Race for Life

The short film accompanying musician and designer M.I.A.’s (Maya Arulpragasam, who is British of Sri Lankan Tamil descent) song “Born Free” was released in April of 2010 and immediately banned from YouTube. Arulpragasam is no stranger to controversy, since she has drawn attention to the violence perpetrated against the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, while her music and accompanying visual work is replete with references to different forms of political violence and identification with non-western persecuted populations.
One of the few female artists in contemporary popular music that fuse explicit political content with cutting edge sounds, Arulpragasam has often been accused of toying with radical chic and being politically naïve, rather than associated with a long tradition of women of color musical iconoclasts that ranges from Betty Davis, Poly Styrene, Debora Lyall, and Grace Jones to Nicolette, Erykah Badu, and Ebony Bones. M.I.A. extends this lineage by infusing her artistic practice with sights, sounds and politics from the Global South, deploying these not as fountains of premodern authenticity but as thoroughly ensnared in the planetary technological flows of bodies, capital, and ideas. The entanglements between ‘the West and the rest’ become perceptible in M.I.A.’s work via the mixological juxtaposition of putatively incongruent components, for instance, in the photo on the background of her Twitter page that shows M.I.A. donning a niqab adorned with Scarlett Johansson’s face:
mia twitter.png
“Born Free,” set in the Southwestern United States, begins when a US military SWAT team in search of a suspect forcibly enters a residential building, brutally beating the residents they encounter.[ref]The song’s title evokes the 1960 bestseller Born Free: A Lioness Of Two Worlds, which chronicles how Joy Adamson and her husband raised the first female lion in captivity while working as game wardens in Kenya, its 1966 film adaptation, as well as the film’s popular theme song recorded by several artists, including a1991 version by British comedian Vic Reeves, who appeared earlier on a segment of a television show entitled “Knock Down Ginger” named after a children’s game commonly referred to in the US as “Ding Dong Ditch.”[/ref]Once the soldiers locate and apprehend the man they have been searching for, he is transferred to a prison bus filled with other red-haired men and boys. Ultimately, the ‘gingers’ are taken to the desert, where the SWAT team forces them to exit the bus and commands the men to run over a plot of land swimming with landmines, where they are either executed or blown to pieces by the landmines.
The song, consisting of little besides a cacophonous bass line, martial drumming, and M.I.A.’s highly distorted voice, intensifies the violent assault of the images, generating an affective surplus in which “the life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from . . . the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens.”[ref]Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life. Trans. Anne Boyman. New York: Zone Books, 2001. 28.[/ref]This is why much of the commentary about the video, which focuses on the metaphorics of how Arulpragasam, as a female artist of color, imagines the racially motivated extermination of whites, misses the point. For “Born Free” does not swap ‘gingers’ (non-real) for an ‘actually’ oppressed non-white group (real) in a revanchist manner, but, if anything, uses the hypothetical persecution of red haired-men as a visual tool that places an affective spotlight on the global operations of racialization. Reading this work as metaphoric substitution denies not only the mutability of racial categories but also too readily accepts our current racial order of things as inevitable rather than as a set of sedimented political relations. “Born Free” makes sense only within modern logics of racialization, which veil political processes of subjugation through biological markers (hair color, skin pigmentation, etc.), otherwise the film’s central gambit of placing ‘gingers’ in the victim role would be unremarkable. While the video severs state sponsored persecution from particular historical subjects and objects, it maintains the relentlessly visual basis of the distinction between human life worthy of protection, and that which is not. For the interdiction of subjects that belong to the species of homo sapiens from the ideological domain of humanity depends upon the workings of racialization (differentiation) and racism (hierarchization and exclusion); in fact, the two are frequently inseparable.
For Giorgio Agamben the subjectivity (bare life) produced by modern political violence appears as the political manipulation of biological life in which “the biopolitics of racism. . .transcends race,. . .and we witness the emergence of something like an absolute biological substance.”[ref]Giorgio Agamben. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 1999. 85.[/ref]Even though racism produces this ‘absolute biological substance,’ it does so in the service of erasing racial categorization altogether: life stripped of its humanity. If racism is understood as not resting on phenotype or culture, but, according to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, as “the ordinary means through which dehumanization achieves ideological normality, while, at the same time, the practice of dehumanizing people produces racial categories,” then it names not only the conditions of possibility for violent exclusions but also serves as the foundation for policing the borders between ‘bare life’ and ‘life.’[ref]Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 243-44.[/ref]Thus, the absolute biological substance borne of the biopolitics of racism represents a form of racial classification rather than its supersession.
By using a visually distinctive group of white people, who have faced discrimination, albeit in less severe form than depicted in the video, “Born Free” illustrates the techniques by which ‘bare life’ is affixed to the bodies of specific homo sapiens so that their expulsion from humanity appears natural, and therefore warranted. “Born Free” is a powerful piece of agitprop that, through a slight shift in perspective, draws attention to the global cum systemic aspects of racialized violence. In the process, the film stages how the very idea of human life is intimately bound to racial categorization, asking viewers to imagine a world in which scopic differentiation does not form an integral link in the great chain of human life.
Alexander G. Weheliye is associate professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. He is the author of Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke University Press, 2005). Currently, he is working on two projects. The first, Habeas Viscus: Racialization, Bare Life, and the Human, concerns the relationship between black studies, political violence, and alternate conceptions of humanity. The second, Modernity Hesitant: The Civilizational Diagnostics of W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter Benjamin, tracks the different ways in which these thinkers imagine the ‘marginal’ as central to the workings of modern civilization.

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