Matthew Catalog Entry

Matthew Catalog Entry

Two men pulling decomposed bodies on a pallet while others cover their noses,
near the cemetery on Rue Alerte, Port-au-Prince (13 January 2010).

In his photograph depicting two men pulling the decomposed bodies of those killed after the Haitian earthquake of 2010, Daniel Morel exposes the naturalization of violence imposed on black bodies, and their subsequent disposability by society writ large, hearkening to an array of Afro-Caribbean literary traditions and intellectuals. Even though this image is visually disturbing and shocking in its sheer portrayal of death, the image is purposeful in the sense that it does not try to flatten or make banal the realities faced by Haitian citizens during the immediate aftermath of earthquake. However, it is within this straightforward portrayal of death found within Morel’s Document of Disaster, encapsulated most stunningly in this image, that it becomes evident that Haitian citizens (and more generally black bodies) are peculiarly prone to violence imposed by the state, by nature, by international organizations and those who come under the auspices of aid, and furthermore, that such plights have been naturalized historically, engendering the view of black bodies as disposable and lesser-than.

The disposability and projection of lessened (or lack of) humanity on black bodies is evidenced in the work of Slyvia Wynter. Speaking to Caribbean writers and artists in her text “Beyond Miranda’s Meaning: Un/silencing the Demonic Ground of ‘Caliban’s Woman’” Wynter documents the epochal shift from a religious order of beings in which the hierarchy was between man/woman to that of a secular order. Instead of being humanizing, it instead was predicated on the creation of an other, a non-human, and thus the hierarchal difference of man/woman was became eclipsed by man/native. Those who were considered as not human were those who were did not take part in the Enlightenment and this epistemic shift; in other words, man was coded as white, male (to a lesser extent female), and European, and those who were non-European – regardless of gender – were coded as savages.

As a result of this shift to a secular order in which European males defined what man vs. native, Wynter’s argues that the Caribbean people – and I would further this to include black bodies generally – reside within the metaphysical category of the “Demonic Ground,” a liminal space that is characterized by the projected lack of humanity and “otherness” of black people, necessitated when Enlightenment thinkers conceptualized the new idea of man. In this way, the black subject has been coded and reinforced as other, as not only non-human but one could assert as anti-human. Counterintuitively, it is from this vantage point that Wynter argues that writers and artists can trouble the very definition and understanding of humanity, shaking the systems of knowledge and epistemes that have been created over time.

Thus, when looking at the images captured by Morel in his work Documents of Disaster, and more specifically the image above, one can see the ways in which the legacy of demonizing black bodies continues to play out even within contemporary context. Haiti is a country that is situated in a history of colonial and imperial subjugation, debt, poverty, joblessness, and the impossibility of its own revolution (both then and now). This past was built upon the subjugation of black bodies, bodies that were deemed as demonic, savage, and native, and therefore, not worthy of decency or humanity. Instead, these bodies, historically and contemporarily, have gone through what Aimé Céaire would deem “thingification,” the conceptualization of black bodies as instruments of production only useful in the ways they can help their white counterparts. Therefore, when these bodies are destroyed, whether that be at the hands of the state, natural disasters, overseers, aid, through sexual exploitation, etc. it is impossible to remove this from the larger historical framework of black body disposability – that because black bodies were/are nothing more than instruments to be used, there destruction is cause for little concern or aid.

This disposability, naturalized over time, is beautifully and sadly portrayed in the above photo. As the men drag the body through the street, with legs and arms of the dead able to be seen even from under the blanket covering them, the woman they pass cover their noses and walk past. To them, this death and catastrophe, similar to how Benjamin would see it, is not extraordinary or unusual, but rather normal. To see dead black bodies, those of their friends, family, coworkers, or whomever it may be, while saddening and viscerally upsetting, is not out of the ordinary. This is due, in part, to the history of violence that was engendered by the shift from a religious order to a secular one and the subsequent demonization and exploitation of those seen as natives or non-human. On the other hand, this is due to the specific history and status of Haitian citizens and bodies within the sociopolitical, contemporary context, as those worthy of an outpouring of aid and assistance that lasts for only a short time. However, this aid quickly falls away, as society writ large, and even the black women pictured in the photo, are accustomed to the systemic and historic violence imposed upon the black body. In this way, the black body is continually in a state of precariousness, subject at any point to the possibility of violence.

Morel, then, exposes this disposability and continual violence the way Benjamin and other historical materialists would, by standing with his back towards the future and documenting the wreckage as it comes. However, this photo, while a testament to the immediate disaster and devastation of the earthquake, when taken into the context provided by Wynter and the conceptualization of history by Benjamin as that of unending catastrophe, engenders a larger and more troubling meaning to his work. These texts and the above photo demonstrate that if history is unending catastrophe, and the black body has been historically coded as non-human and thus disposable even in our contemporary context, then those pictured in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake are doubly disadvantaged – they are subject to the unending catastrophe of history, and the violence imposed by sociohistorical conceptualizations of who is man. In this way, then, Morel’s work comes out from the tradition of the demonic ground, troubling our conception of who is human as well as articulating how catastrophe is a constant for black bodies, forcing us as viewers to question of our own conceptualization of humanity and morality.

Works Cited:

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. 

Wynter, Sylvia. Beyond Miranda’s Meaning: Un/silencing the Demonic Ground of ‘Caliban’s Woman.’”