Professor Battle Talks Empathy, Disembodiment and the Subversive Potential of Kanye West
Last Wednesday in Ness Auditorium, English Professor Sha’Dawn Battle presented an excerpt of her dissertation, in which she explored, in light of the recurring images of black deaths, the nation’s rocky relationship with empathy.
The talk, entitled “Yeezy Taught Us: Spectacles of Black Disembodiment and the ‘Precariousness of Empathy,’” addressed the dehumanization of blackness, or “the ways blackness itself signifies an undifferentiated mass of flesh to be destroyed and imposed upon,” and the political implications of such.
Through an anticolonial lens and the music of hip-hop artist Kanye West, Battle engaged the questions “why are second hand accounts [of black suffering] circulated with such casualness and perpetuity? And if the answer is a lack of empathy, why is that the case?
“What’s at issue here is the media’s easy and wide-scale dissemination of images of black suffering and black death,” Battle said.
Synthesizing theory and influences from Saidiya Hartman, Frantz Fanon, Achille Mbembe and the Hegelian tradition, Battle delineated her argument: that since the construction of black citizenship in America, blackness has been and still is perceived as outside the realm of the human, sometimes even as animal, and that it is therefore impossible, or at least very difficult, for the nation to mourn the destruction of black bodies.
“If black bodies have been denied personhood, why then should we bemoan the spectacle of Treyvon Martin?” Battle said.
Further, Battle engaged the narrative surrounding the case of Michael Brown, who was described by the officer who shot him as demon-like and as if he was able to “bulk-up” to run through the bullets.
“Notwithstanding his mom’s desire for her son’s body to be removed from the ground, he remained a spectacle for hours, a mere hyper-visible – yet invisible – mass of dead flesh. So he was a body-thing that was also animal,” Battle said.
“Wilson’s reductive “Fantastic Four” description of Michael Brown as a sort of Incredible Hulk object animates the Hegelian tradition and Fanonian theory of non-alterity in so far as Brown, as animal-monster-body-thing, is denied access to subjectivity and humanity. So how, then, might the nation mourn such a predator . . . It’s simple. It doesn’t,” Battle said.
The refusal of subjectivity to blackness, or the association of blackness with the non-human, is where Kanye’s work comes in.
“Kanye’s work is instructive. He might not be a revolutionary, that might be a stretch, but he does at least stub the toe of the power structure,” Battle said.
According to Battle, Kanye, in his “Black Skin Head,” through a kind of colonial mimicry, contests white supremacy and resists the denial of black subjectivity.
Of it, Battle said: “‘Black Skinhead’ is instructive in so far as it serves as a satirical social critique of how, within the white imaginary, black embodiment, black maleness especially, might be wedged between object and nonhuman.”
According to Battle: “[‘Black Skinhead’]” reifies, through performance, how the black body is protean, and that it’s said to oscillate between animal-monster-body-thing and disposable raw material.”
Quoting lyrics from the song such as “I’m aware I’m a wolf as soon as the moon hits,” Battle said Kanye’s work gives light to the conflation of black ontology with the non-human in the American body politic.
“The racist consciousness of America must unlearn this construction of blackness,” Battle said, “It must own up to the consequences of its cognitive dysfunction so that it might finally begin lamenting the destruction of these bodies as well as liberate empathy.”