Category: Philip, M. NourbeSe

written on water

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from the encyclopedia britannica:

Atrocities and sexual abuse of the enslaved captives were widespread, although their monetary value as slaves perhaps mitigated such treatment. In an infamous incident of the slave ship Zong in 1781, when both Africans and crew members were dying of an infectious disease, Capt. Luke Collingwood, hoping to stop the disease, ordered that more than 130 Africans be thrown overboard. He then filed an insurance claim on the value of the murdered slaves.

something to note about Zong is that it’s a nonsense word. the name of the boat on which this senseless atrocity occurred was meant to be Zorg, meaning care, but somehow became a senseless syllable. but poet Philip points out in her essay at the end of the book, it also sounds like Song. these more ellusive relationships between words give a sense of what she’s up to in ZONG! which has to be one of the most galvanizing works of experimental literature produced on this continent in this century.

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this is page 101. see what i mean by written on water? it’s like the signs are drifting away on a liquid surface. it’s a fascinating struggle to read, which you can, left to right and top to bottom and “reading” the white space, like free music.

the source is a short legal document included in the book, the decision of that insurance claim, which is Philip’s only concrete piece of evidence for this event. like all modern history, we’re in a suffocating hermeneutics, trying to reach past the surface into the depths, which here is also the final resting place of all those people tossed overboard like the cargo which the trans-Atlantic slave trade made them to be.

ZONG! is organized into six books titled with a latin words for bones, salt, skin, ratio (the legal term “reason” as opposed to dictum), iron, and ivory.

each book is distinct in terms of its linguistic performances. “Bones” is like its title, keeping the lines more coherent, laid out in more familiar compositions, before the water seems to spread out the language, disintegrating it into hidden and transformed meanings. Philip breaks down the words in the legal document, so that legal language gives way to words within words that wouldn’t be noted in an etymology dictionary, as well as new characters.

a good example is on page 63: a syllable, seemingly pure sound, goes through a transformation with offshoots, which is arranged in a neat cluster:

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S.O.S. written out as es oh es, split and shunted into os, the latin word for bone.

and then “save” turns into “salve”: salve our souls.

Philip’s work is a compelling answer to the question of how to produce literature after Derrida. in effect it’s like she can do a multimedia piece within one medium, by focusing on the pure sonic qualities of english. the pulling apart increases in extremity as we try to approach that unknowable thing that is the historical reality of slavery. the rationality, the drive to mastery in wester thought gets pulled apart, the master’s house torn down, so that we approach contact with the dead, which speaks in only sound; shouts and shrieks communicating nothing except perhaps anguish. the turn to irrationality, spiritualism, seance, the culture and rituals of indigenous Africa societies, has been an important contribution from black artists to modernist aesthetics, as D.G. Kelley points out in his intro to Robinson’s BLACK MARXISM.

part of the litter of new words Philip works with include latin words, french, fon, hebrew, greek, twi, and more. she then includes a lot of mythology from these cultures. at the same time, her first epigraph is from celebrated modernist poet and white supremacist Wallace Stevens: “the sea was not a mask.” it’s more than appropriate, yet it’s interesting to open square in the middle of Euro-american tradition. there’s been discussion of placing Philip between “white” high avant-garde art and the “black,” “pre-modern” cultural practices that her work evokes. ZONG! embodies a search for a lost or hidden tradition, a vain voyage from the diaspora back home.

e … that can t c … an a sa … d tale it … is i ran … t run fro … m the sun … s rays i am h … am h … am i a … m cur … se o … f go … d by g … od cur … se d as … they are h (133)

we can see the unrelated words within words. ran/rant, go/god, cur/cursed which cues an echo of ye ole god/dog joke.

but the most important one here is can/cant. slavery is the story that cannot be told and must be told, to repeat the sound bite. at bottom Philip is offering this as the telling of slavery, which is in one way a very disarming and provocative thing to do, but also given western literature’s service to power makes intuitive sense as a way of doing it with a certain ethical commitment. the problem of language and discourse is that ultimately they get in the way of “truth” (which becomes a woman named Ruth in ZONG! who receives letters from an unknown speaker). we put up words when what we really need to do is clear away, but we can only clear the words away by putting up more words; it’s the joke of theory. but here is Philip tearing words apart and scattering them away. grammar chains up words in iron and suffocates them in packed boats, every text a slave ship. so the next inevitable time some magazine or celebrity or college frat makes their smarmy appeal to “free speech,” keep in mind words from Philip’s concluding essay:

our language … is often … preselected for us, simply by virtue of who we understand ourselves to be and where we allow ourselves to be placed. And, by refusing the risk of allowing ourselves to be absolved of authorial intention, we escape an understanding that we are at least one and the Other. And the Other. And the Other. That in this post post-modern world we are, indeed, multiple and “many-voiced.” (205)

Philip “absolves” herself of authorial intent in part by giving credit to Setaey Adamu Boateng, who ive only heard described as an African spirit. but indeed the form of the text is a relinquishing of control over the language. Philip, who was a lawyer before writing full time, produced ZONG! partially as a process of letting go, of facing the lacunae, the impenetrable darkness of this history, since the document itself is one of “amnesia,” forgetting who is human on this planet.