Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Cleanse: Inspiration from Laurent DuBois

“What if, as we sought to understand the history of universalism in the Atlantic world, we could tell an integrated story that goes something like this: the discovery of the Americas generated a space for new ways of thinking about humanity and natural rights, and out of encounters between Native Americans, Africans and Europeans there emerged new ways of thinking about belonging, governance, subject-hood, and eventually citizenship. These new ways of thinking may have been written down overwhelmingly by the educated elites in Europe and the colonies, yet they drew on the circulation of meanings and ideas in which those who were not literate participated; through their labor but also through their resistance--both in actions and in speech--enslaved peoples in the Atlantic world both generated problems of governance and began to propose new solutions by insisting on their own dignity and denying the justifications issued for their enslavement; as thinkers in Europe argued against slavery and for the primacy of natural rights, drawing on this broader context of which they were a part, they in turn influenced colonial administrators who witnessed the actions and sufferings of the enslaved, who saw and heard them, and who in turn produced new interpretations that emphasized the need for limits on the power of masters and for abuse; these reformist tendencies, though certainly limited in scope and ultimately aimed at preserving colonial production and societies in which people of African descent were viewed primarily as sources of labor, nevertheless opened up windows and possibilities for change; in and through these decades of debate in France there was a parallel set of debates in communities of the enslaved on both sides of the Atlantic, about tactics but also about ideas; together, these debates laid the foundations for the intellectual and political explosion that would take place during the 1790s in the Caribbean.

“One could then, perhaps, go one step further and argue that this explosion then generated what we think of today as the true thinking of the Enlightenment--a concrete and radical universalism that overthrew profit for principle and defended human rights against the weapons of empire and the arguments of racial hierarchy. This advance, unsurprisingly, was met with hostility and with reaction; its victory was turned back in some ways; and it became saturated with many of the contradictions that infused the thinking of the Enlightenment itself. But precisely this process of reaction, the combination of planter nightmares and slave hopes, played out in crucial ways during the next decades to lead to other phases of liberation, followed by other phases of reaction, a cycle in which we still reside.

“What if we took up the task of writing such a story--or one like it?...”

Laurent DuBois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment: Re-Thinking the Intellectual History of the French Atlantic.”

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