Terror, Riot, Murder: Reading Spivak, Baltimore, and … Frankenstein?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak begins her essay, “Terror: A Speech After 9/11” (2004),

These ruminations arose in response to America’s war on terrorism. I started from the conviction that there is no response to war. War is a cruel caricature of what in us can respond. You cannot be answerable to war.

Yet one cannot remain silent. Out of the imperative or compulsion to speak, then, two questions: What are some already existing responses? And, how respond in the face of the impossibility of response. (boundary 2 31.2, pg. 81)

I do not want to respond t0 the war on terror, but I find myself interested in the activity of response in itself these past few hours.

I’ve read—many have read—quite a few responses today about the heartbreaking unrest in Baltimore, Maryland last night. In truth, I know very little and have little to offer in the way of a direct response to it. Indeed, my response matters very little. About Baltimore’s history of “police immunity” and “dehumanizing poverty” and about details of the “Chaos, Rage, and Confusion That Consumed [It] Last Night,” I have to learn from others: from Shawn Gude, for instance, and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rachel M. Cohen. I have trouble, however, learning from the responses of others—mostly friends or friends of friends—who settle for nice, comfortable, clean clichés: “How does burning down a CVS help anyone?” “My parents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They never rioted to get out of poverty. They worked hard.” “I hope all the homeowners are armed.” “Don’t rioters just perpetuate the cycle of violence?”

But then there is Spivak: “A response . . . supposes and produces a constructed subject of response[;] it also constructs its object” (82). Maybe I do learn something from the clichés above. They purport to speak, after all, from positions of Reason, Experience, Property, and History. Each one demands that the violence last night explain itself as a calculation in the service of a Greater Good. It must explain itself if it is to be treated—like drone strikes, indefinite detainment, secret surveillance, and torture—as legitimate violence (like law or war). When this most recent outbreak of violence fails to pass this test of calculation—burning down a CVS does not help (one has already judged); this violence will probably effectuate more violence—it becomes a very particular, peculiar object. The unrest becomes a ludicrous event, an unacceptable blow against the security of the status quo, a lunge against instrumental reason, a threat to a universal hope for and image of financial mobility, success, and security. The American Dream. Next Baltimore.

But, of course, this version of the rioting—a calculative failure, a purposeless display and decay of thuggish excess, a thing to be squashed—is not the object that appears in Gude, Coates, and Cohen’s writings:

Through it all, the local governing elite has danced the liberal two-step: denounce the extremists, then placate with reassurances that reform is on the way . . . Yet the unrest in Baltimore is a response to the unmitigated failure of this approach. The snails-pace of police reform at the Maryland Legislature didn’t spark an uprising. When Tyrone West died at the hands of police, and when Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts insisted that they were “changing and adapting the organization” after the cops got off scot-free, Baltimoreans didn’t revolt. And when police faced no charges in the death of Anthony Anderson, Charm City residents showed remarkable restraint. (Gude, original links)

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” (Coates)

Speaking at a press conference in the evening, Mayor Rawlings-Blake referred to the Monday rioters as “thugs” who were senselessly “trying to do tear down what so many have fought for.” Some 200 arrests were made by Tuesday morning. Brandon Scott, a city councilman, said, “We can’t let this be a repeat of 1968″—referring to the violent Baltimore riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “Adults have to step up and be adults.” (Cohen, original links)


I do not merely learn information from these three writers. I am not merely gathering data secondhand. I am also learning that the other responses of acquaintances and friends—who purport to speak for the Greater Good, for Reason, Experience, Property, and History—are missing an important reflex. I risk another quote from Spivak, taking her words out of the context of 9/11 (and the war on terror) and applying them to the Baltimore riots. I am not conflating the two. (Good Lord.) Spivak writes:

What seems important today, in the face of this unprecedented attack on the temple of Empire, is not only an unmediated intervention by way of the calculations of the public sphere—war or law—but training . . . into a preparation for the eruption of the ethical. I understand the ethical . . . to be an interruption of the epistemological, which is the attempt to construct the other as object of knowledge. Epistemological constructions belong to the domain of the law, which seeks to know the other, in his or her case, as completely as possible, in order to punish or acquit rationally, reason being defined by the limits set by the law itself. The ethical interrupts this imperfectly, to listen to the other as if it were a self, neither to punish nor to acquit. (83)

What seems important today, likewise, is not “the attempt” of those living outside of this strife “merely to know the other,” to understand the activity of people (many of them young) who appear to be at odds with clean, unproblematic, sanitary notions of Reason, Experience, Property, or History (Spivak 98). What seems important—at the level of gut responsiveness—is a training in listening and imagining the conditions under which this recent violence comes to feel necessary for so many people. This means thinking of rioters not as thugs who fail to make calculated decisions but as selves who may have sustained—who probably have sustained—injury upon injury upon injury to themselves and to those they cannot protect any longer. It means that many of us still have to learn to take on the “toughest task” of imagining ourselves as rioters, even “when everything in [us might] [resist]” (Spivak 98). When we take on this task, we will not get magical insight into a clear motive or a reason. We will not know anything about the ones who lived the violence last night (and who will continue living it). Rather, we prepare our minds to listen. We risk a mode of response that “resonate[s] with the other” and “contemplate[s] the possibility of [our own] complicity”—near or far—in this violence (Spivak 87).

I cannot help but think of my Romanticism students’ responses to Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein (1818) this semester. (If it sounds like I am shoehorning reflections on teaching into a discussion of violence, riot, and terror, it’s because I am. Like Spivak, I am a teacher of reading. This is how “I [find] myself constructed as a respondent” [82].) So, Frankenstein. Many students argued in their research projects that the series of murders at the Creature’s hand—William, Henry, Elizabeth—are actually the result of bad parenting. Victor Frankenstein, in short, should have known better than to abandon his creation. He should have mediated his entrance into civil society, protecting him from maltreatment at the hands of those who do not and cannot understand him, his frame, or his queer existence. Because the Creature grows up alone and vulnerable to the cruelties of human beings, because Victor abandons him so quickly, he should really be acquitted of responsibility for the killings.

Recall Spivak on the ethical: “an interruption of the epistemological . . . neither to punish nor to acquit.” Neither to accuse or excuse.

It would be nice if Shelley’s novel, on closer inspection, allowed us to delineate cleanly between the innocent and guilty parties and to transform the narrative into a morality tale on the dangers and failures of human ambition. But to do so misses, as many students did miss, that the Creature is a fully-developed moral agent. He may very well be the first instance in literary history of an artificial super-intelligence. To excuse him is to deny him his remarkable agency. Yet my students are right. Despite his clear responsibility for the deaths of Victor’s closest friends and family, the novel asks us to sympathize with him, to do what no other character in the novel can do: to listen to him and imagine ourselves inhabiting a space of injury and a condition in which these murders feel necessary. To imagine this is not to condone the murders. It is not to acquit the Creature. It is to suspend judgment of him and his creator.

I have no way to end these reflections other than to look back toward the texts my students and I studied this semester and to wonder if they have been trained and prepared to listen, to be interrupted by the ethical, to delay knowing so that they might imagine their way into Baltimore. “George Fletcher’s idea in [Romantics at War],” Spivak writes, “that romanticism was simply a variety of irrationalism, may be questionable. We must call the glass half full rather than half empty. Romanticism was a strike for a robust imagination—for me, it is summarized in [Percy] Shelley’s remark . . . that ‘we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know'” (100-1). I hope my students imagine their way into the urgencies of the unrest as Gude, Coates, and Cohen capture it. I hope we all do. I have come to believe with Spivak, “Unless we are trained into imagining the other, a necessary, impossible, and interminable task, nothing we do through politico-legal calculation will last” (83). To those who try to calculate and test these riots against their own readymade senses of Reason, Experience, Property, or History, I respond simply: read a book. Learn to suspend yourself. Learn that the true “response is in the fire” (Spivak 87).

Reading on . . .

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