Thursday, September 22, 2016

Bonnie Honig — Despondent? Or Respondent? (de-)Medicalizing Resistance

Bonnie Honig 

Brown University, author, Antigone, Interrupted.  

I have taught Sophocles’ 2500 year-old play Antigone for many years now and it changes every time I teach it because it is changed by the times. Two years ago, right after the killing of Michael Brown, whose dead body was left lying in a Ferguson road for 4 long hot hours, my students were haunted by Polynices, Antigone’s brother, left out as carrion for birds and dogs: “unwept, unburied,” Antigone says, outraged that the sovereign, Creon, has commanded such sacrilege. In the two years since, we have seen tens more such images, the bodies of murdered African Americans lying in a road, in a park, in a playground, silent testimony to a sovereign police power unashamed by its violence or unused to accountability. Terence Crutcher and Keith Scottt are the most recent to die at the hands of police. We know the rhythm of the aftermath: the voices of the Antigones and the Creons call for justice, plead for calm, convene grand juries, file no charges, maybe someone is fired, maybe not.
I taught the play last week, before this latest wave of violence. It was the day after it was announced that the family of Sandra Bland had settled their suit against Waller County, Texas. Hearing that news while reading the play, I suddenly realized that Sandra Bland, just like Antigone, killed herself while walled off away from others in a rocky cell. Both women were found dead, hanging by a noose of their own fashioning. Both might have lived had they waited a bit longer. Both chose not to wait out their time.
Antigone does not wait because she fears that a long slow death is all that awaits her. For violating Creon’s decree and burying her bother, she has been immured in a cave with some rations to last a few days so that Creon and the city are distanced from her punishment. The rations mean, in a way, that the gods have more time to decide her fate. They can take their time. But this is not a mercy; it is a torture. As she is led to the cave, Antigone airs her fears, recalling the terrible slow death of the goddess, Niobe. The chorus criticizes her for comparing herself to a goddess. But Antigone is not self-aggrandizing here. She sees in Niobe’s example her own future and it terrifies her: “think what a living death she died,” Antigone says. Niobe was “there on the mountain heights,” the stone grew around her and was “binding as ivy” and it “slowly walled her round.” Antigone describes Niobe’s long slow death – “wasting away” -- accompanied by unceasing tears, to this day: “and the rains will never cease, the legends say.” It is horrific: a death that never ends. Who would want that?
James Ridgeway's Solitary Watch
 This is why Antigone hangs herself in her cave right away -- to save herself from the long slow death decreed by Creon. She takes matters into her own hands, chooses a hasty exit from this life and, in so doing, she shows she has agency even when imprisoned, tucked away from contact with the world. With her suicide, she moves from an object of Creon’s wrath to an agent fulfilling a destiny. It is an agency that Creon never suspected she had.
Bland, too, was entombed in a rocky place away from the world, hung herself, and was found, too late, dead. No one suspected she had the agency for such an Antigonean act. And even now, no one does. In its aftermath, her act was medicalized. She had reported feeling depressed and suicidal and was not given the medical attention that was her right. It is part of the settlement – in addition to the money the family will receive – that from now on the jail has to have appropriate medical staff on duty at all times. I assume the legal claims of Bland’s family were strengthened by the compelling evidence that Bland felt depressed and suicidal, reported this to the police, and was not attended to properly. We could medicalize Antigone that way, too. Creon did! He says she is insane, mad. She certainly sounds depressed and suicidal. She says she is fated for death, that she is indeed already dead, and that she longs to be with her dead brother in the afterworld. Creon notes that she seems to “long for death.” But most of Antigone’s readers see her as a political martyr not a depressed suicide. 
Could we not also de-medicalize Bland? I read that, in the months leading up to her fateful encounter with Texas police, she had been posting on Facebook about police killings of black people, that she was paying attention to injustice, that she was becoming ever more impatient with racial inequality, that she was saddled by debt. She may have suffered from depression, she may have felt suicidal. These are serious medical conditions, symptoms of mental illness. But they may also be symptoms of rising consciousness, signs of conscientious objection, which may lead to an increased inability to go on living in an unjust world. To be despondent is to be a respondent – to inequality, to racism, to injustice. Perhaps Bland could not resign herself to the stone of racism growing around her, “binding as ivy,” as it “slowly walled her round.” She might well have felt that a slow death like Niobe’s was all that awaited her, too. Who would want that?  
Korryn Gaines Killed for Refusing to Submit to Baltimore Police
“You’re in love with impossibility,” Ismene says to her sister, Antigone, upon hearing her sister’s plan to bury her brother in defiance of Creon’s law against it. “Very well then,” Antigone replies: “Once my strength gives out I will be done at last.” Did Sandra Bland’s strength give out, too? I imagine Antigone hanging in her cell, and Sandra Bland hanging in hers. I cannot shake the image of these two women, impatient for justice, who rejected the long slow deaths to which they were consigned and took matters into their own hands. Antigone worried that by dying in a cave, sequestered from the world, she might never gain the glory she sought. She anticipated the #SayHerName project of the African American Policy Forum. She wanted the world to say her name. “Tell the world,” she says to her sister, Ismene, knowing that she depends on others for her story to be told the way it should be told.   

Sandra Bland depends on others too. Say her name. Tell the world. 



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