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Of Devine Warning: Reading Disaster in The Modern Age

Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon

Paradigm Publishers, Boulder & London 2009


Reviewed by Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

January 4, 2011

In the introduction, Beginning, Jane and Lewis Gordon begin with a statement that poignantly reflects the very sub-title of the Book. “Looming and unfolding disasters,” the authors say, “seem these days to be all around. Their frequency, scope, and ultimate meaning are the cause and subject of global anxiety.” (p. 1) The ‘looming and unfolding disasters’ indeed are central to the many penetrating analyses the authors offer with respect to global crisis, and perhaps in regards to the end of the globe itself.

However, the authors “aim is neither to criticize this growing area of research nor cover well-trod terrain.” In a more modest fashion, they tell us, “what we offer here is an interpretation of the meaning and significance of disaster that we hope will accentuate in some of the best work in the field.” (p. 2)

Once the reader begins reading Of Devine Warning, s/he will indeed encounter ‘best works’ and will enjoy the company of plethora of philosophers, educators, writers, political activists, and Hollywood movies etc. Despite the elegant presentation of relevant themes or leitmotifs of the overall text, however, I would advise the reader to read between lines in order to grasp the essence of the philosophical underpinnings of what the authors call ‘sign continuum’. It is by reading the ‘sign continuum’ that one can really intelligently decipher the nature and characteristics of monsters, although admittedly “it is not always clear,” according to the authors.

Throughout, the book is enriched by etymologies that I warmly like to label ‘organic additives’ rather than ‘artificial flavors’, because, in the micro sense the book deals with pending disasters; but in the macro sense, the authors in fact discuss five concentric circles of ontology, cosmology, phenomenology, axiology, and epistemology. And in the final analysis, these organic additives make the book a gorgeous smorgasbord, which potentially can be utilized as praxis and eventually optimize theory and practice and help [us] understand our surroundings (monsters, disasters etc).

The book, of course, was published in the post-Katrina disaster of New Orleans and the Tsunami of 2004 that devastated South East Asia and hit up to the shores of Somalia. If Jane and Lewis were writing the draft of their book today, there is no doubt their analysis would have been reflective of the scope and intensity of the frigid temperatures in Europe; the Southern California deluge that altogether defied the very essence of the old song, ‘it never rains in Southern California’; the Queensland flood (the size of Texas) that inundated parts of Australia; the twenty untimely deadliest tornados that hit the Midwest and tear apart Cincinnati, Arkansas; and the 5000 drop dead birds (literally falling down from the sky) and 100,000 dead fish in Arkansas.

Perhaps, the sign continuum attributed to the above disasters could not be easily fathomed but there was already a sign in the heavens depicted by the moon; first by the ‘strange moon’ with two full moons in a row in the month of December, and then by the eclipse of the moon that coincided with the Winter Solstice of December 21, 2010. The last time the eclipse of the moon coincided with the winter solstice was in 1638; the next one will occur in 2094 and our generation will not be around to witness probably a more debilitating disaster that can rack havoc to our planet.

Whether the moon acts as a monster that could cause disaster to our planet or not is subject to interpretation. However, the phenomenon of the moon is not entirely a mystique obscurity. Geophysicists and atmospheric scientists boldly and confidently assert that it is possible to gauge global pollution and climatic change by reading the signature of the moon during recurring eclipses. In other words, they could anticipate possible calamities by studying the moon, among other things; and this is the core message conveyed by the authors in their book; and the subtitle, Reading Disaster in the Modern Age is quite a fitting to the geophysical sciences studies of pending catastrophes. 

The book, of course, is not about natural calamities only. The authors, in fact, discuss man-made disasters in the context of institutionalized racism or ‘racial continuum’ as they call it. They underscore the significance of the social factor and attribute the culprit or monster of the social disaster to the rich and the powerful (p. 23) and to the inadequacy of the American educational systems that ‘do not prepare us for disaster’ because “we are interested in manufacturing and continuing rather than reading from such phenomena.” (P.26)

In chapter 2, Warnings, for instance, the authors discuss the social and political systems that foster anti-Black (p. 42) and anti-Semitic (p. 43) sentiments and promote reinforcing stereotypes (p. 45), but the bottom line is to “examine how monsters operate in mundane life and their significance as objects of consciousness or their meaning as phenomena of the social world.” (p. 49).

In chapter 3, Creatures, the book extrapolates typology of monsters – big, small, smart, nihilistic etc – and in the context of colonialism and imperial hegemony (that Fanon discusses) the text states, “educated Martinicans, colonials warn, must be watched carefully…They are perceived to be uppity monsters: their linguistic triumph is an anomaly.” (p. 62)

 Irrespective of the type, nature, and characteristics of monsters, however, “their destruction becomes a form of sacrifice. He or she must be destroyed for the sake of the community.” (p. 51) This altruistic rationale is universal in its dimension across the board in the continent of Africa, but it reminds me more specifically of the Shilluk of Sudan who would sacrifice their king if he were senile or very old to govern, in order to ward off a countrywide catastrophe.

Chapter 3 also discusses the impact of colonialism on the mindset of the colonized, especially in fostering inferiority complex and this is epitomized by the story of Mayottee Capécia… [who]… hopes to seal herself up in an entirely white world that will reflect back a lying image of her as white.” (p. 63). The other story is that of Jean Veneuse, “a man born and orphaned in Antilles and then sent to boarding school in Bordeaux …He is supposedly European but black and therefore Negro.” (p. 64)

Both Capécia and Veneuse are lost in the wilderness of the white world, and if at all they experience self-perpetuating cycle of dysfunction, they would blame themselves and not the system that shaped their psyche. Because they were bombarded by the ideology of the white world, they are the best fitting to the horrendous realities discussed in Charles Lyons’ book, To Wash an Aethiop White.

Chapter 4, Mute, is concerned about the unexpressed (unspoken, so to speak) sign continuum of the monster. “How can monsters warn or manifest,” the authors argue, “when their ability to become symbolic has been suppressed?” (p. 73) And they further correctly argue, “it is our contention that this transition from speech to speechlessness and back again reflects the history of colonization and racism.”

Sydney Poiter was the best example of mute and yet action figure in most of his movies including In the Heat of the Night. During the entire slave era in the Americas, the slave owners were trying to create speechless multitudes at their service. William Lynch’s Lets Make A Slave was an agenda to fashion a dehumanized, mute, docile, and obedient slave. Even during the post-bellum and post-reconstruction period, the dominant system of capitalist nomenclature continues to sustain the mute-type Aunt Jamaima in the kitchen and passive freed slaves in the work place. 

By the same token, as correctly explicated by the authors, the Inquisition in Spain had an agenda to silence the Moors and the Jews and also get rid of them altogether in spite of their contribution in civilizing Europe for eight centuries. The joint monstrosity of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella destroyed the peaceful coexistence of the Moors, the Jews and the Spaniards that prevailed for eight hundred years in Spain.  Similarly, settler colonizers in Algeria and Kenya had tried to muzzle the colonized Africans but they were met with stiff resistance. In most instances, however, the colonizers were successful in creating mute colonized subjects; and as Aimé Cesaire once said, ‘a political and social regime that destroys the self-determination of a people also destroys the creative power of that people.’

Moreover, if the emotions of the colonized people are suppressed, as Daniel Goleman aptly puts it, “a life without passion would be a dull wasteland of neutrality, cut of and isolated from the richness of life itself.” This is the main message of chapter 4 in Of Devine Warning.

In chapter 5, “ruin is the child of disaster,” the authors tell us. I can’t agree more, but I am tempted to ask, ‘who is the midwife or the doctor in the delivery room?’ According to the authors, “a ruin is a peculiarly human phenomenon,” (p.104) and apart from ruins caused by natural calamities, other disasters such as famine and AIDS are in fact anthropomorphic. Either people don’t correctly read the signs in the heavens or ignore them as insignificant. As a result, golden opportunities are missed to prevent ruins. The book substantiates this stark reality by retooling the human potential but also by recognizing human negligence: “Each human being faces her or him self and correlative communities as bastion of possibilities, but in each lived moment, many possibilities are dried up, and the range of potential shrinks to the point of reflection on a narrative.” (p. 105)         

Some good examples of the above raison d’éter are the total decimation of a village in the Congo in the late 1960s by unknown new disease (AIDS) as elegantly portrayed in Dustin Hoffman’s movie, Outbreak; the indifference of the United Nations and the American Administration in the wake of the Rwanda genocide of 1994; and the Katrina hurricane disaster under the watch of the Bush Administration.

In this chapter too, the authors eloquently discuss the preconceived ideas (bias and prejudice) on Africans and Africa. They quote Wandia Njoya, who states, “as far as the [French] Republic is concerned, Africans have no history, culture, or identity other than that what the Republic approves.”(p. 112). In all their colonies and departments, the French also ordered that their language serve as lingua franca, “a language of civilization,” as they pompously presented it then. But this is not unique to the French; all colonizers, in one form or another, have imposed the same ideology and policy on their respective colonies. Ironically, it was Hegel who expounded the idea of  ‘Africa not belongs to history’ and Engles who supported the French colonization of Algeria as a civilizing mission against the marauding nomads.  

After thoroughly examining ‘cultural disaster’ in the form of ‘ruined existence,’ the authors question, “how could such cultural practices become relevant across all time without war on the future?  If subsequent generations must be bound to the past ones in an eternal circle of the same, would not the effect become one of never truly having been born?” (p. 112). These are quite challenging questions, but by way of dealing with the conundrum of birth, the Book provides ‘the many myths of parents refusing the birth of the next generation.”(p. 113).

Interestingly, one book that I read in my elementary school days, authored by Abe Gubegna, was entitled Alweledim (I Refuse to Be Born). Unlike the Greek mythology where parents refuse the birthing of the next generation, the main character in Alweledim was the infant inside his mother’s womb who refused to come out. The book was widely read and its message was abundantly clear: the infant did not want to face the oppressive and dark realities in Ethiopia. Soon, the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie, haunted by Alweledim, began hunting down Abe Gubegna, who was portrayed as a monster, and he paid the ultimate price: the ruin of his own body 

The authors also furnish the Hebrew instruction of giving or Mitzvot. The Ethiopian Mitswat (Amharic and Tigrigna) has the same meaning like the Hebrew word Mitzvot and no wonder the Judea-Christian tradition of giving (a culture that has descended from the Kemetic Egyptian offerings to gods) is declared in the testimony of the Apostles as “it is he who gives and not he who takes that is blessed.” Now, the authors worry about the emerging ‘generation who wish no longer to give but only to take (113). By extension, chapter 5 concludes with modern-day corporate institutions that thrive at the expense of the poor and the individual; and at the end of this chapter, the book admonishes humanity: “Ignoring the signs is perilous.”

In the last chapter, Dawn, the authors don’t conclude with doomsday as “insinuated” in the preceding chapters. On the contrary, they offer the reader with the sun and water, two metaphors of purification and regeneration. “In sunrise,” they say, “there is not only purification but also hope.”(p. 117)

Finally, in the last paragraph of the book, Jane and Lewis Gordon, appeal to humanity to look unto itself and face crisis rather run from it. After all, “each generation of humanity have been asked to save the world.” (p. 120). There is no doubt that Jane and Lewis are influenced by their favorite thinker, Frantz Fanon, who in his Wretched of the Earth, declared, “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.”

Of Devine Warning, a small book in terms of length of pages is in fact an encyclopedia of well-synchronized knowledge. The book lays out theoretical frameworks to central questions surrounding monsters, disasters, ruin, and dominant ideologies vs. the oppressed. The strength of the book, however, is not so much in offering conceptual frameworks but in illustrating theoretical and definitional issues by examples. Moreover, apart from the wide-ranging empirical contexts pigeonholed in the various chapters, the book can maximize the potential of generally agreed upon postulates. Finally, as I have indicated above, the vitality of reemergence is evinced by the dialectical revelation of new opportunities advanced by the authors. Perhaps, Of Devine Warning is anticipating a historically anterior moment but its prediction can be understood only if we begin to read the signature of the moon and other heavenly bodies.       

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2011. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org