Bearing witness to the wake-differend’s of slavery.

            M. NourbeSe Phillip’s 2008 experimental poetry collection Zong! attempts to “find a form to bear this story which can’t be told, which must be told, but through not telling” (Saunders 72). Phillip’s commentary on the necessity of Zong! speaks to the incommensurability of slavery and the inability to bear witness to it through language. How can one bear witness to the incommensurability of language is one of the central problems of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1983 The Differend. A differend, he claims, situates a wrong between (at least) two parties that cannot be phrased, as the genres of discourse that compose them are radically heterogeneous and incommensurable to one another (xi). Therefore, to articulate this wrong, one must form new idioms “[t]o bear witness to the differend” (xiii). However, by putting a differend into a phrase, one constitutes a new differend and commits violence against a party (either the same or a new one). Therefore, any solution is ephemeral and potentially invalid as it betrays the differend and commits violence against a group by silencing it (Lyotard 9). This systemic praxis for bearing witness to the differend is something Christina Sharpe argues in her 2016 monograph In the Wake. For Sharpe, there is no “After Slavery”; there is what she calls living in the wake, thereby existing as present hauntological spectres of slavery. Consequently, this essay will propose a portmanteau of Sharpe and Lyotard that coalesces through what I term wake-differends – attempts to bear witness to the middle passage and its present hauntings. 

Wake: the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming or moved, in water; it is the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow.

(Sharpe 14)

Sharpe’s morbid metaphor is our first example of a wake-differend. It evokes the Unheimlich reality of the Atlantic; it is an aquatic graveyard of dissolved and dissolving stolen bodies. Consequently, the Atlantic has the fixed spatial temporality of a continuous aquatic crematorium; the stolen bodies are not abstracted like ash in the wind; instead, they are “alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine” (Sharpe 19). Therefore, the composition of the Atlantic is a fluid scar tissue that is perpetually cut and recut by the “track[s] left on the water’s surface” (14). Consequently, by recognising the Atlantic as a former and present space of genocide, the cicatrices rupture, weep and bleed. Phillip’s writing practice opens up these scars to bear witness to the wake-differend of the 1781 Zong massacre. Phillip gives voice to more than 130 enslaved people that were jettisoned off the slave-ship Zong to avoid incurring a sunk cost on the slave-owners. The voyage took longer than the usual 6–9-week trans-Atlantic voyage; drinking water became scarce. The enslaved cargo was insured on the predication that their death was “natural,” e.g., not from terminal dehydration. Therefore, to save the economic modalities predicated on the enslaved cargo, more than 130 people were thrown overboard. The Zong massacre became a seminal tort, Gregson v. Gilbert, to determine whether the insurance would cover the jettisoned people; the case concluded favouring Gregson (the owners) (Phillip).

Although Gregson v. Gilbert concluded favouring Gregson, this solution commits violence against the jettisoned figures and those who survived by silencing them. Consequently, the Zong massacre becomes a differend, to use Sharpe’s metaphor, one of many “track[s] left on the water’s surface” (14). In The Differend, Lyotard presents the hypothetical case of the Martinican citizen, as a French citizen, who can submit a legal complaint against “whatever impinges his or her rights as a French citizen” (27). However, if their French citizenship is their complaint, they have no cause for complaint as “it is not a matter for litigation under French law”; furthermore, to bring such a claim to an international court, it cannot be as a French citizen. Lyotard’s example is purposefully paradoxical, as it reiterates that any attempt to resolve a differend will commit violence against a party, thus creating a new differend ad infinitum. The case of the Martinican citizen speaks to the coloniser’s dominion over the colonised people; this ownership is expressed through an imposed citizenship. Therefore, the genres of discourse that compose the Martinican phrases are entrenched in a differend.

Returning to Phillip’s Zong!, all the words in her first section, “Os”, are constructed out of the legal genre of discourse from Gregson v. Gilbert. Consequently, to bear witness to this wrong, Phillip transcends the limited spatiality of the written page to grant a semblance of voice to the silenced victims. Phillip wrangles with Saidiya Hartman’s pertinent question, “can narrative embody life in words?” (3). In “Zong! #1”, just as the letters struggle to formulate the noun “water”, the jettisoned figures struggle to breathe (3). Consequently, there is a cruel but necessary atemporal equivalency created. Just as Phillip struggles to construct a narrative in the wake of Zong, the collective voice of the drowning people cannot pronounce the noun engulfing their lungs. Furthermore, the homophonic qualities of “song” and “Zong” coupled with Phillip’s performances of Zong! construct an oral, guttural, gargled voice. The auditory atmosphere of the poetry again transcends the limited spatiality of written discourse that bears witness to the wake-differend

Wake; in the line of recoil of (a gun).

(Sharpe 8)

            Sharpe’s second metaphor is much shorter and contains more present agency than her previous one; it speaks to an immediacy, a visceral gut reaction that coalesces through a “recoil”. Consequently, if the first wake-differend is an open/ed/ing scar, this second one is an explosive ripple, one located much more in the present. The loaded object of “(a gun)” is enclosed in shadowy parentheses; the gun is a shadowy object that exerts necropower over black bodies in the present. By bearing witness to the two wake-differends, Sharpe speaks to the destruction of history and temporality; both the past and the immediate past explode in the present. Specifically, this metaphor is Sharpe’s response to the murder of Caleb Williams; however, it is also a meta-reflection on all past, present, and future killings of marginalised figures. Although referencing Williams by name, there is an acknowledgement of a nominal erasure in both wake-differends. In the wake of police violence, this erasure of names is most poignantly displayed in Claudine Rankine’s 2014 Citizen. Rankine creates a wake-memorial where names fade into the typographic whiteness of the page, “In memory of [X]” (134). Consequently, if we broaden this nominal erasure back to the “track[s] left on the water’s surface” (Sharpe 14), we are left with an atemporal erasure.

              In Lyotard’s initial description of phrases (used to include and extend what is usually described as language), he explains how each phrase presents a phrase-universe composed of a referent(s), a meaning(s), an addresser(s), and an addressed(s) (xi). Consequently, the erasure of the proper name from either a “recoil [or a] track” destroys the linkages that grant meaning to a referent. Therefore, a perfect crime can be committed by “neutrali[sing] the addressor, the addressee, and the sense of the testimony; then everything is as if there were no referent (no damages)” (Lyotard 8). By erasing the name, one neutralises the referent, and through that, there is no witness or victim as there is no crime. It is through Lyotard’s analysis of Adorno’s modelling of “Auschwitz” as a negative dialectic that it becomes the “name without a speculative “name,” not sublatable [irrelevable] into a concept” (88). “Auschwitz” becomes a place that destroys the phrase and, therefore, the proper name; for Adorno, “Auschwitz” is the nameless place, the destruction of phenomenology. Lyotard extends Adorno’s proclamation to assert that the destruction of the phrases results in “” Auschwitz” [becoming] the forbiddance of the beautiful death […] For if death can be exterminated, it is because there is nothing to kill.” (100-101). The witness to “Auschwitz” is expected to give testimony to an unspeakable, unnameable, and unthinkable event. Lyotard’s usage of “Auschwitz” as a nameless name-model is problematic, as Derrida notes that it runs the risk that “the risk is that this we [occidental Europeans] ‘would consign to oblivion or would brush aside (latéraliserait) proper names other than that of Auschwitz and which are just as abhorrent as it.” (Lyotard The Lyotard Reader 386). Derrida’s critique is necessary as it broadens out Lyotard’s name-model to the “recoil of (a gun) [or the] ‘track[s] left on a water’s surface” (Sharpe 8-14). Once again, we return to Phillip’s Zong! the Atlantic is a wounded space, a swirling Charybdis that consumes the phrase, destroying the name and, therefore, leaving the middle passage an event with no referent. However, unlike Adorno, Phillip attempts poetry “after Slavery” insofar as she engages in what Lyotard would call a “para-experience” (100). This “para-experience” mode of writing acknowledges the ontological and phenomenological negation of slavery to weave an anti-narrative; Phillip’s insertion of African-stylised names to the bottom of each page in “Os” serves to grant a referent to the massacre. Consequently, it allows a partial reconstruction of the destroyed being and experience of those in the middle passage.  

Wake: a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances including eating and drinking.

(Sharpe 10)

            Sharpe’s final metaphor is the last wake-differend this essay will discuss. However, unlike the previous two, this metaphor speaks to a recapitulation, a recapitulation of the ontological negations of the first two. Consequently, there is a sense of acquiescence, a sense of an ending, one that resonates through a reading of Phillip’s Zong!. Celebratory is too positive a word, but mourning is too pessimistic; consequently, this wake-differend attempts to find new idioms to bear this meaning. Furthermore, silence is present in a “watch, a vigil”, or even “a wake” Sharpe 10); however, silence is still a phrase. The gaps in Phillip’s poetry are as equally phrasal as the words on the page. Silence is the narrative of the collection; Phillip puts into phrases “the story that cannot be told [by] not telling” (Saunders 72). Therefore, Phillip engages with the Wittgensteinian proclamation of “ [w]hat we cannot speak we must pass over in silence” (qtd. in Lyotard 80). Lyotard counters this, claiming, “[in silence] it is unable to be phrased in the common idioms, it is already phrased, as feeling”. Therefore, in silence, “feeling” becomes the incommensurable phrase.

            Consequently, how does Phillip translate this incommensurable silenced feeling without entrenching it in the discursive order? To answer this, we must look to Lyotard’s earlier text, Discourse Figure (1971), specifically applying Lyotard’s notion of the figure-matrix. If one picks up Zong! and attempts to read it from cover to cover, the reader will surely fail; it cannot be read. However, it must be read, but through not reading. Consequently, this is where “reading” Zong! as an example of the figure-matrix occurs; you must read by not reading. Lyotard defines the figure-matrix as “invisible, the object of originary repression, instantly laced with discourse [however,] the figure-matrix is figure, not structure because it is [… a ] violation of the discursive order” (268). Consequently, Phillip’s poignant repurposing of the language of Gregson v. Gilbert does not form a new space for poetic structure; instead, her deconstructive method forms a new poetic figure. Her typographic experimentation stretches the legibility and visibility of poetry to relate her project to 300+ years of revisionism and obfuscation. Phillip’s deconstructive writing process applies to the figure-matrix: “a site belonging at once to the space of text, mise-en-scène, and stage” (276). “Sal” is the section that exemplifies this method the most, as Phillip blows the words out across the page. While a sense of structure is maintained in previous sections, here the words spread like ash in the wind; therefore, they become figural. Eventually, “Sal” culminates in a Joycean assemblage of multi-lingual idioms, “sont gens pas”, “so la fi ma”, and “ s drown dow/ own the won” (136-137). Consequently, there are no collections of idioms that can translate the trauma of this wake-differend. Finally, in the last section, “Ebora”, the poetry fades into the page, into each other, finally dissolving into a linguistic soup that again attempts to speak to 300+ years of obfuscation and revisionism.

wake the state of wakefulness; consciousness

(Sharpe 4)

            Although the previous wake-differend was this essay’s last example, there can be no solving a differend; therefore, I have concluded with reference to another one of Sharpe’s metaphors that encompasses this notion. As Lyotard asserted in his “Preface: Reading Dossier”, there is no singular all-encompassing grand-differend; therefore, there is no grand wake-differend. It is a process that involves a perpetual cutting and recutting of the Atlantic scar tissue, responding to the “recoil of (a gun)” or even a “vigil” (Sharpe 8;10). They are all examples of wake-differends that coalesce through Phillip’s Zong!. A text that embodies Lyotard’s notions of the figure-matrix and the “para-experience” of “after Slavery”. Consequently, we must bear witness to these wake-differends through reading Zong!, the story that cannot be read, which must be read, but through not reading.


Works Cited

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12.2 (2008): 1-14.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “‘Discussions, or phrasing ‘after Auschwitz’.” The Lyotard Reader. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford Blackwell, 1989.

—. Discourse Figure. Trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon. UMP, 1971.

—. Fiscourse Digure: The Utopia behind the Scenes of the Phantasy. Trans. Mary Lydon. Vol. 35. Johns Hopkins UP, 1983. 1st Mar 2022. <;.

—. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Manchester UP, 1983.

Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Trans. Stephen Corcoran. Duke UP, 2019.

Phillip, Marlene NourbeSe and Setaey Adamu Boateng. Zong! Wesleyan UP, 2008.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin Random House, 2014.

Saunders, Patricia J. “Defending the Dead, Confronting the Archive: A Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip.” Small Axe 2.12 (2008): 63-79.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.

Vaziri, Parisa. “False Differends: Racial Slavery.” Philosophy Today (2022). <;.

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