V. Brown, 'Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery', The American Historical Review, 114, (2009), pp 1231-1249.
This essay is most straightforwardly a corrective to what Brown sees as the misuse (overuse) of Orlando Patterson’s categorical definition of slavery as social death. According to Brown, historians have often taken what Patterson meant as an ideal type definition to be a description of reality itself. Historians have long rejected, however, the basic result of such a definition: that it would strip slaves of agency. Manifestly, historians have pointed out, slaves had agency. One need look no further than the continuous rebellions and occasional revolutions to emerge from new world slavery to see this.
Brown’s real goal, though, is deeper than this. In step with his historical work in The Reaper’s Garden, Brown wants to retell the story of slavery from the perspective of what we might call the micro-politics, or cultural politics, of everyday life. Brown argues that what he calls mortuary politics, conflict and negotiation over death, burial, and associated rituals, are of the greatest importance. One might make this argument in many contexts, but Caribbean slavery is a privileged field. Increasingly, it the worldview forged in the 18th century experience of slavery and revolution has come to be recognized as central to modernity as such (European, Atlantic, or even if you like, Capitalist). Mortuary politics is found to be central to the world of slavery, to the movement of the Haitian Revolution, and thus to modernity.
One effect of Brown’s argument, or rather one consequence of the argument that he wants to make, is a firm and empirically-oriented rejection of Giorgio Agamben. Brown deals with this in a few paragraphs explaining the limits of an Agambenian perspective such as that taken in Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic. Agamben’s notion of bare life, for Brown, is piggybacked into the historical study of slavery as a sort of compliment to and intensification of Pattersonian social death. Brown doesn’t exactly want to re-open old debates about agency (vs structure!), but he does want to argue that it is plainly wrong to see Caribbean slaves as without culture, in the sense of without resources or community. He cites William Sewell’s recent definition of culture, commenting, “practices of meaning are better seen as tools to be used than as possessions to be lost.”
There are several somewhat separable issues here. First, there is the methodological question of how one should think about culture and agency. In this, I simply agree with Brown. I prefer to treat culture (or, qua intellectual historian, unit ideas) as a bundle of tools to be manipulated—tools that empower, but also limit, channel, and react upon, those that wield them. Then there is the more empirical question of the admissibility and utility of the notion of ‘social death’ in the study of slave systems, say specifically in the Caribbean. Not having read all the relevant texts, I defer with enthusiasm to Brown. What I have read leads me to believe that he is entirely correct. Finally, there is the added question of Agamben. I again agree, but would like to ask how far Brown’s critique can be extended. I have read Homo Sacer, and various political-theory mobilizations of Agamben, and find the whole thing, to say the least, confused, distasteful, and not a useful way to think about politics. There are issues of disciplinary division of labor here—Brown correctly points to the differing imperatives and skill-sets of literary scholars and historians approaching this material—and perhaps one answer is that Agamben is useful for what literary scholars do, and not for what historians do. This is never a very satisfying conclusion, and all the less so in a world of perfectly transparent (but still foreboding) disciplinary fortifications. I had thought that Agamben was increasingly becoming a reference-point among historians and theorists—perhaps I can interpret Brown’s intervention as a sign that I was mistaken? I suppose there is a deep divide here, between, we might say, those who think that we humans speak language, and those who think that it speaks us. Maybe this is too much a 1975-vintage way of seeing things, or at least of expressing them, but it does seem to me that the fundamental difference between Brown and Baucom, for instance, is there. They look at the same thing, and the one sees the struggle for communities, fragile and fleeting, but real; the other sees the de-realizing force of commodity fetishism and in a tone of high moralism allows a-historical discourse to disintegrate human being.