A Nigga In The Storm
” A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay and make whole what has been smashed……”
– Walter Benjamin
” ..Now is the essence of my domain/ but it contains all that was and will be/ and i am as i was and will be/ because i am and always will be/ that nigga/ i am that nigga..” – saul williams
Executed with poetic fluidity Walter Benjamin’s Theses on The Philosophy of History is an excellent point of departure for an examination of the treatment of time in Saul Williams’ “Sha Clack Clack.” The theses, written during Benjamin’s period of flight from the Nazis in Germany, discuss a radical Marxist approach to time in opposition to Fascism and capitalist violence. Historical materialism is this approach to time which understands the present not as a bridge between present and future, but as a time which has come to a full stop, where the past is made.
With eyes wide, mouth open, and wings spread, Benjamin’s angel of history is the historical materialist, the Jew on the run from the Third Reich , the person escaping brutal genocide while maintaining Marxian subject status. In Ronald Judy’s “On The Question of Nigga Authenticity” he describes the nigga as “that which emerges from the demise of human capital… what happens when the field nigger loses value as labour.”
Could Benjamin have foreseen the nigga, the emergence of this category outside Becoming and Being? Perhaps not. But approaching Benjamin’s work as a still useful analysis of time and state violence; we must, in this period of late capitalism, ask: “what of the nigga?”
Klee’s Angelus Novus
Angelus Novus——- Saul Williams——– Rammellzee
In response to the Social Democrat backlash during which labor became secularized, Marx wrote, “the man who possesses no other property than his labor” will be forced to become “the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners.” Marx’s description of slavery speaks to wage slavery but not the brutality of chattel slavery of the American South. This wage slave is the slave that Marx deals with, the slave who will possess at least one commodity as long as capitalism continues to exist. Judy’s nigga is that subject whose existence was dependent, not upon maintaining labor as possession, but by being possessed as a mechanism of labor. In “Sha Clack Clack” the speaker affirms “i am that nigga, i am that nigga,” and says, “now is the essence of my domain”, it occupies this now and possesses it like a squatter in dilapidated inner city tenements. Williams’ narrator is what the angel of history can never be. The nigga has lost to the storm of progress but finds possibility in the wreckage. In the speaker’s identification as the nigga, the lowest common denominator, Saul Williams’ “Sha Clack Clack” seizes the present as a method towards achieving a radically new boundedness to time.
Human Capital and The Promise of Connectedness
“black people live the estrangement that science fiction writers imagine.”
– greg tate, author & critic
Erich Fromm describes Marx’s concept of alienation as “essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, as the subject separated from the object .”(pg. 44) Marx seeks the reconnecting of the worker to its work and environment. Even if we were to believe that there was a way to deobjectify your work and move toward “the full realization of man’s humanity” (Fromm- VI ) what would that mean for bodies outside the scope of traditional Marxist analysis? Marx relies on a particular sociopolitical chronology rooted in his understanding of labor relations in his immediate society and his biased perception of labor relations elsewhere in order to arrive at his analysis. History is organized into four stages of economic evolution, socialism being the logical culmination of previously unsuccessful and inefficient modes of exchange. One can assume that, at least in part, he is saying that there is some natural state that the subject needs to arrive at and capitalism is a roadblock on that road to self-actualization. Because enslaved Africans were made into capital for the plantation economy they cannot be Marxian subjects like the German Jew or the Russian Red Army soldier. Marxian subjects possess their labor as commodity, the slave is possessed, and the nigga is valueless and dispossessed; a machine that has gone out of use. Broken machines have no true self to return to… or do they?
In Elijah Muhammad’s “Know Thyself” he says that it is a lack of “knowledge of self” that keeps blacks from enjoying “freedom, justice, and equality.” He goes on to describe the historical achievements of various African peoples and connects blacks in America to them through flimsy scientific theory and spiritual and religious rhetoric. This self which the black is supposed to find is never described fully and can only be achieved through the adoption of the false consciousness of religious doctrine.
” We are the mighty the wise, the best, but do not know it. Being without the knowledge, we disgrace ourselves, subjecting ourselves to suffering and shame. We could not get the knowledge until the coming of Allah.”(Van Deburg- pg. 99)
In later years, there is the emergence of Afrocentrism and the carefully crafted practices that are informed by what Maulana Karenga described as the need to “aid in the recovery and reconstruction of a lost historical memory and cultural legacy.”(Van Deburg – pg. 276)
When was this “legacy” lost ? Where can it be found and most importantly what is its relevance to the plight of the black in this day and age?
Orlando Patterson describes “natal alienation” as a primary factor in the maintenance of a slave-based economy . The main features of this are “the loss of ties of birth in both ascending and descending generations…a loss of native status, of deracination.” (Patterson- pg. 7) The brutal slavery of the American South undoubtedly employed this technique (as well as other techniques of dehumanization and division) in order to maintain this system. Assuming that legacies are passed along from generation to generation, the reality of enslavement necessarily complicates the possibility of inherited cultural practices; moreover even in the instance of inherited cultural practices, the reality of the existence as human machines cannot be usurped age-old tradition.
Later, Patterson goes on to say: “The incapacity to make any claims to birth or to pass on such claims is considered a natural injustice among peoples, so that those who were obliged to suffer it had to be regarded as somehow socially dead.”(Patterson- pg. 8) As the black subject is forced into a type of social death during slavery, what does the (nominal) abolition of slavery mean to the dead person? It seems that many black nationalist theorists make two unseen leaps:
1) they assert that the end of slavery equates to corporeal resurrection and
2) that this resurrection will invigorate black lives with social “meaning”.
In the writings of Muhammad and Karenga, as well as many other social-political theorists (black and non-black), we see what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls the “phantasy of the non-alienated region” or the “phantasy of a happy state of the working body.”(pg.121) The myth of a body which is, as Marx says, “…(liberated) from a kind of work which destroys his individuality…”(Fromm, pg. 43), is characteristic of doctrines of false consciousness.
According to Marx, false consciousness is “rooted in the whole social organization of man which directs his consciousness in certain directions and blocks him from being aware of certain facts and experiences.”(Fromm-pg. 21) The binary of alienation and non-alienation misdirects the subject by assuming that this non-alienation is the desired space of the subjugated body and thus impeding the path of exploration (beyond Marx’s four stages) with the promise of connected-ness.
The Time Lag
” You can’t see or do time, and most Micmac concepts are expressed in terms of events, in terms of doing or seeing, regardless of whether they are mental, emotional, or physical events. If you can’t do it or see it, you are not really living, at least not in the fullness of Algonquin life. You can’t do time unless you are in prison. You can’t see time except while watching the clock-something most native people try to avoid. So time is not real unless you are in prison.“- Evan T. Pritchard, anthropologist/writer
“…it was me the ecclesiastical one/ who saw that nothing was new under the sun/ and through times of laughter and times of fear / saw that no time was real time cause all times were fear…”– Saul Williams
Though emerging from the contemporary ‘slam’/spoken word movement, Williams’ Sha Clack Clack follows in a poetic tradition of what writer Anthony Libby describes as “hymns to negation. ” A style which imagines a via negativa, that which sees “literal or figural death as the grounds of revelation.” A characteristic of this style of poetry is the struggle with the immanence of time. Sha Clack Clack opens “I know you are but what am I? /infinity” this childish quip represents the struggle between: 1) those who necessitate this ritualization of antagonistic violence in order to maintain rule and 2) those who must continually be the bearers of that violence. This exchange is the struggle of the poet to understand his existence through struggle against the ever-present constraints of measured time.
The narrator’s struggle with the possibilities of time frame the discussion. We find that he had searched for the “place where truth echoes” and found only stagnancy, remaining in the bleak “now.” The temporal has a power to shape the spatial. Benjamin says, “There is a secret agreement between the past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” Williams however says even more; embodying the past to the future and the future to the past; he must find a way to let his children’s “future dwell in the past.”
Benjamin’s “secret agreement” is a non-truth to the nigga. The promise of continued existence cannot be guaranteed for those confined to the realm of the Becoming, even less so, for those who no longer occupy any space of value; and therefore he is moving without direction, without the temporal anchors of past and future. The absence of these anchors represents the violence of measured time, the replacement of one’s ability to explore with obligations to the institutional. Williams’ narrator, with “a timeless stare/ turned mortal fear into stone time capsules.”
What else could these time capsules be, but the carceral institutions unto which we have been assigned? The prisons, the schools, the factories, the office spaces. Why, we even insist that people “clock in!” These places, even in their visual representation, represent the systematic emptying out of one’s time, the emptying out of possibility. In “No Word For Time”, writer Evan Pritchard describes the way Algonquin people view time: “A drumming song often has a regular beat, but like the human heart it has its lags and bursts which betray deep seated feelings, or perhaps the tiredness of the person who is beating. Clocks have a beat that is heartless. They have no feelings, they are never tired, they don’t respect we who do have such limitations.”
The forcing of a human being into the servitude under this heartless master is the violent pushing of human beings beyond their intended limits. However, the nigga “won’t work a nine-to-five.” As Ronald Judy says: ” The nigga is unemployed null and void walking around like…a nigga who understands that all possibility derives from capital, and capital does not derive from work.”
In the conclusion to The Location of Culture, Homi Bhaba uses Fanon’s “fact of blackness” essay to work through a concept of time in relation to marginalized people. Similar to Williams, Bhaba seeks a space to intervene in contemporary discourses around modernity. He speaks of a time lag in which the postcolonial subject can imagine itself in the present moment and force open an enunciative and formative space. Benjamin insists, ” (For the historical materialist,) the past can only be seized as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”(pg. 255)
Bhaba describes a recurrence in Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, which is the reappearance of the dead daughter Beloved. This creates a sense of timelessness as Beloved, as apparition, occupies the space of the past, but is not the elder or ancestor that one would expect to occupy the past. Beloved’s movement forward within the past creates a crisis, which brings on a time lag. Similarly, in Sha Clack Clack, the narrator’s inability to anchor his space in time, causes a surge of images in which the past ceases the future:
” and i be having dreams of chocolate covered watermelons filled with fried chickens like piñatas. with little pickaninny sons and daughters, standing up under them with big sticks and aluminum foil, hittin’ them, trying to catch pieces of fallen fried chicken wings. and aunt jemima and uncle ben are standing in the corner with rifles pointed at all the heads of the little children.” “don’t shoot the children,” i shout. “don’t shoot the children.” but it’s too late, they’ve already been infected by time.According to Bhaba”…it is this form of temporality which emerges…to face progress with some unanswerable questions and suggest some answers of its own.”(pg. 238) Williams’ narrator is “spitting at death from behind and putting kick me signs on its back.” Moving at frantic pace, he defies the limits of time because he is “not the son of sha clack clack.” He was not born out of the violence of institutionalized, of secularized labor, he was before and after. Though he may not be explicitly suggesting answers, behaviour is its own response. In the crisis of the shooting of the “pickaninny sons and daughters” the protagonist rises to the occasion. Though the past assaults the future up to “six by six”, his spirit begins to grow “seven by seven, faster than the speed of light.”
According to the way of the Algonquin people “The seventh direction (of the sacred directions) has no color it is hidden in the heart where it is hardest to look.”(pg. 20) This “seven-by-seven” growth of spirit is an unseen movement; it is a non-movement. In this mythical movement, the nigga moves from non-person to non-thing.
Cyborgs and The No-thing That Is
“Cybernetics have already been applied to black subjects ever since the end of the 18th century.I think what we get at the end of the 20th century in music technology is a point where producers are kind of willingly taking on the role of the cyborg, willingly taking on that mad machine interface just to explore the mutations that have already happened and to accelerate them some more. Now the question is: cyborgs for what ? The answer is, of course, to get out of here, to get out of this time here, this space now.”
– Kodwo Eshun, critic
“..but my spirit is growing seven by seven/ faster than the speed of light/ ’cause light only penetrates the darkness that’s already there/ i’m here at the end of the road which is the
beginning of the road beyond time….”– saul williams “sha clack clack”
According to Sidney M.Wilhelm’s thesis on the inevitability of genocide against blacks Who Needs the Negro? “The arrival of automation eliminates the need for black…” This automation is the storm of progress pushing through. Paul Miller AKA DJ Spooky says the goal of Afrofuturist musicians is to create a music that “exists in the nowhere.” Growing out of the burned-out husks of previously productive industrial centers, during the period of downsizing in the late 80’s, this music reflected the sentiment of those who remained in these areas as they became defunct and disenfranchised. The narrative of these areas ran parallel to the narratives of the bodies that inhabited them, these bodies who had been written off as non-persons in this new global economy.
These people began to roam the streets and through the abandoned warehouses. Without the time clocks and pressures of waged labor, this factories and assembly lines came to be understood in dynamic new ways. The young people came to be fascinated with these machines, and in the spirit of Gibson’s cyberpunk axiom “The streets find uses for things” , began to compose sounds and create images that grew out of this bleak present.
We find examples of this in graffiti artist Rammellzee’s uber-cyber-suit, the Gasholeer, “a 148 pound, gadgetry encrusted exoskeleton”(Dery pg.183) built out of salvage; and the music of artists such as Derrick May and Underground Resistance. The worlds they imagine exist in the “nowhere” fashioned out of those elements that the storm of progress left by the wayside. They embody elements of society that cannot easily be brought under the logic of capitalism. The nigga exists here; Saul Williams ends “Sha Clack Clack” by proclaiming:
i am standing at the end of the road which is the beginning of the road beyond time/ but where my niggas at ?/ don’t tell me my niggas got lost in time/ my niggas got lost in time/ my niggas are dying before their time/ my niggas are dying because of time
The narrator’s missing niggas don’t exist as niggas. Scrambling for work, they believe they can save their lives through becoming waged work. Williams’ nigga understands that he lost his value when he became disconnected from capital, this connection to capital did not come from work, but from the violence of stolen lifetimes. Black workers exist as the walking dead scurrying when the clock strikes them and threatened by the necessity of genocide displayed by a market hungry for more bodies. Williams’ narrator beckons to his niggas to come to the end of the road of the time to, as Kodwo Eshun says, “get out of this time here.” However, this end of the road demands conflict; the move to become ( and not be rendered !)incoherent in the language of capital demands struggle.
In Martin Heidegger’s Existence and Being he works through questions of Being. He concludes that, (the way to delve into an exploration of what it means to Be involves) “that latent and non-sensical idea of a Nothing that ‘is.'” (Libby- pg.7) Black workers have anchored themselves based on an imposed system of time. Though they exist as nearly walking dead, they use physical death as an anchor in their linear narration of time. In allowing the clock to become their master, they have refused to probe the question of what it means to Be. In the middle of this storm, these niggas become simply wreckage.
Akomfrah, John The Last Angel of History (video)
Benjamin, Walter Illuminations, Schocken Books- New York- 1968
Bhaba, Homi The Location of Culture , Routledge- New York- 1994
Dery, Mark Flame Wars, Duke University Press- North Carolina – 1994
Fromm, Eric Marx’s Concept of Man, Frederick Unger Publishing Co. – New York- 1961
Judy, Ronald- “On The Question of Nigga Authenticity” in boundary 2- vol 21(?)
Lyotard, Jean-Francois Libidinal Economy , Indiana University Press- Indiana- 1993
Marable, Manning How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America , South End Press- Boston, MA -1983
Patterson, Orlando Slavery and Social Death, Harvard University Press
Pritchard, Evan T. No Word For Time: The Way of the Algonquin People
Stratton, Richard (ed.) & Kim Wozencraft (ed.) Slam , Grove Press- New York – 1998
Turkle, Sherry – The Second Self: Computers and The Human Spirit , Simon & Schuster – New York – 1984
Van Deburg, William L. Modern Black Nationalism , New York University Press – New York – 1997