Saturday, January 5, 2008

stack of (mostly) caribbean books

The holidays have been a long break from writing.

I’ve completed a sort of scatter-shot primmer in Caribbean historiography. It was just as well to start with Silvio Torres-Saillant. If I’d left him for the end, I don’t think I’d ever have gotten through. After STS, I read what I should have read two years ago, C.L.R. James’ classic Black Jacobins. And I discovered that James, in 1938, said virtually every conceptually interesting thing that Torres-Saillant says in 2006. It’s true that in James they’re tucked into a page-long preface, or simply mentioned here or there. But still.

After James I sat down and read through Laurent Dubois’s A Colony of Citizens (2004), and have just now finished Gary Wilder’s The French Imperial Nation-State (2005).: two excellent and radically different books. I won’t say much here about Dubois, except that it’s basically social history. I mean by this that it is interested above all to document the lives of people-in-general, to understand the limits placed on them by their societies and times, and the possibilities they forced open. The conceptual nit-picks for me have to do with what ‘opening a possibility’ could possibly mean. If you can do something, it was possible, right? Agency is tricky. I am, broadly speaking, convinced that the French revolution would not have been the same if the slaves of San Domingue and Guadeloupe (among others) had stayed in their place. These revolutions did indeed force metropolitan politicians to take stands on racial and economic issues they’d rather have avoided. With James in 1938, with Dubois in 2004, the story of the French Revolution (here I’ll allow the majuscule) can not be told militarily, economically, politically, philosophically, without the Caribbean.

Gary Wilder’s book was not less convincing, in what I took to be its main argument. But Wilder (and this was obvious from the lecture I attended a few months ago) is a compulsive over-theorizer. He has a solid historical argument. He sets it out in a way that is recognizably ‘intellectual history’—though he rejects the term—even turning to Dominick Lacapra for what seems to me to be his most concrete and useful methodological moves. Having read the book, I’d say that my summary of his summary of it leaves out quite a lot.

The French Empire in the years after WWI had its own logic. It wasn’t a simple betrayal of some idea republicanism, rather, a complex and contradictory (but none the less functional) logic that Wilder calls colonial humanism developed as the ideology of the interwar Empire. This logic (an overused designation, I think, that almost never means more than a way of talking and explaining things to one’s self) put universalist Republicanism together with particularist ethnography. The Négritude ‘cohort’ set its cultural project in motion as an immanent critique of this discourse, and so Négritude cannot be understood apart from colonial humanism. If we see Césaire, Dumas and Senghor as (in the Lacaprian formulation) acting out and working through colonial humanism, then we can begin to asses their real failures and successes both in the interwar and after 1945. All this seems eminently reasonable to me, if a little jargon soaked.

[An aside: Clive Bell tosses off the witticism in his Proust book, that after the Great War, the Troisième République has come to seem more and more like the Troisième Empire. One of the things that bothered me the most about Wilder’s book was his assumption that some kind of specifically republican ideology must always have been governing the French during the 19th century. Perhaps Bell’s belle-lettristic observation is not so far from the truth about the essentially imperial, rather than republican, nature of the interwar French state? At any rate, I think it would be interesting to look back at the way Sorel treats imperial holdings as a sort of exterior quarantine for metropolitan France’s old institutions—especially the church.]

I don’t especially mind cutting through the jungle of critical theory in which Wilder shrouds his actual ideas. But I’m not so happy with what kind of critical theory Négritude turns out to have been. Since it was placed in a conflicted situation, it insists on occupying various conflicting positions. Wilder argues for seeing Négritude as part of the broader trend of anti-liberal modernisms that flourishes starting in 1889—children of Bergson, really—and this seems exactly right to me. But you can’t just say that you’re going to be both universal and particular, both elite and popular, both essentialist/authentic and cosmopolitan/déraciné. It may be that individuals, historically, are forced to occupy both sides of an impossible divide. But the expression of this impossible situation does not constitute a solution, nor even a critical theory of it. I am not satisfied by saying that Césaire’s Cahier ‘enacted’ the various double-binds of the elite, educated class of ‘colonized.’ It does indeed do that, it may indeed thereby be a great poem, and may be powerful—but Wilder isn’t able, as far as I can tell, to argue that this text or any other do more than stage a certain problem. That just isn’t enough. Négritude isn’t thereby set apart from the horde of other illiberal antimodernisms that ‘solved’ the problems of modernity. It seems to me that since these problems are so great, so systemic, so integral to any posing of the question, that we’ve set the bar awfully low for solutions.

I’ve gone on long enough about this book. I’ll probably write something more substantial and official later. Before I do that, I’ll read Wilder’s article about Fanon and Césaire, in which he may talk more about this stuff. Next I think I’ll tackle another book that I’ve already read part of: Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic. I only own it because I found its whole scholarly paradigm morally repugnant when I first looked at it. Books rarely make me feel like that.

Nose back to the grindstone!

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