Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gary Wilder and "Freedom Time"

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 France, but was rather understood as the first step of a radical re-visioning of Frenchness. Il faut assimiler et pas être assimiler. Wilder makes this argument in large measure by pointing to the self-conscious way in which Césaire mobilized and positioned himself in terms of Toussaint Louverture and Victor Schoelcher (who was behind the French 1848 abolition of slavery). The largest, and in some sense very obvious structuring observation here is that we, as historians, shouldn’t assume that just because, in the post-1945 world, anti-colonial and Third World movements tended to be nationalist, that means that anti-imperialism anti-racism had to be articulated in terms of national projects. It isn’t so. Negritude, then, shouldn’t be seen as a nativism, or an anti-racism, or anything of the sort, it is rather both genuinely anti-nationalist and anti-colonialist. Again, given what I know about the immediate postwar, it seems to me to be (oh blessed conjunction) both true and a major historiographical trend to say that this period is more radically ‘open’ and undetermined than it has often been presented as having been—this especially in reference to what the shape of Europe ended up being, the viability (meaning) of communism.

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 Sorel in this discussion of the imbrications, for the thinkers of Negritude, of politics and philosophy. I don’t think Wilder has quite figured out the best way of talking about this yet. He points to the utopian socialists—especially Proudhon—as an inspiration for Senghor and Césaire, but as has been pointed out in another context, a citation isn’t an explanation.

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 N
égritude throughout. Dunno how that accent got away.]

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