Police, Property, and the Problem of Self-Preservation

Body Politics, Justice

In light of contemporary work in black feminism, a critical consideration of police violence shows us that the ostensibly natural right to self-preservation is, in fact, not afforded to certain racialized (namely, black) subject positions.

Self-preservation is badly understood so long as it is conceived as an act undertaken by a self-possessed individual. Such an understanding presupposes precisely what wants for explanation, i.e. the propriety of the self, or the self as a mode of the property relation. In what follows, I suggest, first, that we can clarify our understanding of the paradoxes and politics of self-preservation by way of a critical examination of this property relation, and, second, that such a critical examination demands an encounter with contemporary theoretical work in black feminism. The questions of property and self-preservation are entangled with the question of race—not incidentally but fundamentally so.

To put it briefly: what is at stake in self-preservation is, of course, the self. However, the self is so fundamentally conditioned by the property relation that, because of the racial logic internal to property, the so-called right to self-preservation assumes the characteristic structure, and (re)distributive regime, of the color line. But the color line must be enforced if it is to obtain. What is, or who are, this enforcement? It occurs to me that the phenomenon of police violence, especially when considered in light of the extreme asymmetry of its distribution, can shed some light on the problem of self-preservation.

The politico-theological stakes of this problem are perhaps best captured by Du Bois’ unforgettable definition of the desire for whiteness, namely, “ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” If political theology, be it Schmittian or otherwise, is to think such a desire—so as to extirpate it—then political theologians must turn their attention to theoretical work of contemporary Black Studies, which is itself a sort of radical “sociology of juristic concepts.” This essay is but a first attempt at such a liaison.

Consider the well-known and widespread slogan of police: “To Protect and Serve.” The words are often emblazoned on the sides of police vehicles and on the covers of policing manuals. The phrase expresses, at a purely formal register, both the modus operandi and the raison d’être of police: police exist to keep us safe, to preserve the social order and prevent crime. (Of course, as Alex S. Vitale points out, there is no correlation between the number of police and crime rates, and police actually fabricate the social order rather than preserve it.)

Consider, too, the counter-slogan commonly heard on the anarchist and socialist left: “To Protect and Serve—Property!” The punctuated twist of the final term reveals the latent content of the empty slogan, accusing police of acting as handmaidens—or hired hands—of the elite and ruling classes. I am sympathetic to the politics of this rhetorical maneuver, but I wonder what else lies latent in the concept of property that is obscured by the reference to property in general. Marx famously reproached Proudhon for just such obscurity, and insisted that one must examine the form of property specific to a given moment in history, a given society, and a given mode of production. While we don’t have the time to undertake a wholesale critique of contemporary capitalist property relations, we can pose one question nonetheless: What are police protecting and serving when they protect and (pre)serve property?

It might seem strange to pose the question this way, since the object of our inquiry is self-preservation, rather than property-preservation. Yet if, as I claimed at the outset, the modern liberal concept of the self is structured by the property relation, we need to elucidate its nature. Then we might be able to understand why police are afforded an absolute right to self-preservation, and, moreover, why the practice of self-preservation by police so often results in, and even depends on, the destruction of other lives—black lives in particular.

Liberal politico-juridical doctrine tells us that a person, precisely because she is self-possessed, may defend herself against threats to her body and well-being. Since at least Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, self-preservation has been understood as a fundamental right of free human beings. The force of Locke’s argument is felt today in the form of a spontaneous common sense, whereby it is simply assumed, even by those who are ostensibly critical of liberalism, that “every man has a property in his own person” and that “this [property] nobody has any right to but himself” (§27). The abstract universality of property is expressed in the person, or the self, of free human beings. Indeed, it is this relation to oneself in terms of one’s propriety—e.g. selfhood, personhood—which defines, concretely, liberal freedom as such. That one’s body is one’s own: this is the self in its most minimal determination. Yet it is not at all clear today (to say nothing of Locke’s day) that the universality of natural liberty lives up to its claims.

Rather than pursue the typical, anodyne procedure for criticizing liberal political ideals (e.g. taking the measure of the perceived gap between the ideal and the actual and offering a moral exhortation to close the span of that gap), I turn to a pair of black feminists, whose respective projects interrogate and illuminate the structure and violence of the property relation, rather than presupposing it.

In the introduction to her 2014 anthology and art exhibition, No Selves to Defend: A Legacy of Criminalizing Women of Color for Self-Defense, Mariame Kaba relates the story of Mary Wilson, who in 1913 shot and killed a soldier who had threatened and harassed her. Wilson’s was an impossible act of self-defense: impossible because, as Kaba reminds us, Wilson “was a black woman living in Texas at the turn of the 20th century. For a black woman, mere flesh is not a self. And for centuries, black women have had no selves to defend.” Kaba and her co-authors multiply their examples of women, most of them black, who, having been socially and politically reduced to bodies or fungible objects, have suffered similarly: Marissa Alexander, Lena Baker, Inez Garcia—to name but the first three figures in the anthology.

In a symbolic order organized by, or as, the afterlife of slavery, these exemplary black women have no recourse to self-defense; their every action is but criminal offense.

Kaba’s invocation of ‘mere flesh’—i.e. that which fails to attain to the selfhood of a self endowed with the capacity to preserve and defend itself—is decisive. It evokes Hortense Spillers’s classic analysis of the evisceration of the gender and subjectivity of black women under, and after, the cataclysm of slavery and the Middle Passage. Spillers shows that the captive bodies of African men and women are subjected to a unique, perhaps unprecedented, form of alienation or social death. In the transformation of African people into black bodies, not only gender difference but all social relations, apart from slavishness or objecthood, are lost: “the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor.”

Spillers therefore draws a careful distinction between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ and the subject positions they come to express, insisting that the flesh of the liberated precedes the body of the captive. Yet the term ‘flesh’ is for Spillers extremely equivocal: one cannot simply valorize the flesh against the body and so have done with slavery or its afterlife. By defining flesh as the “zero degree of social conceptualization,” Spillers calls our attention to the fact that the self and the body are socially and discursively produced, and that the flesh of African people has been used as raw material for numerous regimes of production, be they symbolic or economic. That is to say, if flesh is to be owned, traded, and tortured, it must be rendered body.

Hence Spillers describes slavery and its afterlife, “this human and social irreparability,” as “high crimes against the flesh, as the person of African females and African males registering the wounding.” The natal alienation, kinlessness, and fungibility of black slaves are instances of “cultural formation where ‘kinship’ loses meaning, since it can be invaded at any given and arbitrary moment by the property relations.” This invasion, this reduction to body-object, can take a number of forms, ranging from discursive and juridical to political and ballistic.

This is one way to understand why the bodies of black people seem to, in the words of Frank B. Wilderson III, “magnetize bullets.” To lack a self is to lack the polar point that lies opposite the body, such that the bullets themselves are like little selves, in search of a body that can serve as the unifying pole of their propriety. If there is no self to appropriate the body as its own—the self just is this appropriation—then the body is no one’s body: not anybody but anyone’s body.And if there were such a thing as property in general, the generic body of the slave would be its perverse exemplar, common to all except the erased person whose flesh is torn asunder by rights as much as by bullets.

Self-preservation is a right, or capacity, not afforded to black people. This is so not only because—in our symbolic order, structured as it is by the property relations of racial capitalism and white supremacy—black people have no self to preserve, but also because they have no self with which to preserve themselves, that is, their bodies. By contrast, not only are police given—in excess even of natural liberty—license to kill, they are defined precisely by self-preservation.

This is true in a double sense, for this or that police officer may, of course, act in self-defense whenever and wherever he or she feels threatened. This much is afforded even to individual, self-possessed civilians. But police are, more profoundly, the social principle of self-preservation. Police are not individuals, though individuals can ‘put on’ police, as one puts on a uniform, and thereby ‘participate’ in concrete police practices. Police are rather a profoundly social force—a spirit or a ghost, as Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida have remarked—and the self that police preserve is not ‘their own’ but the very meaningfulness and coherence of ‘one’s own.’

For self-preservation is, on the one hand, not only preserving one’s self, but preserving the self for oneself, so that one can continue to avail oneself of it; and on the other hand, preserving oneself for the self, so that one can avail oneself of oneself—so that one can be oneself, an owner or colonizer. Self-preservation is the property relation in actu, expressive of a modern political ontology positively obsessed with race, for race is the way Being is said in modernity. This is a political and theological problem of the highest order, and it is a hard teaching. Yet it can perhaps help those who want of ears to hear to understand what Wilderson means to say when he claims that “White people are not simply ‘protected’ by the police, they are the police.”

It is not clear what should be done, or what can be done, to ameliorate this state of affairs—the order of violence we call the world. One would have to cease to be oneself, put an end to oneself. Or put an end to the world.

Police, Property, and the Problem of Self-Preservation

In light of contemporary work in black feminism, a critical consideration of police violence shows us that the ostensibly natural right to self-preservation is, in fact, not afforded to certain racialized (namely, black) subject positions.

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