Not against expression

M. NourbeSe Philip at North of Invention; click here to view her performance. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

Shortly after North of Invention, I had the opportunity to ask M. NourbeSe Philip a question following her public reading here in St. Catharines, Ontario. She read exclusively from Zong!, outlining for a group of mostly students (the same students featured in the chapbook she holds up towards the end of the video) the difficulty of writing about eighteenth century African slaves who were murdered for the sake of an insurance payout.

My question, drawing upon her repeated desire to “tell the story that cannot be told,” was simple: “Are you ‘against expression’?”

Her answer was not simple: “No.”

Being not-against expression does not automatically make one for expression. The negation opens up a gap in what is sayable, a liminal space in which, to paraphrase Lisa Robertson, the possible fusion of politics and emotion provokes a literary opening for the recollection of the dead. The dead themselves are absolute negation, perfect absence. We remember and reconstruct them through the trace they leave, and what the living choose to preserve. When the dead in question have been written out of history, with almost all trace destroyed or else reclaimed by the earth, it is only through an act not-against expression that one can recall them into the literary.

Recollection is a noun of action from the Latin recolligere meaning the act of recalling to memory: in this case, to bring back by calling upon an absence. This is very much a literary problem for an author in a country where, when she began writing “there didn’t appear to be a tradition of writing by people like myself.” This place outside was “open” and “silent” but it was out of that space that Zong! was written: “how difficult it has been to speak silence, to read silence.” Recognizing her position as a writer outside of the expressible and the expressed, she has consistently situated herself on the other side of the borders of literary power (though willing to come over, nervously and with a feeling of “prickliness,” to get work).

Zong! works from a “dessicated text”, the legal case summa outlining the decision of the British court on a case of murdered slaves. The slaves are not named in the document, the act of murder is barely mentioned, and the court ruled in the favor of the slave merchants, further negating the enfranchisement of the absent people in question. And yet Philip, before writing this book, felt the voices of these lost ancestors buried in the two-page case summa. The book is her looking, her creating a new trace of a lost group of people. This recollected expression of absence coalesces into a devastating argument — but it is not a legal argument against a decision of a particular court. It is an argument that attacks the legitimacy of that eighteenth-century court, the legitimacy of the system that created the court, and the legitimacy of the language that permitted the system. The court was British but the system was the entire Western network of nations involved in the transatlantic slave trade that brought “people like myself” to North America: black skin, she notes, functioned as a passport to be transported anywhere.

The language in question is indeed the legal discourse of the courts (and its laws), “I couldn’t have written Zong! had I not studied law,” but it is also the entire English language whose history includes permission for unspeakable violence and genocide. As the same language continues to operate today, with its choreography of control thinly veiled beneath a rhetoric of freedom, the act of speaking by somebody like herself, a “black African female” poet in Canada, includes invoking the Western history of violence aimed at silencing and erasing her. Expression thus includes this defeat of expression. No wonder she feels “as if I am always on shifting ground.

My question in St. Catharines was coy, of course, for I was also asking Philip for her reaction at being included in the recent landmark anthology of conceptual writing, Against Expression edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, where selections of Zong! poignantly appear between entries for Georges Perec (a Holocaust survivor and constraint-based poet) and Vanessa Place (a lawyer whose work includes the testimony of sexually assaulted women). The editors’ prefatory comments to her entry note that the poems in Zong! “suggest that the ethical inadequacies of that legal language […] do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing” (484). The four pages of text excerpted from Zong!, however, do not support this claim: while they do highlight the ethical inadequacies of the legal language with which they engage, they do not do this in the service of experimental writing.

It would be wrong to think of or characterize Philip as a member of an aesthetic cause or movement within the framework of English literary traditions, or even more broadly conceived those of other Western languages, when her project calls her relationship to that entire frame into question. Paul Celan tried to “cleanse” the German language in the post-Holocaust era, but Philip’s relationship to English has not moved beyond being not-against the possibility of expression within it. This is an aesthetic problem perfectly infused with emotional and political dimensions, including the ongoing insistence of postmodern-era problems of identity politics. She remains committed to the difficult “burden of having to speak for the group” even while confronting the paradox of speaking within a language that alienates that group with every utterance.

She uses constraints in her writing not because she is a constraint-based poet, but because we are all constrained by the communal history of our shared language, because that language has participated in the sickening constraints (mental, physical, and spiritual) of people in our midst. She has already articulated her sense of the connections and differences with the Language writers and with Language writing, more broadly conceived. Similarly, while conceptual writing might be the most appropriate and relevant contemporary frame to imagine her writing within today, the specificity of her history and struggle inside Western colonialism and racism situate her outside the margins/frontiers of any Western literary mode. Furthermore, the “feeling function” that she speaks about as part of her writing marks her aesthetic project as being not-against expression, even if it is also not against Against Expression.