What strikes me most about the recent videos of black men dying and dying and dying is the repetition. They all seem familiar—as in: We’ve heard it before, and before, and then well before even that. The scenes splashed across the news have become almost ritualistic, prayerful; they have a narrative potency that seems to move of its own accord, an agency exceeding that of the humans involved, whether police or suspects, victims or bystanders. We all know the words, we all sing along. In North Charleston, South Carolina, the death of Walter Scott began with a litany like so many before it: He reached for my weapon, a struggle ensued, I feared for my life, the weapon discharged. Amen.
The counternarrative, the recall and response, was provided by a passerby who captured the now-viral video of the killing on his cellphone. That, too, was a memory remembered, a chorus we knew before we knew: He was running away. He was shot in the back. He was unarmed. The weapon was planted. Repeat con affetto.
As Baltimore is rocked in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, our collective riot-song has been cranked up to full volume: They’re out of control! They’re wild animals! They’re burning down their own neighborhood! No wonder the police have to kill them! And in complex counterpoint, the dirge of mysterious-death-while-in-custody: No justice, no peace! interlaced with the percussive bass line of A thorough investigation will be undertaken.
Sigmund Freud thought of repetition as a source of the uncanny—something repressed that, when revealed, violates some affective order. As he used the word, “uncanny” meant the feeling of looking at something that is familiar or intimate yet simultaneously new or estranged. He related it to being “robbed of one’s eyes.”
Freddie Gray was arrested, according to police, because they “made eye contact” with him in the suggestive territory of “a known drug area.” Eyes thus caught, he ran. Police gave hot pursuit.
In some instances, the uncanny familiarity may not be lurking too far beneath the surface. In Baltimore, necks have been broken before by the police “rough-riding” arrestees: hog-tying them, putting them in the back of a van with no restraints, then intentionally veering at high speed. At one point it was called screen testing, because it would cause shackled prisoners to smash into the screen dividing the front and back of the van. In 2005, Dondi Johnson Sr. died after such a ride, suffering a catastrophic spinal-cord injury much like Freddie Gray’s. And in 2004, Jeffrey Alston was left paralyzed from the neck down, an injury also sustained in the back of a police van.
Freud’s image of stolen eyes haunts me: The circular looping of belated recognition and regret seems a shared impairment, a kind of socio-visual agnosia.
I made up that term, “socio-visual agnosia.” There is an actual neurological condition called visual agnosia. The patient in Oliver Sacks’ famous essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” suffered from it. It’s not a really a vision problem at all, but a neural disorder of perception that produces an inability to recognize objects or faces, or to identify a thing by its shape. So I’m taking a bit of a liberty here, deploying it as a metaphor for our collective hermeneutic disorder. Consider the man who mistook his gun for a Taser.