Present Tense, Part 3:  The Two Plagues Converge

W.J.T. Mitchell

This is the third Part  of an essay on time located in the present moment in human history, an attempt to align “my time” with “our times.”[1]  It is impossible of course, to write about the present, because the moment one writes the words down, they are already in the past.  Time, like writing, marches on beyond our thought, our desires, our meanings, and it will write our epitaphs after our pens have gone dry.  We make up our stories in the moment, but time will tell.   It is the inexorable and fatal figure with the scythe that cuts us all down.  But the sickle is also a cycle, and the days and seasons and years return.  It may be a moment of ripening, of possibility, perhaps even opportunity.  Kronos, Aeion, and Kairos, the ancient personifications of the (usually grim) Reaper, the Zodiac, and the decisive moment converge today with special intensity.

BERGMAN

This convergence of time scales is especially evident in the days in which these words are written, early June of 2020.  The planetary time of climate change was pushed to the background by the intense temporality of pandemic, which is in turn over-written by fourteen days of global protest against the plague of American racism.  As summer arrived in North America, after an endless spring of pandemic and plague that is not yet over, and that swept away hundreds of thousands of lives, a single death suddenly captured the imagination of America, and of the world.  A Black man named George Floyd was subjected to a slow motion execution, strangled to death by a white police officer while a protesting crowd looked on in horror, and video-taped the excruciatingly slow death.  The officer, the aptly named “Derek Chauvin” (chauvinism acquires a proper name) calmly put his hand in his pocket as he pressed his knee down on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-seven seconds, ignoring Floyd’s cries for help, for mercy, for his deceased mother to come to his aid.  The video immediately “went viral” in a nation that has perhaps become all too accustomed to scenes of this sort, reported, even video-taped, but perhaps less intensely focused on a single prolonged act of snuffing out a human life.  It is what Gilles Deleuze memorably called a “time image” as distinct from the “motion image” that is so central to cinema.[2]  A prolonged moment of steady, pitiless focus and unrelenting attention to a single act in which motion is almost completely absent, and then utterly vanishes into the real presence of death.

It is this time image, this prolongation of a merciless police murder that I think captured the imagination of the public so powerfully in the days after George Floyd’s death and mobilized one of the largest and longest mass protests in American history.  It was as if the literal plague of the coronoavirus and the figurative plague of American racism had somehow blended in the most intense moment of national mobilization since the heady days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  Added to the intensity of that convergence was the deeply felt contradiction between the moral imperatives dictated by the convergent plagues:  on the one hand, COVID-19 demanded “social distancing” and protective masking of individuals to inhibit infection;  on the other hand, the murder of George Floyd demanded social intimacy, assembly, crowding, a rushing together of masses of Americans in the name of ending the plague of American racism and fascistic militarism.[3]  Stay apart or come together?  In an instant, the first mandate was overtaken by the second.

William Blake, in his prophetic re-telling of the American Revolution in 1793 described this kind of historical moment with striking precision.  Then, as now, popular revolutions against absolutist monarchies in America and France were consistently described as devilish uprisings of  terrorists, to be suppressed by the angelic forces of order and social control.  When “Albions Angel,” the British Prime Minister, gives the command to suppress the Revolution, he does so by unleashing the plague of military violence against the American colonies:

In the flames stood & view’d the armies drawn out in the sky
Washington Franklin Paine, & Warren Allen Gates & Lee:
And heard the voice of Albions Angel give the thunderous command
His plagues obedient to his voice flew forth out of their clouds
Falling upon America, as a storm to cut them off. . . .
Then had America been lost, overwhelm’d by the Atlantic
And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite,
But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire
The red fires rag’d! the plagues recoil’d then rolld they back with fury
On Albions Angels.

Blake wrote these words in 1793 with the advantage of hindsight, about events that he followed in the British press in 1776, when he was nineteen years old. He wrote them in the midst of the French Revolution and the rise of the Reign of Terror.  He was soon to follow them with Visions of the Daughters of Albion, a polemic against the African slave trade and in favor of the emancipation of women, his poetic echo of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

BLAKE

So the American people, black, white, and brown, male, female, and LGBTQ, “rushed together” in nights of wrath and raging fire from 28 May to 5 June 2020, recoiling both plagues simultaneously.  The racist sexual predator who squats on the throne of the American presidency tried to stage a photo op as the angelic guardian of order and religion.  He assembled his armies to drive out protestors from the park across the street from his palatial slave-built White House so that he could stand on the steps of a church and hold a bible up to mobilize an evangelical reaction against the devilish descendants of the American revolutionaries.  And of course the predictable upsurge of looting and destruction of property that inevitably accompanies popular protest gave the right-wing media plenty of images to declare that the peaceful protestors were terrorists.

As the fires subsided, however, the rushing together continued, consolidating itself into articulate demands for reform and revolution, for the disarming of American police departments that see themselves as armies of occupation.  Meanwhile, one of the most powerful images of revulsion against actual racist terrorism imprinted itself on the ubiquitous masks that had been donned by the vast majority of American citizens during the COVID-19 plague:  “I can’t breathe,” the last words uttered by the dying Eric Garner in 2014, were echoed by George Floyd in his final moments.  It had become, along with “Hands up, don’t Shoot” and “No justice no peace,” the slogan of Black Lives Matter, the antiracist coalition rushing together in hundreds of cities across America.  Remarkably, the protest was multiracial and (in some cities) the police actually dropped their weapons and joined hands, taking a knee alongside the demonstrators.  It was as if the biological respiratory plague that drove us apart in the preceding months had transferred itself to the plague of police brutality and militarism that was sweeping across the nation.  Patients dying on short-supply ventilators in American hospitals, and Black men dying under the knee of white cops say “I can’t breathe,” calling out to one and the same corrupt system of racial capitalism.[4]  The police choke-hold and the Covid assault on human lungs suddenly converged in what Walter Benjamin called a “dialectical image,” capturing history at a standstill.

The right to breathe is not just put in danger by the police but by a lack of money and medicine. Black and brown Americans die from these biopolitical plagues in much greater numbers than white folks.  Well before the uprising of racist police violence in the summer of 2020, the toll of the coronavirus had disproportionately affected the people of color and the poor.  One of Trump regime’s central campaign pledges was the destruction of the meager healthcare system created during the Obama presidency.  The unleashing of the forces of speculative capital during the Trump regime was accompanied by the dismantling of centralized planning for the control of contagious diseases.  While the markets skyrocketed, the poor were herded into minimum wage jobs or part-time work devoid of health insurance.  Then, with unconscious irony, the underpaid workers in meat-packing plants, Amazon warehouses, and “essential services” like health care workers and even the police were declared to be “heroes” on the front lines of the newly declared “war” on the virus.   Already, while the coronavirus continues to rage, Amazon and other beneficiaries of contemporary wage slavery are beginning to announce that any bonuses and benefits conferred during the plague are strictly temporary and will soon be withdrawn.[5]  Workers concerned about their health, with insufficient access to medical care, had better show up for work or face termination.

Black Lives Matter is teaching an important tactical lesson from the last thirty years of racist police violence:  when you stage your demonstration, don’t do it in the poor, underserved neighborhoods and food deserts of South Side Chicago or South Central Los Angeles.  Take your protest to the doorsteps of racial capitalism in Beverly Hills and the Million Dollar Mile.

“We want to go to places of white affluence so that the pain and outrage that we feel can be put right in their faces,” said Melina Abdullah, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter.  The group wanted to bring its rage over the Floyd case and so many others to L.A.’s elites, in their own neighborhoods. Its officials said their goal was not to cause looting but to send a message.[6]

Looting is not the message, but it is a predictable side effect.  Police seem to have no difficulty in distinguishing white folks from black.  Why is it so difficult to discriminate between peaceably assembled citizens and looters smashing windows?  Isn’t there a reasonably clear difference between protecting property and protecting the right of people to assemble?[7]  Between arresting a vandal who is breaking into a store and assaulting a citizen who is making a political statement by refusing to leave a public space?  The militarization of the police makes these distinctions very difficult, so-called training that leads police to treat protestors as terrorist enemies, makes it impossible.  If this is a teachable moment, these would be the minimal lessons to be learned.

Not to mention the much larger, planetary lesson that our species is struggling to learn in these extraordinary times.


W.J.T. Mitchell is the editor of Critical Inquiry.


[1] Part One appeared on October  2018, as “Present Tense:  Time, Madness, and Democracy,” on the CI Blog, “In the Moment.”  Part Two appeared in May of 2020 as “Ground Hog Day and the Epoché, on the same Blog.  All three essays will be revised and merged in the days after the U.S. Presidential election on November 3 2020.

[2] Gilles Deleuzes,  Cinema 2: The Time Image trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).  

[3] https://www.npr.org/2017/10/23/559498678/i-can-t-breathe-explores-life-and-death-at-the-hands-of-police

[4] On Racial Capitalism:  https://contexts.org/blog/covid-19-and-the-future-of-society/#pirtle

[5] “Uneasy Workers Risk Losing Jobs by Staying Home,” NY Times, Friday June 5, 2020, 1.

[6] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-03/south-l-a-is-largely-untouched-by-unrest-that-is-by-design.  Unfortunately, South Side Chicago has not been spared, and looting has made life difficult for already underserved neighborhoods. 

[7] One of the most encouraging signs of learning on the job has been the behavior of police who protect the protestors, and even join in their ranks.

 

3 Comments

Filed under WJT Report

3 responses to “Present Tense, Part 3:  The Two Plagues Converge

  1. Abdul Rahman Muhammed

    Sir, I’m from Kerala, India. Can I translate your article to my language to publish in a local daily. I find it really important for us Indians to read it. Thank you

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