The Unconscious and (Not) Telling Silences

There is no telling this story. This story must be told. This story must tell itself. 

I have been thinking recently about the unconscious. How often I believe people misuse the word to describe things that are not the unconscious. A classmate in another class described what they considered to be the unconscious, as a state of mind way beneath the surface, that can be accessed and capitalized on in the creation of written or visual art. But the unconscious, to me, is not where you store the recollections of embarrassing childhood moments or tearful, yet trivial, memories that can then be expressed through painting, poetry, or spoken word. I do not know my unconscious. It is mysterious and inaccessible to my conscious self. It breathes its own breaths and lives its own existence far away from my day-to-day being. My brain stores very few memories there, as a way to protect my body from pain it is not equipped to handle. 

As we discussed in the first class, however, bigots can often use this concept of the “unconscious” to make bigotry performative. In the name of poetry and other art forms, written, oral, and visual, individuals can cite their unconscious as the source of their racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic behavior. Which links us back to the question, why do white writers want to write non-white characters?  For white writers, what is the relationship between consumption, violence, and the desire to create and construct characters of color?

I have been asking myself these questions in the context of reading Zong! NourbeSe Philip builds her narrative entangled in the belief that “Zong! is the Song of the untold story; it cannot be told yet must be told, but only through its un-telling,” (Zong!, 207). From the beginning, she therefore establishes that she is not the final authority on this particular story. She challenges the idea (white and Euro-centric in nature) that language can always be both trusted and utilized; stories can always be told in words. NourbeSe Philip explains her distrust of language: “I deeply distrust this tool I work with—language… The language in which those events took place promulgated the non-being of African peoples, and I distrust its order, which hides disorder; its logic hiding the illogic and its rationality, which is simultaneously irrational,” (Zong!, 197). This process of both telling and un-telling a story through the distrust of language is an interesting response to the question raised by Farid Matuk in their essay, From Circumstance to Constellation: Richard Pryor, Resistance, and the Racial Imaginary’s Archive. In reference to the ways in which Ronald Reagan and Jeffrey Dahmer activated a presence of mind among others, Matuk asks, “how might a poet occupying an othered position today use such strategies to focus their texts, and us, on ‘what is at issue?’” (Racial Imaginary, 143).While simultaneously naming and not naming the violence and consumption of colonialism, NourbeSe Philip focuses her readership on a distrust of language and the silences and lack of answers in telling stories. A challenge to what is undoubtedly an issue, the Western notion that language can and should explain everything, especially coming from the mouths of white people. 

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One Response to The Unconscious and (Not) Telling Silences

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes, I think you’re getting at something very interesthing here, re-asking Claudia Rankine’s question about not whether but why especially white writers want to be allowed to write other people’s stories, and thinking about Zong! as the kind of work that deals ethically with the history and story she’s telling. I wonder if the implication is something along the lines that many writers looking to tell others’ stories are looking to capitalize on them, rather than honor them the way Philip is attempting (succeeding?) to? That there’s a consumption of others’ stories, especially stories of pain and suffering, that is merely re-enacting and commercializing that violence? In which case, I’d wonder whether this story, or any other story, can be told from a subjectivity that hasn’t directly encountered the residual violence or effects of the story being told? In other words, as Tisa Bryant said (quoted in an essay we’ll be reading in the next few weeks): “You can not do what I do becuase you do not love who I love.”

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