Review; Defend yourself by Elsa Dorlin

Defend yourself by Elsa Dorlin

Cecilia Arcidiacono studied International Cooperation in Bologna. She lives in Naples and is co-founder of the Tamu bookshop, dedicated to literatures from the South of the world and to non-fiction with an eye to contemporary issues, in particular to postcolonial issues and the history of colonialism, feminisms and social movements. The Tamu Edizioni publishing project and the daqui blog: places of words / words from places has just been born from the experience of the bookshop.

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D.if they defend themselves. A Philosophy of Violence by Elsa Dorlin was published in May by Fandango Libri , in the translation from French by Annalisa Romani. In those days, the image circulated of the policeman’s knees pressed to George Floyd’s head in Minneapolis.

Four months after the publication of the book, two episodes of violence fill the news pages in Italy: September 6, Colleferro, southern suburbs of Rome, Willy Monteiro, a 21-year-old boy of Cape Verdean origins is killed with kicks and punches by four white peers for defending a friend of his. 13 September, Caivano (Naples) Maria Paola Gaglione loses her life after being rammed by her brother’s scooter while she was on a scooter with Ciro, her trans partner, who is beaten and accused of having “infected” her. Many newspapers – and even Arcilesbica – have continued to call Ciro a “girl”, making him invisible to her choice of being trans.

Is there a thread that unites, from their different angles, the violence suffered by George Floyd, Willy, Maria Paola and Ciro? How does violence act on bodies that escape the norm and what self-defense strategies do these bodies implement daily against violence?

When does defending oneself stop being “self-defense” and become a matter of life?

Digging into the niches and silences of official history, Dorlin traces a constellated history of self-defense, which goes from the syncretic knowledge and cultures of slave self-defense to the ju-jitsu practices used by suffragists to defend themselves in public space, from combat techniques fielded in Eastern Europe by Jewish organizations to the Black Panthers Party, passing through queer brigades. Tracing a genealogy of self-defense, for the author, professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris VIII, means first of all looking at the historicity of power relations, investigating the construction of the modern subject and doing it starting from a feminist and decolonial positioning. .

” Drawing on current events would have been overwhelming ” says the philosopher during the presentation of Difendersi hosted by the Tuba bookshop in Rome on 6 September (the recording of which can be followed here ) – ” I needed to relate to what is called ‘the long story ‘, but at the same time I know that I cannot work on a concept without it being eaten by my body, by my story: I am therefore obliged to be situated ”.

Of a half-caste father, originally from French Guiana, great-grandson of African slaves, Dorlin locates his genealogy starting from the government of the French colonies, which he calls the factory of unarmed bodies, where slaves, natives and indigenous people were prevented from handling even large sticks ( according to the French Code noir of 1685) and to reunite in nocturnal martial dances, interpreted by the whites as preparatory to the confrontation.

The exclusion of the right to be defended has implied the production of indefensible subjects, because they are considered “dangerous”, violent and always already guilty, just as everything possible was done to make them powerless to defend themselves.

Dorlin searches the archives of the winners to investigate the silence of the vanquished.

What interests me is the silence of this archive, returning the slave resistance through the writings of the settlers who are afraid of this resistance, of the silence that prepares for the uprising. (…) On the other hand, it is precisely in silence that that moment of transition to self-defense takes place, where it is the muscle that speaks .

In opening these archives and interrogating their silences, the text leads into a constellation of voices and echoes in which epochs, histories and practices continually seek and refer to each other:

The main texts that form the foundation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense philosophy pay homage to the Warsaw ghetto insurgents — queer self-defense patrols are in a citation relationship with black self-defense movements; the ju-jitsu practiced by the English internationalist anarchist suffragists becomes accessible to them, in part, due to an imperial policy of capturing the knowledge and skills of the colonized women and their disarmament.

In this network, different historical plans and different experiences constantly dialogue with the present, and thus Defending oneself helps to read the racist violence of the police against Floyd, and more recently the shooting behind Jacob Blake in Khenosa,  in continuity with the lynchings carried out by the vigilantes in the US in the eighteenth century with the aim of purging society of all people considered as undesirable and as a threat to white colonial society. According to Dorlin, it is precisely in this period that we are witnessing “the unprecedented foundation of a racial state in the true sense of the term, a rationalization of the race as the founder of law” – more than the expression of a rudimentary do-it-yourself justice – where vigilantism has become a model of citizenship in which every good American citizen can identify.

The violence that led to the death of Floyd and Blake is not yet another expression of a racist police, but it is the violence carried out by those who are convinced they are administering justice against “dangerous bodies”. The US segregationist history is here closely linked with the “factory of unarmed bodies” set up in the colonies and moved by what Dorlin, referring to Butler, calls white paranoia :

Since minority bodies are a threat, a source of danger, agents of any danger, agents of any possible violence, the violence that is exercised on them, starting with that of the police and the state, can never be seen in the his indecency: it is always a legitimate reaction.

The state monopoly on the use of violence is anything but monolithic, the philosopher suggests and, depending on the lines of race, class and gender it intercepts, it acts through an ” imperial economy of violence ” rooted in the idea of white supremacy , that is, in a hierarchy of lives at the top of which is the white, straight subject, who adheres to the norm and reassures it. It is on this hierarchy, on the other hand, that modern techniques of domination are based, on which the boundary is drawn that divides subjects worthy of being defended from those who are not entitled to do so, since they are defined as “dangerous”.

The danger from which the book warns us is that of trivializing violence, of considering these episodes as isolated cases, which do not speak to our lives, and above all of not grasping the knot that binds them to that imperial economy of violence that it produces, on the one hand, subjects worthy of being defended and, on the other, disarmed, violent bodies.

And here we come to the heart of Dorlin’s work, namely the distinction made in the text between “legitimate defense”, which already presupposes a “subject of law”, and self-defense understood as a “martial ethics of oneself”, whose stakes are the defense of life:

These vulnerable and violent bodies are only entitled to subjectivities with their bare hands. Kept at bay in and through violence, they live or survive only if they can get hold of defensive tactics. These subordinate practices form what I call self-defense proper, in contrast to the legal concept of self-defense.

Dorlin’s gaze, like the subjectivities of which he composes and intertwines the practices, is a lucid gaze that unfolds beyond the academic-identity statements, which leaves no room for easy conclusions. In fact, self-defense is never erected as a political principle tout court .

So while recognizing the Black Panthers Party’s revolutionary possibility of rewriting US segregation history, the philosopher also notes how it lost its revolutionary strength when it became anchored in a mythology of black masculinity and a fascination with guns. Or again he points out how the safe spaces claimed by the gay communities in San Francisco in the 1970s gave way to the sexual and racial gentrification of some neighborhoods, leading to the displacement of racial minorities and sexualities considered unsafe (queers of colors, trans, etc. ).

The question is not to be safe in a ghostly “among us”, but to build and create territories from which to politicize, capitalize anger

Self-defense can be said to be such if it goes in the direction of a radical transformation of the system of oppression, Dorlin suggests, where the demand for rights and justice does not translate into a more repressive state.

Those who read Defend themselves will perhaps feel that they have a lens, a compass, a mirror, or the three things in their hands , because this book questions history as well as our experiences, our muscles, our anger, our silences.

The book leaves open, among many others, one question, which echoes all the voices and reflections that make up this track:

What does violence do, day after day, to our lives, our bodies and our muscles? And what are the latter, in turn, allowed to do within and through violence?


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