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  • Skittles as Matterphor
  • Patricia J. Williams1 (bio)

Introduction

My grandmother used to say that we live history from the inside out. By that, she was referring not only to the intergenerational transmission of memory, but also to the inextricable entanglements of bodies, minds, and the worlds through which we swim. What we see affects us in physical ways. We drink in our environments through complexly networked sensory apparatuses, and our brains strive to make orderly narrative meaning of even the greatest disorder. We proceed through time based on the composite of impressions we have formed; and we extrude our impressions by imprinting those understandings as actions in the world. It is thus we make-known: we craft knowledge by envisioning the world in palpably tactile fashion.

My grandmother's most interesting aphorisms always grew from her meditations upon slavery. Her mother had been born "property" and it ate at her to think about the mobilizations of thought and law that shaped what she called "the undying pain of thinking things." "It burns me," she would say.

Being burned by history was no mere metaphor to her. What my grandmother meant is captured precisely by the term "matterphor": a vividly energized power that is tangible yet ephemeral, regulatory yet shape-shifting, solidly normed but corrosively caustic. This essay will explore the matterphor of living history from the inside out in the context of contemporary American politics. Indeed, present debates about which lives "matter" are not merely discursive; they are consistently actualized as "inevitable" tragedies, sorrows destined-to-divide. I will offer an analysis of how our polity is repeatedly ignited by the live wire of race—a force field that flares, sizzles, and short circuits whole aspects of life in the United States.

Consider the densely synesthetic messaging of just this one example: During the last weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted a photo of a bowlful of Skittles with the legend: "If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill, you would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem."2 [End Page 356]


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Figure 1.

Donald Trump Jr.'s skittles tweet (via Twitter)

While the printed caption played upon anxieties about Muslim migrants stoked by Donald Sr., the image also invoked the death of Trayvon Martin, who was carrying a package of the candy when shot and killed by George Zimmerman.3 To certain audiences, that quiet visual reference undoubtedly signified danger even more efficiently than any thought of Syria; it operated perhaps like a Platonic pharmakon, layering a global sense of emergency atop domestic fears about race and crime and the vaguely juridical need to "stand your ground."4 This interpellation contained a coded reference to legal outcome: delivered as a public secret, it was made available to and through the senses, an insidiously sweet yet silent toxicity.

It is an urgent matter of public interest to decode the signified rearrangements of legality that have been emerging during states of emergency occasioned by rapid political, cultural and technological change. While the ascendency of Donald Trump to the White House may have been a surprise to those who thought this race was only about-the-economy-stupid, there has been a rather uncharted background conversation, a twittered terrain of utter lawlessness, inspiring a certain schadenfreude about the necessity for extralegal, even anti-legal, resolution of interior, domestic ills.

In her book Strange Encounters, philosopher Sara Ahmed describes the intriguing tension embodied in the sense of stranger danger; such fear is "not only projected onto the outside, but the inside is contained within a figure we imagine we have already faced."5 Trump plays a malleable "inside" against an increasingly ominous outside with [End Page 357] exceptional skill. His lurking, hulking, sniffing, sneering, threatening performances have scared up pictures of a ravaged America endlessly at risk from Mexican rapists, African American thugs, Chinese contagion, leftist agitators and Muslim terrorists.6 This American President has consistently referenced an imagined community where harsh punishments must be dealt, and gleeful retribution wreaked upon dark bodies. He has ventriloquized a narrative of warrior masculinity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1092-311X
Print ISSN
2572-6633
Pages
pp. 356-398
Launched on MUSE
2021-02-01
Open Access
No
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