Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon, Of Divine Warning; Reading Disaster in the
Modern Age (Paradigm Publishers, 2010)
Book Review by Teodros Kiros
Jane Gordon and Lewis Gordon have produced a masterpiece on reading disasters in
the modern age. The book is at once analytic, historically sensitive and
imaginative, feature that we have come to expect from these two committed
writers, each time they collaborate and produce books of enduring quality.
Their primary concern is to illuminate the meanings of disasters when they occur
to blacks, which they aptly call, �Black Signification�, as a foundational locus of disasters and their signification.
Blacks are first put in invisible places. Only, when disasters occur are they
made visible, as sources of trouble that bring calamities on themselves, and
the world has to be burdened by the lives of these condemned people. Blacks
then are signified as the originators and deposits of disasters. Their very
existence as blacks is a warning of disaster-at any time, any place and for a
Their blackness itself is regarded as a sign of doom, a sight where disaster is
hatching and monstrous events, such as the American Katrina are born, and
blacks in particular are portrayed as looters, as criminals, versus the
virtuous white victims, who are finding food, and not stealing it. The blacks
are thus portrayed as evil, and the whites as virtuous and pure. In the middle
of tragedy, blacks had time to loot, because they are innately criminal
Blacks are simply disastrous beings. (Pp1-3). They are �problem people,� and
disasters are the times during which their monstrous composition is nakedly
visible. Their blackness itself connotes the absence of values, of ethics.
Blackness is presented to the world as a myth of terrifying monsters, which we
can never understand, which is beyond transparency; very much like myth is
treated. Blacks are mythological beings.
Blacks and Afro-Jews are modern monstrous creatures. They have been allowed to speak, but as monsters, whose manners have now been appropriated by popular
culture, in which everybody is now a monster.
The monster, however, refuses to be silent. The black speaks, and fights for the
construction of a political space, from which he and she launch a vision of
Blacks as new signifiers of freedom, of presence, of communicative rationality,
which refuses to be a monster, a creature, a problem.
The table is now turned against the previous signifiers. The radically new
feature of the black monster, now- is action combined with speech and mediated
through revolutionary collective self-defense, as Malcolm signified. Martin
Luther king signified moral speech, communicated through Ethics, and Malcolm
signified violent resistance.
The mute monster now becomes a political subject, who speaks and is ready to die
in defense of dignity. The new black speaks acts and legislates his people�s
future. Along with the changed subjects of popular culture, the modern monster
is a strategist and a fearless articulator of political truth, most particularly
visible in the sophisticated language of hip-hop, which turns truth inside out.
In these ways, popular culture disarms monstrosity, the signifier of the life
chances of the condemned.
The condemned ignore the warnings and seek to change the conditions of their
oppression. They are condemned to emerge out of invisibility to the ruin of
freedom. The new monsters live out the existential signifier that humans are
condemned to freedom. They seek to free their culture from death, fully aware
that we are condemned to live only because we are condemned to die; yet, we
have a responsibility to ruin disastrous culture, so that we can create a new
future as imaginative beings.
The future is a new dawn. The Gordons write, �A humanity that refuses to answer encomia to mature is destined to destroy itself in a game of children playing with deadly weapons. In maturation are the necessities of life, of treating mistakes as opportunities from which to learn instead of dreaded signs of imperfection. Efforts at purification foreclose the future by presuming the return of the sanctified origins.� (P, 115)
We must learn from the monsters, for they might show us the way, as the beings
who pray to be beings who question, beings who can turn a new leaf, envision a
future, condemned to a radically new future, a function of our natality, as the
harbingers of change.
Each new generation has a responsibility to create a new future, and no one has
the right to foreclose this possibility. I agree with Jane Gordon and Lewis Gordon that I hope we have not run out of time, to witness the death of moribund cultures and the birth of new cultures for the human condition.
The cultures of the future can only come out of the living activities of those whom we have relegated to be bearers of destruction and the absence of ethics.
Professor of Philosophy and English (Liberal Arts)
Berklee College of Music