Occasional Lecture Series

Report on Abdul JanMohamed's Talk

December 8, 2009

As part of the Occasional Lecture Series of the Forum on Contemporary Theory, a talk by Professor Abdul R. JanMohamed, Chancellor’s Professor in the English Department at University of California, Berkeley, was organized at 4.00 pm on December 8, 2009 at the Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda. Professor JanMohamed has authored Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa; The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse, ed. with David Lloyd; and The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death.  The title of the talk was: “The Deployment of Death as a Form of Coercion and the Modes of Resistance to Such Deployment.”

Dr. Abdul JanMohamed

The talk presented an overview of the author’s ongoing research on how slavery relies on the threat of death to coerce slaves into abject servitude and functioning of the institution of slavery. Using Marxian, psychoanalytic, and phenomenological approaches, the talk focused particularly on the effects of the threat of death on the formation of slave subjectivity, on the unconscious contract effectuated between the master and slave by the threat, and on the processes through which the slave can re-negotiate that contract by restructuring his/her attitude to death and in effect reconstituting subjectivity. Examining African-American narratives of the postcolonial period (by Douglass, Jacobs, Wright, Morrison, Walker, Butler, etc.), the speaker examined the dialectical structure of death and argued that these writers articulate a dialectic profoundly antagonistic to the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic.

In the discussion which followed, issues like alternatives available to slaves other than a willing acceptance of death, the plight and subjectivity of suicide bombers who are indoctrinated, the desire for survival, capital punishment and euthanasia surfaced. Professor JanMohamed observed that the unique predicament of the slave often does not offer any other possible choice, including protest or resistance. He made it clear that he was not trying to theorize on death in all contexts and under ‘normal’ circumstances. With reference to the cultural context(s) presented in the texts under discussion, he further elucidated the complex and nuanced association of death, or rather the fear of it with coercion, available choices, survival of the community and individual and collective resistance. His powerful conceptualization of a situation wherein the choice of survival is more terrifying than the choice to die was indeed moving and the listeners got a glimpse of the horrors of such an existence.