Skip to content

The Problematic of Force in M. NourbeSe Philip’s “Zong! #1”

By Haider Ali

Jacques Derrida writes in “Force and Signification” of the relationship between force and language: “The force of the work, the force of genius, the force, too, of that which engenders in general is precisely that which resists geometrical metaphorization and is the proper object of literary criticism” (23). We may here consider force to be the originary violence through which language emerges, the latter being an attempt at a ‘geometrical metaphorization’ of the former—but failing to do so, since force, as Derrida tells us, is ‘that which resists geometrical metaphorization. In other words, language cannot capture force, precisely because language as such is an institution of neutralisation; that is, language neutralises an event’s force qua force by dissipating it into form, through the signifier. To put it bluntly, we see here, with the institution of language, a symbolic mediation of the real, which positions said real—force—as Wirklichkeit [actuality], or structural causality.^1 The question of force is especially relevant when reading M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry collection, Zong!, which, as its emphatic title suggests, meditates on the Zong massacre and the problematic of language as a means of mediating history. Though Philip, like Derrida, treats language—specifically the financial and legal language associated with the court cases around the Zong massacre—as an entity that neutralises the violence of the Zong massacre, I nevertheless invoke Derrida, since his focus is on language as such as a metaphysics of presence that will always fail to capture force, which is, in some ways, a broader claim than Philip’s.^2

The Zong massacre, as Philip relates it, was an effort on the part of the slave owners on the Zong to profit off their slaves’ deaths after suffering supply shortages due to navigational errors. The ship owners, including Luke Collingwood, committed “the massacre of the African slaves,” which would be, in their eyes, “more financially advantageous… than if the slaves were allowed to die of ‘natural causes’” (Philip 189). Philip, restricting herself to writing her collection using the financial and legal documents that dealt with this massacre, is faced with the problematic of representing a lost experience—that of the slave on the Zong—that has additionally been mediated exclusively by colonial positions. I will suggest, however, that what Philip really grapples with by delimiting such confines for herself is the neutralisation of the force of the massacre through financial and legal language. “Zong! #1,” the opening to the Zong! collection, is the pinnacle of Philip’s destabilising experimental style that works, I will argue, to recognise and recentre the force of the Zong massacre, lost as it is to the neutralisations of language. Meaning in presence is eschewed so as to acknowledge absent force; the real is elliptically approached through the symbolic.

Inasmuch as it is a rejection of traditional linguistic conventions, the agrammatical—that is, outside the bounds of grammar—nature of “Zong! #1” aims, I argue, to expose the signifier as complicit in a historical privileging of presence that suppresses the expression of real force. Owing to Philip’s destruction of the signifier to its atomic level, the letter, “Zong! #1” is near incomprehensible on an initial readthrough. Four iterations of the single letter “w” begin the poem, followed by an “a” and a “wa” (“Zong! #1” 1).^3 Immediately, the reader is transported into a poetic landscape without its words, instead constituted by the letters that may constitute a word. By thus reducing the signifier to its constituent parts, Philip subverts all expectations of a fixed, logical poetic exposition, instead achieving a Verfremdungseffekt, or defamiliarising the reader; that is, denying them an immersion into the temporality of the poem.^4 Rather, the reader is made to reckon with their own temporality relative to the poem, being actively situated as a consumer of the letter detached from the temporality of the letter as such. The letter is what the reader is encountering, not the Zong massacre. The poem makes obvious, in this manner, the material presence of the letter on the page as a veil masking a real Wirklichkeit: force.

In this relation to the materiality of the letter, the reader is brought to reckon with the materiality of the signifier as pure presence that has, at most, illusory ties to real force. “Zong! #1” continues its visually deconstructed approach to language by beginning to form a signifier: a “w” is brought into syntagmatic association with an “a” and a “t,” which in turn are followed by “er” in the subsequent line (2-3). Philip allows the reader to observe the genesis of the signifier: the little presences inscribed on the surface of the paper—I mean the letter—are combined before us, their identity as individual letters always affirmed by the intermittent spaces, into the signifier, ‘water.’ The signifier, constituted as it is by mere letters, is made to be recognised as merely another material presence on a page—not some metaphysical entity that may reproduce the force of an event like the Zong massacre. Philip, with this established, works through the notion that the language of finance and the language of law—which she deploys in her poem—both use the signifier as a stand-in for the real events of the massacre. This approach is one concerned with particular deployments of language, rather than language in and of itself. I shall further the stakes of Philip’s argument by underscoring that, in thus exposing the metaphysics of presence—a metaphysics that suppresses force, insofar as force is absence—at play in the signifier, Philip guides the reader to a position where they may challenge their consumption of the signifier as a means of accessing the historical real. Fundamentally, we, as readers, and Philip, as poet, cannot know the force behind the available historical documents that deal with the Zong massacre. This is a key principle emanating out of “Zong! #1,” the principle of unknowability that stains language in its function as a vehicle towards knowledge.

The letter, as it operates in “Zong! #1” also constructs a soundscape to form a glissement at the atomic dimension of the signifier that, though within the bounds of the symbolic, transports the reader, at least in a sense of phenomenal imagination, to an approximation of the force of the Zong massacre. Should we compose signifiers out of the letters available to us in Philip’s poem, we might arrive at “water,” “was,” “won,” “want,” along with other words (2-3, 3, 11, 21-22). I have intentionally focused on the letter ‘w’ in this instance as it is of particular note, appearing thirty-one times in the poem. The ‘w’ overwhelms the poem with its alliterative punctuation. Usually a euphonic consonant with a whispery, gliding effect—at least when alliterated across full words—I will contend that the ‘w’ in Philip’s poem gains a cacophony through its sheer over-repetition; indeed, the proximity of all the ‘w’ sounds lends into a spluttering sound. A sound that is associated with drowning, the splutter is an imaginative projection of the reader into the setting of the Zong. It retains fidelity to what is known by reproducing the language of financial and legal documents, but distorts said language in a way that frees the letter from the neutrality previously imposed upon it. A symbolic glissement into the historical occurs; that is, in the interstices of the text, those lacunae between the letters, the letter transcends its materiality, psychically staging the scene of the slaves of the Zong, drowning in the ocean waters, for the reader. The soundscape of the letter, simply speaking, operates on a phenomenal level in addition to a significative level—and in this former, an approximation, but assuredly not some ἀλήθεια [disclosure], of real force may be said to transpire.

There is a hole within the whole of “Zong! #1” that collapses the reader, as subject of the scopic function, in relation to the notion of meaning.^5 Lacan proposes a definition of the gaze, tied to the scopic drive, in relation to his notion of the objet petit a: “In so far as the gaze, qua objet a, may come to symbolize this central lack expressed in the phenomenon of castration… it leaves the subject in ignorance as to what there is beyond the appearance” (77). The objet a is that which ‘leaves the subject in ignorance as to what there is beyond the appearance.’ The imaginary ‘appearance’ in question becomes a screen that denies the subject mastery over their scopic field, instating the idea of lack qua lack of mastery—and with it, forming the economy of desire. Indeed, Todd McGowan adds that “[t]his gap [the objet a] within our look marks the point at which our desire manifests itself in what we see” (The Real Gaze 6). In what is otherwise, visually, a space of the letter and of the signifier, a white hole disturbs “Zong! #1.” It exists as lack, a lack of material. This lack—the receptacle of the eye, the site of the gaze—is essential to Philip’s poetic vision  because it neither acknowledges the reader, nor yields to the reader’s interpretive efforts. It is a place where the reader, as a subject in control of the poem, is eviscerated: ignorant of that which is impossible to know—the hole is of course a pure blankness, not written over by any illusion of meaning, real or contingent—the reader is denied any sense of mastery over Philip’s poem. The blank space haunting the poem may be read, but any attempt to understand it will inevitably be insufficient, or lacking.

Through this performance of impossibility, understood here according to the objet a, Philip also generates a desire on behalf of the reader for what is an absence. The exercise is one of turning the reader away from the metaphysics of presence, operating at the level of the symbolic, towards the level of absence, of force—lost in the morasses of a real. In other words, material presences are left peripheral, while a void becomes central. That which is beyond symbolisation serves as the object-cause of desire, by virtue of it being lacking. This is where, in Philip’s poem, the problematic of desire meshes with the problematic of force: the hole in the centre of the poem is beyond the reader’s reading—just as force is the beyond of signification lost in signification—but nevertheless effects a desire for that beyond, for that force. What Philip achieves, then, is a repositioning of force as the object of reader investment—a libidinal investment, even, considering the economics of desire at play—par excellence, despite its latency behind the manifest letters and signifiers of colonial financial and legal documents. Though Philip might not be able to resurrect the force qua Wirklichkeit of the massacre, she opens a channel for a reader to cathect their desire to it, which in and of itself is a critical first step towards appreciating—which, as always, is distinct from concrete knowing—the otherwise foreclosed history therein.

Philip says that Zong! tells a “story that cannot be told, yet must be told” (198). What I have endeavoured to demonstrate is that, indeed, the tragedy of the Zong is lost to history, its force forgotten to the extent that it, as Philip put it, ‘cannot be told.’ That is not to say we may not attempt as much, that is, to recapture force; rather, Philip’s approach strives towards this end, for the tragedy ‘must be told.’ To this effect, Philip uses experimental poetic techniques, sonically and visually, to work through the limitations of language—an entity that has long suffocated the Zong massacre into a void of neutrality—to return her readers to the question of force. Although we cannot understand the real event, we may appreciate its unknowability and we may imagine its gravity. This, of course, demands new protocols for reading, which are precisely what Philip guides us towards, through her re-centring of absence, of force—of the real Zong massacre, not the mediation of the same through colonial language. “Zong! #1,” ultimately, is an instance of revolution in poetic boundaries, evincing in its stylistic experimentalism the possibility of a return to the real—not a return as such, but an approximation to be more just—through and in spite of symbolic limitations. It is an attempt to return to structural causality, from within the erected structure, with an acute awareness of its real resistance to total excavation.

  1.  Terms like ‘real’, ‘imaginary’, and ‘symbolic’ should always be understood in their Lacanian registers. Briefly, I will use ‘real’ to refer to the impossibility that resists symbolisation, ‘imaginary’ to refer to the field of the image and méconnaissance, and ‘symbolic’ to refer to that which is rendered into structures and law, especially language.
  2.  The ‘metaphysics of presence’ is what Derrida’s project seeks to deconstruct. See “Violence and Metaphysics,” in Writing and Difference: “Has not the concept of experience always been determined by the metaphysics of presence? Is not experience always an encountering of an irreducible presence, the perception of a phenomenality?” (190).
  3.  I am citing these lines as horizontal lines. It could be argued that this is not how the poem is to be read, but for simplicity’s sake, I will be adopting such a citation approach.
  4.  With this use of alienation, I have Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt in mind. Brechtian defamiliarisation entails a set of theatrical-stylistic choices that maintain the distance between the stage and the audience, so to foster the audience’s critical engagement with the play—by reminding them of the artifice before them.
  5.  My use of ‘scopic’ follows Lacan’s in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, where it used to treat the visual field, carrying the implication of the former being a machine or apparatus.

Works Cited

Brecht, Bertolt. “On Chinese Acting.” Brecht Sourcebook, edited by Henry Bial and Carol Martin and translated by Eric Bentley. Routledge, 1999, pp. 13-20.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass. Routledge Classics, 2001.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and translated by Alan Sheridan, revised ed. W. W. Norton, 1998.

McGowan, Todd. “Introduction: From the Imaginary Look to the Real Gaze.” The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan, State University of New York Press, 2007, pp. 1-20.

Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong!, edited by Setaey Adamu Boateng. Weslyan University Press, 2008.