The Parliament of Bodies: Black Athena Reloaded 2: A Trial of the Code Noir
with Colin Dayan, Pélagie Gbaguidi, Tavia Nyong’o, David Scott, and Françoise Vergès

6–10 pm
Fridericianum, Friedrichsplatz 18, Kassel
Live stream available

Books are material surfaces of inscription where political fictions have the opportunity to become collective reality. The Code Noir was an economic and legal decree passed by King Louis XIV in 1685 to regulate colonial traffic and exchange within the French Empire. Operating until 1848, the Code Noir set up the conditions of white supremacy and violent racialized division of social and political access to technologies of government. Far from being a mere economic treatise, it is one of the central necro-political texts of modernity, regulating life and death, sexuality and freedom, giving full rights to white (non-Jewish, non-Muslim) colonial owners to traffic with, slave, posses, rape, and kill a human body on the basis of “color.” If Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is the visible foundation of the modern liberal economy, defining individual property and the market as political conditions of liberal societies, the Code Noir could be considered its second invisible foundation, establishing conditions of slavery and total dispossession for the greatest percentage of human beings.

Actively engaging with the exhibition, the Parliament of Bodies has brought the Code Noir to the center of contemporary discussion. Exhibited at the Neue Galerie, it is a small four-centimeter book that nonetheless was, at one time, powerful enough to legitimize racial policies of death and dispossession.

Whereas the norms and rules stipulated by the Code Noir have been abolished, its racialized division of power seems to continue operating within political, economic, and institutional discourses. We invite you to collectively read the Code Noir, interrogate the continuities between its rules and contemporary neoliberal policies, as well as to reflect on the resistance strategies elaborated by anti-slavery struggles since early modernity. This debate is also an attempt to think about the performative status of legal and normative texts today and to invite artists and writers to engage critically in their transformation.

—Paul B. Preciado


  • 6 pm, Pélagie Gbaguidi, Le Code Noir: a forgotten piece of History

    “My contribution to this debate is constructed around the reading of poems and texts that reflect my different experiences with this piece of historical archive. The thoughts delivered will highlight the urgency to break the silence related to power and sacredness. These thoughts are also used to confront Le Code Noir from a perspective of racial ideology and to bring forward a contextual approach of Le Code Noir in today’s society.

    My vision is to share my experience with the public and find a way to deconstruct Le Code Noir, to repair humanity’s faults and advance in a world in which everyone can prosper. I went through different archives where I extracted one side of history we rarely see. I intend to open up the historical archives and share the information with the audience. To give a sense of self-awareness to the public is crucial because the topics I approach affect all of us.”

  • 6:45 pm, Françoise Vergès, Le Code Noir, red like blood, white like sugar

    The Code Noir, which lasted for centuries in the French colonies (1685-1848), was a text of laws written and applied to protect private property, white supremacy, politics of blood and color, and to enforce the bio politics of mercantile capitalism. It regulated birth and death, sexuality and race, work, leisure, and movement, freedom and bondage.

    Françoise Vergès examines how this body of laws resonates with current policies of dispossession and the new global organization of a precarious, racialized, gendered, and mobile workforce, but also with the material destruction of life and the Earth. She asks how we can draw inspiration from the indomitable struggle of slaves.

  • 7:30 pm, David Scott, Irreparable Evil

    “In this paper, I argue that we should think of New World slavery as a moral evil, a specific kind of moral evil, namely, one that consisted in the systemic engendering of the social death of enslaved life.“

  • 8:15–8:30 pm, Break

  • 8:30 pm, Colin Dayan, Legal Sorcery–Performative talk

    The Black Code of 1685 defined in law the status and obligations—not the rights—of entire classes of humanity on the basis of their color. Its decrees were intended to be normative: Its effects penetrated the legal thinking and the social assumptions and practices of societies in the New World, especially the American South.

    The ruler who issued it is gone; the regime and type of government abolished; the empire long dissolved. The theory and implications of the document have been cast aside, replaced in our thinking and in our popular self-image by such worthy texts as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Yet the return to chain gangs, the purging of books from prison libraries, the “torture memos,” and the living death of solitary confinement, confirmed in case after horrifying case every year, as well as the marvelous speech a few weeks ago by Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, all remind us that at least in the United States the past lives on. In this performance-monologue I enact a ritual engagement with a document that has not died. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

  • 9:15 pm, Tavia Nyong’o, Worked to Death: The Figure of the Negro and the Future of Black Marxism

    A specter is haunting Eurocentric critical theory: the specter of blackness. Initiated by the reappraisal of the Hegelian dialectic of lord and bondsman launched in the work of Paul Gilroy, and extended through Susan Buck-Morss’s imaginative reappraisal of the world-historical role of the Haitian revolution, the specter of blackness has attracted subsequent critical commentary by a range of European theorists, from Peter Hallward and Francois Laruelle to Alain Badiou. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s treatise on “black study” in the Undercommons is already a classic, extending the imaginative lure of a blackness that evades every occasion that would seek to contain or control its meanings and uses. And the revived Afro-pessimism of Frank Wilderson has inspired a generation of young black militants to wake up from the American dream and recover a revolutionary tradition forever in danger of being absorbed back into the neoliberal consensus. How did we get from the figure of the Negro—the rightless being whose only function was to be worked to death—to this insurrectionary, metamorphic specter of blackness? And how has performance functioned at once to stage the social death of the slave and ex-slave in modern thought, and at the same time to map out the political and aesthetic terrain for a wholesale and revolutionary transformation of the terrain of work and life?

Pélagie Gbaguidi, from the series “Code Noir II,” 2007

Pélagie Gbaguidi lives and works in Brussels. Her work is an anthology of signs and traces on the trauma. In fact, it is one of her recurrent subjects, evidenced by the acquisition of 100 drawings of the Code Noir (1685) series at the Memorial Act in Guadeloupe. Her work is on the colonial and postcolonial archives, the unmasking of the process of forgetting in history. This readjustment of the imaginary arouses in the artist the urgency to give it form, a writing of liberating images and a corpus from which contemporary forms can be drawn.

Françoise Vergès holds the Global South (s) chair at Collège d’études mondiales, MSH, Paris. She has written extensively on memories of slavery as a counter-hegemonic narrative, Frantz Fanon, psychoanalysis, Aimé Césaire, colonialism of power and feminism, has worked with artists, was project advisor for Documenta11, organized for the 2012 Paris Triennial the program The Slave in Le Louvre. An Invisible Humanity, and has written film scripts.

David Scott is Professor of Anthropology and Fellow in the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University, New York. He is the author of a number of scholarly articles and three books, Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil (University of Minnesota Press, 1994); Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton University Press, 1999); and Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Duke University Press, 2004), and co-editor with Charles Hirschkind of Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (Stanford University Press, 2006). He is also the editor of the journal Small Axe.

Colin Dayan is the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. Her books include Haiti, History, and the Gods; The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons; and With Dogs at the Edge of Life. Her memoir, Blue Book, is forthcoming.

Tavia Nyong’o is professor of African-American Studies, American Studies, and Theater Studies at Yale University, and a co-editor of the journal Social Text. He is the author of The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance and the Ruses of Memory (2009) and is completing a study on the fictions of history in contemporary black art, performance, and theory.

Posted in Public Programs

Pélagie Gbaguidi

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Legal Sorcery

by Colin Dayan

The Black Code of 1685 defined in law the status and obligations—not the rights—of entire classes of humanity on the basis of their color. Its decrees were intended to be normative: Its effects penetrated…