Today I went to a wonderful talk given by Gary Wilder. His book The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars [the capitalization there seems odd] was already on one of my lists. Now I’m genuinely excited about it.
He was introducing a new project, which he says will be called “Freedom Time,” and for which he’s already attended a year of law school—this, I think, is probably the best way to do legal history, if you can get someone to pay for it.
He started off with a longish quotation from an unspecified Kant text, and then a little summary of French Imperial Nation-State. His summary made the book sound quite different from what I would have imagined given the title. His point, as he explains it, is to see Negritude as more than just a nativism. It is, rather, a critical theory of modernity (that is, a Critical Theory)—attempting to revise bankrupt positivist and instrumental reason through an appeal to poetic reason. It is a working-through, dialectical overcoming, rather than simple rejection, of modernity. In this project it is hardly alone during the 1930s. I don’t know a great deal about the ideas or figures here—mostly Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor—but from what little I do know, it seems a sensible move.
The payoff for Wilder is that once we think of Negritude as committed to the dialectical overcoming of empire and the colonial situation, rather than a simplistic rejection, we are able to make sense of the political moves made by Césaire and Senghor in the postwar world. Departmentalization and then subsequent attempts to form other supra-national organizations, are not false-consciousness, not (simply) anachronistic. These policies are rather an attempt to preserve certain aspects of the imperial project and reject others. So, for instance, the departmentalization of Martinique was not supposed to be its submission to
This argument is set out with copious reference above all to Walter Benjamin. Adorno, Reinhart Koselleck, Ernst Bloch and others are also mobilized, but Benjamin is the major reference. I won’t try to explain exactly what Wilder is doing, but it has to do with multiple temporalities, and ways of thinking that which didn’t happen, that which did happen (but was impossible), the concept of concrete utopia, and others.
During the talk, all kinds of parallels with what I’ve been reading of Zizek, Badiou and, to a lesser extent, Laclau, were going through my head. A major issue is that of retroaction. This seems to me to be somehow Lacanian in origin (or at least inspiration), but I’m not sure about that. Similarly, the idea that the way, the only way, to move beyond the empire (in this case, the French Empire, rather than simply ‘Empire’) is to push it to its conclusion, or to a particular conclusion, has many echoes in what I’ve been reading.
Similarly, there is clearly a place for
I’m not convinced that Benjaminian temporalities are the right way to talk about what’s happening here. I guess I don’t understand how they advance the discussion beyond the terms of past(s), appropriation and re-writing of them. It is likely, though, that if I read Koselleck (as I should), and more Benjamin, I could be convinced that this terminology is useful.
At any rate, it was a good talk, with some good questions. I’m very glad to have been there.
[also, i just noticed, it should be Négritude throughout. Dunno how that accent got away.]