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  • Moving the Bones:Multilingual Plasticity in Marlene NourbeSe Philip's Zong!
  • Eva C. Karpinski

Marlene NourbeSe Philip's book-length poem Zong! (2008) is inspired by the 1781 massacre aboard the British ship Zong, whose crew threw about 150 slaves overboard in an attempt to ensure a reimbursement for the loss of their human "cargo." Approximately 100 more slaves died from illness, thirst, and mental distress. The subsequent legal battle between the ship owners and the insurers declared the captain and the crew at fault, and set in motion the abolitionist movement's campaign for a ban on the transatlantic slave trade in Britain, which came to pass in 1807.

Working with the only extant document of the court appeal case known as Gregson v. Gilbert (the owners versus the insurers), Philip reconstructs the Zong tragedy from multiple angles, in effect performing the act of translatio, which in medieval Latin was associated with moving the relics of saints from one location to another. Translating the insurance case into the poems, she excavates the bones of those who had perished in the ocean and moves them into the space of writing converted into a sacralized space of ritual and commemoration. At the same time as she conjures the dead, Philip also reorients the juridical focus of the case, revealing that it pivots around the question of ontology, which in turn demands an ethical consideration: Were the slaves human or non-human (cargo)? Against the idea that the slaves existed only as bare death (the intensified exclusion even from Agamben's "bare life"), with almost no material records of their lives, Philip unlocks their untold story from the legal report's tombstone in language, bringing its fragments/traces forth from the colonial past into the neoliberal future. In enacting this translative temporal movement, she allows the Zong case, which is far from closed, to materialize with a powerful message for the present, that Black Lives Matter, despite the ongoing white-settler colonial project of necropolitics that targets black, Indigenous, and other racialized bodies. Echoing Achille Mbembe's decolonial critique of Agamben's and Foucault's [End Page 639] glaring neglect of slavery in their respective constructions of bare life and biopolitics, Philip's poem creates the possibility of an alternative ontology (or hauntology, to use Derrida's terms) restoring value to black lives that emerge from the haunting legacy of violence, pain, and devastation archived in Philip's work.

Consequently, while honouring the dead, Zong! can be viewed as a philosophical and linguistic meditation on the meaning of humanness, which links Philip's concerns to those of two contemporary thinkers, Sylvia Wynter and Catherine Malabou, whose work I find useful in approaching the poem. Although they come from seemingly disparate intellectual traditions of black feminist and decolonial thought (Wynter) and French theory (Malabou), they both investigate the ontological implications of dominant ways of knowing. In fact, Malabou's concept of plasticity complements Wynter's critique of the rigidity and fixity of western Eurocentric definitions of the human that arrest the processes of materializing multiple and heterogeneous forms of humanness. In challenging what Philip calls the limitations of the law, Zong! ruptures its constraints and exposes the limits of Enlightenment paradigms. Moreover, since no personal data were entered into the slave ship logbook, she provides a material supplement to the Gregson v. Gilbert report by adding African names to the header. Invisible in the original document, these Yoruba names emerge in the liminal space of the margin, in the footnotes, visually "floating" under water or below the deck of a ship. As Philip notes in the Notanda essay appended to the text, the poem performatively retransforms "the African, transformed into a thing by the law […] back into human" (196) and restores "grievability" (Butler) to lives that had been placed outside the limits of the human.

Defined as a capacity to assume form and to give form to something (Malabou 23), plasticity is particularly useful to show how Philip taps into the inherent ability of language to activate different possibilities of coemergence of meaning and multilingual materializations in the space of a printed page. She invents a method of multimodal spatializing of words through...


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pp. 639-645
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