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8. Shadows of modernity: Drowning specters in Davide Enia’s Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope, Josué Guébo’s Think of Lampedusa, and Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa

Khalil Hammoudi holds a bachelor’s degree in English language and culture from the University of Tunis El Manar, and a master’s degree in philosophy in English (English literature and culture) from the University of Bergen, Norway.

This paper shows how the migrant black body in contemporary representations of the Mediterranean refugee crisis is “shadowed” by the Zong massacre where 132 slave bodies drowned during the Middle Passage. The paper builds on an existing epistemology of 18th century modernity as proposed by Ian Baucom (2005) in Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. It furthermore proposes the extension of this epistemology through contemporary drowned migrants. This problematic will be discussed in Davide Enia’s (2019) Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope, Josué Guébo’s (2017) Think of Lampedusa, and Anders Lustgarten’s (2015) Lampedusa.

Keywords: shadow, hauntology, modernity, drowned, Middle Passage, Mediterranean

Introduction: Theory and method

What should we make of this association of a global philosophy of temporal accumulation with the discrete image of the drowning slave? A number of things, but, minimally, these: if, for Glissant, modernity is the globalization of relation, then a relational modernity also has a ground, and that ground is alluvial, Atlantic, and submarine. If time does not pass but accumulates, then the segment of time we call modernity piles up from a starting point, and that starting point is the ramified system of transatlantic slavery, and that system is crystallized in three enduring images: the image of the plantation, the image of the slave ship, and the image of the drowning slave. (Baucom, 2005, p. 321)

My theoretical approach draws on Ian Baucom’s (2005) philosophy of temporal accumulation as developed through his book chapter “The sea is history” in Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. It also draws on aesthetic theory and methodology from Wai Chee Dimock’s (1997) “A theory of resonance”.

In his Specters of the Atlantic, Baucom (2005) addresses the shadows, specters, and sediments of modernity (and coloniality) through the figure of the 18th century drowned slave body. My current paper will examine its hauntology and reverberation in contemporary narratives on migration across the Mediterranean. Baucom conceives of modernity – a body of knowledge and epistemology – as temporally fluid, and that the Middle Passage at its most significant temporal occurrence constitutes an accumulative and sedimentary event. He thus argues: “This brutal passage of world history is not terminal but originary, or, rather, a middle-passage into an experience of global modernity” (Baucom, 2005, p. 313). He argues that what I call modernity’s hydraulic systems1 and drowning grounds and the archetype space of the Zong are conceived as temporally accumulative and sedimentary references unfinished and reproduced across time. The present paper, however, builds on Baucom’s sedimentary philosophy of history, furthermore proposing the Zong as an echo space resonating and haunting today’s refugee boats, and the drowned slave body as a palimpsest haunting and shadowing the more recent black bodies drowning in the contemporary Mediterranean. Modernity’s 18th century drowning grounds thus shadow and echo today’s sea cemeteries for contemporary black migrants. Furthermore, Baucom (2005) argues how modernity’s epistemology began with a logic of sacrifice, and that, for example, the sacrificed drowned slave body should be taken as our reference point, our task, and our scene of departure for a philosophy of history:

To inherit this ‘now’ is to discover in the image of the drowned not only the terrible key to a philosophy of history but the secret to an enduring practice of modern life. […] The nature of that image is not to flash up into awareness but instead to endure as the alluvial bed of modernity. To the extent that the time of the past survives, nonsynchronously, into the present. (pp. 313–18)

In this context, the paper not only takes the image of the drowned slave (as well as the Middle Passage and the slave ship) as violently departing points for modernity’s epistemology as Baucom puts it, but also as elastic references extending to the contemporary. These are references which depart (and are temporally arrested) but never finish departing, to the point that the contemporary drowned black body becomes a sort of violent incarnation of the drowned slave body from the 18th century. Reflecting on this kind of elastic departure and beginning of the modern, Baucom (2005) notes that “[t]ime does not pass but accumulates. Why? Because what has been begun does not end but endures. Because this fatal Atlantic ‘beginning’ of the modern is more properly understood as an ending without end” (p. 313). In this paper however, I add to Baucom’s conceptualization of an Atlantic beginning and in addition propose borderless beginnings: Atlantic departures that do not follow any chronological or sequential boundaries, and thus restart, re-accelerate, and reactivate at any given time.

The paper however also shows that if the 18th century drowned black bodies violently marked the beginning of modern knowledge, then today’s drowned black bodies are the harbingers of modernity’s developed epistemology in the Mediterranean. It analyzes how modernity has developed since the 18th century drowning grounds, and how it is contingent and dependent nowadays on contemporary watery graves for its advancement, multiplication, and its existence and survival both as an epistemology and as a body of knowledge.

For further exploration of the theoretical frame above, I employ an aesthetic methodology drawing on Dimock’s (1997) “A Theory of Resonance”. In her piece Dimock proposes a textual and aesthetic conceptualization of the sedimentation and accumulation of history. She develops the concept of resonance by proposing that texts “be seen as objects that do a lot of traveling: across space and especially across time […] as frequencies received and amplified across time, moving farther and farther from their points of origin causing unexpected vibrations in unexpected places (Dimock, 1997, p. 1061).

In this paper, I draw on what Dimock (1997) designates as literary endurance (p. 1061) and propose in addition the concept of texts as sediments to show, for example, how the Middle Passage endures as a contemporary subtext. Texts as sediments means that the grammar of historical accumulation can be exported from one narrative to another, regardless of the temporal point of origin. In this understanding, and as the following discussions will show, the Middle Passage still survives through representations, motifs, and tropes which can be activated and amplified at any given moment (Dimock, 1997, p. 1061). Furthermore, the proposed concept of texts as sediments can be brought to bear upon postcolonial texts, which, as Dimock (1997) puts it, are haunted and echoed by other texts, most likely older texts:

[E]very language […] resembles an echo chamber, the tones and accents of former users interacting with those of subsequent ones. And so, meanings are produced over and over again, attaching themselves to, overlapping with, and sometimes coming into conflict with previous ones. (p. 1062)

Aligning Dimock’s aesthetic theory with Baucom’s accumulative philosophy of history, this paper examines how the Zong (as well as the Middle Passage, the drowned slave body) “endures” (1061) and persists as and in contemporary texts. It shows how the Zong traces its departing lines in the Atlantic and continues bordering its waystations in the contemporary Mediterranean, as the following discussions will show.

Shadow lines in Guébo’s Think of Lampedusa

Through Think of Lampedusa (Guébo, 2017), I discuss how modernity’s shadows from the 18th century when 133 slaves were thrown overboard and drowned in the Atlantic, known as the Zong massacre,2 continue echoing in today’s drowned black migrants in the Mediterranean. The first line of Guébo’s (2017) poem, which states “I will tell you for the last time my history, my wave” (p. 1), functions as a shadow and a specter line to much older lines or verses, such as those written after the Zong massacre. I argue that this shadow line and the poem throughout is haunted by the specters of Atlantic slavery (Baucom, 2005) in the Middle Passage, which Guébo (2017) aims at extending to the current drowning of black migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Guébo’s poem provides among many another shadow passage:

there is much worse than a raft adrift, the earth that would wreck it […] the ocean of stories that are tragically scraped away. There is much worse than a raft in death-throes. The earth forgetting it’s a source of life. (Guébo, 2017, p. 3, my emphasis)

Just like Baucom (2005), Guébo (2007) conceives the element of water as accumulative and always constitutes a beginning and a departing line. Thus, the sea is represented in this poem – as a temporally arrested spatial trope, which further confirms that today’s drowned black bodies ghostly reactivate drowned bodies from the 18th century. Guébo’s (2017) other shadow verse “From the wave that still puts seeds warm into the soil” (p. 25) is a metaphorical representation of modernity: waves give birth to larger waves drowning black migrants in the Mediterranean. This image of drowning poetically marks the birth of modernity’s epistemology which “conceived” at the expense of drowned black migrants in the past and continues conceiving today to the detriment of contemporary black migrants. Drowning, therefore, becomes a sort of prerequisite of modernity’s existence and growth as a body of knowledge from the past to the present. Furthermore, Guébo (2017) represents the waves of illegal migrants in the Mediterranean today as something inherited from the past, and thus as hauntologically sedimentary and unfinished. He notes:

Harraga. Conjugate our future. Into past-perfect infinity. Because the past would have us dressed. In skin woven from scars. The future must dress itself. With the sky’s innocence. A beneficent gesture. Offered to the hastily traced imprint of history. (p. 32, my emphasis)

This kind of sedimentation (past and present waves of migration) is exemplary of an accumulative time of modernity which was in the past violently imprinted to the detriment of black migrant (drowned) bodies and still today seeks its full inscription with contemporary drowned migrants. Guébo thus addresses the past as temporally durable and as something that shadows over the present. Indeed, the “scars” inherited from Atlantic slavery and the Middle Passage are long-lasting; they are stitches subjected to opening at any given moment, leaving us with the impossibility of concluding the drowned bodies from the 18th century. In this context, I draw on Baucom’s (2005) conceptualization of the past as tautological (repetitive) and hauntological and how it continuously shadows over the present:

That history is its own future, its own owner, its own predicate; that history is not ‘history’, not a property of the past but the property the present inherits as its structuring material and the property the past holds in the present. […] Slavery is the Atlantic’s what-has-been, is what begins this scene of modernity’s beginning. But what has begun does not end. To begin might be difficult; to end, impossible. For no matter how strenuously we might forget what was begun, or wish to call an end to, what-has-been is, cannot be undone, cannot cease to alter all the future-presents that flow out of it. Time does not pass or progress, it accumulates, even in the work of forgetting or ending, even in the immense labor it takes to surrender what-has-been, or to make reparation on it, or to address its ill effects. (pp. 330–31)

While Baucom conceives of the “wound” (the “scar” as Guébo puts it) that drowned slaves opened in the Atlantic remains open to an Atlantic modernity, I further argue how this wound can be extended to yet another resurging modernity in the Mediterranean and to the more recent bodies drowning in it. Throughout the poem, Guébo represents contemporary drowned black bodies in the Mediterranean as if they drowned in the 18th century. The contemporary drowned black body becomes a sort of extension of the drowned slave body from the 18th century, proposing thus how contemporary drowning scenes cannot be disentangled or disconnected from modern/colonial drowning scenes. Guébo thus draws on the continued legacy of the Middle Passage, and how it endures as a contemporary text, shadowing and resonating in contemporary migration in the Mediterranean. Guébo (2017) approximates the representation of black migrants navigating the Mediterranean today with older representations of migrant slaves crossing the Middle Passage, as the following passage illustrates:

And even a roiling sea. Isn’t too much if you have. The kiss of the sun against your cheek. If the wave coughs. That’s not too much to endure. Holding yourself against the chest of the wind. That wave would dance the waltz of buried wishes. That wave would rock the silent tongues in its bed. (p. 41)

Through this representation, Guébo draws on the continued echoes, reverberations, and resonances of the Middle Passage that still shadow the present. He mixes drowned bodies from the past with recent ones, creating in us a sort of confusion about which drowned body we are in fact mourning: the drowned body from the 18th century or the contemporary one. Guébo indeed introduces suffering and melancholia as temporally durable, sedimentary (Glissant, 1997) and accumulative (Baucom, 2005), and argues how we have not yet finished crying for the drowned black people from the 18th century when our “originary” mourning is mediated/interrupted by these old/new drowned bodies in the Mediterranean today, thus confirming how the specters (Baucom, 2005) of the old drowned disseminate to new drowned bodies today. Through this old–new entanglement, Guébo communicates to us the right references: that it is rather the drowned from the 18th century (and its consequent echoes, shadows, and repercussions) that we are dealing with here. I argue thus how the contemporary drowned migrant does not stand in isolation, but only in relation to the originary drowned bodies from the past.

In this chapter, I furthermore draw on Baucom’s philosophy of temporal accumulation and his strategy of accumulating sediments (p. 323) to further suggest that what the black migrants face today in the Mediterranean Sea can be conceived of as a palimpsest and an accumulation of what the deported West Africans experienced during the Middle Passage to the Americas. Embarking on a poetic and literary journey across centuries and in a form of temporal accumulation, Guébo (2017) links the drowning of the black contemporary migrants with older drowning scenes and situates these distant historical moments in an accumulated temporal axis.

I furthermore argue how the 18th century slave ships, notably the archetype space of the Zong massacre, echo and shadow contemporary migrant boats:

We would rise on that seasick [. . .] echo [. . .] echo where all the secular angers [. . .] the storm lodged in the ovary [. . .] of a sinking boat [. . .] And the art of antiquity [. . .] would rise toward us from the bottom of the ship [. . .] And we would rise on the echo. . . of the sickening sea [. . .] echo. (Guébo pp. 10–11, my emphasis)

By further noting “I was led to this sand” (p. 44) which also functions as a shadow line, Guébo navigates us back to the 18th century underwater graveyards or sea cemeteries and strikes a kind of specter and shadow presence in the drowned bodies Think of Lampedusa represents. The sand here is exemplary of modernity’s “alluvial grounds”, as Baucom (2005) called it, which accumulates and endures across time: “The ground is nothing but the sea’s fossil. Trace of the oceanic. Wanting to remain anonymous. Deep in its throat each sea shifts a tongue of crust. Making itself enigmatic to the mother tongues” (Guébo, 2017, p. 54, my emphasis). Guébo wants to say that the sea’s swallowing and devouring of migrant black bodies does not constitute a new phenomenon, but instead originates from former drowned bodies of the 18th century Atlantic crossings. Thus, I argue that Guébo fossilizes and unearths the 18th century drowning grounds for black migrants, which accumulate and un-finish since they first started departing (Baucom, 2005, p. 313). In another shadow line, Guébo unearths and excavates the 18th century, which continues in these contemporary times in the form of a sedimented layer, as the poet fittingly notes through his reflection on contemporary migrants aboard refugee boats: “A centenary stalactite where the sand [. . .] is dredged [. . .] its stela sparkling in the center of my words. . . the tower of a convoluted world [. . .] each crammed shoulder to shoulder” (Guébo, 2017, p. 61, my emphasis). Here Guébo addresses the statues (stela) from the past – notably the slave ship and the drowned slave – and re-inserts them into the contemporary drowned black migrants represented throughout the poem. In doing so, Guébo proposes monuments from the past as potentially reproductive and regenerative across time. Thus, he uses the trope of sediment which also takes a specter and shadow dimension and suggests these current happenings in the Mediterranean as sediments of older historical events, namely the Middle Passage. In this vein, the Middle Passage as text does not constitute a dead memory, but instead functions as a revenant – a shadow and a specter which returns after death.

Drowning ghosts in Enia’s Notes on a Shipwreck

Notes on a Shipwreck (Enia, 2019) provides a very complex unraveling of hauntology and spectrality through the representation of thousands of drowned black bodies in the Mediterranean Sea. Through it, I argue how the contemporary drowned black migrant, just like the 18th century drowned slave, is hauntological, and propose what I designate as double hauntology: we are not yet finished being haunted by the image of the 18th century drowned slave when we are haunted anew by the contemporary drowned black migrant. This new hauntology interpenetrates the original and “originary” (Baucom, p. 313) hauntology but does not finish it, and instead resumes and escalates it. This can be shown in the narrative through the kind of exaggerated and excessive representation of contemporary drowned black migrants which I argue supersedes the original representation of slaves drowning in the 18th century. Enia (2019) recounts the story of Bemnet, a migrant from Eritrea who provides a testimony on what he and other trafficked migrants experienced during the Mediterranean Passage:

Three days went by, with our rubber dinghy drifting helplessly. We had run out of water and food. The sun was a form of torture. Our heads and our bodies got drenched over and over again with saltwater. It was as if our flesh was on fire. Our skin was burning. Our heads felt as though they were exploding. […] There were some whose throats were so dry they were coughing up blood. There were others who, out of their minds with thirst, drank sea water. The first retching began, followed by the first spurts of vomit, inside and outside of the rubber dinghy. Then there were the first cases of hallucinations and the first few passengers passed out. (pp. 153–154)

The representation of black migrants drowning in the Mediterranean today is no different (but increased and “doubled”) from representing migrant slaves navigating the Middle Passage. Thus, the Middle Passage “endures” (Dimock, p. 1061) and continues as a contemporary text, and the 18th century drowning grounds survive as textual motifs, thus resonating with today’s Mediterranean grounds. In light of Dimock’s (1997) concept of resonance, I argue that the drowned black body from the Middle Passage strikes a kind of ghostly presence in Enia’s text, and the represented drowned bodies function as a textual habitat(s), settlers, and populators in Notes on a Shipwreck. Black bodies are thus extended from one textual space (the Caribbean) to another (the Mediterranean). Furthermore, the atmospheric elements of the Middle Passage (the scorching sun, the thirst, the hunger, the vomiting, etc.) are refreshed, reactivated and extended to the contemporary crossing of the Mediterranean, as the following representation further illustrates:

On the rubber dinghy, we were suffering from hallucinations. We had lost track of the days and lost count of the dead. No vessel intercepted us. I was paralyzed from the belt down. I could no longer feel my legs. The sun was too bright. I did not even have the strength to dip my hand in the water and wet my head. I knew everyone on that dinghy, but I still felt desperately alone. The dead bodies were still in the dinghy. The corpses were starting to swell. The body would deform. The flesh would crack. We had no idea what was happening around us. How many had died? Who was still alive? There must have been a lot of deaths, more than half of us, because we could sit in the bottom of the dinghy with our legs sticking straight out. (Enia, 2019, p. 156)

The 18th century drowned slave returns, increases, and escalates its shadows through what I designate as double or doubled hauntology, and the contemporary drowning scenes constitute a doubled and an aggravated figuration of the Middle Passage. This can be shown through another representation of drowned black migrants, which is even more tragic than those drowning in the past:

Many corpses were unrecognizable, deformed by their prolonged underwater immersion, corroded by salt, chewed at by the fish. The sea had invaded internal organs and tissues, some of the bones were shattered, the bodies were swollen to an unbelievable extent. In many cases, the flesh had broken and limbs had come off. There was none of the usual rigidity of death, and you could not recognize adults or children. […] And there was often a part missing from the body that was to be identified: part of a leg, a few fingers, both eyes, the feet, a hand, the ears, an arm, the lower lip. There were bite marks everywhere. (Enia, 2019, pp. 187–188)

The representation of drowned black migrants in Notes on a Shipwreck causes a sort of confusion to the contemporary reader, making them wonder if these drowning scenes are simply repeated scenes or are rather new and disconnected from the “originary” drowning, which makes hauntology expressed in very complex ways in this text. Before they drown, the contemporary black migrants that this novel represents shout their names so that their stories are heard and voiced after their death, which makes this drowning scene very ghostly and hauntological, thus in a conversation with the original drowning of 133 slaves thrown overboard in 1781:

Those who are drowning often shout their own name. In some cases, it’s someone tossed still alive into the waves by the people smugglers. Or else it might be someone knocked into the sea by a badly broached wave. As they drown, they shout their own names, ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘So they wouldn’t be forgotten. (Enia, 2019, p. 155)

Thus, I argue that it is not the contemporary drowned black migrant who resembles the drowned slave from the 18th century, inasmuch as it is the drowned slave who marks its contemporary enactment and resonance. In these representations of contemporary crossings of the Mediterranean such as Notes on a Shipwreck, the drowned slave functions as a revenant, and its ghosts and specters shadow the black drowned migrant.

The concept of hauntology takes other dimensions in Notes on a Shipwreck in that the drowned migrant body causes a sort of contemporary disturbance to us as readers and to the characters giving their testimonies of migrant shipwrecks in this narrative. Through his interview with a scuba diver who is working on the front line with the Italian Coast Guard, Enia shows how the latter is haunted by the image a drowning mother and her child after he chooses to rescue them from among other drowning migrants:

It was as if time and space had curved back upon themselves, bringing him face to face with that cruel scene all over again. The screams of the past still resonated. He was enormous, that diver. He looked invulnerable. And yet, inside, he had to have been a latter-day Saint Sebastien, riddled with a quiverful of agonizing choices. (Enia, 2019, p. 7)

Enia furthermore shows how a scuba diver from the Italian Coast Guard is traumatized by the haunting image of the drowned, and he notes after interviewing the diver: “It was an encounter that shook me deeply because of its implications concerning life and death, because of the unresolvable dilemmas that emerged, because of the enormous depth of post-traumatic stress that I sensed in him” (Enia, 2019, p. 81). After another interview with a commander from the Italian Coast Guard, Enia notes how the latter is likewise haunted by the drowned bodies he collects every day during his job:

His words were glimpses into the abyss. It was like talking to the veteran of a terrible war. He had all the sounds and smells of war carved into his flesh. […] I believe that I was appalled by the sheer quantity of death that I read on his face. And that sort of battle cannot help but mark your face, your flesh, your breath, your gaze. (p. 106)

Thus, the drowned has its specters and shadows defiantly haunt even those in power, such as the commanders and the coastguards. Enia furthermore notes how another police diver from the Italian Coast Guard is still haunted by the events of October the 3rd 2013 when 368 black migrants drowned in Lampedusa, and how this hauntology endures after the incident finishes:

Only once did I have a moment of weakness. On October 3rd I was in the first boat to take to the sea after the alarm was received. After we rescued the living, we started pulling in the corpses that were bobbing in the water.[…] You have already recovered lots and lots of dead people, and now the same thing happens to you again, a week later, after you thought you had seen everything. But instead, there you are, reliving the same exact scene. […] There was a little girl in the water […] the spitting image of my own daughter […] she was floating in the water […] I took her in my arms […] she was identical […] at that instant I found myself experiencing that situation […] she was the same as my daughter […] the same haircut […] the same facial features […] it really upset me […] I could not move for a couple of minutes […] she was identical to my daughter […] I forced myself not to think about it again […] never again. (pp. 109–110)

In light of this sort of shadowing – October 3rd persisting after its original occurrence – I argue how this date/event functions tautologically and hauntologically and interpenetrates the “originary” hauntological scene of drowning from the Zong massacre. In a sort of what I proposed double hauntology, the two dates temporally collide, and the contemporary drowning unfinishes the already unfinished Zong massacre.

The drowned migrants’ contemporary disturbance is further shown through Enia’s friends who are all haunted by the drowned, and who desperately try to liberate themselves from them. Paola recounts how she is haunted and disturbed by one of the migrant landings she experienced, and this again shows how the image of the drowned slave is hauntologically durable and further intensifies its specters toward the contemporary drowned migrant through double hauntology:

I see an indeterminate number of people coming up out of the water. […] [S]he looked at her hands and fingers, as if she could find the past there, caught under her nails, still not free to go its way once and for all. While I was helping people get out of the rubber dinghies, she noticed a young man lying face down on the beach, completely submerged in saltwater. I remember that scene clear as day. (Enia, 2019, p. 28)

Enia shows how the hauntology of the drowned – slave to migrant – amounts to something more than just disturbance as shown through the previous quote but in addition develops into signs of post-traumatic stress disorder among those who directly witness drowning scenes. Due to her excessive encounter with the drowned bodies, Paola recounts how she is struggling with her memory:

There are traumas that can take decades to get over. […] All night long, I was terrified that I would wake up the next morning and find some corpse in the light of day. That has always been my nightmare: How my relationship with this place might be changed, with this sea, with this house, with this landscape, if one day I happened to run into. […] the tides bring in lots of things. […] I have never seen dead bodies. Ever. I have never wanted to come face-to-face with one. (pp. 34–35)

Thus, the image of the drowned black body keeps haunting past and present. Enia shows through other examples how his friend Paola is “devoured by ghosts” (p. 230), and how she is overwhelmed by the ceaseless echoes and shadows of the drowned. Likewise, Enia’s other friend Simone, who is also a diver, is also affected by the haunting of a drowned black body:

You know that I still see the dead? They are going to have to take me to see a psychologist. The dead people that I saw in the hold of that refugee boat? I still have them all right here inside me. (p. 232)

In light of the aforementioned representations of the hauntological drowned, I argue that drowning grounds (past and present) function hauntologically: we are not yet finished being haunted by modern drowning grounds – the “alluvial grounds” as Baucom (2005, p. 313) calls them – when we are haunted anew by contemporary drowning grounds resuming 18th century drowning grounds. The contemporary Mediterranean passage compounds with the Middle Passage and unfinishes it. Thus, the image of the drowned, whether in the past (the drowned slave) or in the present (the drowned black migrant), safeguards its hauntological and traumatizing dimensions.

Political specters in Lustgarten’s Lampedusa

Lampedusa (Lustgarten, 2015) discusses the political specters of drowned black bodies in the Mediterranean. The narrative unfolds through Stefano and Salvatore from the Italian Coast Guard, and the representation of migrant bodies accordingly takes a politicized dimension. This chapter, however, discusses different implications of the trope of specter – hauntological drowned black bodies – and how it shadows modernity’s institutions, namely the institution of the Coast Guard.

The play portrays the violence of the Polis and of the institutions of modernity, namely the coast guard operation system in the Mediterranean by showing how the coastguards represented in this play use varying degrees of violence in their descriptions of the drowned black bodies. In the play, coastguard Stefano, disgusted by the drowned blacks, notes:

The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you would think. Some are warped, rotted, bloated to three times their natural size, twisted into fantastical and disgusting shapes. […] The sensation is like oiled rubbish bags sliding through your fingers. […] The drowned lie face down, heads lolling down into the water; and fish go for the easiest parts to reach. Eyelids. Pieces of the face. Fingertips. The bulging eyes of the dead. (Lustgarten, 2015, p. 4, my emphasis)

Moreover, modernity’s violence as epistemology is materialized in Lustgarten’s poem through the violence of institutional protocols perpetrated against black migrants at sea. In the play, Stefano represents the figure of a coastguard who carries his indoctrination onboard rescue missions, and who reflects modernity’s politicized regimes in the Mediterranean. Overwhelmed by the huge number of the drowned, he notes:

And rescuing people is not the key part of the job. The key to the job is the dead. And Salvatore began very quickly to hate these dead people, because they kept coming and coming and they would not stop. (Lustgarten, 2015, p. 8, my emphasis)

The coastguard’s change in function onboard from rescue operations consisting in saving those who are still adrift and alive into instead recovering dead bodies at sea constitutes a systematic, deliberate, and co-designed attempt to murder black migrants at sea. In addition, through the figure of Stefano’s fellow coastguard Salvatore, who refuses to save migrants from drowning, Lustgarten accuses and condemns the whole “rescue” operation system in the Mediterranean. He points to a kind of deliberate denial of migrant boats in distress. Thus, Salvatore’s obstinate refusal at Stefano’s demand to head toward the migrant boat, and his attempt to abort the rescue and search mission is represented as follows:

I scream at Salvatore to head towards it and he does not want to, you can see he is afraid for us but what kind of coastguard, what kind of man, leaves a boat to go down? I am raging at Salvatore, veins popping, throat raw, to get us back in line, get us back in line. (p. 26)

The so-called “rescue” missions in the Mediterranean today convert to recovering the dead, as is further exemplified through Salvatore in this recollection of Stefano’s: “The black silhouettes of corpses. Dozens of corpses are floating in the water around us. […] Salvatore shakes me, slaps me across the face. ‘You fucking brought us out here. You do your fucking job. Get them in” (p. 28). Even when Stefano eventually comes to terms with the migrants’ plight at sea and volunteers to take their boat and go in search of a migrant boat, coastguard Salvatore, who is still denying the migrants’ plight, tries to prevent him:

muttering that he [Salvatore] did not get an alert and staring up at the sky. […] screaming at me [Stefano], screaming at the top of his lungs and I can still barely hear him, that this is insane and he is turning us back. (p. 26)

After a black migrant woman resurfaces alive from among fifty-seven bodies, and after knowing he risked his life for saving her, Salvatore tends to trivialize the attempt to save migrants from drowning and he, “kicks me and nods at Aminata and says, ‘is it her? Is that why we came? I have a son’, is all he says to me. ‘A son’” (p. 30). As a coastguard, Salvatore carries his indoctrination with him on board, and he is so far unable to change it. Furthermore, the coastguards’ indoctrination onboard their “rescue” boat is reflected through other situations. When Modibo, a mechanic from Mali, offers to fix the coastguards’ boat, his offer is rejected on racist grounds:

He offers to get in the boat with me in case it packs up again. No thanks. Chirpy fucker […]. On the boat, the survivors start talking to me, pleading their case, like I can do anything for them. It is not part of my job to have to listen to their stories. (p. 13)

The coastguard’s rejection of the skilled worker to board the boat falls within a general belief that the latter might displace the other local skilled workers, thus developing an anti-immigration agenda onboard their rescue mission. Salvatore worryingly speculates:

And what if he does get in and we break down and he fixes it again and the bosses hear? That he can do stuff I cannot do, for half the rate? You have to think about these things now. Here, in Europe, 2015. You have to watch your back from every angle. (p. 13)

In addition, upon hearing Modibo’s story and the reasons why he had to embark on his journey across the Mediterranean, the coastguards show a lack of empathy, and instead end up romanticizing and exoticizing the migrant’s story. Stefano says:

He plays me something as well. A song called Lampedusa. It is meant to be about all the people who have come here seeking a better life. The drowning and the terror. The hope and the futures. I do not know if I can hear all that in there personally, but it is beautiful. Listen. (p. 14)

Stefano is too indoctrinated to engage with the migrant’s story, and his lack of empathy becomes more obvious when he finds out that Modibo had to escape his home country, Mali, for fear of Islamic fundamentalists (p. 14). Stefano is not able to face the reality of what is happening in Mali. He simply cannot fathom it, as he is already too indoctrinated, as shown through his reflection on Modibo’s story: “I mean, this is his story, God knows how much of it is true. He could be making it all up. Mali. Exotic” (p. 15). In another example of the coastguard’s indifference to the migrants’ plight, Stefano recounts a shocking claim of the current refugee crisis, and then Salvatore’s cold reaction to it:

On the radio this morning, they said this is the biggest global mass migration since the Second World War. And all we do is let them drown. I ask Salvatore what are we going to do. ‘Drink’, he says, and marches off, big broad back to me, shoulders hunched up around his ears. (p. 19)

Consequently, the shadows of the drowned have other implications in Lampedusa. The disturbing image of the drowned slave/migrant becomes the result of a certain violence perpetrated by modernity’s epistemology, regimes, institutions, and protocols such as those of the coastguards. In a sort of act of defiance, resistance and revenge, the drowned black body in turn produces a form of violence through its spectral and haunting dimensions. The drowned as a revenant haunts the people working for regimes that first institutionally and epistemically practiced violence against drowning migrants at sea. Horrified by all the drowning sites he experienced, coastguard Stefano’s sleep is troubled and haunted by specters of the drowned bodies of the migrants he (and his institution) failed to rescue. Thus, the drowned in this context constitute a traumatizing shadow for Stefano, who then notes:

I have not been able to sleep much. Lots of nightmares. The rotten fingers of the drowned clutching at my neck. Grey faces of the long dead staring up from the seabed. People I had forgotten I had fished out sitting on the end of the bed, glaring at me, seawater pooling on the sheets. They never speak, but the briny carrion stink of them. Staring at me as if somehow, I have betrayed them. I swear I have woken up more than once because of the smell. Open all the windows, turn up the lights. Nothing there, obviously. (p. 21)

Therefore, as a sort of avenging revenant, the drowned haunt their drowning forces and the hydraulic institutions consisting of the coast guards, the police divers, and the commanders represented especially in Notes on a Shipwreck and Lampedusa.


This paper proposes the concept of co-designation to discuss the manufacturing of the drowned black body as a scapegoat, and to argue that its sacrificing constitutes modernity’s violent epistemology temporally durable, accumulative, and sedimentary from the 18th century and extending to the contemporary. It argues that, so far, we have not yet completely disentangled from the specters of Atlantic slavery and from the echoes and shadows of modernity’s drowning grounds for blacks that still haunt us in the present. In response to this grammar of profiling and sacrificing of black bodies, my paper is a prospective attempt to search for what I designate as epistemic antibiotics or antibodies of knowledge, which will equip us with a resistant and an extra-immune pedagogy opposed to the violently operative epistemology. The paper analyzes how modernity, whether in the past or in the present, always advances with violent distortions, and will eventually propose a sort of rupture or fracture – both aesthetic and political – to modernity’s epistemology’s violent continuity by breaking its epistemic line or axis of reference, and by limiting modernity’s echoes and reverberations haunting us in the present. The paper will search for ways through which modernity advances without its obligatory scapegoating grammar and rhetoric, and without taking blacks as sacrificial victims and bodies of experimentation for its temporal survival. In a form of rupture, I propose a future project whose aim will be an attempt to break and possibly terminate the established epistemic line of modernity, and search for the possibility of another “departure” (Baucom, 2005, p. 314) of modernity’s epistemology. It instead suggests its departure with something other than the drowned black slave or migrant, and proposes, for example, modern history as departing and re-accelerating from the de-drowned,3 which will alternatively become our task and our axis of reference.


Baucom, I. (2005). Specters of the Atlantic: Slavery, finance capital, and the philosophy of history. Duke University Press.

Dimock, W. C. (1997). A theory of resonance. Modern Language Association, 112(5), pp. 1060–1071.

Enia, D. (2019). Notes on a shipwreck: A story of refugees, borders, and hope. Other Press.

Glissant, E. (1997). Poetics of relation. Michigan University Press.

Guébo, J. (2017). Think of Lampedusa. University of Nebraska Press.

Johannessen, L. (2012). Palimpsest and hybridity in postcolonial writing. In A. Quayson (Ed.), The Cambridge history of postcolonial literature (pp. 869–902). Cambridge University Press.

Lustgarten, A. (2015). Lampedusa. Bloomsbury.

1 Hydraulic systems is an expression I use to refer to regimes governing with water spaces and with distributions of water in the contemporary region of the Mediterranean. It refers to “liquid” geopolitical conflicts over “liquefied” zones, and to the tracing and mapping of naval borders. In the progression of my project, I will show how the drowned slave/migrant black body (zones of sinking) – taken as a scapegoat – enables us to “map” and to trace our borders. Black bodies are utilized as “tracking” devices, as my discussion of Anders Lustgarten’s political play Lampedusa will discuss. Hydraulic systems also refers to a grammar of governance (local and global) which amounts to the level of criminality: flooding and inundation sites are manufactured in contemporary Tunisia, which, by extension, become sorts of pedagogies of drowning for the entire region. The geopolitical implications of the expression hydraulic systems include, for example, the kind of tangling (or disentangling) of waterways and naval and maritime zones. It implicates the kind of shortening, collapsing, breaking, and blurring of naval distances. My project will, in the process, analyze the blurring of Tripoli-Lampedusa or Tunisia-Tripoli watery lines. Hydraulic systems thus implicates an absorption and a sort of draining of maritime zones. Hydraulic implies a power of consumption and absorption (a grammar of coloniality in its extended functions or implications). The expression also implies the transference of borderlands (solid structures) into liquid structures, waterways. Hydraulic implicates the manufacturing and designation of trajectories into a sort of fusion. It also implies a sort of organization and distribution of borders. Hydraulics implies penetration: a grammar of control, power, and hegemony with water spaces. Liquidity in this sense becomes hegemonic. In the progression of my project, I will analyze hydraulics in relation to the liquidity or liquefication of island spaces: the space of the island as entangled and fused with the borderlands it connects to. For example, the island of Lampedusa liquefies towards Tripoli, as my discussion of Davide Enia’s (2019) memoir Notes on a Shipwreck: A story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope will show.
2While, for example, Ian Baucom (2005) in his Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History perceives of the Zong massacre as “key to the unfolding history of Atlantic modernity” (Baucom, 2005, p. 313), I further extend his conceptualization to refer to those other modernities which are haunted by the specters and the ghosts of Atlantic slavery. In this project, I add to Baucom’s concept of spectrality and propose in addition the concept of double-hauntology. Through it I argue that we have not yet finished being haunted by the specters of Atlantic slavery and by the hauntological space of the Zong, what is more being haunted by contemporary drowned black bodies thrown overboard for acts of protests onboard refugee ships in today’s Mediterranean. I will argue how the hauntological contemporary black drowned migrant body interpenetrates and causes a sort of rupture to the original/ “originary” (Baucom, 2005, p. 313) hauntological scenes.
3I propose the concept of “de-drowned” as a decolonial attempt and a counter-epistemology of the drowned. Through it I aim to look at the possibility of “departing” or starting epistemologies with counter narratives against “originary” drowning (colonial) scenes and passages.

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