NB: for a reprise, or more on “this nothing’s more than matter” see my Feb 1, 2011 entry “This nothing’s more than matter”: Joan of Arc, Ophelia (and those who transgress).
Like most mornings, Mo and Max’s silent unblinking feline stares woke me up. Four green eyes. Powerful stuff. An optic nudge. The cacophonic-type loudness (slant pun, yes, caterwauling is too easy) of their eye-balling is, I argue, far more jarring than any bedside alarm clock. After a 3-minute stare off, a futile roll-over that ended with a steely pinprick penetration into my bedhead-ed skull – I relented, as they rollicked the hallway to present their awaiting dishes. My anti-aubade made me think that not only was I out of coffee, but about the power in silence. Silence. The gap. The in between-ness in which there is “nothing” but everything in the world: “This nothing’s more than matter” (Hamlet 4.5.168).
Instead of Hamlet, I reach for The Tempest and the hard quiet present within the absence of Sycorax (Caliban’s mother) who was brought to a remote island, between Tunis and Naples by sailors from Argier (Africa). Even here before Scene One, I cannot escape the screaming silence/defiance of Sycorax upon that ship.
Shakespeare’s disenfranchisement of Sycorax, and her son Caliban, symbolizes the European colonizers’ othering of non-Europeans to validate Prospero’s possession of the island. The tropological move to cast Sycorax as demonic is, as Hayden White suggests, “the idea of the wild woman as seductress, like that of the Wild Man as magician, begins to merge with medieval notions of the demon, the devil, and the witch” (167): “Hast thou forgot // The foul witch” (1.2.256-7). Sycorax is physically absent from the play, dispossessed from her land, and represented without a voice. Here, Sycorax is excised into a state of exception (Agamben, 2005), as bare life, outside of that occupied by the civilized woman, Miranda. This gendered and colonial methodology is reproduced across the range of Shakespeare’s writings and interconnect into 19th century Western social structures, including the media, which makes use of this crucial trope that, for example, Aboriginal women in Canada continue to challenge today while being manipulated and subordinated.
Giorgio Agamben argues that to define “state of exception” is challenging and ironically its ambiguity facilitates multiple applications particularly in the understanding of totalitarian agendas (State of Exception, 1). Is Prospero totalitarian? I am interested in this ambiguity and “that the law itself … and therefore a theory of the state of exception is the preliminary condition for any definition of the relation that binds and, at the same time abandons the living being to law,” a space between the juridical order and life (1):
This damned witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Algiers
Thou know’st was banished. For one thing she did
They would not take her life. Is not this true? (1.2.265-269)
The subject within this space is silenced – it is not just a coincidence, then, that the reconstruction of the racialized feminine other, Sycorax, is also silenced. However, to be muted is not to be without power:
“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother” (1.2.334).