Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Brief History of Seven Killings and the Specters of Marx

This spring I read Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, along with the students in my colleague's senior seminar. I'd been curious about the novel after it won the Man Booker Prize, the Bocas Prize for fiction, and a bunch of other prizes in 2015, and her class not only gave me a good excuse to read it but also the motivation to finish all 686 pages. Here are a couple of reviews from his peer novelists Michiko Kakutani and Kei Miller, whose works I also hope to read soon. It's hard to explain this novel, since it's bit like asking Jimi Hendrix's question, "have you ever been experienced"? And it's perhaps even harder to explain what a Jamaican novel about the significance of Bob Marley in the 1970s and 80s has to do with the book Specters of Marx -- a work by the famous philosopher of "deconstruction" Jacques Derrida written in 1993 in response to the predictions a few other philosophers were making about the end of communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Conjuring a connection between these two books may seem like a bit of voodoo, but that is what this blog post will do.

First, what is the experience of reading James's book, which is neither brief nor a history, and in which a hell of lot more than seven people are killed? Try to picture this. Take your favorite epic gangster movie, like The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), or Scarface (1983) that tells the rise and fall of a family criminal dynasty -- especially Scarface with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfieffer about the Cuban-American mafia's cocaine trade, the Miami music scene in the late 70s, and a dark nightmare version of the American dream. But tell that story the way William Faulkner would tell it, like in his classic novel As I Lay Dying, where each chapter is written as if you were inside a different character's head -- not only the various rival gangster's heads, but also the heads of a CIA agent, a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, and a woman who once had sex with Bob Marley but tries to escape her past. What unites all the different characters in this novel is that they all were in some way connected to the assassination attempt on one of the world's most iconic musicians, Bob Marley, in 1976. Indeed, the spirit of Bob Marley and his famous efforts to find a peaceful resolution to Jamaica's political conflicts haunts every page of this novel, though we never get Marley's point of view. Moreover, the novel gives you some of the small fry's perspectives -- not just the head honchos of the gang, but also the pawns, like how Tom Stoppard's famous play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gives you the minor characters's point of view on Hamlet. So, the novel seems to attempt to do the impossible, putting the reader in the minds of some low-level criminals who are recruited by the American CIA to kill the person whose album Exodus was voted by Time Magazine as the best album of the 20th century.

But even that doesn't really do enough to describe the novel. Each chapter focuses on a single day -- chapter one on December 2, 1976 the day of the attempted assassination, chapter two on the following day, December 3, and chapter three a few years later, February 15, 1979, as the characters reflect on the consequences of the assassination attempt. Chapter four enacts a geographic and temporal shift, as some of the main characters move from Jamaica to New York on August 14, 1985 during the rise of the crack epidemic. Finally, chapter five concludes the novel on March 22, 1991. Some of the scenes in the fourth and fifth chapters about black gangs and the crack trade almost seem to be pulled directly from movies such as New Jack City (1991) starring Wesley Snipes and Ice T, theme song by Queen Latifah. But the novel's global consciousness extends far beyond such Hollywood fare by linking American economic interests in controlling the mining of bauxite in Jamaica, the CIA's efforts to suppress the influence Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba on neighboring Caribbean countries, and finally the rise of the cocaine trade that was, ironically, partly encouraged by some American agents as a tool for undermining and disrupting left-leaning governments who might be tempted to nationalize their industries and protect them from American corporations. In addition to the inward psychology of the characters and the outward international intrigue, the novel also gives us copious references to the Jamaican music scene in the 1970s and New York music scene in the 1980s, so that you can spend hours of your time not just getting lost in the text of the novel but also getting lost in a YouTube hole or Pandora's box of listening pleasure. Finally, add to all this the character of a ghost who concludes each chapter with some cryptic historical commentary.

So, what is actually the "brief history" that the novel is telling us about, and why does this novel, published in 2014, end in 1991? The title of the novel, we only find out in the final chapters, is a reference to a fictional series of New Yorker magazine articles published in 1991 on the Jamaican gangs in New York City and the crack epidemic. Although the series of seven articles, each about a different killing, are fictional, such articles about Jamaican and Dominican gangs involved in the drug trade were actually written for the New Yorker, such as [this one], published in 1989. But the novel ends with the gangsters suppressing the real story by threatening the journalist. In a sense, therefore, the novel is uncovering the secret history of how Jamaica's political history following its independence from British colonial rule contributed to the conditions of black life in America in the late 1980s. By uncovering this secret history, the history that was not allowed to be published in those original New Yorker articles, James is in a way giving the ghosts of our dark nightmarish past that haunt our present an opportunity to speak to us. But why end in 1991?

My theory about why 1991 requires a bit of historical context. Following the independence of Jamaica and other colonies in the 1960s, the difficult economic issue for postcolonial states was how to manage their newly liberated economies. Governments were faced with two choices: option one, sell off their business interests to American and European corporations; option two, nationalize the business interests to protect local control over them. In Jamaica, one of the biggest differences between the two political parties was where they stood on this issue, the conservative Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) supporting option one, and the more left-leaning People's National Party (PNP) supporting option two. Obviously, the second option looked too much like socialism for the United States government that ultimately aimed to assist the interests of American corporations in the newly liberated colonies. James's novel A Brief History of Seven Killings reveals the American position through conversations among the CIA agents arguing with each other over how to promote American interests in Jamaica. But most of this history is not new information, and one can read about it in many scholarly works on that history as well as more popular bestsellers such as Naomi Klein's influential book The Shock Doctrine (2007). One of the classic works of world literature about the relationship between the United States and the Caribbean is Jamaica Kincaid's vicious satire of tourism, A Small Place (1988) about the legacy of colonialism, that was later adapted into the documentary movie Life and Debt (2001) -- a movie that more fully than the book explores the influence of the United States and the International Monetary Fund on the lives of ordinary Jamaicans.

In the novel, we are exposed to this issue in several ways, first through conversations between C.I.A. agents and the leaders of the gang that supports the JLP, and later through conversations between an American representative of the a bauxite mining corporation in Jamaica and his Jamaican girlfriend. The two political parties didn't just fight each other in the elections but also in the streets through rival gangs. In response to this political crisis, Bob Marley, reggae culture, and Rastafarian religion stepped in to reconcile the two conflicting sides and imagine a third way: their alternative being a more Afrocentric vision of political life that was neither Euro-American-capitalist nor Soviet-Marxist. The argument put forward by the novel is that the CIA saw Marley as a political threat to its agenda and used the gangs as a tool to achieve its ends. But the CIA couldn't control the monster that it had created, and so we have the convoluted plot of the novel.

How does all this relate to the Derrida's Specters of Marx? To understand this, one has to go back in time to the year 1991 -- and perhaps this is why the novel ends in 1991 -- the year the Soviet Union collapsed. American journalists, politicians, and philosophers were gleefully predicting that with the fall of communism, the great ideological battle between communism and capitalism had ended. Human rights and democracy had triumphed. Conflicts from large scale wars between states to small-scale battles between the gangs in Jamaica would end. The most famous example of this was a work of philosophy by Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992, that expanded an earlier essay he wrote in 1989. In hindsight, viewing the past from our present moment in 2018, Fukuyama's ideas do seem utterly naive and silly, because almost immediately after he predicted the end of history and the universal triumph of liberal capitalism, Yugoslavia collapsed into brutal ethnic conflict, Somalia collapsed into open gang warfare, and on and on. Derrida presented a scathing response to Fukuyama at a conference in 1993 at the University of Riverside, California, in which he pointed to the ongoing problems of massive foreign debt, ethnic conflict, immigration, and most importantly the inherent contradiction between the ideology of multicultural democracy and the interests of multinational corporations. In other words, for Derrida, whatever one's political viewpoint may be, the past was not simply in the past; it persists. That conference was later published as two books, one being Derrida's Specters of Marx, and the other being Whither Marxism that collected the other presentations at the conference.

In his argument, Derrida suggests something similar to what some psychoanalytic philosophers call "the return of the repressed." I think for today's generation, the most obvious example of this is Al Qaeda, the militant Islamic organization that was funded in the 1980s by the American government under President Ronald Reagan to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the Cold War ended in 1991, the United States simply abandoned Al Qaeda, which eventually, as everyone knows, led to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In some ways, James's novel similarly connects the crack epidemic in the United States to the clandestine activity of the CIA to undermine socialism in the Third World. As Lauryn Hill put it in her classic song "Lost Ones":
Now don't you understand, man, universal law?
What you throw comes back to you, star
Never underestimate those who you scar,
Cause karma, karma, karma comes back to you hard! 
But Derrida's theory and James's novel both go further than just narrating political karma and the ways that the nightmarish past haunts our present -- they go even further by deconstructing the binary between presence and absence. The mistake is to think that just because something is absent, it is no longer present; the meaning of "present"  being a belonging to our time and place. So, Fukuyama's mistake was to think that because of the fall of the Soviet empire, socialism was no longer present. Fukuyama forgot three things: one being all the criminal acts perpetrated on all sides during the Cold War and their real and enduring effects on peoples's lives; he underestimated all those whom the U.S. and Russia scarred; two being the utopian dream of a way out of this mess, the promise of Bob Marley's music that still galvanized cultural resistance to the materialism of global capitalism; and three being the on-going need of American-style capitalism for an "other" or some kind of boogey man to define itself against or blame for the fact that capitalism and democracy have not solved the world's problems. As Marx wrote in the opening paragraph of The Communist Manifesto, from which Derrida takes the title of his book, even if communism did not exist (and even if Marx did not exist), the bourgeoisie would have to invent it (or invent someone like him), in order to justify its own exploitative behavior. And so, we can think of  James's novel as what Derrida calls a "hauntology," or, in other words, a deep analysis of how what seems to be absent or past still "haunts" -- or even still exists within -- our present.

One of the things about the novel that troubled me about James's novel was how dark and depressing the novel was throughout; indeed, for a novel supposedly inspired by Bob Marley, it seemed to me that all of the joy, love, and humanity of reggae music and Jamaican culture was obliterated by the overwhelming violence. On the day that I visited my colleague's class to discuss the novel with her students, this is the question that I raised, because I didn't know how to answer it. Indeed, the acts of violence are so brutal that it's interesting to note the ways even Marlon James avoids the full psychological implications of such violence. He manages violence through a change of point of view as the chapters shift from one character to the next. For example, although it is the gang leader Josey Wales who aims his gun at Bob Marley's heart, Marlon James puts the reader in another character's head when this happens. We never know what Josey Wales was thinking when he did the dastardly deed. Likewise, when almost a decade later Josey Wales goes berserk in a crack house in Brooklyn, Marlon James suddenly takes us out of Josey Wales's head (p.576) and instead into Weeper's head, who dispassionately observes Josey's brutal massacre. It's as though Marlon James can't bear the awfulness of what his characters have done, so he places the reader in their heads only before and after they do it, not during. But while my colleague, her students, and I were discussing how depressing and brutal the novel is in class, one of the students brilliantly pointed out that the absence of that joy is in fact not absent at all, since the sinister violence of the novel makes us feel the need for that music all the more. Bob Marley's love is always a present absence. As one of the characters says about Marley (p. 56), "Is not that music take away the pain, but when it play, I don't ride the pain, I ride the rhythm."

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