis though.

    The link you make between marching and dancing is interesting too, drumming being an obvious connection between these two forms of rhythmo-memetic collectivity. The Northern Soul arm spins referenced in the recent art work Roberto and I made are very similar in form to a drum roll. Samba bands are great example of this link between the military disciplining of the collective body and dance cultures. Interestingly a stick-fighting dance called the Calenda [] was the object of significant concern for the colonial authorities in Haiti for obvious reasons. The tradition survives in stick-fighting carnival dances [] in Haiti and in traditions like Capoeira.

    It seems obvious that dancing, drumming and marching are generally more likely to consolidate tribal or “corporate” identity than to “open it up to difference”. But there is something distinct and probably quite exceptional in broader cultural terms, that happens at important moments in raves, carnivals, night-clubs, music festivals and street parties etc. when dancers and drummers (in the broad sense) come together and play together. And the longer it goes on, and the more ecstatic the revelers, the more porous the thedes seem to become.

  3. […] of Haitian intellectuals to the U.S. occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934 touched upon in this earlier post. It was then that the first serious ethnographic and speculative historical accounts […]

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