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


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