Ian Baucom’s ‘Specters of the Atlantic. Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History’

Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic. Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Duke University Press, 2005, pp. 388) is undoubtedly one of the most significant and provocative scholarly works in the field of black Atlantic studies and critical theory over the last years. It does not happen very often to read a challenging scholarly work, dealing with an astonishing array of historical events, archival documents, economical analysis, literary and social theory (Benjamin, Arrighi, Agamben, Žižek, Badiou, Spivak, Derrida, Glissant), which at the same time is written in such a captivating and compelling style. The theoretical and narrative kernel of the book is the link Baucom manages to unveil and to analyze between a singular and tragic event – the history of the slave ship Zong, the trial that followed the events and the aftermaths it had on the abolitionist movement and, more generally, on the testimony counterdiscourse of modernity – and what he defines, following Giovanni Arrighi’s theory of the long twentieth century, an ‘Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation’. This extremely powerful and expanding geography of exchange and capital accumulation was closely linked with and sustained by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and by the British financial revolution, but also with a larger epistemic and speculative turn that characterized the mentality of the eighteenth century and changed the way people conceived the relation between things, exchange, meaning and value.

J.M.W. Turner, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On, 1840. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

J.M.W. Turner, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On, 1840. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In September 1781, a merchant ship called the Zong sailed from the West coast of Africa with 470 slaves, setting sail for Jamaica. The ship was captained by Luke Colligwood and owned by a family from Liverpool, the Gregsons. The cargo was fully insured. Instead of the customary six to nine weeks, the voyage took four months on account of navigational errors on the part of the captain. By November 27th sixty Africans and seven crewmembers had succumbed to a sickness that was ravaging the ship. It is believed that forty other slaves may have thrown themselves into the ocean because of fear, suffering and lack of food. Captain Collingwood, realising that the insurers would not compensate losses generated by sickness, decided to jettison, and thus murder 132 slaves. He cited a ‘lack of water’ to justify his decision. This type of loss would be compensated under the insurance law that secured the value of the human merchandise shipped by the Zong. In fact, the operating laws of property had conferred on each of the slave bodies a measurable and recoverable quantity of value, concretely reducing their life to ‘exchange value’. The Captain was of the belief that if the slaves on board died a natural death, the owners of the ship would have to bear the cost, but if they were ‘thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters’, as it is said in the report of the case that followed, named Gregson v. Gilbert. As a matter of fact, when the insurers refused to pay out for the losses incurred in the Zong, the Gregsons appealed to the court. The captain Luke Collingwood was already dead when the jury found the insurers liable and ordered them to compensate the ship’s owners for their losses: the 132 murdered slaves.

The central and extremely fascinating insight of this book is that what we might just consider as a particularly brutal and exceptional event belonging to a distant and concluded past – the age of slavery that precedes the Enlightenment project of emancipation and the global spread of capitalism – is indeed a fundamental and paradigmatic event in the historical formation of our own present and its dominant cultural logic. The Zong case is, as Baucom repeatedly asserts, ‘a sign in which modernity finds itself anticipated, demonstrated and recollected’ (159). That moment of hyper-financial development of capitalism that we are used to associate with the late twentieth-century, turns out to be an ideological and epistemological pre-requisite for the eighteenth century circum-Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation, centered on the slave trade.

The entire book and especially its first part – entitled: ‘Now being: slavery, speculation, and the measure of our time’ – is inspired and based on a concept of historical time openly derived from Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, in particular the one worked out in the Arcades Project and expressed in his well known concept of the dialectical image: ‘It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past: rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation’. And it is precisely this constellation between the what-has-been (the Zong event and the rise of that financial epistemology that made it conceivable and possible) and the now-being (the longue durée process of financial capitalism strictly linked with the protocols of Western imperialism and its ‘civilizing mission’), that the author points out as the ‘truth event’ of our modernity: an event ‘which identifies not a marginal malfunctioning or local abnormality within the system but the global abnormality of the system as such’ (123).

A detailed drawing of the slave ship Brookes, showing how 482 people were to be packed onto the decks. The detailed plans and cross sectional drawing of the slave ship Brookes was distributed by the Abolitionist Society in England as part of their campaign against the slave trade, and dates from 1789.

A detailed drawing of the slave ship Brookes, showing how 482 people were to be packed onto the decks. The detailed plans and cross sectional drawing of the slave ship Brookes was distributed by the Abolitionist Society in England as part of their campaign against the slave trade, and dates from 1789.

Baucom defines the cultural logic that structures the foundation of global modernity as a theoretical realism, based on a speculative and typifying logic marked by a huge subjecting power: it is ‘the key component of the speculative culture with which the long twentieth century begins and ends […] and can be seen […] to function as counterparts and secret-sharers of finance capital’ (42-43). And it is precisely this ‘theoretical realism’, rising and expanding during the late eighteenth century, overlapping actuarial science, historicist method and the novelistic typifying imaginary, which made possible the financial revolution, the slave trade and the tragedy of Zong as its paradigmatic event. ‘The concurrent rise of historicism and finance capital at either end of a “long twentieth century” should be regarded’, writes Baucom, ‘as something other than a coincidence; that historicism and finance capital serve as one another’s mutual, dialectical conditions of possibility; that finance capital, a particular type of historicism, and a particular form of novelistic discourse collectively articulate a “theoretical realism” which I hold to be the key component of the speculative culture with which the long twentieth century begins and ends’ (42).

It is a cultural logic that finds its most complete expression in the development of the insurance system that manages to transform the singularity and incommensurability of every human life into an abstract financial and monetary equivalent. ‘The Zong trials’, Baucom clearly affirms, ‘constitute an event in the history of capital not because they treat slaves as commodities but because they treat slaves as commodities that have become the subject of insurance, treat them […] not as objects to be exchanged but as the “empty bearers” of an abstract, theoretical, but entirely real quantum of value, treat them as little more than promissory notes, bills-of-exchange, or some other markers of a “specie value”, treat them as suppositional entities whose value is tied not to their continued, embodied, material existence but to their speculative, recoverable loss value. The Zong trials constitute an event not because they further subject the world to the principle of exchange but because they subject it to the hegemony of that which superordinates exchange: the general equivalents of finance capital’ (139).

The second part of the book, entitled ‘Specters of the Atlantic: slavery and the witness’, is devoted to tracing the complex and faceted genealogy of a ‘testamentary counterdiscourse on and of modernity’ (178), which sets itself ‘against the tide of modernity’ (ibid.), going from Adam Smith, Walter Scott, Granville Sharp and James Turner to the contemporary theories of Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida and Alain Badiou. The central figure of this counter-discourse, opposed to the hyper-speculative and typifying reason that shaped financial capitalism and its liberal Weltanschauung, and also to the liberal cosmopolitanism of human rights, is that of the ‘interested historical witness’. This figure of witnessing, in short, is one of an ethical subject that refuses to let the past die, and who decides to hold to the traumatic and singular event, to take some melancholy property in it and so to embody that alternative Benjamin-like conception of time, where what-has-been accumulates within now-being. Moreover, it is ‘a practice of interest fundamentally at odds with the disinterested practices central to the emergence of occidental modernity, its universal philosophy of history, its theory of justice, its practices of empire, and its dreams of a universal and homogeneous state of history’ (300). This long-durational melancholy counterdiscourse, Baucom argues, was generated by a prolific encounter between the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century romantic historicism, with its attitude for sympathetic sentiment, and the abolitionist movement that saw its beginnings during the Zong trials and developed in the following years thanks to the work and the engagement of Sharpe, Clarkson, Wilberforce, Cuguano and many others. Its aim was ‘not merely to make the past present but to render the unseen visible, to bear witness to the truth of what has not been (and what cannot have been) witnessed’ (218).

It is exactly in this aporetic call of the discourse of witnessing (the impossibility to ‘bear witness for the witness’, as stated in a famous poem by Paul Celan, and at the same time the ethical imperative to testimony and the melancholy attitude to hold to the traumatic past and pass it on) that lies the most interesting aspect for my current research. It is exactly poetry, literature and more generally the work of art, as stated by both Derrida and Agamben in their essays on the witness, that can afford the responsibility to cope with the language of the witness: the ‘cryptonymic, antirepresentational, antimetaphoric language of melancholy’ (181). Baucom rightly quotes a strategic passage from Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999): ‘The language of testimony is a language that no longer signifies and that, in not signifying, advances into what is without language, to the point of taking on a different insignificance – that of complete witness, that of who by definition cannot bear witness’ (181). Baucom also stresses how Agamben’s theory of exception, derived from Schmitt and Benjamin and mostly focused on the ‘paradigms’ of the refugee and the Jew, disregards both slavery and colonialism, which constitute a fundamental part of Western imperial project and its specific biopolitical and thanatopolitical quality. Concerning the colonies, indeed, the state of exception has always been the rule: an apparatus of government aimed to guarantee and maintain the European privilege and interest through the differential inclusion of the Other through racism, segregation and dehumanisation. It is in relation to the slave as a central figure of abandoned ‘bare life’ that both the modern politics of witnessing, with their attitude for melancholy realism and cosmopolitan interestedness, and the liberal politics of human rights were born.

From an engraving entitled The Africans of the slave bark “Wildfire” brought into Key West on April 30, 1860 which appeared in Harpers Weekly on 2 June 1860. The picture shows a separation of sexes: African men crowded onto a lower deck, African women on an upper deck at the back.

In the last part of this absolutely captivating book, Baucom turns to contemporary Caribbean literature. The chapter is entitled, quoting a famous poem by Derek Walcott, ‘The Sea is History’ and stresses how the literary work of such authors as Édouard Glissant, Derek Walcott, Toni Morrison, Fred D’Aguiar and NourbeSe Philip turn our attention to a completely different order of time and philosophy of history: ‘an order of time that does not pass but accumulates’ (305). Particularly interesting is its comparative analysis of Glissant’s and Benjamin’s philosophies of history – both alternatives, but in different ways, to the dialectical historicism – and of Glissantian reversal of the thanatopolitical abyss of slavery, with his poetical shift from ‘exception’ to ‘relation’. As exemplified in the superb first chapter of Poetics of Relation (1990) entitled ‘The open boat’, this reversal ‘replaces an image of terror with an image of promise, a knowledge of the endings with a knowledge of promise’ (310). The politics of witnessing and melancholy becomes, for Glissant, a way of pointing to and giving birth to new transversal and multifarious and hybrid forms of identity and solidarity, no more based on exception or exclusion, but on sharing and exchange and thus capable of transforming, through a ‘prophetic vision of the past’, the tragic loss of the middle-passage in the gain and promise of a present-future of global ‘creolization’. As Baucom states very clearly, ‘this brutal passage of world history is not, [Glissant] argues, terminal but originary, or, rather, a middle-passage into an experience of global modernity and a type of global responsibility whose errant, wandering, political tangent is not “vectorial” but “circular”, not equitable but relational’ (313). Glissant shares with Benjamin an ‘asynchronous’ and anti-linear conceit of the historical time, from which they both derive a philosophy of history whose aim is not to free the present of the violence of the past (to forget slavery, to abandon its memories into the past and move on to something new and ‘modern’), but ‘to discover in the very brutality of what-has-been the responsibility and promise of a transverse, relational now-being. […] a reapprehension of time which insists that the moment of now-being in which we take up the work of historical responsibility (and historical interest) is not ontologically subsequent to, or “after”, the violent moments of the what-has-been to which we task or attach ourselves, but exists in a nonsynchronous and long-durational correspondence with these distant moments’ (317). However, while Benjaimn’s philosophy of history is based on a modernist conception of the relation between historical time, memory and the work of art (mostly derived from Baudelaire and Proust), which finds its privileged moment in the epiphany of the instant, in the image as it ‘flashes up to form a constellation with the now-being’ and to open up the space for the messianic possibility of a materialist redemption, Glissantian conception of time is one of ‘a grammar of sediment and accumulation’, that shifts from the messianic epiphany and exception to a lived present of sharing, exchange and relational metamorphosis in the ‘totalité-monde’.

There would be many other things to say about this book, especially as I have been reading it while I was working on the astonishing poem Zong!, by NourbeSe Philip. I am certainly going to write about this unsettling poem in one of my next posts (and in an article I am currently preparing for the International Journal of Francophone Studies). Anyway, I am going to quote a couple of excerpts (unfortunately, I have to use some pictures taken from the web, because of the restrictions of the formatting tools of this blog) from its first session, entitled Os. It fits quite well with the melancholy conception of a time that doesn’t pass, but accumulates, so skillfully analyzed by Ian Baucom: ‘To begin might be difficult; to end, impossible. For no matter how strenuously we might forget what was begun, or wish to call an end to it, what-has-been is, cannot be undone, cannot cease to alter all the future-presents that flow out of it. Time does not pass or progress, it accumulates, even in the work of forgetting or ending, even in the immense labor it takes to surrender what-has-been, or to make reparation on it, or to address its ill effects’ (331).

NourbeSe Philip, Zong! # 1

NourbeSe Philip, Zong! # 1

NourbeSe Philip, Zong! # 2

NourbeSe Philip, Zong! # 2

April Shemak – ‘Asylum Speakers’

Another extremely interesting book, connecting the actual debate on hospitality, cosmopolitanism, migration politics, citizenship and testimony with the condition of the refugees and asylum seekers in the Caribbean, Central America and USA. Reviewed by Donette A. Francis (University of Miami) on the academic journal ‘Anthurium. A Caribbean Studies Journal‘ (9.1, 2012):

April Shemak, Asylum Speakers: Caribbean Refugees and Testimonial Discourse (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).

Cover of Asylum Speakers

Cover of Asylum Speakers

 

Monique Allewaert – ‘Ariel’s Ecology’

I just want to signal this very interesting publication, recently reviewed by Valérie Loichot (Emory University) on Southern Spaces. It is an ecocritical perspective on the ‘parahuman’, liminal and transversal forms of subjectivity, personhood and agency historically developed in the slave plantation environment. It promises to be a very interesting piece of scholarship for my research on Caribbean biopolitics.

Monique Allewaert, Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
Cover of Ariel's Ecology

Cover of Ariel’s Ecology

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
The Tempest
I take this opportunity to signal another absolutely ravishing project: the underwater sculptures of the English-Guyanese artist Jason deCaires Taylor (see the book’s cover image). In 2006, he created the first underwater sculpture park, situated off the coast of Grenada.

Job interviews and campus visit in Chicago and Miami

During the last few months I have been spending a considerable amount of energy and time in several application processes in order to get an academic job, especially in the US but also in the UK. The American recruiting process starts quite early, usually in September, and it is quite long and challenging, as it contemplates three or four steps and a lot of documents, application forms, letters and statements to be submitted. Since I was in Atlanta during the last fall semester, I have been writing and sending cover letters, CVs, teaching and research statements, sample syllabi, writing samples, asking for and delivering reference letters etc. It is almost a full time job that can require lots of energies and can prove to be very hard in many ways. Since it compels you to confront with your own achievements, your personal capacities, skills and limits, and to handful potentially stressful situations, it is an extremely enriching experience, too. I have been applying for several positions and I am still in the process, so I cannot say if I will be successful or not. Despite this, I have learned many things, especially in terms of how the American academic system works, sometimes in a very different way if compared to the English and, more generally, to the European one. I have been shortlisted for an interview at the MLA annual convention in Chicago in January, for the position of Assistant Professor in Francophone Caribbean literatures and cultural studies at the University of Miami (FL). This was my first job interview and I have been very satisfied. (By the way, Chicago is an amazing city and I have found out that its founder, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was probably Haitian!)

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable - Founder of Chicago

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable – Founder of Chicago

Next, I have been selected for the campus visit in Miami, which took place last week. It has been really challenging, especially because of the long trip and the jet lag. I have been asked to spend an entire day on campus, with many interviews and meetings, lunch and dinner, with all the staff of the department, and I gave a paper, too. It has been really exciting: everybody was extremely nice and welcoming and, above all, I met plenty of keen scholars and professors with whom I could discuss about my research and teaching projects in a fruitful way. It would be amazing to work in such a stimulating scholar community! And the location, of course, would be a perfect one to work on the Caribbean. The paper I presented was entitled Caribbean Biopolitics and Literature: NourbeSe Philip and Édouard Glissant. It has been well received, with many questions and debates. I am going to further develop it in my next publication, for the special issue of the International Journal of Francophone Studies (IJFS) I am currently preparing with Louise Hardwick, on the topics of biopolitics, violence and race in Francophone postcolonial literatures (forthcoming in 2015).

University of Miami at Coral Gables

University of Miami at Coral Gables

Visiting scholar at Emory University, Atlanta US

Emory Campus - the main quad

Emory Campus – the main quad

I have been spending more than a month as a visiting scholar at Emory, invited by Professor Valérie Loichot and thanks to my Marie Curie fellowship. It has been an amazing experience! Emory is one of the best universities in the United States and it is such an exciting environment where to do research, meet other scholars and discuss with them about literature and philosophy. During this period, I have been attending many different conferences, museum guided tours, readings, theatre shows, talks and presentations (in French studies, Italian studies, gender studies, African cinema studies etc.) and I had the opportunity to meet other scholars and discuss about my work with such important academic personalities as Valérie Loichot, Geoffrey Bennington and Elissa Marder in the Department of French and Italian and in the Comparative Literature one. Emory University has really huge resources and equipment for research, and a very good library, too. I could work on my monograph, especially on a chapter that I am currently developing on Glissant, Nancy and Derrida on the subjects of community, hospitality, relation and the stranger. I have also made a public presentation (or ‘guest lecture’) of the first chapter of my book, that I have submitted as an article, too. The text I have presented and discussed at Emory is entitled ‘Le lieu tremblant du poème-monde chez Glissant et Heidegger’. It is about the complex relation between poetry and the place (glissantian ‘le lieu’, heidegger’s ‘ort’) and the conflictual-agonistic aesthetic that derives from it in both the German philosopher and the Martinican poet and philosopher. In particular, I have focused on the late Heidegger’s essays on language and poetry and on Glissant’s Soleil de la conscience (1956). The article has been well received by the audience and gave birth to very interesting discussions that are certainly going to influence my future work on this topic. During my stay, I have also applyed for many academic positions in the States and both Valérie and Michael Wiedorn helped me a lot in the application procedures (it’s a very hard job!). Well, fingers crossed! I have also assisted to a couple of Valérie’s courses in both English and French (to understand better how is teaching in the States) and I have also participated in some activities of the Italian ‘side’ of the department, especially with Simona Muratore (who also works on Italian migrant literature I am very interested in).

Emory is an exciting place to do research, but I have also received a great human welcome and met people that have deeply marked my intellectual journey. I would like to thank them all, even if I cannot quote all their names here. Everyone gave me great inputs that will deeply influence my future work and maybe push it in new directions that I hadn’t considered before (and this is what makes research a great thing and gives it its most authentic and creative sense, isn’t it?). The contacts I have established and developed here will be very useful for my career, but above all I hope that I could give my personal contribution to the development of this exciting intellectual community.

The Emory Library reading room

The Emory Library reading room

A trip at Sweetwater Creek, enjoying the fall colours.

A trip at Sweetwater Creek, enjoying the fall colours.

 

Callaloo 36.4 – A Special Issue on Édouard Glissant

IMG_4892A special issue of Callaloo. A Journal of African Diaspora, Arts and Letters on Édouard Glissant has come out, edited by Celia Britton. I have just received it, and after reading Celia’s introduction it seems to me that this is first of all a great achievement worthy of Glissant’s memory. It includes essays by the most important scholars working on Glissant and it especially adresses the relation between poetics, philosophy and politics in Glissant’s work. The main contributors are Celia Britton, Maryse Condé, Heidi Bojsen, Charles Forsdick, Christina Kullberg, Alexandre Leupin, Valérie Loichot, Carine Mardorossian, Adlai Murdoch, Nick Nesbitt, François Noudelmann and Michael Wiedorn. I quote Britton from the introduction: “The relations between poetics and both philosophy and politics are never straightforward and not always harmonious; but it is precisely the tensions between them that constitute the central dynamic and the continuing relevance of Glissant’s thought”. You can find the issue on MUSE.

The title of my contribution is: “The Living and the Poetic Intention. Glissant’s Biopolitics of Literature”.

Well, I must say that I am quite proud and honored to be among such great scholars!

In my next posts I am going to say something more about this volume and other journals that have recently dedicated a special issue to Glissant, such as the Revue des Sciences Humaines (special issue edited by Valérie Loichot) and Francofonia (special issue edited by Carminella Biondi and Elena Pessini). They are all so interesting and so rich in analysis and interpretations, opening new paths for the study of this great writer, that they need the right time and space to be reviewed. Coming soon …