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On Postcolonial Suffering: George Floyd and the Scene of Contamination

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2021

Extract

If, as Eric J. Cassell suggests in The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, “Suffering occurs when an impending destruction of the person is perceived; [and] continues until the threat of disintegration has passed or until the integrity of the person can be restored in some manner,” and that suffering is due to both emotional and physical conditions, then there has been much suffering concentrated into the year that was 2020.1 All definitions of suffering have to find a way of aligning two central vectors: the Self as category has to be defined in all its variegated possibilities and contradictory levels and then correlated to the category of World. But often Self and World are not easily separable even for heuristic purposes given the boundaries of one overlap with the other and the two are often completely co-constitutive. Although the Self may disintegrate in direct response to reversals of fortune, it may also, properly speaking, suffer an experience of painful biographical discontinuity simply at losing the capacity to produce a coherent account of the world to itself and to others.2 This sense of incoherence is central to the conditions that were experienced under colonialism and its aftermath in many parts of the world, where the instruments for making meaning both communally and individually were often seen to have been compromised by the impositions of colonial history.

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References

1 Cassell, Eric J., The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 32 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cassell draws for his definition of suffering from both antiquity and more modern conceptions. See also the biographical details pertaining to Cicero’s grieving response to the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth and his subsequent Stoic meditation on the concept of grief in his Tusculan Disputations, where he parses suffering in a similar way to Cassell. See Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4, trans. Margaret Graver (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 73–128.

2 On the complications of self-accounting from different philosophical perspectives, see Butler, Judith, Giving and Account of Oneself, (New York: Fordham, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dennett, Daniel, The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Cavarero, Adriana, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, (London: Routledge, 2000)Google Scholar; and Gyekye, Kwame, Unexamined Life: Philosophy and the African Experience, (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

3 Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967), 120 Google Scholar.

4 Eagleton, Terry, Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Eagleton, Terry, Sweet Violence (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)Google Scholar.

6 Achebe, Chinua, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Massachusetts Review 18.4 (1977): 782–94Google Scholar. The essay was reprinted in Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Background Sources and Criticism, 3rd ed., ed. Robert Kimbrough (London: W. W. Norton, 1988) but subsequently reprised in various anthologies and collections.

7 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups” (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html).

8 Alain Badiou, “On the Pandemic Situation,” Verso blog, March 23, 2020 (https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4608-on-the-epidemic-situation).

9 For a list of twenty names of African Americans killed by police going back to 2014, see https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2020/know-their-names/index.html. This list is of course only selective and would be substantially longer if it went back to the start of the century. And then there are similar cases reported in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and other places going back over a similar timeframe.

10 For one out of the many reports that were published on the global responses to Floyd’s death, see Hernandez, Javier C. and Mueller, Benjamin, “Global Anger Grows over George Floyd’s Death and Becomes an Anti-Trump Cudgel,” New York Times, June 1, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/world/asia/george-floyd-protest-global.html)Google Scholar.

11 For a more comprehensive account relating literary tragedy to postcolonialism, see Ato Quayson, Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature, already cited, in addition to the various episodes on tragedy from the Greeks, to Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, Tayeb Salih, J.M. Coetzee, Arundhati Roy, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and various on the YouTube channel Critic.Reading.Writing with Ato Quayson (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjoidh_R_bJCnXyKBkytP_g).

12 Raymond, Williams, Modern Tragedy, ed. McCallum, Pamela, new ed. (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

13 Gyekye, Kwame, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 131–33Google Scholar.

14 For a fuller discussion of musuo and its possible implications for tragic theory, see Quayson, Ato, Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 1014 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Green, David and Lattimore, Richard, Oedipus the King, Greek Tragedies, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), lines 12981306 Google Scholar. Other such reactions can be gleaned from the Argive chorus’s description of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and also, in a more individual register, in Neoptolemus’s response to Philoctetes’s uncontrollable screams of pain in Sophocles’s Philoctetes. In each instance, the bearing of witness to either the enactment of consequential tragic choice or to the unbearable pain of another triggers feelings of potential disintegration in the observers themselves.

16 Morrison, Toni, Beloved (New York: Random House, 2004), 179 Google Scholar.

17 Lizardo, Omar, “Pierre Bourdieu as Cognitive Sociologist,” The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociologist, eds. Brekhus, Wayne H. and Ignatow, Gabe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 7071 Google Scholar.

18 Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999)Google Scholar; Glenberg, Arthur M. and Robertson, David A., “Symbol Grounding and Meaning: A Comparison of High-Dimensional and Embodied Theories of Meaning,” Journal of Memory and Language 43.3 (2000): 379401 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 The entire apparatus of interpellation is famously introduced by Althusser, Louis in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation,” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (London: Verso, 1971), 85125 Google Scholar. Judith Butler critiques Althusser’s formulation and extends it to cover the area of gender interpellation. See her The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

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