Zong!

When reading Zong! I had a lot of questions about the thought process that went behind M. NourbeSe Philip’s approach to the Gregson v. Gilbert text and her techniques for writing the poems.

In “Notanda”  Philip talks about locking herself into the text and into the “particular and peculiar discursive landscape”  in the same way the “men, women, and children were locked into the holds of the slave ship Zong.” She compares her choice of using the legal text as a sort of word bank of her poetry as a way of putting herself in the same position as the African slaves that were locked onto the ship. Later, she starts to switch her position by saying she would choose verbs and nouns in the same way there was a criteria for the Africans that were selected to be taken. I find this method interesting, but get confused when she continues to turn the tables from being the oppressed to using language of that of a violent oppressor. She decides when going through the texts she will “mutilate the text as the fabric of African life and and the lives of these men, women and children were mutilated,” and starts using phrases such as “murder the text, literally cut it into pieces,” “castrating verbs”, “suffocating adjectives”, “murdering nouns”, and “throwing articles overboard.” She says she will “create semantic mayhem, until my hands bloodied, from so much killing and cutting, reach into the stinking eviscerated innards, and like some seer, sangoma, or prophet who, having sacrificed an animal for signs and portents of a new life.” She put herself in both the perspective of the slaves and the perspective of the crew members, which I found slightly confusing. I can see this approach as maybe a cathartic attempt, embodying the slave and then turning the tables from being so wronged as a way of almost getting revenge, but something about it seems off that I can not quite pin point. It brings up the Audre Lorde quote that we briefly touched on at the end of last class: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I think about this quote a lot, and whether or not I agree with it. I think it comes down to what exactly constitutes as the master’s tools. In this instance, the metaphorical tools appear to be violence, which I do not believe might be a weaker way of attempting to dismantling any ‘master’s house’, but on a much more literal sense, if one could consider the use of language and text as tools, I believe those could dismantle the master’s metaphorical house.

Gregson v. Gilbert is an unfortunate text, allowing for the deliberate killing of slaves, recognizing them simply as property, yet the poems she wrote that came out of that text were quite beautiful and biting in their unconventional forms. Philip was able to successfully use the text as a tool that completely worked against it’s original form and use by shifting it into experimental poetry. I think, especially in this instance, it becomes less about the master’s tools, and more about being creative with how those tools are used and using them in a new way. It seems almost impossible to be able to just start something from scratch in terms of challenging an oppressive structure, because that is just not really how the world works. Things build off from other things, ideas are used over and over again, methods are sampled and mixed with other things. I can’t remember the artist’s name that someone brought up in class, but his description of having to master the masters AND be able to do his own thing on top of those already well-respected skills is what got him to where he and his work are able to be today. It also brings me back to what was talked a lot about in class about choosing both when it comes to either/or questions. Simply using the master’s tools may not be an effective way of doing any dismantling, but having some knowledge about those tools, and building off that information in creative and unique ways might be able to do some damage.

Not to go off on a tangent, but it also makes me question whether or not you can reclaim something that is intended to be harmful. That seems to be an equally difficult if not harder concept to have a clear opinion on. It may simply come down to just how horrible the original thing was to begin with (if one could even qualify) such as the n word or the word ‘queer,’ and it may just come down to personal preference based on exposure, context, time period, etc. Maybe I am asking the wrong question. Maybe the real question is not if something negative or oppressive can be reclaimed, but maybe why/when/for what purpose, or something else entirely.

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One Response to Zong!

  1. Erica Mena says:

    I think you’ve noticed an important relationship between NourbeSe Philip and the text, and how it generated the movement of her stages of engagement. First, she locks herself wihtin the legal document, in some ways treating the legal document as the actual slavers (both the ship, and the people responsible for the kidnap and murder of the slaves). Then, she claims a positionality of power against the text, against the slave masters and slavers, treating the text (because the text represents only the white European slavers and not the Africans) in the way the European slavers treated the Africans they kidnaped and murdered. So she moves from a position of entrapment within the text to breaking (violently) free from that entrapment and reversing the flow of power. Or at least, that’s how I understood it. Does that make sense with your reading? And in some way, to connect it to the Lorde quote, she’s dismantling not just the “master’s house” but the tools themselves, the tools being language, through the violence enacted on the text. She dismantles English into phonemes, and finds within it the many possible African languages she imagines might have been spoken on the Zong. And so by not trusting the tool (language) she is able to dismantle both it and the structure it upholds.

    And yes, I think the why/when/what for rather than the if question at the end is the more fruitful. We know that laguage can change its signifying power over time, and that people and communities can affect that change and guide it. So how they do that points to the why, and the when, and the what for. We could look to the second-wave feminist attempt to reclaim the word bitch as something that maybe didn’t succeed in the same way that queer or the n-word did for those communities, and think about why? Was context playing an important part in that? Was the exclusionary nature of white second-wave feminism ultimately responsible for its inability to change the signifying power of that word?

    Also, I’d say the legal text is way more than just “unfortunate…” Disgusting comes to mind, inhumane, revolting, emblematic of European colonialism, horrific… I could probably come up with a whole list. I bet you could too.

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