Death's dominion

Invisibility as a sovereign power

My grandpa’s old garage leaned to one side, sunlight filtering in through the siding. I was fascinated by a row of discarded chore coats hanging from nails; Grandpa had worn them through, one by one, working the Texaco oilfields across southern Illinois. Tatter-fringed and gauzy, the coats were of little value except as rags. What fascinated me was inside: mud-dauber wasps had filled the sleeves and seamed the collar with their nests—slender earthen flasks, corrugated craftily, perforated with holes. It was as if the wasps had tried to mold an effigy inside each denim costume, a parade of vespine golems in laboring attire. Gently disengaging the nests from the fabric, I put them in jars and brought them home, where I would take them down from a shelf in the basement, listen to their dry clink against the glass, and contemplate their fluted architecture.

And when grandpa came to visit, if I woke early enough, I could catch a glimpse of his glass eye floating in a jar of its own on the bathroom sink.

In high school I played the trumpet, and the first funerals I attended were those of strangers; our local funeral home liked to provide veterans’ families a bugler to play taps at the end of the service. It was crucial that, as bugler, I be invisible, hiding myself beyond a nearby hill, or in the shadow of trees at the cemetery’s edge. From my hiding place, I played through the intervals of the dirge as I watched the distant casket sink into the earth. Somehow, my invisibility seemed vital to the rite.

Deciding how bodies get distributed around questions of life and death: we can find in this intersection the embryo of sovereignty. The concept of biopower, associated with the philosopher Michel Foucault, turns away from traditional theories of power, couched in popular mandates and divine rights, to the more fundamental nexus of “the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die,” in Achille Mbembe’s phrasing. For Foucault, modernity reversed this formula: in the modern state, power gets to decide who must live and who may die. Seen this way, modern life is the rejection of visible memento mori—the plague dead stacked in the street; the stock and the gibbet erected in the public square; winged skulls grinning on headstones of dark slate. These are replaced by the clinic, the prison, and other institutional forms, where life is mandated, and death permitted, within carefully administered matrices of invisibility. Modern life is not a gift of god and king, but a complex of liberal duties: to produce, to consume, to serve, to recreate... with death the final step in the succession and relinquishment of these duties. Who must live, and who may die. Banished to this negative condition, death haunts modern life in peculiar ways.

Grandpa never talked about the war in my presence. He was an intensely quiet man, in part because of the wounds that had damaged his hearing. But his face was always blossoming in smiles, and the baroque arch of his eyebrow, where the shell fragment had entered his skull, produced a look of frozen, astonished delight.

He brought us out to the oilfield sometimes, rattling down dirt tracks in a battered truck. Contrasts: at home, stuffed chairs hugged by shadows, the light filtering through grandma’s cigarette smoke; in the oilfield, the punch of sun on hard surfaces, dried mud tiling the panels of the truck. Inspecting a pumpjack on one of these trips, I remember him opening a tap and letting crude oil trickle into his hand. The recollection is distinct, although it also feels apocryphal; I don’t know if pumpjacks really have taps on them where the oil comes out. I remember it as amber, filmy, more aqueous than I would have expected, and rank with the smell of millions of years of compressed biosphere blooming in the air.

Grandpa took his wound in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, in the Marshall Islands, where waves of spectacular, mechanical violence had torn into gossamer veils of shore. The war with Japan, and the subsequent nuclear violence the US visited on the atolls of Bikini and Kwajalein, brought profound misery to the expropriated island people, who contend with the consequences to this day. Add to this the rising seas, the bounty of all that petroleum extracted from deep in the earth, the treasury of past life plundered and spilled into the air.

Imperialism, the war, the acceleration of global capital, the bringing together of these and so many more strange strangers—Scots-Irish farmboys, Marshallese navigators, Paleozoic deposits; steel and breadfruit, pandanus weavings and spam. I think of swooping arrows on maps, the visual grammar of modernity: sharp edges connecting regions of the Mercator projection, their thicknesses indicating magnitudes of bodies, materials, appropriations. The connections subsumed by these indexical symbols are messier, knottier, more absurd than cartography can capture; modernity has been this collision, this piling-up, of consequential ironies. All of it awash in a rising sea of petroleum.

In the modern political imaginary, perhaps the most fatigued trope of sovereignty is is the planting of a flag. Before brandishing the sword or the cross, the conquistador wields a flagpole, planting it in the foamy shore. The banner Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placed on the moon, perhaps the most spectacular enactment of this sovereign imaginary, becomes a puzzling and fickle icon, giving the lie to the murmuring plaques proffering peace for all mankind—as the conquistador, with his imagined aegis, brought slavery and expropriation under the figure of redemption. The flag doesn’t resolve contradictions—of life and death, of commons and imminent domain, of wilderness and the doctrine of discovery—so much as it establishes power as the very agency of irreconcilability.

So we come to Memorial Day, and the emplacement of flags on graves. This tender act, this remembrance of sacrifice and duty, also is haunted by the flag-planting mythos, by sovereign moves of effacement and appropriation; the cemetery plot is ritually reduced to a particle of dominion; and the lives of the dead—whether snuffed out in their prime, or lived for decades transcending war’s shattering—once again are made soluble in the trickling flood of the sovereign imaginary. How else does the rain of artillery shells, the breaking of bodies, the inferno of towns and boats and fruit groves, the shattering of palms, become sealed in a private compact, a secret treasured behind a scar? How else do the millions of years of concentrated life extracted, processed, and burned off into the sky, transpire as though invisible?

And now, as our pandemic toll reaches one hundred thousand—many of them veterans and victims of these wars, so many more subject to modern expropriations—we recognize how practiced we are in the rites of invisibility, which confound liberty and community, which define violence as something that always happens at a distance, which proffer the need for resilience in place of shared response-ability. As he was unprepared to manage the administrative and moral dimensions the crisis, the president is unequipped to confront this haunting and contend with its traumas. We need this haunting, however; we need the invisible to break from its cover in the trees.