M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!: Metaphors, Laws, and Fugues of Justice

AuthorAnne Quéma
Publication Date01 Mar 2016
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 85±104
M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!:
Metaphors, Laws, and Fugues of Justice
Anne Que
Focusing on Gregson v. Gilbert, the article considers colonialism as a
historical chain of events with the Middle Passage as a major locus of
association among humans, things, the sea, trade, transportation,
maritime law, and finance speculation. Out of this assemblage emerged
slavery as a racist socius through which the metaphor of the human-
thing circulated. In citing Gregson v. Gilbert, M.N. Philip's poem
Zong! seeks to bear responsibility to the reified bodies of the murdered
Africans by generating a poetics of relationality that disassembles and
reassembles the legal words as sign-objects on the page. Her gendered
address to the law exposes the rape that Africa endured. Bearing wit-
ness to this trauma, her poem speaks to and with the dead, recognizing
the singularity of the Africans' languages, of which as human-things
they were deprived. Gathering readers and listeners, the poem creates
an event through which an ethics of justice might materialize.
How do you/we relate to the law when it once said that we were things,
and upheld all of these decisions that supported that view?
The legal document Gregson v. Gilbert
records a trial that took place on 6
March 1783 that was to have major repercussions on the movement for the
abolition of slavery. The trial concerns the Zong, a captured Dutch ship that
departed Africa for Jamaica in August 1781 with 442 slaves aboard.
According to James Oldham:
*English and Theatre, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia B4P 2R6,
1 In P. Saunders, `Defending the Dead, Confronting the Archive: A Conversation with
M. NourbeSe Philip' (2008) 26 Small Axe: A Caribbean J. of Criticism 63, at 66.
2Gregson v. Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug 232, 99 E.R. 629.
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The ship reached Jamaica, but Captain Collingwood mistook the landfall for
Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic) and sailed into open sea. When the
mistake was discovered, the water supply on board was waning, and weather
and currents made beating back to Jamaica difficult (Cuba was nearer, but was
in Spanish hands and inhospitable). The first mate, James Kelsall, swore that
there was only enough water for four days, but ten to thirteen days would be
required to regain Jamaica. Dozens of slaves had already died on board when a
decision was made to sacrifice additional slaves in order to save the rest . . .
approximately 130 slaves were thrown overboard, and the lawsuit in the court
of King's Bench was brought by the owners against the underwriters to collect
insurance for the slaves claimed to have been lost by absolute necessity
(valued at £30 per head). The jury verdict was for the plaintiffs. A motion for a
new trial followed, argued in Easter term 1783.
As Jane Webster indicates, Olaudah Equiano informed Granville Sharp of
the Zong event and trial, and Sharpe organized the recording of the litigation.
At the time, Sharp along with Thomas Clarkson spearheaded the anti-slavery
abolitionist movement in England.
Emerging from Oldham's and Webster's analyses alone is a series of
events that created linkages among entities as disparate as sailing, water, a
lawsuit, the coast of Africa, underwriters and mariners, the Caribbean
Islands, winds and currents, and abolitionists, among others. Circulating
among this web of connections is the metaphor of the human as thing on
which slavery depended for its definition and practices. It is the same
metaphor that has circulated from one account of the Zong event to the next.
Whether we consider the representation of the massacre at a commemorative
event, in a scholarly analysis, a poem, a film, a painting, or a legal text, we
see displacements occur from one site to the next, performatively yielding
social meaning. In this context, and reactivating the etymological meaning of
`metaphor' as the carrying and transfer of meaning,
my concern is not so
much with metaphor in law. Instead, I begin with: how does a metaphor
function as it transits from one locus to the next, and what are its
performative effects?
Drawing on Latour's conception of the social as described in his Actor-
Network-Theory, I propose to consider colonialism as a historical chain of
transformative events with the Middle Passage as a major locus of
association among humans, things, the sea, trade, transportation, law, and
finance speculation. Out of this assemblage emerged slavery as a particular
social and racist configuration. For Latour, the social is not a given to be
3 In J. Oldham, `Insurance Litigation Involving the Zong and Other British Slave Ships,
1780±1807' (2007) 28 J. of Legal History 299, at 299±300.
4 See J. Webster, `The Zong in the Context of the Eighteenth-Century Slave Trade'
(2007) 28 J. of Legal History 285. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the
Slave Trade was established in 1787. The slave trade was abolished in 1807; slavery
was abolished in England in 1833.
5 See etymology in the OED. at
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identified with social structures. Instead, it presents itself at the performative
outcome of a series of links among entities that in their assemblage produce
an event and manifest the social. Thus:
the word `social' . . . is the name of a movement, a displacement, a
transformation, a translation, an enrollment. It is an association between
entities which are in no way recognizable as being social in the ordinary
manner, except during the brief moment when they are reshuffled together . .. .
social . . . is the name of a type of momentary association which is
characterized by the way it gathers together into new shapes.
Checking `how much energy, movement, and specificity our own reports are
able to capture',
anthropologists network processes of association among
humans and non-humans that beget the social. Latour's rejection of a
traditional sociology revolving around the analysis of structures in favour of
the study of the social as performative outcomes may seem extreme. In
contrast, one could invoke Bourdieu's analysis of structural reproduction
through hexis, habitus, and schemes, all of which would shed light on law
and slavery. However, Bourdieu's focus on (performative) social structures
and Latour's focus on circulation and exchange through acts of association
are not antinomic. While Bourdieu speaks to the weight and persistence of
power through structures, Latour offers a pragmatic method to trace the
mobility and circulation of power through encounters and collisions, as when
the poem Zong! meets law, finance capitalism, and insurance policies.
In the first section of this argument, I will focus on linkages among some
of the entities constituting the social or `socius' of the Middle Passage to
suggest that the metaphor of the human as thing acted as a crucial mediator
of social configuration: circulating metonymically through the colonial
socius, it accumulated meaning from one locus to the next. Drawing on
analyses of maritime law, insurance policies, and finance capitalism, I will
offer a preliminary networking of a series of associations that semantically
relied on this key metaphor and that are part of a historical chain of traumatic
violence to this day.
In the second section, I will suggest that M. NourbeSe Philip's poem
Zong! (2008) presents itself as a relay in this colonial chain of traumas and
their reiterative violence. Both critique and commemoration, the poem seeks
to bear responsibility to the reified and abjected bodies of the Africans
aboard the Zong. In this experimental long poem in six sections, Philip draws
on Gregson v. Gilbert as a linguistic matrix to generate her text thereby
constituting a performative address to the law that takes the path of citation.
Citing, fragmenting, and recombining law's formulas, Zong! strives to
liberate the memory of the African Ancestors from the prison-house of
6 B. Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2005)
7 id., p. 131.
8 M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng (2008).
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language and mediates an alternative poetics of relationality that throws time
out of joint, proceeding along the principle of dis/re-assembling among sign-
objects on the page. To this extent, Philip shares with Derrida `a politics of
memory, of inheritance, and of generations'
that is predicated on respon-
sibility and that makes the advent of justice possible. As Derrida writes:
no justice ± let us say no law and once again we are speaking here of laws ±
seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility,
beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before
the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they
victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist,
colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions
of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.
The poem's fractal and combinatory poetics transforms the ratio decidendi
of the Zong trial from a speculative investment in the human-thing into an
ethical question of justice.
In the third section, I will argue that, in response to the massacre of
Africans on Zong, Philip's poem addresses the law by mediating a con-
catenation of agencies among humans, things, sea, ship, languages, trade,
finance capital, and maritime law which generates a performative critique.
Through their metonymic and fractal processes, the various sections of the
poem tear away at the assemblage through which the metaphor human-thing
circulated and that the courts sanctioned at the Zong trial. Central to Philip's
critique is rape, which is all at once a singular act of violence and a collective
trauma. This gendered address to the law therefore turns upon the obscene
injury to African women's bodies on which law, church, and finance capital
turned a blind eye.
In the final section, I will pause on the reconfiguration of the act of
bearing witness in Philip's poem. In its desire to bear witness to the past, the
poem transforms the Western concept of the witness by speaking to and with
the dead, not about the dead. This address to the Ancestors seeks to do
justice to the African slaves and to recognize the singularity of their
languages, of which as human-things they were deprived. I will conclude by
suggesting that, both on the page and on stage during poetry readings, Zong!
becomes the performative occasion for the social when readers, listeners,
viewers, and reciters reassemble the various languages and media of the
poem. Out of this socius may emerge justice as an event through which an
ethics of hospitality and relationality might materialize.
9 J. Derrida, Specters of Marx, tr. P. Kamuf (1994) xviii±xix.
10 id., p. xix.
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Developing exponentially for several centuries, the colonial circuit of the
Middle Passage sought to maintain itself through renewed links among
maritime law, trade, church, sovereignty, bureaucracy, and finance capital-
ism that produced slavery as a particular social configuration. The practices
surrounding slavery revolved around a key metaphor that is both appallingly
simple and politically complex: slavery rests on the notion that a human
being is a thing, and that as such it can be owned and shipped as cargo across
the Atlantic, then be exchanged as a commodity for trade.
The metaphor is
this politically laden trope that ferried over meaning from the word `human'
to the word `thing' and that produced a dislocation in the conception of the
human. Shedding a Latourian light on metaphor, one can suggest that if the
social is the outcome of reassembling, then the slave metaphor is the trope
that, in assembling human with thing, created this catachrestic hyphen that
obtained as slavery in the Middle Passage. Thus the human-thing joined the
chain connecting sugar, rum, tobacco, guns, beads, pigs, port, cowries, bills
of exchange, and promissory notes, all of which enacted the triangular trade.
This historical reification of human beings, which slave mutinies and the
struggle for independence in Haiti proved fallacious, derived from the belief
in the principle of property ownership which English law authorized and
legitimized. Blackstone thus asserted that the possession of property `is that
sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the
external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other
individual in the universe.'
These words resonate with the violence of three
centuries of despotic dominions over land and humans turned into things.
They also demonstrate law's capacity to invoke with decisive authority
principles to fill in the hiatus between incommensurable entities such as
human and commodity.
From a discursive standpoint, the metaphor of the human-thing functions as
a floater travelling among the various elements of the sea, maritime law, the
barracoon, sovereignty, ship, cargo, trade, and credit-based exchange that in
their assemblage produced colonialism. Therefore, at work is not only the
trope of the human-thing, but also its exposure to a metonymic process
whereby the trope functions as a relay among heterogeneous entities and
fosters a circulation of meaning and practices. The metaphor acts as a crucial
mediator of social configuration, metonymically circulating through the
circuit of the colonial socius, and accumulating meaning from one locus to the
11 See Eric Williams's landmark study, Capitalism and Slavery (1944).
12 In M.S. Ball, Lying down Together: Law, Metaphor, and Theology (1985) 119.
13 Thus Latour argues, `The linkages of law have . .. this distinctive feature: through the
intermediary of a particular hiatus they allow means to follow a highly original
trajectory in a series of leaps from facts to principles': B. Latour, An Inquiry into
Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013) 365.
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next. In this sense, the metaphor of the human-thing functions according to
Roman Jakobson's notion that metaphor and metonymy work in combina-
For him, the analysis of the metaphor as a trope outside the syntagmatic
context of the sentence makes no sense. Instead, the metaphor, which rests on
the process of selecting paradigms of meaning, makes sense insofar as it is
correlated with the metonymic process of combining the selected paradigms
of meaning. In other words, metonymy and metaphor work hand in hand to
produce meaning through selection and combination. Thus, the human-thing
metaphor not only selects but also hyphenates two paradigms of meaning that
historically engendered a web of performative practices with material effects
in law, trade, state sovereignty, and capitalist economies of exchange.
To demonstrate the circulation of this metaphor and its relaying function,
one can focus on the rhetoric associated with the sea in maritime law and its
subsequent combination with insurance law and slavery. In his study of
maritime law, Ball refers to metaphors that operated in clusters sharing
`family resemblances',
thereby creating ideological links among disparate
elements such as law, trade, and ontology. These clusters originated in two
conceptions of the sea. In 1609, Hugo Grotius published Mare Liberum in
which he argued that:
legally free seas prove and serve fulfillment of human life in community . . .
Divine justice has established that each nation requires the supplies of others.
The necessary mutuality of this order of distribution is to be realized through
unrestricted navigation and the open access of each nation to all. By nature and
purpose, the sea is a bond of human fellowship.
In 1635, John Selden counter-published Mare Clausum (drafted in 1618) in
which he maintained that:
the law of the sea effects a division that allows the English to keep their seas
. . . The practice of dividing the sea and excluding others protects exhaustible
resources. Its purpose is to increase the efficiency of exploitation and to slow
the loss of profit.
One metaphor associated the sea with fluid exchange and fellowship, the
other linked the sea to a bulwark against economic loss and exhaustibility.
Both focus on trade as the exchange of commodities of which the slave
would become one. Both metaphors also shed ironic and tragic light on
slavery whereby the metaphor of the sea as a bond of human fellowship was
downtrodden, and whereby the notion of the sea for market profit and
sovereignty enabled the practices of slavery.
While the sea was either a mediator of free trade from one continent to
another, or one of regulated transactions for the benefit of the nascent British
14 R. Jakobson, `Linguistics and Poetics' in Language in Literature, eds. K. Pomorska
and S. Rudy (1987) 62.
15 Ball, op. cit., n. 12, p. 101.
16 id., p. 39.
17 id., p. 41.
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Empire, it remained a site of perils and risks to be insured against. And it is
in the terminology of insurance policies that we can see the metaphoric
cluster of the-human-thing-commodity-cargo reappear and circulate, this
time linking law, trade, and sovereignty onto capitalist practices and con-
cepts. Discursively, this assemblage assumes new meaning in the standard
Lloyd's marine insurance policy that `took shape during the 1600s, achieving
printed form in a policy dated 20 January 1680/81 covering the Golden
Fleece and its cargo from Lisbon to Venice',
and that was used throughout
the eighteenth century. Here is an excerpt:
Touching the Adventures and Perils which we the Assurers are contented to
bear and do take upon us in this Voyage, they are, of the Seas, Men-of-War,
Fire, Enemies, Pirates, Rovers, Thieves, Jettisons, Letters of Mart and
Countermart, Surprisals, Takings at Sea, Arrests, Restraints and Detainments
of all Kings, Princes, and People, of what Nation, Condition or Quality soever,
Barratry of the Master and Mariners, and of all other Perils, Losses and
Misfortunes that have or shall come to the Hurt, Detriment, or Damage of the
said Goods and Merchandises and Ship, &c., or any Part thereof.
At work in this catalogue is a Latourian series of association among entities
that, if it were not for the ominous reference to goods and merchandises,
would sound poetically fantastic.
The terms of the standard insurance policy prepared the ground for and
legitimized the metaphor of the human-thing to be shipped across the
Atlantic, with the ship itself operating as yet another actant ensuring the
circulation of goods for the sake of economic transactions. As Oldham
distinctions relating to human cargoes clearly imply that what was being
insured was not the `life' of a slave as such, but his or her status as cargo: that
is to say, the status of the enslaved as goods in transit. Human cargoes (slaves)
in transit on the sea occupied a problematic, liminal position in maritime law ±
a position somewhere between personhood and property.
This liminal position is also what links insurance policies to maritime law
and eventually to Gregson v. Gilbert through which judges legitimized the
metaphoric cluster of the human-thing-commodity-cargo in transit. As
scholars and Philip herself emphasize, at stake at the trial was not whether
Captain Collingwood was to be tried on murder charges, but whether the
jettisoning of slaves who had not rebelled constituted a necessary act that
was subject to compensation.
Furthermore, Ian Baucom's analysis of slavery helps us network the links
among the sea as mare liberum and mare clausum, maritime law, and
speculative capitalism. He describes a major shift from a hierarchy organized
around landed property, aristocracy, and state war making to a culture of
18 In Oldham, op. cit., n. 3, pp. 301±2.
19 id., p. 301.
20 id., p. 296 (footnote omitted).
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public credit, debt-financing mechanisms of war making, and power relations
between creditors and debtors. Attending this transformation is a standard
subjectivity redefined through the financial system and its attendant practices
of speculation, exchange, trustworthiness, credibility, and calculations.
Above all, this culture functioned in the allegorical mode whereby im-
material, imaginary, and financial values were generated by means of credit-
based transaction and bills of exchange. In sum, the vast allegory of
capitalism had the effect of occulting materiality, that is to say, things. What
is the place of slavery in this allegorical drama? According to Baucom,
slavery as a type on interest-bearing money lies at its heart:
on reaching the slave markets of the Caribbean or the Americas, a vessel
would assign its cargo to a local factor or sales agent . . . . That factor would
then sell the slaves (by auction, parcel, scramble, or other means) and then,
after deducting his commission, `remit' the proceeds of the sale in the form of
an interest-bearing bill of exchange. This bill amounted to a promise, or
`guarantee', to pay the full amount, with the agreed-upon interest, at the end of
a specified period, typically from one to three years . . . The Caribbean or
American factor had thus not so much sold the slaves on behalf of their
Liverpool `owners' as borrowed an amount equivalent to the sales proceeds
from the Liverpool merchants and agreed to repay that amount with interest.
The Liverpool businessmen invested in the trade had, by the same procedure,
transformed what looked like a simple trade in commodities to a trade in
These practices, Baucom argues, explain why Collingwood proceeded to
jettison the slaves off the ship: ill and valueless, they could no longer serve in
this credit-based transaction, yet their loss as insured property could be
invoked to obtain compensation. What this dematerializing and speculative
logic implies is that, in legitimizing the principles of maritime law and
finance capitalism, Gregson v. Gilbert equally disembodied the Africans of
the Middle Passage, legitimizing what Achille Mbembe referred to as the
creation of `death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which
vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the
status of living dead.'
In this context, Baucom's analysis is highly per-
suasive and complements MbembeÂ's attribution of the origins of necro-
politics to the governance of colonial plantations that displayed the `the first
syntheses between massacre and bureaucracy, that incarnation of Western
Gregson v. Gilbert stamped this rationality with legitimacy.
However, one should bear in mind that the allegorical mechanism of
Baucom's description depends on the metaphoric cluster of the human-thing-
commodity-cargo. Without the hyphenation, the slave cannot be the object of
credit and speculation, even though his or her body is dematerialized. To
21 I. Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of
History (2005) 61.
22 A. MbembeÂ, `Necropolitics' (2003) 15 Public Culture 11, at 39±40.
23 id., p. 23.
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grasp this fact, one needs to remember that what occasioned the litigation at
King's Bench is an event that presented itself precisely as this linking among
colonial power over bodies, capitalist speculations, sovereignty, and military
competition at sea. A series of interconnected decisions can be listed as
follows: (i) In loading the cargo aboard the Zong, Collingwood activates the
metaphor of the human-thing; (ii) the cargo has to be insured; (iii) the cargo
has lost its value; (iv) asking for compensation will minimize the loss; (v) he
jettisons the cargo to be in a position to receive compensation. While
decisions (ii), (iii), and (iv) unfold according to the principles of speculative
finance, decisions (i) and (ii) attend the materialization of the human-thing
metaphor. Triggering inhuman and catastrophic consequences, Collingwood
acted upon the metaphor, unwittingly returning the cargo to humanity: this is
what Granville Sharpe understood: `negroes exist / for the throwing' (Zong!
p. 34).
For there can be murder only if the embodied nature of the slaves is
affirmed: `suppose the law not / Ð a crime / suppose the law a loss' (Zong!
p. 20). Sharpe's documented attempt to obtain a trial on murder charges
sought to mediate and thereby affirm the dignity of the Africans' lives,
whose bodies had become the target of domination. As Agamben argues,
`the politicization of bare life as such . . . constitutes the decisive event of
modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical
categories of classical thought.'
The passage from human to thing to
human does make manifest the bodies of the Africans and their exposure to
bare life. Thus, the metaphor both masks and manifests the visibility of the
colonial socius of racism towards Blacks. In this sense, it is not so much the
allegorical exchange-value of the slave that makes legal trouble but the
metaphor of the human-thing, insofar as murder and genocide can only
happen to embodied human beings.
The human catastrophe of the Zong trial, in which the metaphor of the
human-thing played a central role, stands as a link in a historical chain
through which the metaphor is still running its course, accumulating,
diffusing, and refracting the original trauma and violence. This violence can
be connected to Derrida's identification of the violence at the foundation of
the operation that consists of founding, inaugurating, justifying law (droit),
making law, would consist of a coup de force, of a performative and therefore
interpretative violence that in itself is neither just nor unjust and that no justice
and previous law with its founding anterior moment could guarantee or
contradict or invalidate.
24 See A. Rupprecht on Sharpe in ```A Very Uncommon Case'': Representations of the
Zong and the British Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade' (2007) 28 J. of Legal
History 329, at 336.
25 G. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998) 4.
26 J. Derrida, `Force of Law: The ``Mystical Foundation of Authority''' (1989±90) 11
Cardozo Law Rev. 920, at 941, 943.
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The violence of law's authority reverberates through the historical evolution
of American courts' decisions revolving around discrimination against
Blacks and the establishing of affirmative action programmes.
Thus, focusing on the metaphors of brand, badge, and stigma that
circulated in the antebellum period and that kept appearing in cases such as
Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson, Brook Thomas begins with
yet another originary and reiterative moment of law's violence. In Dred Scott
v. Sandford, Justice Roger Brooke Taney declared that:
Various discriminatory legislation enacted by states against free blacks had . ..
`stigmatized' them by impressing upon them `deep and enduring marks of
inferiority and degradation'. Since there was only one class of citizens in a
republic and since, at the moment of founding, states had `deemed it just and
necessary thus to stigmatize' those of African descent, they were excluded
from the community that originally constituted the sovereign people of the
This reiteration of law's foundational violence leads Shoshana Felman to
ascribe to law the power to inflict trauma on a cumulative and historical
Legal memory is constituted, in effect, not just by the `chain of law' and by the
conscious repetition of precedents, but by a forgotten chain of cultural wounds
and by compulsive or unconscious legal repetitions of traumatic, wounding
legal cases.
Further, the cumulative and refracting violence of the metaphor of the
human-thing has traveled from the courts to the administrative policies and
practices ruling supermax prisons.
In an anthropological and legal investigation of United States high
security units, where the dream of the panopticon has come true through the
electronic eye monitoring prisoners' each and every move, Joan Dayan
argues that the legal code of slavery has migrated towards the penal system:
Legitimacy, reasonableness, and necessity. These words recur throughout the
Code Noir of the French islands, the West Indian slave laws of the eighteenth
century, the black codes of the American South, and contemporary legal
decisions maintaining prison security. The language of the law, amid the
current spectacle of chain gangs, control units, and executions, preserves the
memory of slavery.
27 In B. Thomas, `Stigmas, Badges, and Brands: Discriminating Marks in Legal History'
in History, Memory, and the Law, eds. A. Sarat and T. Kearns (2002) 250.
28 S. Felman, `Forms of Judicial Blindness: Traumatic Narratives and Legal Repetitions'
in Sarat and Kearns, id., p. 30.
29 J. Dayan, `Held in the Body of the State: Prisons and the Law' in Sarat and Kearns,
id., pp. 183±4. Philip also states (in Saunders, op. cit., n. 1, p. 68): `In a way we have
always been outside of that Law, in a philosophical sense. We are still outside of the
law today (and yet trapped by it) in the way the law is used to police and confine
black bodies in the new prison industrial complex.' Beyond the courts and supermax
prisons, the legacy of slavery is manifest in American welfare policies and their
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It is as a mediator and relay in this historical chain of traumatic and
reiterative violence that I propose to read Philip's Zong! Both critique and
commemoration, the poem unfolds as a reiterative and performative event
whose potential outcome consists of a social transformation in the name of
The critique of the colonial socius requires a counter-discourse that escapes
the calculus of profit and loss that turned the sea into a battlefield of
domination where, in complicity with finance capitalism and insurance, law
suspended the humanity of beings. Exposed to bare life on a ship of fools, the
Africans were subject to a state of exception that prowled above and below
deck. In her `Notenda' to the poem, Philip explains that she sought to create
anti-meaning to counter the effects of colonial and legal domination.
Through this anti-meaning the poem seeks to remember the Africans by
returning them to the embodied and spiritual character of human beings.
Hence the titles of four of the five sections: `Os', `Sal', `Ventus', and
`Ferrum'. Just as African groups, languages, animals, body parts, crew, food
and drink, nature, and women who wait are made manifest at the end of the
book (Zong! pp. 185±86), human beings who were murdered are made
manifest through sounds, languages, ululation, and moans throughout the
The resuscitation of this community creates a paradox which Sarah
Dowling posits as follows: while `Zong! emphasizes the enfleshed voice',
the `attempt to constitute community must fail: Philip demonstrates the
impossibility of communing with bodies that have been absented or silenced,
with bodies that have disappeared beneath the ocean.'
Taking Dowling's
analysis one step further, I suggest that the pause on bodies also enacts a
fundamental address to the law in the name of ius or justice,
and bears
witness to the dehumanized and abjected bodies of the Africans aboard the
Zong. A dilemma lies at the origin of this address: what language should one
use when addressing the law? Using law's language runs the risk of getting
enmeshed in its doctrines and procedures; not using law's language will lead
metaphorical rhetoric: see A. Cammett, `Deadbeat Dads & Welfare Queens: How
Metaphor Shapes Poverty Laws' (2014) 34 Boston College J. of Law & Social Justice
30 S. Dowling, `Persons and Voices: Sounding Impossible Bodies in M. NourbeSe
Philip's Zong!' (2011) 210±11 Canadian Literature 43, at 57, 58.
31 Here I draw on the notion of truth as an event, which Adam Gearey borrows from
Johan Van der Walt, who analysed the South African Truth and Reconciliation
Commission's work in performative terms: A. Gearey, ```Tell All the Truth, but Tell
it Slant'': A Poetics of Truth and Reconciliation' in Law and Literature, eds. P.
Hanafin, A. Gearey, and J. Brooker (2004) 46.
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the law to lend a deaf ear to the address. And using or not using the language
of law is pre-empted by the fact that the `negro' remains outlawed, neither in
or out, but both. This dilemma accounts for the experimental and paradoxical
aspect of the poem. Indeed, the address unfolds, wrestling in the textual grip
of the text of Gregson v. Gilbert.
As explained by Philip and as underlined by critics,
the poem presents
itself as an experiment over-determined from the start by a linguistic
constraint: the text of Gregson v. Gilbert constitutes the matrix of the first
twenty-six subsections constituting `Os' ± the alpha and omega of the
western alphabet ± while its subsection `Dicta' defies the calculus of gain
and loss by offering six unnumbered poems that nevertheless spin into serial
and combinatory verse. The next five sections draw and expand on this
initial legal cache memory, unfolding in the lyrical, dramatic, oratory, and
fugal modes. The constraint, which the archival calligraphy of the five
sections' titles inscribes, is both linguistic and ethical: the syntax of the
lawsuit report aims to make legal sense and to deliver a judgment, but
running through this procedural and semantic coherence is the silenced
incoherence and madness of the metaphor human-thing upon which the ratio
decidendi of Gregson v. Gilbert turned. Philip's writing proceeds to con-
found the law by fragmenting its formulas, seeking to liberate the memory of
the African ancestors from the prison-house of legal language. Here are two
examples of the process of dis-assembling and recombination taking place in
the poem:
where the ratio of just / us less than / is necessary / to murder / the subject in
property / the save in underwriter / where etc tunes justice / and the ratio of
murder / is / the just in ration / the suffer in loss (Zong! pp. 25±26)
my once queen / now slave / there be / no free / on / board / under / writers /tire
/of writs / writ fine / with sin (Zong! p. 86)
Furthermore, the legal text functions as a synecdoche, as it stands for
language as a whole from which Philip must generate meaning. Arguing that
`Philip metaphorizes the possibilities of resuscitation by reviving the legal
transcripts documenting the massacre',
Baucom sees in her task a
metaphor enacting the passage from tomb to resuscitation.
It is worth mentioning that the words `resuscitate' and `citation' share the
same etymological origin, which is to move, stir, excite, or mobilize. Thus, if
Philip's politics of memory revolves around an address to the law, it is by
means of citation, as the following use of the deictic `the' indicates: `the that
fact / the it was / the were / negroes / the after rains' (Zong! p. 5). Mobilizing
the words of maritime law as an originary and historical matrix, she engages
32 For a subtle analysis of the role of the epic catalogue in Zong!, see E.M. Fehskens,
`Accounts Unpaid, Accounts Untold: M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong! and the Catalogue'
(2012) 35 Callaloo 407.
33 Baucom, op. cit., n. 20, p. 332.
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in a metonymic series of citational displacements: `there is bone / a secret
race under / writers / lives of writ s / & rent s / cede / the truth' (Zong! p. 80).
In citing the legal text, Philip deflects the terms of reasoning from specula-
tive interest to an ethical question of justice: `should they have / found being
/ sufficient / a necessity / (portion that question) / should they have / found
the justify / for exist' (Zong! p. 27). Stirring law's use of language, she
transforms the poetic page into a heterotopic site for an event where a
process of metonymic dis-assembling takes place that aims at breaking the
syntagmatic principle of an unjust language.
This fractal and combinatory poetics submits the linearity and one-
sidedness of legal language to a critique while creating a mise en sce
through a mise en page in which signs function like objects on the material
page. Acknowledging Baucom's analysis, the poem bears the traces of
Philip's reflection on the chimeras of finance speculation ± `invest in / tin / in
/ rum / in slaves / in / negroes serve / the preserver / the jam / and jamaica'
(Zong! p. 73) ± and on the possibility of a pre-capitalistic sea untouched and
unstained by the metaphors of free trade and bulwark. Seizing the actuarial
logic by the throat, she shuffles the key words of the litigation and
recombines them serially in an impossible pre-lapsarian, pre-capitalistic state
of being (Zong! p. 49). Philip describes her poetics of interaction among
words, letters, and blank spaces as follows:
The organizing principle, once I had found the form of the cluster, was a
relational one. Each word or word cluster is in relation to each other, par-
ticularly on sequential lines, and, further, no word or word cluster can come
directly below another cluster of words. Another way of looking at it is that
each cluster of words is seeking the space or the silence above. And this
creates a number of alternatives for meaning and reading.
Activated by the acts of reading, these clusters of sign-objects act the way
that Latourian objects interact, mediating and performing an event whose
social outcome depends on the reader's deciphering and interpretation.
While this poetics of relationality proceeds along metonymic dis/re-
assembling among sign-objects, it also dr aws on key metaphors. In
`Notenda', Philip offers the metaphor of the grand boggle game to explain
what poetic process she went through as she sought to create the patterns on
the page. In the poem itself, one comes across the metaphor of sailing
creating a cat's cradle on the sea (Zong! p. 85), which strikes one as a self-
referential statement, materializing for the reader what her eyes have been
doing throughout the pages: weaving imaginary lines of connection from one
34 Sharpe suggests that the poems of Zong! `work through their own logic of association,
word play and sliding signification of words and syllables, whose meanings change
with the insertion of a different letter or transference into another language or through
alliteration': J. Sharpe, `The Archive and Affective Memory in M. NourbeSe Philip's
Zong!' (2014) 16 Interventions: International J. of Postcolonial Studies 465, at 473.
35 In Saunders, op. cit., n. 1, p. 72.
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Figure 1. Zong! p. 106
M. NourbeSe Philip, p. 106 of Zong! ß2008 M. NourbeSe Philip
Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School
cluster of words to another, vertically, horizontally, diagonally. Through this
ceaseless game of metonymic combination of units of meaning, the words
extracted from Gregson v. Gilbert are let loose and morph into polysemy and
polyculture (Zong! p. 106, see Figure 1). In fact, the very act of citing the
poem cannot do it justice, as it destroys the relational quality of the clusters.
Relentlessly anti-linear, the writing process defies not only the language of
law, but also the language of the critic, a word that shares with law the
etymologies of reading and judging.
Furthermore, the relations among the clusters create fantastic shapes of
objects on the page and have prompted readers into metaphorical readings of
the text. Critics have indeed detected the shapes of the account ledger, the
window from which sailors could see these bodies fall, or the dendrita of sea
Philip herself sees in her text the `aesthetic translation' of slavery
as legal containment and the escape from suffocation and enclosure, `as if
the words are seeking space to breathe'.
Whether it be through the grand
boggle game, the cat's cradle, or the concrete object of poetry, the poem has
upset the reifying metaphorical chain of the human-thing-commodity-cargo
and redefined objecthood through a poietic event whereby sign-objects act
on the page in a relational mode, addressing the text of the law but also the
reader, listener, and viewer. Indented, fractal, and floating on the pages, the
clusters under the movement of the reading eyes create a time out of joint, to
quote Derrida, for whom the time of justice is one of disjunction.
It is through this metonymic process that the various sections of the poem
tear away at the assemblage through which the metaphor human-thing
circulated and that the courts sanctioned at the Zong trial. Philip disturbs the
apparent composure of the law by disrupting its aspiration to totality and
autotelic containment. The various links among church, sovereignty, trade,
capitalism, property ownership, law, and the practices of mariners on Zong
are scattered for all to see on the pages of the poem, and it is the readers'
complicit eyes that make the ethical and political connections. The violation
of African bodies through branding and lashing is linked through a history of
imperial domination, combining political events with epic texts (Homeric
and Virgilian) that to this day are regarded as the foundational master-pieces
of western literature: `a span / of pain / such / that / the / poet / of / the / trope
/ that is / troy can / not own / but there is / property i / say / in / pope / in /
36 See Fehskens, op. cit., n. 31, pp. 410, 420; F. Wah, `Reading M. NourbeSe Philip's
Zong!' (2013) Jacket2, at cle/reading-m-nourbese-philips-
37 In Saunders, op. cit., n. 1, p. 73.
38 Derrida, op. cit., n. 8, p. xix.
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School
troy in / rome / in / negro / in / guns / bam bam / our eyes / skim the sea for /
bodie s for the law in ius in / us in /os in bone' (Zong! p. 87). The poem bears
the traces of oration (as in o-ratio-n), Shakespearean drama, aria, odes, and
Cartesian philosophy and its reflection on what constitutes subjectivity ± the
I/yo/je/esse/sum/ego/ik that do not include the Africans ± as the cultural tools
of the master which the various voices of the poem cite and mobilize. The
moans of pain of the slaves are juxtaposed contrapuntally to the Christian
symbolism of suffering and crucifixion, of dove and Eden, guilt and
salvation, all of which the mariner-persona is mouthing, gnawed as he is by
the sins he has committed aboard the ship. It is through this series of
associations that the text reveals the ignominy that the Africans endured
aboard the Zong and that the court occulted:
negroes for sale the wig / w ogs the nig /nogs get / the tongs the /irons
hot / hot sing / sing a son/ g of / sin such / a / din / such / a
ding / ding dong / sing / he sang / ba ba iya (Zong! p. 86)
Through the anagrammatic combinations of slave, lave, save, ave, and salve
(Zong! p. 63), Philip conveys the tragic irony of a hallucinatory, raving
Christian discourse that could not correlate the slaves to the very expression
of human suffering that Christ is supposed to embody. The irreducible aspect
of the text has led Veronica Austen to reflect on the relationship between
power and the ethics of writing and interpreting the Zong massacre: `How
can Philip, or anyone, ethically represent the experience of the massacre's
victims when to construct a representation means to hold power over those
victims and their legacy?'
Seeking peace and release, this poetic address to
the law cannot be but violent, not only because it represents acts of extreme
and inhumane violence, but also because in engaging with the legacy of
violence and injustice, the text inevitably generates its own violence against
the tools of the master of which we are the complicit inheritors.
Central to Philip's address to the law is rape ± `rape this voyage' (Zong! p.
109) ± which is all at once a singular act of violence and a collective trauma,
and to which the various sections owe their reiterative temporality. The
reference to rape recurs through the women/woman's words, `de men dem
cam fo mi' (Zong! pp. 68, 93, 94) and the mariner's lust and obsession ± `the
wonder her / sex wet' (Zong! p. 112) leaving her scent on his skin. It is
expressly stated towards the end of `Ventus', the third section driven by the
winds of the ocean and the venting of those to whom injustice has been done:
we / sailed / up / the / cunt of / africa to / found/ an / out / caste / race can t /
you add / a market /
waits it fans the / deed s alms / for / the poet of / troy . .. mark them dem j ai /
faim j/ai soif
dindin dong / dung / don din / din don don ding / ding / dong done (Zong! pp.
39 In ```Should We?'' Questioning the Ethical Representation of Trauma' (2011) 37(3±
4) English Studies in Canada 61, at 63±4.
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The gendered address to the law turns upon the obscene injury ± `cut / her
open her / shape tie her / ripe toes / round / and firm / the cord' (Zong! p. 71)
± to African women's bodies on slavers and later on plantations where they
functioned as breeders for the reproduction of a labour system.
attention to women and the pain they endured certainly demarcates her work
from the postcolonial critiques that Baucom and Derrida offer. As the wars
of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries indicate, women always bear the
ravages of violence, `the sack of troy the rage of men lives the poet writes'
(Zong! pp. 94±5). In an allusion to the Odyssey, the mariner states: `circe /
waits / lips / hang / make s / fun / of / eros / of us / & / ius makes / pigs of /
us' (Zong! p. 93). The word `ius' appears on the pages according to the
combinatory and associative dynamic of the text that anagrammatically
juggles the homonyms `os', `es', `us' (Zong! pp. 68±9), but also connects the
`I' to `us', the singular to the collective. It is perhaps in this single word and
its poietic declensions that we see the strife for the just word in the name of
Philip repeatedly refers to Zong as `the story that cannot be told and must
be told' (Zong! p. 196). This statement situates the poem between silence and
language. The page enacts silence through the spatial relations between cat-
cradled clusters and the blanks pocking the page.
It might be tempting to
account for this silence by invoking the concepts of melancholy and the
unheimlich, which are typically used to account for symptoms of trauma.
The Freudian theory is well known: the self who endures a loss cannot grieve
because it internalizes the object of loss and drifts through a reiterative
process of mourning. For instance, Tim Armstrong argues that the story of
the Zong demands a ```working through'' which might deal with what is
repressed and lost to understanding ± though here we must understand
``working-through'' in a way that Freud only occasionally countenanced, as
dealing with historical experience.'
However, what is striking is that this
theory of melancholy and haunting perversely rehearses the theory of
ownership: the self encrypts, that is to say, claims possession of the dead that
it will not relinquish, while the dead claims possession of the living, who is
in a perpetual position of debtor. The living becomes perpetually indebted
through a mortgage of the dead. Are we, Westerners, so deeply ingrained
40 See A.Y. Davies, `Outcast Mothers and Surrogates: Racism and Reproductive Politics
in the Nineties' in Feminist Theory, eds. W.K. Kolmar and F. Bartkowski (2010) 447±
41 As Eichhorn states, `In the final section of Zong!, the text appears in gray scale and
many of the words are superimposed. Here, paradoxically, it is an excess of words
rather than their absence, a discursive explosion rather than a constraint, that
reproduces the silence that marks the historical and judicial conditions of the Zong's
fatal passage': K. Eichhorn, `Multiple Registers of Silence in M. NourbeSe Philip's
Zong!' (2010) 23 Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics 33, at 37.
42 T. Armstrong, `Catastrophe and Trauma: A Response to Anita Rupprecht' (2007) 28
J. of Legal History 347, at 347.
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School
with the concept of ownership that even the theoretical ± speculative ±
account of our phantasms has to bear the capitalistic and legal signs of our
culture? Is it not the case that, by dispossessing African people of their
home, Western capitalism and law imposed the logic of the unheimlich,
which is but the other side of Western individualism based on property,
autonomy, and the suspicion of whatever is foreign or beyond bounds? In
other words, the unheimlich is a white way of telling what cannot be told.
Vital then is a practice of bearing witness to the past beyond the strictures of
Western language and the idiom of melancholy. It is not so much that the
law cannot deal with the past and, as Sarat and Kearns argue, through the
principle of stare decisis (the doctrine of precedent)`in every legal act there
is an insistent call to remember'.
However, if Gregson v. Gilbert reminds
us of anything, it is that the Africans were not only reduced to things, but that
the sailors on the ship asking them to jump and that the judges at King's
Bench delegitimizing them as things addressed them in a language they
could not understand. As Derrida reminds us, justice cannot be done if the
language that law speaks remains impenetrable and inhospitable to people.
So the question again is how to bear witness to the past, especially when the
singularity of one's language is not recognized? How to:
exorcise not in order to chase away the ghosts, but this time to grant them the
right, if it means making them come back alive, as revenants who would no
longer be revenants, but as other arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or
promise must offer welcome ± without certainty, ever, that they present
themselves as such. Not in order to grant them the right in this sense but out of
a concern for justice . . . which is desirable: through but also beyond right and
I suggest that Philip's poem speaks to and with the dead, not about the dead,
as a means of doing justice to the African people who were massacred on the
To make the dead or Ancestors manifest, Philip not only invokes them by
name at the bottom of the poem's pages, she also meddles with the legal
concept of the name of the author. Indeed, on the cover of her book, you can
43 Thus, Coppola argues that `The poet reconceptualizes slavery not as an event
consigned to the past, but as a powerful reassessment of contemporary politics of
memory that imposes a reconsideration of our notion of modernity': M. Coppola,
`This is not was: M. NourbeSe Philip's Language of Modernity' (2013) 2 Textus 67,
at 74.
44 A. Sarat and T. Kearns, `Writing History and Registering Memory in Legal Decisions
and Legal Practices: An Introduction' in Sarat and Kearns, op. cit., n. 27, p. 13.
45 Derrida, op. cit., n. 25, p. 948.
46 Derrida, op. cit., n. 8, p. 175.
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School
read: Zong! ± as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng. Setaey ± the
Adam on the boat perhaps ± is the ancestor bearing witness to and telling the
untellable through the citational pilfering of the legal text. In the epigram to
the `Ratio' section, Philip quotes Paul Celan: `there is no witness for the
witness'. While the quotation partly refers to the death of those whose
witnessing becomes a dead letter, Setaey Adamu Boateng's telling allows for
a conception of witnessing other than that of taking the stand and telling the
truth on the basis of a biblical oath. Not a mere third-party observer, Setaey
is the survivor and decryptor of the untellable event that needs to be told to
the future through the present. Philip turns the legal definition of dicta (a
judge's statement that may be pertinent to the case but that has no direct
bearing on the outcome of the lawsuit) into a dictation from the Ancestors,
an impertinent witnessing addressed to the law for the sake of justice. As
Clarke insightfully remarks,
the poem reads like a seÂance through which
author, surrogate author, mariners, slaves, and readers communicate through
a sensorial, affective, and sensuous stirring of the Ancestors. The medium is
indeed the message. While Western law seeks to create a unilateral address
without rebuttal other than through appeal, Setaey addresses not only the law
but also the dead. While the court did not ask for a response, and in fact
never provided any sense of what eventually took place, the poem engages in
a posthumous dialogue. The aporetic approach, oscillating between haunt-
ology and ontology ± `is being is / or / should / is is / is / be / being / or /
been' (Zong! p. 37) ± speaks to the profoundly ethical aspect of the poem
whose author bears witness to the dead, which is none other than bearing
witness to the living.
As such, the poem acts as a mediator of embodied responsibility and shifts
the use of language from the mausoleum of the propertied and autonomous
self to collective caring in the name of justice; from crypt to aqua; from
melancholy to speaking with the dead; from dirge to song and fugues; and
from `the mother document' (Zong! p. 200) of Gregson v. Gilbert to the sea
as matrix of languages. The fugal and multivocal dendrites of language
perform socius, materializing not only the agonistic co-existence of masters
and slaves on the Zong but also a potential exchange for an ethics of hos-
pitality, regeneration, and justice.
In contrast to the lack of communication
between the Africans and the masters, Philip opts for collective practices of
trans-communication whereby Yoruba, Fon, Shona, Twi, West African
Patois, Dutch, French, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and
Hebrew ± as well as sounds, onomatopoeia, assonances, and alliterations ±
commingle, disfigure and reconfigure English, drawing in the reader and
listener. If the poem fails to recreate the community of the past, it
47 G.E. Clarke, `Review of Zong! By M. NourbeSe Philip' (2008) 4 Maple Tree Literary
Supplement, at .
48 Dowling, op. cit., n. 29, p. 9, points out that `The only word in this poem that is never
broken apart into its constituent sounds is the word ``our''.'
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School
nevertheless has the power to conjure a socius through the performative
event of language in the plural: `there are / suits there are / writs liens / &
notes le mot / just e the just / word just / a word ave /ave to / the negroes and
/se' (Zong! pp. 111±12).
In `Ferrum', where the metal of tongs and irons
transmutes into the medium of word smithery, the shock of tongues and their
sound patterns are n ot cause for discord; inst ead, they irrigate the
possibilities of exchange through the translation from one idiom to the next
that is generative of being through meaning ± the clusters of words relaying
and transforming languages and their sounds.
The poem makes the voice s of the Ancestors manifest, but this
manifestation cannot occur without the work that is expected from readers,
who have to engage (as actants) in a reiterative poiesis of sense making to
which they co-respond through their own participation in the fashioning of
meaning. In other words, bearing witness and responsibility takes the path of
association among sign-objects, readers, listeners, and the poet-performer.
Justice as an event of reassembling materializes at poetry readings of Zong!,
which Margaret Christakos describes:
The current engagement involves musicians, a circular arrangement of
audience around the performance, and a spacious text-referential reading mode
made available to all who attend with the invitation that every voice may
become co-present in reading the text aloud, in synchronizing oration with the
group, in diverging into personal timing, in vocally occupying the text at any
of its many nodes in relation to a loosely conducted choral inhabitation of it.
As multiple voices converge and diverge building a rough choral volume,
Philip reads the text section by section, embarking into improvised attentions
upon particular phrases, moving her body rhythmically, walking, bending,
pulsing, pivoting incantatorily around segments whose crystallizing refrains
later emerge as group memory for the entire assembly.
On these public occasions, the poem does justice to the slaves through
collective and networking acts of memory and the imagination. The page as
relational bearer of signs becomes alive as the Africans of the Zong are made
manifest to our eyes and ears. In these practical events, ghosts become hosts,
and `thought becomes act, and body and manual experience . . . labor but
always divisible labor ± and shareable.'
49 In the `Glossary', Philip refers to a
Áse as signifying `may it manifest' in Yoruba (Zong!
p. 184).
M. Christakos, `Crossing Over: Temporalities of Erasure and Recuperation in the
Contemporary Long Poem, For Example, in ErõÂn Moure's The Unmemntioable and M.
NourbeSe Philip's Zong!' (2015) Lemon Hound, at
20/13067/>. Christakos argues that `Philip is enacting a ``material metaphoricity'' that
gestures indigeneity through this linguistic and semantic decomposition.' Philip's
readi ng perf orman ces are av ailab le at: ttps:/ /www. youtu be.com /watc h?v=
my4e E4de nus> ; ps:/ /vim eo.c om/2 7014 186> ; ps:/ /www .you tube .com /
watch ?v=HVl5 sYePm0o >; ://vim eo.com/ 7836057 4>; ps://vi meo.com /
51 Derrida, op. cit., n. 8, p. 170.
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School

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