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A commentary on “Brave New World” by Sheldon S. Wolin, Theory & Event, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2001)

Without cruelty, there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches—and in punishment there is so much that is festive!


In the aftermath of 9/11 there emerged a manufactured consent that ours was a “new world,” one where Americans were suddenly vulnerable to terrorist attacks for the first time. The shock of the destruction spilled into widespread alarm, stoked collective outrage and provoked indignant responses of “how dare they?” For a brief moment, some even entertained the question, however innocently, of “why they hate us.” The ensuing global “War on Terror” propagated by the Bush administration was largely abetted by a complicit media that dared not overextend itself with the work of contesting the veracity of Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Nor would pundits venture to peer too deeply into the Administration’s judgment to invade a country that had nothing to do with the terrorism in question. There appeared to be an agreement that this was an unprecedented time that called for equally exceptional measures. So it was fitting that during the inaugural years of Theory & Event, Sheldon S. Wolin addressed the purported novelty of the post 9/11 political environment in an essay entitled “Brave New World.”2 Wolin argued against framing the emergent issue at hand as a war centered on terrorism alone. Instead, he contended that we would do well to consider “terrorism in the context of certain developments that preceded it. Declaring a world as new is not only a way of calling attention to what is novel and distinctive but a distraction from some unresolved problems.”3

In his short essay, the specific remainders Wolin had in mind prompted him to ask what democratic citizenship can mean in the context of a superpower nation and globalized economy. A worthy topic [End Page 24] indeed, since the novelty of the “war on terror” was buttressed by the Bush Administration’s insistence that the war persist “indefinitely” and the war was “declared by an illegitimate president.”4 When some citizens wondered aloud “why they hate us,” Wolin saw not just ignorance, but a citizenry that viewed itself as not “being implicated in the actions of their government, particularly if it concerns matters imperial involving remote and alien people. Not being implicated is recognition of one’s powerlessness.”5 From there it followed that the “sovereign people” have come to inhabit the role of spectator whose participation is limited to cheering for their side—even when an election is stolen or war is waged in their name.6

For Wolin, “terrorism by itself,” should be rejected as a “dangerous construction,” in favor of considering “terrorism in the context of certain developments that preceded it.”7 Yet, as I shall argue, we are in particular danger of considering terrorism in isolation precisely when we ignore the history of racial terror that looms large among the War on Terror’s preceding developments. In his essay, Wolin did not include an analysis of race in the context of 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Nevertheless, his reference to the antecedent conditions out of which 9/11 arose provides an opening for my consideration of race here. In what follows I take up Wolin’s call to address those preceding developments by examining the legacy of racial terror that remains unresolved and is perpetuated by spectator citizens who largely regard themselves as not being implicated in the actions of their government. At the present moment, the focus on “terrorism by itself” largely means considering it as the exclusive domain of Islamic extremists. Such a horizon decontextualizes the issue from how the current War is conjoined to historically entrenched, unresolved problems of domestic racial terror—problems so redolent of history and still so pervasive today. With this in mind, I take the recurring incidents of police terror against African Americans and Native Americans to be an outgrowth of the “troubling tendencies” toward which Wolin gestured, tendencies that “far from being short-circuited by the murderous attacks are feeding off them.”8 One might see this symbiosis still at work today in local police forces equipped with leftover military armor, municipalities allowed to make use of military surveillance technologies, and scenes that might otherwise be visages of democratic protest have become likened to occupied war zones. Hence my own focus will not be on “matters imperial involving remote and alien people” abroad. Rather, the spectacles below feature those within the US whose experiences arise from the continuity of imperial settler colonialism and legacy of chattel slavery; those who appear in the media, but who are nevertheless widely viewed as “remote and alien”—and subject to governmental powers figured as unaccountable to the consent of the governed. [End Page 25]

The fixation with a newfound vulnerability to terrorism betrays a form of innocence made potently available by acknowledging the disavowed legacy of white supremacy. By briefly considering how the experience and memory of America’s vulnerability to terrorism in post-9/11 world is segregated along racial lines, I seek to broaden the temporal aperture of the problem of terrorism by destabilizing the conventional narrative of change without continuity. One important aspect of this continuity involves the affective economy of racialized pain and pleasure at work before the country’s founding, yet arguably still at play in contemporary disciplinary spectacles. The vignettes that follow are drawn from US racial biopolitical projects as they pertain to African Americans and Amerindian peoples historically regarded as both agents and subjects of racial terror. The scenes represent but a modest portion of the spectrum composing the broader historical prism looking out onto the present-day conflagration of neoliberal imperialism, white supremacy and the War on Terror. My all-too-brief remarks in these pages are but a step toward, and claim no pretense of, a comprehensive account.9 While not ostensibly about Foucault, underlying my analysis is an implicit challenge to the historical periodicity of his formulation of punishing spectacle, conditioning through disciplinary surveillance, and the instantiation of biopolitical projects.10 The inherence of white supremacy in colonial tactics and legacies makes each of the above operative in ways that, as will be shown, are historically cotemporaneous in moments, evolving in others and still relevant today.

These introductory remarks are followed by four sections. To begin to illuminate that which is unresolved, I first inquire into whom a vulnerability to terrorism is new in order to explore the impact such a temporal divide in perception portends for the broader whole— however fractured that whole may be. African Americans and Native Americans have long understood racial terror as an existential part of their American experience, so I consider each in turn. I explore disciplinary spectacles associated with the bloody colonial contest of King Philip’s War and the role of such displays in early American racial formation. Subsequently, I offer an account of the techniques employed in reaction to the anti-slavery uprisings of the antebellum era and the lynching culture of Reconstruction that prefaces the state-sponsored brutality of present day spectacles of police violence against African Americans. I close the essay by briefly reflecting on the novel and Shakespearean phrase Wolin invokes in the title of his piece, Brave New World, as it pertains to contemporary affective economies of pain and pleasure in a digital age. [End Page 26]

Recently, The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) published a harrowing report entitled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.”11 Researchers claim to have uncovered at least 700 more instances of racial terror than were previously known, showing that between 1877 and 1950 nearly 4,000 African Americans were lynched by Southern whites. With tactics every bit as barbaric as those of ISIS, lynchings were often very public spectacles showcased to maintain the racial hierarchy. EJI Director Bryan Stevenson explains why it was important to use the word “terror” in the report to describe the atrocities:

I heard from older people of color in the South over the last 10 years who have complained to me that they get angry and upset when they hear TV commentators and news analysts talking about how, after the 9/11 attacks, America is dealing with terrorism for the first time in its history. What these older people of color will say is, Mr. Stevenson, we grew up with terrorism. We were menaced and threatened and lynched and traumatized every day of our lives. And it is injurious to us to not have that recognized by these casual comments. So our use of the word “terror” was definitely intentional.12

For Stevenson, the greatest injustice of slavery was not “involuntary servitude” but the pernicious ideology of racial difference wrought by white supremacy. It was this ideology that made it right and just to dehumanize and enslave black people in the first place.

The preceding remarks also invite us to consider how what, elsewhere,I have called segregated memory is relevant to the post 9/11 discourse of terrorism and its political effects.13 For instance, The Ku Klux Klan, the nation’s oldest and most notorious homegrown terrorist organization, is not even classified as a terrorist group by the US government. Despite being culpable for the deaths of far more Americans than Islamic terrorists, the KKK is merely labeled a “hate group.”14 This designation matters since it allows the Klan to fundraise, to hold public rallies and to openly recruit new members. Just momentarily, set aside the important questions about the limits of First Amendment protections to ask whether ISIS or al-Qaeda would be afforded the same official designation and corresponding concessions were they to operate across the United States in plain view.

It is similarly difficult to imagine that white males would be a group targeted as Muslims are in the security efforts funded with the estimated $6 trillion dollars that the US has spent on the War on Terror.15 Remarkably, when white men such as Timothy McVeigh, Dylan Roof and anyone among the proliferating hit parade of school assassins that commit mass-murder, they are, time and again, depicted as participating in “lone-wolf” attacks. Unlike crimes committed by people of color, killings perpetrated by white men do not become an occasion for [End Page 27] sustained collective investigation into whether white males or a subset white male culture might arise from a pathology of criminality. I raise the point not to diagnose or investigate white male racial pathology, but to demarcate a contradiction in liberal practice wherein whites are regarded as individuals and the actions of individual people of color are understood to be emblematic of a racial collective. Against the historical backdrop of a Presidential election wherein the crime of one individual is martialed as proof that all Mexicans are rapists, and the murders committed by extremists are evidence that all Muslims are terrorists, one might look upon the actions of homicidally-disaffected whites as an occasion to ask just how many “lone wolf” perpetrators of terror does it take to make a pack.

Suffice it to say, America’s segregated memory of terrorism is not merely an esoteric concern. It is virtually impossible—or at least it should be impossible—to dissociate the tradition of spectacular racial terror in history from the ongoing scenes of subjection so hideously florid in the media today; scenes that people of color have long endured prior to the digital age. One need not ignore the important differences between the Jim Crow era and the present day to draw attention to how the public spectacle of dehumanizing black bodies still functions as a disciplinary tool in the service of maintaining racial hierarchy. Consider the virtually nonstop images of unarmed African Americans being wrongfully shot by police or dying mysteriously after being taken into custody. By now, we know what happens after the grim spectacle. It is likely just a matter of time before either the officers are charged and acquitted, or more typically, never indicted at all. As Ta-Nehesi Coates has observed by contemplating the lessons his son will absorb from these injustices, not only will the officers responsible not go to jail. Most will get pensions.16

With scenes like these compounding regularly (Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray, to name but a few), one sees a simultaneity in the various disciplinary spectacles of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish that reinforce the lessons of racial epistemology as part of the biopolitical agenda he theorized in Society must be Defended.17 The takeaway from those lessons is clear. Black lives still do not count as human lives. Vast swaths of white America have yet to awaken to the humanity of black people. And, above all, white supremacist society will be defended.

The borders of white racial identity have shifted through time, while the use of disciplinary spectacles in the country’s race making projects has endured. The lessons of those projects have been continually reinforced since the genocide at the heart of the nation’s founding.18 Presently, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any [End Page 28] other racial group.19 As Wolin writes in Democracy Inc. the wars against the Indians were, “the first chapter in the national commitment to eradicating terrorists while extending the reach of its government.”20 It is therefore appropriate to turn to King Philip’s War (1675–6) as a formative example of the spectacles that were part and parcel of the gory work of exterminating Native peoples., The New England settlers and the Wampanonoag, Nipmuck, Narragansett, Pocomtuck and Abenaki tribes engaged in a fierce contest—to put it mildly. The colonists would ultimately prevail, but barely; and with stunning fatalities. Both sides engaged in torture of the living and mutilation of the dead.21

The English colonial settlers of the time were in an uncomfortable position when it came to their participation in cruelties they derided as “savage” when undertaken by both the Indians and the Spanish colonists.22 Committing the very atrocities they had criticized rendered ever more precarious the colonists’ identity as Englishmen. To shore up their self-perception, they fashioned an intriguing economy of pain and pleasure.23 The English depicted both the Spanish and the Indians as taking savage delight in torturing their captives—but not the other way around. Colonial accounts describe Indians suffering torture in silence at the center of a circle of spectatorship. A sign of bravery in Mohegan culture, the colonists took such stoicism as evidence of the Indians’ absence of pain, and thus their inhumanity. According to Historian Jill Lepore, the very question of whether the Indians and the English were of mutual human descent was what arguably “caused King Philip’s War in the first place.”24

As the war raged on, compassion toward Indians would prove as fleeting as the colonial belief in Indian humanity. For Puritan leader Increase Mather, the conflict was nothing less than a holy war against barbarism. Without irony, he would recount his delight at seeing Philip’s dead body “hewn to pieces before the Lord.”25 When the war was finally brought to an end, its culmination did not just amount to vanquishing an Indian foe. Rather, it concluded with a scene bearing at least a passing resemblance to that with which Foucault opens Discipline and Punish.26 After he was shot dead, King Philip’s corpse was drawn and quartered, one severed hand was given to the man who shot him and the other brought to Boston—allegedly in a bucket of rum. His decapitated head was displayed prominently on a pike in Plymouth.27 Some accounts indicate that Philip’s skull remained on display for the better part of a century, with his empty eye sockets serving as a proto-panoptic spectacle looking over the colony.28

One might be tempted to surmise that King Philip’s cranium was set out just to serve as a ghastly scarecrow warning vengeful natives away from any thoughts of attack. Yet such a reading would not explain why it remained in place for so long, and would miss the disciplinary function performed by the spectacle of the skull and the memory of the [End Page 29] war. It is difficult not to see it as a celebrated trophy convening shared pleasure as well as a reminder to the colonists of whom the enemy was and the terror that stalks those who would dare forget that Schmittian distinction. Increase Mather’s son, the famously austere Cotton Mather, certainly took a lesson from the memory, even though he was only twelve at the time of the war. Young Cotton Mather didn’t miss the opportunity to desecrate Philip’s remains one more time by removing the jawbone from his skull years later to permanently silence the man he denigrated as “that blasphemous Leviathan.” 29 Read symbolically, the move expressed a need to prevent Philip and his people from telling counter-histories and gruesome tales of European atrocity in the context of a colonial populace still haunted by the possibility that they were degenerating into Indian savages. 30 Accordingly, writings on the war justifying the colonists’ actions quickly proliferated in its wake.31 With respect to King Philip’s remains, some Native Americans prefer an oral history where his head was found and given a proper burial. Notwithstanding such conflicting memories, Lepore asks an important question that lingers still: presuming the Indians did bury Philip’s skull, did it have a jaw?

Memories of King Philip’s War continued to be invoked among whites to justify Indian removals well into the 19th century. Among Native Americans, the war would also fortify Indian identity in opposition to what would be an enduring incursion of white racial terror. In 1836 William Apess, a Pequot, eulogized King Philip as the greatest of all Americans while decrying the whites as the real savages.32 Of course, the Indian wars were hardly the only front on which the 18th century precursor to America’s contemporary “war on terror” was fought. The westward expansion would happen in concert with the imperial takeover of Mexican territory and scalps of Indians and Mexican mestizos both fetched a handsome bounty.33 Indian fighters of the day were memorialized, commemorated with historical markers and celebrated. William D. Carrigan contends “[s]uch acts of celebration, and the memories they sustained, defended not only the killing that was central to the Anglo-Indian conflict but also extralegal violence in general.”34 More broadly, “[t]he rhetoric of Anglo-Indian violence influenced vigilantes and defenders of extralegal violence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”35 Carrigan is clearly alluding to the overlap between racial, biopolitical agendas that impacted a range of nonwhite populations. In the mid-twentieth century, James Baldwin expressed the failure to make the connection between the intersecting plight of people of color tragicomically. Reflecting on the rude awakening experienced by young African Americans who grew up watching nostalgic Hollywood Westerns, Baldwin exclaimed “You’re watching cowboys and Indians and you’re rooting for Gary Cooper, and suddenly you realize, the Indians are you.”36 [End Page 30]

[P]ain did not hurt as much then as it does now; at least that is the conclusion a doctor may arrive at who has treated Negroes (taken as a representative of prehistoric man—)


Since the beginning of African bondage in the 17th century, slave insurrections occasioned myriad spectacles of cruelty. Typically, any hint of a slave uprising was met with punishment that included disciplinary spectacles of torture and execution. When, in 1767, several slave overseers were killed under mysterious circumstances in Alexandria Va., the alleged offenders were executed and whites placed their “grinning skulls” on chimneys as a warning to blacks.38 This fear was tepid compared to the terror yet to come. The news of the successful slave revolt in the French island of Santo Domingo in the 1790’s would reach the US with grisly tales of an estimated 60,000 dead. The Haitian Revolution was a display of reason, resistance and black humanity that confounded whites who believed it altogether impossible.39 The epic revolution made the need to reinforce white supremacy increasingly urgent.40 Following David Walker’s 1829 Appeal, Nat Turner’s bloody rebellion in 1831 made Southern nightmares of slave terror a reality in their own backyard. While relatively short-lived, Turner’s band killed dozens of whites, including women and children. Many were hacked to pieces. The retribution by whites for the actions was gruesome to the extreme, claiming upward of 200 lives.41

Nat Turner was publicly hanged as a customary “form of entertainment,” then decapitated, and dissected. 42 Quoting William Sidney Drewry, historian Stephen B. Oates, notes that Turner’s body was flayed: “They skinned it…and made grease of the flesh.”43 As recent as 2003, Elizabeth Neighbors, Turner’s great-great granddaughter, recounted from oral history that his “skin was made into a change purse.”44 As it happens, her recollection is not unfounded. In 1900, Drewry himself declared “Mr. R.S. Barnam’s father owned a money purse made of [Turner’s] hide.”45 Such purses made of African American skin that were passed down as heirlooms continue to surface still.46 The indiscriminate lynching of blacks that followed (many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion) resulted in a decapitated head being mounted on an intersection, known thenceforth as “Blackhead Sign Post.”47 A road bearing the same name still runs through the county to this day.48

There are competing accounts of what happened to Turner’s head, but among the more recent developments is that his skull was donated to former Gary, Indiana mayor Richard Hatcher for display at the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame to be built in 2017.49 Questions of the skull’s authenticity appeared poised to overshadow the debate over [End Page 31] whether it is appropriate to display human remains to be viewed at the pleasure of museumgoers, as opposed to being given a proper burial— the stated preference of Bruce Turner, one of Turner’s descendants.50 One can surmise that, under similar circumstances, the discovery of the human remains of whites whose killings gave way to the “birth of a nation” would likely be treated much differently.51 At any rate, we know that Nat Turner’s rebellion was neither the beginning nor the end of the spectacular displays of cruelty that would be visited upon those given the label of “terrorist” for opposing white supremacy.52

Shortly thereafter, another man born in 1800 also saw himself as an instrument of divine justice. John Brown would become one of the 19th century’s most infamous terrorists and would stir controversy over terrorism and the rightful appellation of the terrorist moniker.53 As is well known, the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Emancipation gave way to a host of innovative means through which white supremacy would be upheld. Jim Crow laws and terrorist gangs like the Ku Klux Klan and the Regulators blurred the lines between legal and extra-judicial means of racial terror in the postwar era. Chronicling the economy of pain, pleasure, and studied indifference to the disciplinary spectacles of late 19th century lynching, Ida B. Wells tells of brutal scenes of torture and humiliation that were attended by thousands, many of whom responded to the suffering with glee. Pleas of dissenters to at least “send the children home” were met with objections by “a hundred maddened voices” that they should be made to stay “to learn a lesson.”54

In the years intervening between then and now that “lesson” would continue to be driven home time and again, though the take-away of such lessons would vary significantly depending on the race of the viewer. In addition to outright lynching, the racism embedded in the criminal justice system has underscored a lasting perception that black lives and black losses still do not fully count as lives.55 As foregoing examples suggest, the spatio-temporal horizon of the disciplinary spectacles as part of a biopolitical project are not limited to the antecedent conditions of the injury, the visible suffering, dying, or even the moment of death itself. These repetitive spectacles extend across time and space to also encompass the political afterlives of dead bodies. The expansive reach of these disciplinary reminders/remainders is why, for instance, the recurrent seizure of Native land and trespasses upon sacred Indigenous burial grounds are so insufferable to Aboriginal peoples.

By considering the spectacular desecration of both the living and the dead across time and terrain, one can see why the repeated shootings of unarmed African Americans by police are not just offensive in and of themselves. The denial of black humanity enacted by the shootings is redoubled by the failure to provide adequate medical care [End Page 32] for the slain. At stake politically is why and how the decision to let Michael Brown’s body lie on the street in the hot sun for four hours while crowds gather is regarded as an outrage to some, an issue of police protocol to law enforcement apologists, and simply a matter of course to others. In the public imaginary, the most iconic and memorable media image of Brown’s death and the police treatment of his body is the picture of his hat lying on the ground. Yet, taken in context with the historical examples above, this display of inhumanity seems desperately unsurprising. Brown’s hat stands in metaphorically for his head; an absence of the intellect that his mother mourned was no longer bound for college—a head cut off from his life’s prior direction.

Today the capacity for average citizens to use technology to circulate videos of injuries, transgressions and losses that impacted populations have suffered for generations has expanded significantly. While such recursive images of violence help make legible the reasons for why, say, today’s protesters carry signs that read “stop police terror,” the legitimacy of those protests is far from universally acknowledged— particularly, if not exclusively, among those on the right. In fact, what remains so disturbing about Wolin’s diagnosis of citizen spectatorship is that the awareness of the offenses across levels of power and political ideology has yet to precipitate an end to the killings. By acknowledging that many Americans still refuse to see themselves as implicated in the injustice of their government, I mean to underscore, and not diminish, the importance of ongoing protest politics and radical democratic coalition building. As the grassroots organizing of Black Lives Matter has so sharply articulated, the deeper trouble is that we have no reason to presume anything near a universal acknowledgement of the injustice of extinguishing black lives in the first place.

Without a widespread capacity to register these outrages as the profane transgressions that they are, it is difficult to see how a polity can find itself at fault for its active and tacit consent of African American disposability. What makes the injustices visited upon many blacks killed by police especially grotesque and inexcusable is the impunity afforded to perpetrators despite the available evidence—not the lack thereof. In the case of Eric Garner, the country had access to a live video feed of the killing of a man accused of selling loose cigarettes. We actually hear Garner pleading with the officers for his life, gasping “I can’t breathe.” The country saw and heard—but (arguably) did not fully feel—the police strangling him to death mercilessly. No matter. In the eyes of the nation’s criminal justice system, Eric Garner’s death was all harm and no foul.

This reality has led many activists to recognize that mandatory police body and dash cameras are a necessary, but not sufficient, step toward resolving to the problem of racial terror. What remains at issue and unresolved is the depth of white supremacy in economies of pain [End Page 33] and pleasure as they relate to spectacle, surveillance and racial terror. Of course, such inquiry would require an acknowledgement that the spectacle being witnessed is not an isolated incident or the work of a few bad apples in police uniform. The fact that the nation continually fails to connect the brutality they witness to their own consent renders the recursive images of killing as “the pornography of black death.”56

One might object that the anesthesia of spectator indifference lies outside of what I have called economies of pain and pleasure. Certainly, such an argument goes, viewers need not actively take pleasure in the suffering of another for it to persist unchallenged. Audiences need only ignore it, tune it out, or simply not care one way or the other. True enough. But such numbed (non)reactions to those scenes never remain outside the racialized affective economy. Put differently, the language of pleasure and pain seems misplaced only when we fail to register indifference as the absence of spectator displeasure, or pain. On what lies between pain and pleasure, it is helpful to recall what scholars such as Saidiya V. Hartman and Michael Rogin (among others) have long contended—albeit in different ways. Stated in the broadest of terms, Hartman and Rogin have theorized how racial legacies of domination are inextricably tied to the ways in which non-white bodies are rendered as spectral objects of property, desire and entertainment. In other words, irrespective of whether African Americans or Native Americans are represented as objects of white pity, desire, violence or sympathy, they still remain objects.57 Hence, when Rogin and Hartman offer historical analyses of black minstrelsy, film, literature and deadly racial spectacle, none are matters of esoteric antiquarianism.

At the most basic level, Rogin and Hartman show how the long history of red and black bodies put to spectator “use” and consumed at the pleasure of viewers illuminates how it is that contemporary audiences can still experience scenes of racial subjection with normalized, alienated detachment. Pace Rogin, that spectacular history is part of what made it possible for the dead Indian (and not a living one) to become a key symbol of the country.58 As a demonological trope, in Rogin’s lexicon, terrorism functions as a vehicle of counter-subversion through which whites can imitate their purported enemies at, or with, pleasure.59 For sure, the outrageous scenes sketched above might occasion fleeting empathy, discomfort or guilt among whites. Yet so long as segregated perception persists whereby even “real” people of color are viewed as spectral objects, such emoting isn’t likely to translate into political change.

On this score, Nietzsche’s caution about guilt keeps company with the reflections of the authors above. That is, the experience of guilt as a response of another’s injury, the self-satisfaction of a spectator’s affective reaction to her suffering, or a viewer’s empathic projection onto the sufferer, can all serve to take the place of any intervention at [End Page 34] all.60 One can be understandably afraid that, sustained and trenchant, spectator politics could only give way to ever more spectacular suffering. That fear animates Aldous Huxley’s ironically titled Brave New World which culminates in a hellscape that, as I discuss below, isn’t entirely brave nor new. Given that Wolin invoked the Shakespearean phrase, but did not develop the connection directly, I close with brief reflections on the relays between the two as they speak to the themes at work in these pages.

Huxley’s dystopia was one in which the people no longer needed to fear the enforced pain of Big Brother and mandated memory-hole of forgetting of Orwell’s 1984.61 With a people devoted to seeking media for pleasure in the form of the drug soma, or going to the “feelies” instead of the movies, social control would not need censorship since the informational content would be irrelevant to a population so disposed to seeking their own ecstatic enjoyment. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman maintained that Huxley had been the more prescient of the two, particularly in view of society’s technological addiction to the media of television and resolute refusal to see the medium as a form of ideology.62 While Wolin does not address Huxley’s novel explicitly, the sensibility of his essay—and, I think, his work more generally—would seem to argue against Postman’s stark opposition to Orwell in favor of a composite view that incorporates, chastens and updates their insights. After all, the most fearfully Orwellian aspects of the War on Terror is that it is perpetual, its objects and motives of the War are subject to redefinition as power sees fit, and there is precious little in the way of public memory that would measure the length of superpower transgressions between yesterday and today.

The features of Brave New World’s “negative Utopia” are largely thrown into relief by the experiences of John “the Savage.” An outlier hailing from an Indigenous community—an Indian brave in the New World—the Savage is generally appalled by the sensual excesses of the eugenically engineered “civilized” society and opposed to what he views as its detached depravity. He is a walking anachronism by virtue of his outlook and, not incidentally, by his race. The Savage is offended by the anesthetic barrier of civilization that shields its inhabitants from the range of affective attachments, such as family, monogamy, grief, etc.—all of which he regards as key to a fully human life. In turn, he is disciplined for mourning his mother and thus violating the “death conditioning” that conveys the appropriate indifference toward mortality. In protest, The Savage embraces the asceticism and human pain that has become profane in the future civilization, and then accused of demanding “the right to be unhappy.”63 The novel culminates in an orgiastic [End Page 35] media spectacle of the Savage being accosted by an intoxicated crowd that mocks him, and jeering, chants for a whipping. The book closes with the image of the Savage’s dead body hanged on a hilltop over the town, twisting in the wind like a compass needle off-course, while helicopters circle overhead.

Notable in Huxley’s warning is the way the plot dramatizes as futuristic the parallels to the well-documented disciplinary spectacles of the past for an age rife with torture scenes such as those of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib. The Savage’s anachronistic status is a reminder of how the subjugation of colonialism by whites in the New World has long been understood as reproducing the “historical evolution of mankind” on a world stage.64 The novel’s dystopia is complete with how the civilizational use of pleasure has long rendered grief a hangover of a past time, and not just an experience of loss that makes the past present. Not unlike popular reactions to the grievances of racial minorities today, the Savage’s objections to the prevailing order are alternately met with indifference, mocking disdain, or plaintive questions of what there is to complain about; “why can’t you just be happy?”

The latter reaction aligns with the reflections of people of color that white supremacy requires not just subjugation, but demands that the subjugated maintain the pretense of being happily grateful for their own subjection. Those daring to break this façade in the face of whiteness run the risk of prompting reactions ranging from awkwardness, social death, and outright assassination. More generally, Huxley casts an ominous pall over the local, state and nation-level investment in policing racial minorities who would claim the power to interrupt the enjoyment of the prevailing socio-temporal order. Consider the widespread outrage at the “thugs” who dare protest police killings by speaking uncomfortable truths in between commercial breaks showcasing perennially cheerful consumers to an audience ingesting their preferred media palliative. In this context, it hardly seems surprising that some of those who resent the protests of Black Lives Matter have even gone so far as to petition the White House to label it a terrorist organization.65

As I intimated above, the bleak future of Brave New World was itself not without precedent. Huxley’s novel can be read as somewhere between a parody of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (ca. 1610) and its grim sequel. Set on a remote island, The Tempest plays off the exotic tales of Edenic islands and savage cannibals that circulated in a time of expanding European colonization. Prospero’s exile from Naples led to his subjugation of Ariel and Caliban whom he “discovered” on the island, the latter having previously ruled the territory. Made a slave, Caliban (a virtual anagram of “Cannibal”) is depicted as closest to nature and, having learned the language of his captors, deeply resents his bondage. It is therefore a fitting irony that a mark of the Savage’s [End Page 36] erudition is that he repeatedly quotes Shakespeare at length. He is especially fond of Miranda’s exclamation when she finally travels from the island where the play is set to Europe: “How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, That has such people in’t!” The dreamlike civilization Miranda lauds upon seeing the new (Old) World turns out to be a nightmare in Huxley’s rendering, and the colonial roots of its brutality are not incidental in either drama.

Nor have the relays between past and present in the play been lost on post-colonial theorists—not least among them is Aimé Césaire, who adapted the play in his Une Tempête.66 In Césaire’s version, Prospero ultimately frees Ariel, the more accommodating subject who sought independence as opposed to the violent revolt favored by Caliban. In the end, Césaire’s Prospero retains control over the island and of Caliban. Politically, the lingering tension between Ariel’s freedom and the continued servitude of Caliban (who changes his name to X), set the stage for future anti-colonial and black nationalist struggles. Theoretically, Césaire’s unresolved ending of the play anticipates Fanonian reflections on how colonialism always comes home.67

The ominous prospect of colonialism’s violent homecomings brings us back to the extent to which Wolin’s invocation of Brave New World resonates today. The occupants of Huxley’s dystopic future don’t just fail to bemoan the modes of “feeling free” and neglect to criticize the technological/pharmaceutical excess as a substitutive satisfaction for political freedom. Nor is it simply the case that they do not grieve the loss of the past and any sense of government accountability. For the most part, they quite literally don’t know what they’re missing. And, satiated by steady consumption, they don’t care. While much depends on how one reads what the drug soma could metaphorically reference today, the various intoxicants at play in Huxley’s novel ultimately subsume many of the complexities of how race functions within contemporary economies of pleasure and pain. While much more could be said on this score, the book’s powerfully suggestive narrative tropes give the text its amplitude and, arguably, some of its staying power. Yet these “drugs” come at the expense of analytic precision with respect to how the various machinations of disavowal and spectatorship function.

Tempting as it is to leave it at the level of external critique, doing so would ignore what I take to be Huxley’s challenge and the choice confronting the public that the book convenes. Readers are free to ignore the history and literature the text clearly references, ride the arc of the narrative as a means of escapist entertainment and enjoy consuming the book as yet another brand of spectator soma. Blissfully unaware that the numbed minions living in a racially stratified spectator society are them, such readers are in effect, watching themselves. 68 Consumer-readers in search of escapism aren’t likely to be bothered by the fact [End Page 37] that their enjoyment of the book entails taking pleasure in the imminence of their own demise.

Alternately, readers can opt to reposition themselves in relation to the text, and intercede as coauthors of what that text “is” and investigate the extent to which today’s Alphas, Betas, Gammas and so on, have been conditioned by a disciplinary relationship to “Savage” spectacles. By my lights, Rogin offers a generative account of how the willful innocence of whiteness is leveraged upon a disavowal of the past as well as a dangerously projective, phenomenological tourism; a complex participant spectatorship whereby white viewers presume the capacity to inhabit the space, and identity, of the other. This allows whites to take what they want by way of imitation, undertake the plunder of exoticism, and assuage their consciences with paternalistic empathy—all while preserving the prerogative to withdraw anytime at will. The freedom of access and withdrawal is of supreme importance, but the prerogative of this freedom is not limited to what Rogin calls a “cultural” declaration of independence. 69 The racial population being watched, imitated and imposed upon is also always already subject to biopolitical disposal at the pleasure of the dominant race. Simply put, it is deeply significant that the recursive movements of occupation, acquisition and return at play in spectator politics are also paradigmatic maneuvers of coloniality. Colonialism comes home indeed.

The racialization of spectator democracy enables whites to “care” and “empathize” rhetorically without risk, imitate the “savage” actions they associate with non-whites, always with one foot always inside an exit door that offers a safe return to whiteness–as-usual. Given the priority of spectator over participant, it logically follows that solidarity is itself at risk of becoming an object of virtual reality. Today’s incarnation of the sense of citizen powerlessness that Wolin recognized occurs in a spacetime wherein neocolonial logics of power intermingle in the conjunctive overlap between white supremacy, the War on Terror and the imperial legacies underwriting contemporary neoliberalism. Against the backdrop of the nation’s segregated memory, such continuities and innovations of power are not merely insufficiently contested. To an alarming degree, they remain unintelligible.

P.J. Brendese

P.J. Brendese is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Racism, Immigration and Citizenship Program at Johns Hopkins University. He works at the intersection of critical theory, racial politics, de-colonial theory, migration and comparative political thought. He is the author of The Politics of Memory in Democratic Politics (Rochester UP, 2014). Currently, he is completing a book manuscript entitled The Race of Segregated Time. P.J. can be reached at; his website is


The author would like to thank Kennan Ferguson and George Shulman for their insightful commentary on this essay’s themes and its earlier drafts. Much gratitude is also owed to Stephanie Najjar for invaluable research assistance. [End Page 38]


1. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 67.

2. Sheldon S. Wolin, “Brave New World,” Theory & Event, 5, no. 4 (2001)

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. A more thoroughgoing portrayal would necessarily have to encompass a wider range of experiences that include those of Asian peoples, Latinos/as, along with a panoply of others regarded as below the threshold of humanity.

10. See Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976, ed. Mauro Bertani, Alessandro Fontana, François Ewald and Arnold Davidson, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador Press, 2003), 242. For instance, Foucault locates the emergence of biopower in the “second part of the eighteenth century” when the race-making biopolitical projects of colonialism were already well underway.

11. “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” Equal Justice Initiative,

12. Elias Isquith, “America’s Real Racial Terror: How Lynch Mobs and Barbaric Violence Haunt Us Today,” Salon, February 14, 2015. Emphasis original.

13. P.J. Brendese, The Power of Democratic Memory (Rochester: Rochester University Press, 2014)

14. Garikai Chengy, “The Ku Klux Klan: America’s Long History of Tolerating White Terrorist Organizations,” Counterpunch, December 28, 2015.

15. Ibid.

16. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 9.

17. For an account of how the spectacle and surveillance need not function as mutually exclusive, see Leo R. Chavez, The Latino Threat (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008) esp. 132–152. For adumbration of the point, see P.J. Brendese, “Borderline Epidemics: Latino Immigration and Racial Biopolitics,” Politics, Groups and Identities 2, no. 2 (2014): 168–187.

18. When President Obama speaks in biblical terms of slavery as the country’s “original sin,” he does so by overlooking the ethnic cleansing necessary to vacate the indigenous territory upon which slaveholders relied.

19. See Lydia Millet, “Native Lives Matter Too,” The New York Times, October 12, 2015.; John Haltiwanger, “Native Americans Are Actually The Most Likely to Be Killed By Police,” Elite Daily, August 5, 2015. [End Page 39]

20. Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Inc. Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 96.

21. Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: A.P. Knopf, 1998), 7.

22. See Lepore, The Name of War, 9. With respect to the Spanish, Bartolomé de Las Casas had famously indicted the Spaniards in print with his work In Defense of the Indians. In a clear bid to draw a line between the civilized British and their barbarous Spanish counterparts, Las Casas’s title was conveniently translated into English as The Tears of the Indians and colloquially referred to as the “Spanish Cruelties.”

23. Ibid., 13

24. Ibid., 16.

25. Ibid., 173.

26. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)

27. Lepore, The Name of War, xvi. Whereas Philip’s father, Massasoit, is often remembered as a famous Indian at the first thanksgiving in 1621, it was a harvest festival not a declared religious holiday. The (in)famous Indian to actually attend the first official thanksgiving would be Massasoit’s son, whose disembodied head was brought August 17th for a celebratory day of prayer and gratitude.

28. Lepore, The Name of War, 174.

29. Ibid., 174; 197.

30. Ibid., 173–181.

31. See Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

32. See William Apess, On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot, ed. Barry O’Connell (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008). I am grateful to Alex Hirsch for drawing my attention to Apess’s work.

33. John Sepich, Notes on Blood Meridian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 7–8.

34. Wiliam D. Carrigan, The Making of Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836–1916 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 32.

35. Ibid.

36. “James Baldwin Debates William H. Buckley (1965)” Youtube video, 58:58, posted by “The RiverBends Channel,” October 2012,

37. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 68.

38. Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper Perennial, [1975] 2004), 15.

39. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997).

40. The shock of the foiled slave uprisings of Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey at home exacerbated white anxiety. See Oates, The Fires of Jubilee, 43.

41. Ibid.

42. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee,125. [End Page 40]

43. Drewry, quoted in Oates, 125.

44. Lon Wagner, “Nat Turner’s Skull Turns up Far From Site of his Revolt,” Baltimore Sun, June 15, 2003,

45. Tony Horwitz, “Untrue Confessions,” The New Yorker, December 13, 1999, 80.

46. See Daina Ramey Berry, “Nat Turner’s Skull and My Student’s Purse of Skin,” The New York Times, October 18, 2016.

47. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee, 100.

48. Alfred L. Brophy, “The Nat Turner Trials,” The North Carolina Law Review 91 (2003): 1833. For the road’s location, see,+Virginia/@36.656931,-77.1151526,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x89b02bc1c5a8b4a5:0x8e4ab3082b8245f8!8m2!3d36.656931!4d-77.1129639

49. Lon Wagner, “Nat Turner’s Skull Turns up Far From Site of his Revolt,” Baltimore Sun, June 15, 2003.

50. Andrew Putz, “Skulduggery,” The Indianapolis Monthly, December 21, 2015.

51. As this essay went to press, it was reported that what are allegedly Turner’s remains will indeed be returned to his descendants. See Daina Ramey Berry, “Nat Turner’s Skull and My Student’s Purse of Skin,” The New York Times, October 18, 2016.

52. Viewing the bloodshed as proof that the institution of slavery was increasingly untenable, some southerners did become persuaded that a gradual emancipation and eventual return to Africa was the best option for manumitted slaves. Yet these voices would not prevail against hardliners who firmed their stance, endorsing stricter enforcements and strengthening martial and legislative support for the peculiar institution. A rising chorus ascribed blame to dangerous propaganda like David Walker’s 1829 Appeal and the Northern abolitionists responsible for spreading scathing critiques of slavery’s inhumanity. The result extended beyond book burnings and prohibitions against the circulation of publications like The Liberator. A $5000 bounty was placed on the head of the paper’s (then-pacifist) publisher, William Lloyd Garrison. and black nationalist ollows logically harity, etc.) hdraw at will. To me, that move seems to becoming subjects o

53. Brown brought to life the terror of southern slaveholders still haunted by Turner’s ghost. To many, he was a reincarnation of the diabolical black terrorist in white skin, committing atrocities that would flame the onset of the Civil War. See W.E.B Du Bois, John Brown, (New York: International Publishers, 1996); Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2011).

54. Jacqueline Jones Royster ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), 97.

55. For sure, there are important distinctions across time and space between state-sanctioned terror, illegal lynching, police brutality, environmental racism, [End Page 41] criminal sentencing, mass incarceration and the severity of punishments meted out to non-whites—including the death penalty. Yet what has remained all-too constant is the presence of white supremacy in matters of who lives and who dies—which is not unconnected to who is labeled a terrorist.

57. See Michael Paul Rogin, “The Two Declarations of American Independence,” a special issue of Representations no. 55 (Summer 1996); Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25–27. This dynamic can persist even, and especially, when whites seek to selectively inhabit the place of the other, as in black minstrelsy.

58. Michael Paul Rogin, “Liberal Society and the Indian Question,” Politics & Society 1, no. 3 (1971): 273

59. I am grateful to George Shulman for drawing my attention to this connection.

60. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 62–67.

61. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Bantam Books, 1946)

62. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006)

63. Huxley, Brave New World, 163.

64. Rogin, “Liberal Society and the Indian Question,” 273.

65. Reena Flores, “White House Responds to Petition to Label Black Lives Matter a Terrorist Group,” CBS News, July 17, 2016. Absent from the analyses relayed here is a contemporary condition where many citizens take a certain pleasure in being watched (through social media, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). An extended study would consider how such sentiment contributes to a failure to recognize what the big deal is, and would likewise index the variation in perceptions according to the diversity of subject positions from which they emerge. After all, the ability to regard even presumed surveillance as simply the benign, normal incursion of the modern corporate-security state can be regarded as a mark of privilege. Those subjected to stop-and-frisk and whose neighborhoods and Mosques are the subject of widespread surveillance are unlikely to afford such a cavalier view. Likewise, in sketching but a few aspects of the antecedent conditions of the present-day War on Terror, I have said precious little about its professed targets: namely Muslim extremists. My alternate emphasis is intended to suggest but a few ways that those (largely unstoried) others who have come to regard terrorism as an existential threat of American life might sharpen our apprehension of the machinations that pre-date the present-day spectatorship of the surveillance state in the name of combatting terror.

66. Aimé Césaire, Une Tempête, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Editions du Seuil, 1992). I thank Jishnu Guha-Mujamdar for conversations about Césaire.

67. See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967) esp., 83–108. [End Page 42]

68. Irrespective of one’s pretentions favoring the written word over the expanse of available technological alternatives, I take it as obvious that a text is also a form of media with which one can interact in any number of ways—not all of them worthy of affirmation.

69. Rogin, “The Two Declarations of American Independence,” esp. 16–18; 22–26. [End Page 43]

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