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Atmospheres of Violence wields an anarchic approach to a remembrancer’s work. It is a work that further attends to what Toni Morrison recognized as “rememory”—that lingering, hauntological sedimentation of unprocessed echoes, those insurgent unremembered memories that cascade unexpectedly from the depths of one’s unconscious. In Beloved, Sethe’s rememories insist themselves into unforgiving experiences of her present, forcing visceral recollections of things she never knew that she knew, or things she struggled to forget. Morrison’s rememory is specifically rooted in Black (African American) women’s deep history of survival despite vicious legacies of their captivation prior to and in the afterlives of Transatlantic enslavement. In dispossession’s traumatic wake, that which we have forgotten is what we have been made to forget, convinced we did not know its name. Or perhaps we will ourselves to forget the heavy nomenclature that has oxidized, leaving ancestral trails of rust on our tongues. Yet rememory subverts the antagonizing violence of white cisheteropatriarchal archival hegemony and its limited ontological (ir)realities. There is no respect granted, no boundaries that are ever adhered to by repressed recollections. There is no recognizable accounting or metric that can precisely forecast rememory’s arrival. You might brace yourself for its emergence, imminent or otherwise, but still be bowled over by its crash landing into the terrain of consciousness. The dull blades of linear historiography mutually structure and are structured by the gendered and racialized narratives they beget.
Ungovernable communities are hailed by frequencies of witness via the affective and political consequences of impossible desires and by decisions to wrench agency from totalizing atmospheres of violence structuring both Sethe’s world and the one we are asymmetrically made to endure. In Atmospheres of Violence, perceptions of the “irrationality of autodestruction,” which Frantz Fanon uses to describe “suicide of the oppressed,” resonates with perceptions of Sethe’s harrowing subversion of maternal norms. Informed by my own habitus of blackness-transness-madness, I am drawn to fugitive narratives that revel in the lives of rebels, punks, freedom dreamers, muvas, muthas, mothers, and queens. Orientations are not guaranteed, though hope remains toward a horizon of collective transformation, even as many of us are left haunting and haunted, for the time being. Still, there’s more to life than bare living at a time like this. We agitate, as Stanley frames it, “against accommodation... we must abolish the ease” with which dominant representation regimes persist in their overdetemined telos: that is, the demise of the oppressed, the subaltern, the dispossessed. What do we recognize as violence and how does violence know (and construct) us in return? How do we attend, beyond data and statistics, to the kinds of loss that have no name?
Stanley rehearses a question in Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” where she asks, “how does one rewrite the chronicle of a death foretold and anticipated, as a collective biography of dead subjects, as a counterhistory of the human, as the practice of freedom?” Constant appeals and capitulations to History disorder our interior individual and collective worlds. They hierarchize what is worth remembering and dictate the terms through which that memory work is even possible. At the very least, that is their aim. We are in the midst of the ongoing struggles for trans, Black, Indigenous, and all other liberation of the dispossesed. Armed with autonomous demands for self-determination, and an archival promise of unbridled possibility against this constricting agon, Eric Stanley’s work materializes within and well beyond the text. The written work is brazen in its principled stance. It sustains keen attention on these necessary insurgencies in part by holding forth a litany of immeasurable loss that does not reduce those lives to yet another record or another rote counting. Atmospheres of Violence traces the ungovernable and offers disrupted and disrupting revelations of those whose erasure remains a prerequisite for the maintenance of the antagonistic (antiblack, antitrans, colonial) world order that aim to call our oblivion into being.
In England during the early Middle Ages, a remembrancer was someone officially responsible for recording details and memos about daily transactions deemed important for the success of the kingdom. This legal position accounted for finances and estimated value tethered to land, animals, and other logistical/quantifiable elements required for the maintenance of unfurling empire via capital and other modalities of violence. We are steeped in an iterative morass of capitalist greed and human disregard perfected over the centuries. This is a genocidal era of intensified trans antagonism, concerted programs of ecocide, genocide, and base destruction. This includes racialized pandemics like COVID-19; gun violence, including police and vigilante injustice; corporate-sponsored drug epidemics and similarly murderous deficiencies due to price-gouging and proprietary cruelty; and climate catastrophe. And so here, the remembrancer’s work takes on added urgency, transfigured beyond the old grammars and means. This is now a collective position, where we routinely ask: What might it really mean to observe a Trans Day of Remembrance, of Visibility, of Recognition, or of a drive to (democratic) inclusion, especially for Black trans people? We know that kind of mediaeval calibration, those checks and balances continue to be insufficient. We hold fast against the trap doors of visiblity with our active remembering otherwise.
It’s not only about how trans people have gone, have been stolen from us and from themselves too soon or how Black, Indigenous, and migratized people have been absented, erased down to the soil we have cultivated, eroded into antagonistic state grammars and colonial logics. It is further how we continue to be here, to survive and thrive and persist against all odds, painfully stuck in the craw of that which seeks to govern us. So whenever we don’t survive the programmatic terms of our coercion, the love letters of social movements, riots, and liberation struggles across this earth remain a choral requiem, dynamic enough to harbor the range of our collective indeterminacies, our ostentatious rage, and the disquieting grief that revolutionizes us into possibility. And has there ever been anything as beautiful as that?
Some of us have been counted by the old tallies, though regardless, we are counted out—unthought and unthinkable through the ages by what Stanley refers to as “democracy’s resolve.” Today, like always, trans people everywhere are charged with being our own remembrancers. We continue to breathe radical life into this transmuted task. We, the memory workers will account for Tony McDade and Naomi Hersi. We are accountable to Muhlaysia Booker. We recall Riah Milton. Riot so that Cashay Henderson’s spirit may rest. We recollect the fierce life of one of our greatest remembrancers, the trans griot Monica Roberts, who made it her mission to chronicle the vibrant experiences of trans people across the U.S., to demand we bear witness to the full extent of their stories in this life and honour them into the next. In that vein, we attune to the true names of those who continue to be treated as unnameable as we slip through the nexus of racialized-gender unmattering. The surge of violence against us intensifies from one year to the next. We live with that reality and demand non-trans people do the same because our resilience is nothing without their reckoning for the violence they allow to continue against us in their complacency and to their concerted benefit.
Stanley’s workcasts each story into relief, marking memory as necessarily more than the count, as deeper than the racial calculus and ungoverned by those logics. Despite sojourning through deathscapes that facilitate our demise, Atmospheres of Violence ultimately dwells in requiem—for the departed, yes, and with a mocking line for the world Man wrought, the beast of modernity that required it. We remember the capacity for trans people to bring and steal joy to one another in community. The ecology of possibility cultivated here speaks names, speaks memory, shouts over death-dealing silences as only radical (re)invention and other technologies of trans poetics might do. I am moved by the reminder lessons amplified by Eric that only we truly hold our stories. We keep an indelible mark on this world. Below, I evoke the imagery of an archival unconscious, in a death-defying poetics offering a response to the clarion call of memory work reckoning with the weight of those memories and offer one orison for our future. I sit in gratitude at the beauty of Black trans kin who continue to be forces of nature with a fierce of spirit that will continue to persist into present and erupting futures. We are, as Gwendolyn Brooks reminds us, each other’s magnitude and bond. As the struggle continues against the structures that antagonize us to death, the least we can do is never forget.
SA Smythe is a critical theorist, transmedia storyteller, and educator committed to blackness and belonging beyond geographies, genders, genre, and other borders. They are Assistant Professor of Black Studies and the Archive at the University of Toronto, where they direct the Collaboratory for Black Poiēsis. Smythe is editor of Transnational Black Studies (Liverpool University Press, forthcoming) and Troubling the Grounds: Global Configurations of Blackness, Nativism, and Indigeneity (Postmodern Culture special issue). They are author of the forthcoming monograph, Where Blackness Meets the Sea: On Crisis, Culture, and the Black Mediterranean and performer-composer of the nine-movement performance suite and multimedia art installation and, [proclivity].