Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia
by Nick Mirzoeff — NYU
March 09, 2010 – 17:04
Acts of violence inscribe power onto bodies. They do so in ways that are intended to create memory and forgetting. In the case of the brutal murder of Jorge Steven López Mercado, the sheer excess of violence, in which the body was dismembered, decapitated and partially burnt, seems intended to impair remembrance by making it painful to contemplate, at the same time as it is impossible to forget. As far as is yet known, Jorge Steven encountered the killer Juan José Martínez Matos while engaged in sex work. At this time Jorge Steven was wearing drag. I use these circumlocutions because there is now a considerable debate within Puerto Rico and activist circles as to the correct designation of his identity, ranging from gay to transgender. Such debates indicate that the work of violence has not failed to disrupt and disturb. While the case has been reported in LGBT publications, it has received little mainstream coverage in the US, contrasting with the Matthew Shepard case.
When I heard about the crime, it recalled the 1757 execution of the regicide Damiens made famous by Michel Foucault, in which the body of the condemned was dismembered and tortured under a multiple logic. First it repaired the offence against the “body politic,” the second of the “King’s Two Bodies,” as Ernst Kantorowicz memorably described medieval monarchy. In this sense, violence meted out by the law renders the social situation equal by matching one act with another to return to stability. Next, it was intended to save the soul of the offender by reconciling him with the Church, the amende honorable. Finally, it served as a warning to those still living not to contemplate any similar act. While these acts were certainly torture, they were not intended as the products of hate so much as those of the terrible love manifested by the church militant and its secular arm, the monarchy. In short, Damiens’ execution was spectacular but, far from being meaningless, for its the violence was saturated with meanings.
Does this parallel have any purchase in this case? The killer would seem to have had no official legal sanction. Yet much of the outrage in activist circles since the murder stems from the equivocations by certain politicians and police officers in Puerto Rico and the silence of Governor Luis Fortuño. It seems inconceivable that such a murder would be ignored or excused if the victim were not identified as LGBT. By the same token, however, the extreme degree of violence used has generated a certain extra degree of attention to the case both on the island and within the US. One can conclude that the dismemberment was intended as a message of some kind. Indeed, had the case been less spectacular, it is likely that it would not have been prosecuted as quickly by the police. That is to say, the excess violence cannot be attributed to a desire to escape prosecution.
Indeed, it seems likely that the defense to be mounted by the admitted killer may involve some form of claim regarding so-called “homosexual panic” as used in the Matthew Shepard trial. While Martínez Matos was accepted by a state psychiatrist as capable of standing trial, the question of homosexual panic may yet recur because the standard used to determine this issue is simply the ability to distinguish right from wrong. The “homosexual panic” quasi-diagnosis was first proposed by the American analyst Edward Kempf in his Psychopathology (1921) from where it made its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1952. Subsequent editions of the DSM did not include homosexual panic and the APA deleted homosexuality itself as a disorder from the DSM-II in 1973. The 1980 DSM-III created a new class of “psychosexual disorders,” including gender identity disorder (transsexualism), and “ego-dystonic homosexuality.” The current 1994 DSM-IV makes an unlikely grouping of sexual dysfunction, the paraphilias, and gender identity disorder under the heading “sexual and gender identity disorders.” Much controversy surrounds the on-going revision of these diagnoses. Were gender identity to be removed, for instance, insurance would be likely to refuse to pay for gender reassignment surgery. Given this confusing psychiatric context, it would relatively easy for a lawyer to suggest “homosexual panic” as a mitigating factor, without having to specify precisely its meaning.
It is surely unlikely that Martínez Matos, known locally as “Casper,” was thinking ahead to such an elaborate defense strategy. It turns out that his father is a butcher, a trade that he may also share. In the chilling forensic photograph that “somehow” found its way onto the Internet, it was apparent that the person who dismembered Jorge Steven knew what he was doing. The limbs were neatly and cleanly separated, not hacked apart.
Whatever the nature of the encounter, it seems likely that Casper felt himself interpellated by what Lacan called the “law of the father.” In a public statement he has declared: “Forgive me, dad, forgive me. I picked up that boy from Padial street and killed him downstairs [bajos de tu casa] in your house.” The phrase “bajos de tu casa” is ambiguous but as Carmen Oquendo-Villar commented to me: “the son was physically under the father while performing the act. Not just inside of the father’s house, but right under him.” The desire to be under the father, to be possessed by the father, articulates itself through violence. The biological father blends imperceptibly into God the Father, who subjugates, orders and dominates from above.
Lacan specified that the gaze is a structure whereby one feels looked at from outside, regardless of the physical presence of others. If, as is claimed, the encounter between Casper and Jorge Steven took place in the father’s house, it would appear that the trans-gressive act against the law of the father was at once answered by the jealous patriarch(y). That is to say, the killer felt himself looked at by the father that he had internalized and felt required to punish his own sexual act. The violence was a restitution of the law to which the subject feels allegiance but cannot fully perform. Its excess and the proper performance of butchery, the father’s trade, were components of the revenge required by the law and the (re)establishment of sexual difference as a gendered, normative binary.
I venture this interpretation not to excuse Martínez Matos or to diminish the horror of what was done but to suggest that the act was far from random or meaningless. There is a sense in which Martínez Matos was also a victim of his own (father’s) homophobia. It connects the violence to sovereignty, as in the case of Damiens, but via the domesticated animal, who is the “normal” object of butchery, not to mention vivisection.The purpose of the domestic animal is to be slaughtered. There is here a distinction to be made between the domesticated animal, raised in order to be killed, and the wild animal that may or may not be hunted, according to complex codes of what is permitted to be eaten, when it may be killed and how. It is further distinguished from the “companion species,” such as dogs and cats.
In his recently translated seminar The Beast and the Sovereign (2001-2), Jacques Derrida pointed out that the animal and the sovereign are both outside the law: “in a becoming-beast of the sovereign or in a becoming-sovereign of the beast, the passage from the one to the other, the analogy, the resemblance, the alliance, the hymen depending on the fact that they both share that very singular position of being outlaws, above or at a distance from the law” (32). The sovereignty in play here is a fusion of that “petty sovereignty” discerned by Judith Butler in her analysis of Guantánamo Bay and the classic definition of sovereignty as the power to withdraw life, brought together in the figure of the keeper of livestock. In killing, Casper asserted his right as a petty sovereign of heteronormativity to withdraw life . By butchering his victim, Casper asserted sovereignty and patriarchy while “rendering” his victim an animal, to use a technical term for the industrialized production of meat. There is here a distinction to be made between the domesticated animal, raised in order to be killed, and the wild animal that may or may not be hunted, according to complex codes of what is permitted to be eaten, when it may be killed and how.
The connection in this affair is not with Damiens but with the abuses of Abu Ghraib in 2004. Lyndie England, the young woman who became the symbol of the affair, had previously worked in a chicken-rendering plant in West Virginia, where the animals were routinely sexually and physically abused. In Iraq, the prisoners were described as “animals” over and again by their guards and were forced to perform “homosexuality” as evidence of their bestiality. In a performative circle, the abusers of animals turned their prisoners into “animals” by making them appear to be “unnatural” and therefore worthy of slaughter.
This logic is very much at work in present-day jurisprudence. In his dissent to Lawrence v. Texas (2003), in which the remaining state laws criminalizing “sodomy” were invalidated by the US Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia ventured to assert that the consequence would be the legalization of bestiality, not to mention incest, adultery, bigamy and other offences against the law of the father. This theme has been picked up by anti-marriage equality activists, playing a part in their surprisingly successful populist campaigns. Fear, as Hobbes long ago argued, is central to sovereignty and its deployment. In part that fear is fear of sovereignty, of its outlaw status, its bestiality. Sovereign homophobia, the rendering animal, restoration of order: these are the performances required and enacted from the Supreme Court to the local murder in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Without exploring the growing sovereign claims of the Supreme Court, it is important to note how even the word “sovereignty” is controversial in Puerto Rico. Following a presentation by former Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vilá, the United Nations Decolonization Committee ruled in June 2008 that the US should “expedite a process that would allow the Puerto Rican people fully to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence,” release all political prisoners and restore Vieques Island to civilian control. Curiously Acevedo-Vilà was indicted on federal corruption charges at this time, contributing to the election of the current Republican governor Fortuño in November 2008. More curiously still, Acevedo-Vilà was found not guilty of all charges in March 2009, some fifteen of the 24 counts having been dismissed by the judge before trial. Sovereignty issues have now been shelved and a constitutional ban on gay marriage (in addition to the current legal prohibition) was proposed by Fortuño in January 2010. None of these comments excuse Acevedo-Vilà from accusations of corruption, which seems endemic to the internal politics of the island. These issues are rarely reported in the United States in order to maintain the “fit of absence of mind” (to quote J.R. Seeley’s aphorism on the British empire) in which the Republic remains an empire.
When Jorge Steven made the poor decision to get into Casper’s car, none of this was in his mind or that of his john, who became his killer. But that intersection was always already potentially fatal, an expression of the sovereign fear that has dominated the United States since 2001. Nor is the violence only “peripheral” or remote. In December 2008, José Sucuzhañay, an Ecuadorean immigrant, was murdered in Brooklyn, apparently because his assailants assumed he was gay. Routinely ignored, routinely mitigated as the act of bad apple(s), such violence is by now routine, the very fabric of everyday life in the present crisis. As much as we want to look away or look elsewhere, everyday violence demands our everyday attention.