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Black Code/Code Noir

The Algorithm as Necropolitical Control

“These words come from the night, from the darkness of the night sky – a darkness of opacity so great that no light of reason can penetrate its surface.  Indeed, dark feelings for dark times. Yet perhaps we will see in this darkness…  

Le Code noir ou Édit […] Louis XV, 1727, conservé à la BnF

Image extraite du film « Black Code/Code Noir » de Louis Henderson, 2015.

…a better archetype of knowledge than the worn-out metaphor of ‘enlightenment.’[1]  Let us consider the night sky’s serene cosmology made up of a multitude of stars as a multiperpespectival resistance to the “Sun King of Western reason”.  Rather than follow the single ray of divine knowledge sent to light the dark corners of the world, we will turn our eyes to the archipelagos in the heavens, to share with them an infinite amount of points of view, and that in their brilliance as stars refuse to become transparent.  We respect their right to opacity.

More beautiful than the day, peaceful by all means, the star-studded, pensive and soft night is a better model of knowledge than the sun-struck, cruel, exclusive, eye- hurting, ideologically-prone and opinion-ridden light of day. [2]

Here I will speak of two stars in particular, two stars of an enormous and gravely growing constellation, two stars that became strong lights sadly far too early for their time – they will not burn out into oblivion, they will not be forgotten.

On August the 9th 2014 Michael Brown, a black 18 year old, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the state of Missouri, United States of America.  Less than two weeks later in the same state, merely a few miles from the site of the death of Brown, white police officers shot and killed another young black man; Kajieme Powell.  In the space of 10 days police officers had put to death two young black bodies in the scorching summer sun of the Americas.  No one was found guilty of murder, the police officers were considered to be acting accordingly to the situation. Yet 12 bullets were fired into Brown’s body, who was unarmed and had his arms in the air in surrender, and 9 bullets were fired into Powell’s as he lay injured on the floor.

Both of the murders were recorded on mobile phones (the aftermath in Brown’s case, the actual murder in Powell’s) and posted onto Youtube, this is where I first discovered the murder of Kajieme Powell for example.  Both of these events also led to the creation of certain online social network pages – the internet became the space for the archiving and remembrance of these terribly sad tragedies, and it became the space where people could form groups together, to self organise in order to share their upset and pain. However, online social networks require offline social movements, and thus the people of Missouri protested their rage for nights on end and cars and buildings blazed until a thick smoke covered the horizon eventually blocking out the sunrise.

And amidst all this smoke and tears and rage a line came to me again and again.  “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.[3]

Which stories and which ghosts haunt such difficult times? These times in which black bodies are brought to death by the system that is apparently in place to protect them. What forms of thinking could preside over these actions that control the social body through death?  Biopolitics in this contemporary moment has become necropolitics – the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die as the ultimate expression of sovereignty, a sovereignty that transcends the rule of law in the name of “public good” – necropolitics as the state of exception.  Or perhaps, necropolitical control as the pre-emptive state of exception that suspends the legal, civil and human rights that ‘law’ is supposed to protect.

This contemporary necropolitical moment can also be defined by the computational becoming of the forces of law and order – the real and physical mutation of law into code through computer algorithms that interpret Big Data[4] on crime (in the United States in particular, policing has been prepared for big data much more than any other US civic organisation). It is certainly not surprising to say that code is related to law. Code is in its dictionary definition “a systematic collection or digest of the laws of a country.[5]  However, as Wendy Chun points out, what is surprising is that software is code and thus seemingly law.  We now have code that is written to execute demands in a piece of software that govern over people’s lives and deaths, such as the software being developed by Microsoft to enable crime prediction, and hence prevention, in the United States.

Computer code in its executability, its ability to execute orders via algorithmic structures, becomes seemingly axiomatic, that is, these algorithmic, self-contained orders are taken as being self-evident, unquestionable, undeniable. The code that makes the interface function is largely not understood by the people using the software, and thus any action on behalf of the computer is taken to be a correct order. The information that big data collects and the way in which an algorithm “makes sense” of that data is conceived of as pure reason, as enlightened truth. The actions of the Law interfaced through software thus become axiomatic.

And this I believe is very dangerous.  Law – as software, as code – presented as axiomatic, suggests that it cannot be decoded, unwritten or challenged because, to reiterate a point, an axiom is a premise so evident as to be accepted without controversy.  The computer’s algorithms are to be believed due to their perfectly ordered self control, so neat and efficient as to be unmistakeably correct.

Today, in many Smart Cities around the world we face the present reality of what Gilles Deleuze (rather prophetically) described in 1992 as the society of control “…the societies of control operate with machines of a third type, computers” he states, and furthermore, “…the numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals”, and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks”.[6]  This is the society of control – the human being turned into data and thus profit – a form of machinic capture that harks back perhaps to the plantation system. This is a thesis developed by Christopher Taylor in a recent article written for the New Enquiry – where he argues that   both the plantation and the algorithmic Smart City work on similar terms in that they accumulate capital out of human subjects without using the traditional calculations of surplus value through wage labour and commodity production.  Thus, argues Christopher Taylor, “We need a “political theory of capture more than an economic theory of value[7] to understand what he terms Plantation neoliberalism.

Here is a suggestion: the algorithm as law in a society of control brings us back to the plantation system, both in terms of post-fordist forms of capitalism and of forms of social control (which are of course inextricably linked). To come back closer to where we began, I argue therefore that algorithmic policing in present day USA brings us to the necropolitical control of the slave plantation systems of the Americas, and to begin working towards an answer of which ghosts haunt this present I will suggest that it was the ghosts of slaves that haunted the riots in Ferguson. And in light of the fact that the first slaves to arrive in the state of Missouri were all brought from Saint-Domingue, I will say that the slaves that haunted the riots in Ferguson all came with a heritage from Haiti, this point will get thickened further on.

Achille Mbembe reminds us in his vital text, Necropolitics, that it was perhaps in the slave plantations that the first ‘modern’ experiments with necropolitical control began:

The violent tenor of the slave’s life is manifested through the overseer’s disposition to behave in a cruel and intemperate manner and in the spectacle of pain inflicted on the slave’s body. Violence, here, becomes an element in manners, like whipping or taking of the slave’s life itself: an act of caprice and pure destruction aimed at instilling terror.  Slave life, in many ways, is a form of death-in-life.[8]

Death-in-life could be perhaps the contemporary condition of black Americans faced with violent policing today. I need not remind everyone here of the sheer quantity of deaths of black Americans we have heard of recently in the news – a number so apparently incalculable that the Guardian decided to start a database of police shootings in the USA, a project called The Counted, whose findings so far show that, statistically black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white Americans.

This remembering of the slave plantation in the present is not simply being done to imply that police officers are akin to plantation overseers and that perversely they are justified in their “right to kill”.  But rather, I aim to show that in treating algorithms and code as material, historicised and political objects we can on the one hand, begin to understand that they are in fact written by human beings with a particular agenda based on old fashioned, heteropatriarchal, racist, capitalist ideals (which are all nonetheless ‘hidden’ behind the interface of software), and on the other hand this illusion of axiomatic power is something that can be and indeed must be resisted, challenged and decoded – it can be hacked. As, and I quote from a chapter of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus called Apparatus of Capture; “…it is of the nature of axiomatics to come up against so-called undecidable propositions, to confront necessarily higher powers that it cannot master.”[9]

Thus returning to the slave plantation not only brings us back to a form of originary necropolitics, but it can also bring us back to the first instances of an assertion of agency on the part of the slave through rebellion, escape and the use of certain necessarily “higher powers” that the slave owners could not master. In order to develop this further I will here need to do an archaeological uncovering of the codes that regulated plantation life in the Americas of the 17th century.

Necropolitics as a legal form of state governance in the Americas was first put into place in the French colony of Saint-Domingue under the guise of Louis XVI’s Le Code Noir: a document that legalised slavery and organised the treatment of slaves on the island. It included decrees that configured slaves’ rights of marriage, of giving birth, of being educated and instructed in the Catholic faith, whilst at the same time legalising the torture, mutilation and if deemed necessary, the death of slaves. Le Code Noir was a document that encoded this notion of ‘death-in-life’ as legal framework.  It was a series of carefully designed instructions that had to be followed in order for a desired outcome: the growth of capital.  In this sense, it works much like an algorithm. Le Code Noir was in fact an originary form of algorithmic governance based on the axiomatic propositions of enlightenment thought.

Yet – the enlightenment defenders will say, it was precisely these thinkers who placed themselves philosophically alongside an opposition to the idea of slavery, and it was these thinkers who asserted universal human rights and resistance to oppression, these thinkers that aroused revolution in the bodies of mankind.  “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are…[10] writes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the patron saint of the French Revolution – whilst at the same time excluding from his text, and thus repressing from consciousness, the millions of really existing, European-owned slaves in the French colonies at that time. This is a grave and deeply troubling emission that the philosopher Louis Sala-Molins has called “racist” and “revolting”.[11] Sala-Molins has in fact conducted a large work, made up of a series of books, that attempts to re-read the enlightenment project through the lens of the Code Noir, and in doing so he reveals the flawed hypocrisy at the basis of the thought behind the French Revolution. Wonderfully alluded to also in the Black Jacobins by C.L.R James where he cites from A Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès: “What sad irony in human history! The fortunes created at Bordeaux, at Nantes, by the slave trade, gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation.[12]

The same goes for the American colonial revolutionaries fighting against the British Crown a decade before the French Revolution.  The establishment of the United States of America is based on the Declaration of Independence, and asserts the universal “natural rights” of life, liberty and happiness, and that all men are created equal. This text, that became a founding principle for France’s own Declaration of Rights of Man And Citizen, was drafted by Thomas Jefferson; an owner of slaves and plantations himself. Again, a troubling and strangely paradoxical situation that reveals much behind the development of ‘modern’ thought and the ontological understanding of the status of black Americans. What becomes clear through these investigations into the paradoxical indignation with slavery in thought whilst emitting or ‘forgetting’ slavery in practice, is that the ontological status of the slave, and thus the black American, for the ruling white elite is one of a non-human that does not take part in the social body.

This fact becomes consolidated through the introduction of the Black Code Laws in the southern states of the United States of America just after the civil war and the abolition of slavery. These were laws, based on the same premises of Le Code Noir that designed and organised the lives and deaths of freed black slaves. The Black Codes, or Jim Crow Laws as they became to be known, were the rules that restricted black Americans from certain types of work and from certain places and positions in society – in effect constraining their freedom and keeping them within the low wage labour system of the plantation. Today the plantation has been replaced with the judiciary system and we find ourselves with what Angela Davis has termed, The Prison-Industrial-Complex; the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.

This hypocrisy, on behalf of enlightenment thought and the French and American Revolutions, negates any claims to liberatory and revolutionary thought or action – because slavery in their systems of thought has never actually been abolished. The only actual instance of successful revolution on these terms was the Haitian Revolution, a revolution that confronted face on the ideals of the enlightenment colonial program. The slaves of San Domingue upturned the French Colony, abolished slavery and created the first free black state in the Americas, subsequently named Haiti – the original Taíno name of the island before Columbus first arrived. What is particularly important about the slave community of Saint-Domingue that rose up against their colonial oppressors, is that in organising themselves initially they had turned to ancient animist rituals. Voodoo was used in this instance as a force to bring people together, to create a society against the state, and to form a revolutionary resistance that could bring on the processes of decolonisation. The Haitian revolution famously started with a voodoo sacrifice in the woods of Bois Cayman, in which the blood of a sacred pig was drunk by the revolutionaries.

We can perhaps understand animism as an ontological positioning that can undo traditional Western metaphysical binary oppositions – proposing instead an understanding of the multiplicity of possible shared perspectives on life that include all beings in a worldly cosmology. This is exactly its confrontation with the ontological distinctions that tried to justify European colonialism and slavery. Now, in relation to new technologies, Wendy Chun makes a very interesting proposition[13] – that in recent times, knowing how to program software has been posited as a form of enlightenment knowledge. The world of computer programmers, once seen as a murky, mysterious place of black magic, ruled by the “grand wizards” of technology, has now become visibly clear and liberated through knowledge of how to code, thus opening up the way for democratic self-governance through open source software. So perhaps coding can be seen as something akin to enlightenment modes of thinking, but as Wendy Chun points out, this should not be seen as a positive fact, an interrogation needs to be made into how “knowing” software does not simply enable us to fight domination.

In fact, enlightened knowledge of software has perhaps embedded us deeper into systems of domination. The practice of biometric capture and algorithmic data analysis can be compared to the enlightenment projects of exploring and studying the “dark” unknown corners of the world – to try and illuminate the opacity of the other based on series of codes that try to imprint a universal ontology across the globe.

Chun proposes instead a rethinking, a reusing of source code as re-source code, and to bring out code’s power as a form of animistic fetish.  She claims that code “…is a medium in the full sense of the word. As a medium, it channels the ghost that we imagine runs the machine – that we see as we don’t see – when we gaze at our screen’s ghostly images.”[14]  Understood this way code can be seen as having a power of movement not restricted to the paths set by the algorithm, code can become deviant, a trickster that diverts the order of things and upsets cybernetic society’s aims at social programmability. Thus with animism we can always reverse-engineer an algorithm. Chun states: “Code as animistic fetish means that computer execution deviates from the so-called source…in other words, code, may be the source of things other than the machine execution it is “supposed” to engender.[15] And here the word execution should be announced in all of its meanings.


Therefore as a final proposition I say: if modern policing uses algorithmic codes as ways to justify machinic executions of human bodies that brings us back in time to the necropolitics of the Caribbean slave plantation, can we not unwrite these codes to deviate from their algorithmic course?  Can we create a hack that will bring us back instead to the radical politics of the Haitian Revolution as the first instance of the Black Code’s hacking and as a beginning of the decolonisation of thought?  Indeed, as Louis Sala-Molins asks: How is thinking possible after San-Domingue?

To work towards this I say we must reclaim these codes as we reclaim animism. And this reclamation, as suggested by Isabelle Stengers, goes “…against the insistent poisoned passion of dismembering and demystifying, it affirms that which they all require in order not to enslave us: that we are not alone in the world.[16]


[1] Pasquinelli, Matteo. “On Solar Databases and the Exogenesis of Light.” Eflux Journal, Vol. 65, 2015. 1.

[2] Serres, Michel. Cited in: Pasquinelli, Matteo. “On Solar Databases and the Exogenesis of Light.” Eflux Journal, Vol. 65, 2015. 1.

[3] This is a sentence spoken throughout the film Handsworth Songs (1986) by the Black Audio Film Collective

[4] Big data is a broad term for data sets so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary Online.

[6] Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October, Vol. 59, 1992. 3 – 7.

[7] Taylor, Christopher. “Plantation Neoliberalism”, The New Inquiry, June 2014,

[8] Mbembe, Achilles. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, Vol. 15. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2003. 11- 40.

[9] Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum, 1987. 461.

[10] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “On the Social Contract”, in The Basic Political Writings, trans. and ed. Donald Cress, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1988. 141.

[11] Sala-Molins, Louis. cited in Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 831

[12] Jaurès, Jean. cited in James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins. 4th ed. London: Penguin Books, 2001. 39

[13] Found in: Chun, Wendy. “On ‘Sourcery’, or Code as Fetish.” Configurations, Volume 16, Number 3, Baltimore MA: John Hopkins University Press, 2008.

[14] Ibid. 301.

[15] Ibid. 313

[16] Stengers, Isabelle. “Reclaiming Animism”, Eflux Journal, Vol. 36, 2012. 09.