A Necropolitical analysis of the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs:

The 19th-century American slavery system is one of the clearest examples of complete state-sponsored control exerted over the human body to extract labour value from racialised groups or people. This occurs through the exposure of the slave body to social, civil, and eventually physical death; consequently, the black body is pushed to the margins of living in-between death. Therefore, this essay will draw on Achille Mbembe’s seminal text Necropolitics to explore the relationship between race and ‘being at the margins’ through the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics asserts the modern human body is wagered against social and political power; it is no longer the monarch’s right to kill (Droit de glaive); it is the state’s right to let live and let die (Lambert). Mbembe’s Necropolitics advances both Foucault and Agamben’s biopolitical analyses of state-sponsored killings to assert that, for example, the plantation system not only positions a control over life but also over death (22). In the plantation, the slave body not only has the threat of death if their labour-power cannot be sufficiently extracted, but the state-sponsored exposure to death; insofar, the body mutates into a zombified living-dead (40). Consequently, both Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass collate necropower’s influence on their bodies as they narrate their life in bondage.

The advance of modern capitalism is intrinsically linked with slavery; it is the genealogy of the contemporary world, one that is dependent on the wagering of black bodies economic worth against their life and death. Consequently, as Foucault analyses the genealogy of biopolitics, Mbembe asserts that slavery is the first example of ‘biopolitical experimentation’ (1) in the modern age. It is important to note the importance of the inclusion of Life in both texts’ titles, as this asserts the importance of reclaiming the slave subject’s life from the biopower of slavery. Frederick Douglass’ narrative is a text that converses directly with the ‘biopolitical experimentation’ of slavery. Douglass details his life, from his birth in bondage in 1818 Maryland, his infantile separation from his mother, his life in bondage, and his eventual escape to Massachusetts in 1835. Douglass contends that slavery’s continuance is dependent on the ‘masters […] keeping their slaves thus ignorant’ (15); it is the power of education, or the lack thereof, that separates the master-slave dialectic, thus bringing abolitionism to fruition. However, control over the slave subject’s education level is just one subset of biopower. Douglass’ separation from his mother is more than the wilful Lacanian abandonment; it functions, to crudely phrase, as to separate bullocks from cows; the slave subject is akin to cattle, thus, becoming chattel. Slavery as the ‘nocturnal face of capitalism’ (Mbembe Critique of Black Reason 129) extracts labour from the enslaved woman in two senses. Firstly, the enslaved woman produces more means of production through non-consensual gestation; the slave body is completely commodified as they are the means of production and the workers in production. And, secondly, their labour continues to be extracted either before, during, or after pregnancy on the plantation. Additionally, the female slave figure is expected to produce more means of production from other enslaved people and, in Douglass’ case, from his white father. Consequently, slavery can be read as a Deleuzoguatarrian machine, whereby labour is unwillingly extracted from enslaved people to, ultimately, produce greater capital wealth.

Consequently, this leads us to what Mbembe refers to, in Necropolitics, as the paradox of slavery whereby the ‘structure of the plantation system and its aftermath manifests the emblematic figure of the state of exception’. The plantation produces a triple loss for the slave figure: “loss of rights over his or her body, and loss of political status’ (21); thus, leading to a permeant state of injury and social death. Mbembe’s paradox is that, as a chattel, the figure has capital value as both means of production and workers in production, so the master is dependent on the slave. However, the permeant state of injury prevents any notion of rebellion. This permeant state of injury is perpetuated through whippings, assaults (sexual or not) on the subject’s body or by ‘small doses’ (39) of death performed on racialised groups. Either similarly cruelly or through the exposure to execution. Thus, reinforcing the notion of the enslaved figure as living-dead. This is shown in Douglass’ narrative when he recanted the beating of his Aunt Hester when he was a child. ‘Mr Plummer […] lay the heavy cowskin and soon the warm red blood […] came dripping to the floor’ (19). Douglass’ visceral description of his aunt’s beating signifies the beginning of his permeant state of injury; the beating enforces obedience to the ‘bloody transaction’ (19) the slave subject has been forced to sign with their master. The plantation is the system where the genealogy of necropolitics spawns from biopolitics to situate the racialised or marginalised figure in a state of ‘living-in-death’ (22). Therefore, as Foucault analysed the execution of Robert François Damiens to be symbolic of the genealogy of biopolitics, Mbembe advances biopolitics to necropolitics, whereby the slave figure is kept in a permeant state of Damiens; their life is a drawn-out execution. This execution is necessitated by extracting labour from the slave subject to advance global capitalism.

As argued above, the advance of global capitalism is intrinsically linked with slavery; in Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of the Slave Girl, the experience of Linda is representative of the female slave political economy. Mbembe argues that slavery insists on the ‘commitment to protection [which] becomes a guarantee of tyranny’ (22). Jacobs detail this concept in the predatory relationship between Dr Flint and Linda. Dr Flint is predatory for two reasons: (I) his sexual desire for Linda and desire to impregnate, and (II) his predatory capitalist control over Linda’s body for both labour-value and reproductive value. Jacob’s narrative converses much more directly with the female slave political economy than Douglass’; Douglass’ text contains more affective language, through its representation of abject horror, like the beating of Aunt Hester. However, for Jacobs, this visceral abject horror is less bloody, focusing on the predatory behaviour of Flint. Necropower funds this female slave economy by exposing women to various forms of sexual assault. Jacobs writes that ‘[s]lavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women’ (64). As mentioned earlier, this is a value predicated on the reproductive potential of the enslaved woman.

Consequently, Ingrid Diran assesses the reproductive value in Jacob’s text to assert that Linda manipulates her sexuality to escape Dr Flint’s grasp. This sad reality contradicts Douglass’ notions on education’s potential for abolitionism. When discovering Linda’s ability to read, Dr Flint writes sexually explicit love letters to use literacy as an extension of the slaveholder’s sexual desire. To combat this, Linda pretends not to understand them, thereby removing the power of the phallic pen from Flint. This is one of many examples where Linda removes the sexual agency of Flint. There is a diminishing reproductive value in the female slave political economy once the woman reaches sexual maturity. Diran argues that Linda transitions from a ‘fixed capital to a liquid asset’ (707). Therefore, now sexually mature, Linda’s reproductive value can be extracted through progeny by Flint, thereby producing more capital for Flint. However, Linda resists this extraction in her seduction of Mr Hands, whom she hopes will be able to buy her children’s freedom; by conceiving a child with Hands, she diminishes her reproductive value to Flint. However, Flint’s sexual desire for the Other (Linda) is denied by her progeny with Hands, so he then refuses to sell either Linda or her children; therefore, incurring a capital loss. This is one example of Flint’s cruelty towards Jacobs, which derives from his cuckolded sexual desire. Consequently, by escaping/hiding in her grandmother’s attic, under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, she has stolen her labour-power from Flint. She depreciates further in value, incurring a form of sunk cost on Flint. Escaping, she cuckolds his sexual desire spatially rather than the reproductive temporal delay. In Linda’s attempted selling to Sands, she incurs the third humiliation on Flint, as Diran posits ‘she transforms into Dr Flint’s sunk cost, a nonreturn on investment that drains the slaveholder of capital’ (708). Consequently, Flint is denied his sexual desire, his progeny with Linda, and, most importantly, a return on his investment in the female slave political economy. Therefore, there is a dependence on the female slave political economy through necropower, control of the female is necessitated by sexual power.

Sexual abuse in the U.S. slavery was not just perpetrated against slave women but also against slave men, by either white masters or mistresses (Foster). Harriet Jacob’s explores this abuse of the male slave in her narrative with Linda’s retelling of the sadomasochistic relationship between the male slave Luke and his white master. Additionally, Jacobs notes that to avoid detection, white mistresses would sexually abuse the ‘most brutalised [slave], over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure’ (45). Consequently, I would like to argue that necropower is placed over the black male phallus to create a genealogy of control over the black body. In ‘Fanon’s Pharmacy’, Mbembe provides a psychoanalytic decolonial reading of the sexual abuse of the black phallus in history, asserting that modern conceptions of the black figure derive from this sexual abuse (137 Necropolitics). While Drian notices there is a biopolitical and economic advantage for the sexual exploitation of female slaves, there is no such advantage for the sexual abuse of male slaves; therefore, the sexual abuse of male slaves renders them entirely under the control of necropower. The phallus becomes symbolic of death; it is an extension of the body that signifies intrusion and invasion. Therefore, if forced into sex with white females, any potential for progeny is symbolic of death, definitely for the foetus and father and potentially the mother.

 Unlike the female sexual organ, the male phallus produces death and destruction; it is a phobic instrument that perpetuates the myth of fear around black male sexuality. The dead phallus becomes symbolic of necropower. Consequently, Mbembe argues that this renders the male slave ‘above all a member (137); thus, the male figure becomes a figure of death. His sexual organ reinforces his living-in-death status as Jacobs notes that white mistresses chose the most brutalised slaves for sexual enjoyment and sadism. This is symbolic of two instances of necropower: firstly, the slave figure selected has already been subjugated to all manners of death through the lack of food, clothes, and sanitation; additionally, the whippings, beatings forced upon his body all collectively subject him to the absolute power of necropower. And, secondly, in this brutalised state, his phallus is subjected to the domineering necropower of the sexual desire of the white mistress. Consequently, once the mistress has used his phallic power, his body is subjected to the final form of necropower, his execution. Mbembe writes that this final form of necropower takes the guise of lynching, the final death for the male slave. As the male slave is executed, necropower renders his body physically dead and effectively castrates him as, under necropolitics, the male slave becomes a manifestation of the phallus. Consequently, the lynching creates a double humiliation for the slave figure: he is publicly killed and, effectively, publicly castrated. Necropower and the sexual abuse of male slaves are not about extracting capital through sex; it is rather concerned with the degradation of the black male body into complete subservience.

As an advancement of the Foucauldian biopolitics, Necropolitics attempts to ground how control of contemporary life is ensured through various forms of death. Consequently, this essay has provided a genealogy of Necropolitics through its usage in slavery. Slave narratives, like Jacobs or Douglass’, function as manifestations or accounts of necropower at work. Therefore, it is essential to use necropolitics to analyse the advance of global capitalism under which the modern capitalist landscape is formed from slavery, with necropower being a force that continues to other racialised bodies. Necropower, in slavery, incorporates not just the banality of evil in slavery for the advancement of global capitalism. It also includes the physical bodily abuses of lynching, whipping, and beatings to extract the enslaved figure’s labour and capital. Additionally, the extraction of labour through sexual assault and progeny; the sexual assault of male slaves to justify the ultimate form of necropower – castration and lynching. These collective abuses are used to push black bodies to the ultimate boundary of life and death. Consequently, the black body becomes spectral and global capitalism can be advanced. This first ‘biopolitical experimentation’ (22) allows contemporary forms of necropower to flourish, like drone strikes, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and modern terrorism, to control the populace through death.

Works Cited:

Diran, Ingrid. “Scenes of Speculation: Harriet Jacobs and the Biopolitics of Human Capital.” American Quarterly 71.3 (2019): 697-718.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell. Oxford UP, 1999.

Foster, Thomas A. “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery.” Journal of the History of Sexuality (2011): 445-464.

Heintz, Lauren. “Fugitive Performance: Negotiating Biopower and the Law in US Chattel Slavery.” American Quarterly 71.3 (2019): 675-695.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the life of a slave girl. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay and Smith Frances Foster. Norton critical edition, 2001.

Lambert, Gregg. “Biopower and Biopolitics.” The Bloomsbury Handbook of Literary and Cultural Theory. Ed. Jeffrey R. Di Leo. Bloomsbury Collections, 2018. 186-200.

Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason. Trans. Laurent Dubois. Duke UP, 2013.

—. Necropolitics. Trans. Stephen Corcoran. Duke UP, 2019.

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