Anagrams of annihilation: the (im)possible writing of the middle passage in NourbeSe Philip and Édouard Glissant

published in the Special Issue of International Journal of Francophone Studies, vol. 17, numbers 3 & 4, co-edited by Louise Hardwick and Alessandro Corio, entitled ‘Race, violence and biopolitics in Francophone postcolonial contexts’, pp. 327-348.


William Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840



This article aims to analyse how an event like the Zong massacre and its uncomfortable traumatic memories can be used to investigate and unlock the biopolitical nature of the transatlantic slave economy and its literary representations. Given the centrality of the slave trade in the development of modern capitalist societies, the article questions why and how recent theories of biopolitics – which underscore the ambivalent relation between power and life in modern societies – have avoided considering slavery and the plantation system as pivotal aspects in the genealogy of the contemporary forms of sovereignty and governance. Inside this wider framework, the article considers how the specific engagement of several Caribbean writers with the unspeakable core of dehumanisation and silencing produced by slavery is paradoxically capable – through a turbulent and painful confrontation with language, memory, ‘bare life’ and the historical unconscious – of developing effective responses to those overwhelming structures. In particular, the work of NourbeSe Philip in her poem Zong! and Édouard Glissant’s poetic and philosophical confrontation with the abyss of absolute loss, show us how writing can specifically engage with the inherent ambivalence of biopolitics: the language of the Law, with its tremendous power of capturing and sometimes undermining or destroying life, and the creative power of language itself to reshape identities and subjects, both on a personal and on a collective level. Those openings allow us to imagine and perform empowering and creative relations between life and its forms, which can be considered as attempts to inaugurate an affirmative biopolitics in our present.


Cet article vise à analyser comment un événement tel que le massacre du Zong, avec ses mémoires pénibles, peut fonctionner de manière paradigmatique pour révéler la nature biopolitique de la traite transatlantique et de ses représentations littéraires. Étant donné le caractère central de l’économie de plantation esclavagiste pour le développement des sociétés capitalistes, l’article se demande pourquoi et comment les théories biopolitiques les plus récentes – lesquelles s’interrogent sur la relation entre le pouvoir et la vie dans les sociétés contemporaines – ont évité de considérer l’esclavage et la plantation comme des aspects centraux dans la généalogie des formes contemporaines de la souveraineté et de la gouvernementalité. Dans ce cadre plus large, l’article examine comment l’engagement spécifique de plusieurs écrivains antillais avec le noyau indicible de déshumanisation et de silence qui est au cœur de l’esclavage est capable – à travers un affrontement douloureux avec le langage, la mémoire, l’inconscient historique et la « vie nue » – de développer des réponses effectives à ces structures accablantes. L’impressionnant travail de NourbeSe Philip sur le langage dans son poème Zong ! et l’affrontement poétique et philosophique de Glissant avec l’abyme de perte absolue du sens, nous montrent comment l’écriture peut faire face à l’ambivalence constitutive de la biopolitique : le langage de la Loi, avec son pouvoir de capture et parfois de destruction de la vie, et la puissance créatrice du langage, capable de refaçonner les identités et les sujets sur un plan individuel et collectif. Ces ouvertures nous autorisent à imaginer et réaliser des dynamiques créatrices entre la vie et ses formes, qu’on peut considérer comme des efforts d’inaugurer une biopolitique affirmative dans notre présent.

Race, violence and biopolitics in Francophone postcolonial studies

Special Issue of International Journal of Francophone Studies, volume 17, numbers 3 & 4, 2014

A volume that problematizes the construction of race and power. Biopolitical readings here provide new insights into a range of postcolonial situations, and point the way to new enquiries into dominant powers’ persistent and insidious grip over life.

Fort-de-France, Martinique

Fort-de-France, Martinique


Charlotte Baker, Necropolitical violence and post-independence Guinean literature

Alessandro Corio, Anagrams of annihilation: The (im)possible writing of the middle passage in NourbeSe Philip and Édouard Glissant

Judith Misrahi-Barak, Biopolitics and translation: Edwidge Danticat’s many tongues

Michael Wiedorn, Death and the creole maiden: Do Chita and Youma haunt today’s creolization?

Louise Hardwick, Creolizing the Caribbean ‘Coolie’: A biopolitical reading of Indian indentured labourers and the ethnoclass hierarchy

Chong J. Bretillon, ‘Ma Face Vanille’: White rappers, ‘Black Music’, and race in France

Dominic Thomas, Fortress Europe: Identity, race and surveillance

Michel Foucault’s anniversary and the CCCS conference

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Michel Foucault. I am currently writing the Introduction of a special issue of IJFS (International Journal of Francophone Studies) on biopolitics and Francophone postcolonial literature, which is substantially based on Foucault’s work on the relationship between power, knowledge and life, especially in his essays and seminars at the Collège de France from 1976. I post here a very short excerpt from the Introduction, as a tribute to the great French intellectual.


“According to Foucault, in this period of modernity, the old forms of the sovereign power ‘de faire mourir ou de laisser vivre’ were supplemented by a new kind of power: ‘un pouvoir de faire vivre ou de rejeter dans la mort’ (La volonté de savoir: 181). What happens in this shift, and what Foucault wishes to signify by the term ‘biopolitics’, is ‘ce qui fait entrer la vie et ses mécanismes dans le domaine des calculs explicites et fait du pouvoir-savoir un agent de transformation de la vie humaine’ (188). For the first time, life itself ‘passe pour une part dans le champ du contrôle du savoir et d’intervention du pouvoir’ (187); life itself becomes the object of political technologies and disciplinary apparatuses and it is shaped, developed or reduced through regulatory and normalizing procedures. In short, power becomes the management and government of the living, for productive (economic) purposes and for increasing health and wellness. Accordingly, the connection between biopolitics and capitalism emerges as inherent, and suggests potential links with the capitalistic ventures of colonialism and imperialism, which nonetheless, remain unexplored by Foucault.

This grip of power on life has been practised in two main forms since the 17th century. These two poles of development are ‘reliés par tout un faisceau intermédiaire de relations’ (183). The first is the disciplinary power that is exercised directly on the ‘docile bodies’, which are shaped, controlled and used for productive ends: ‘une anatomo-politique du corps humain’ [original emphasis] (183). The second, which developed later, corresponds to the focusing of power on the body-species, that is to say on the regulatory control of populations: ‘une bio-politique de la population’ [original emphasis] (183). This can be understood as a kind of social medicine, administered to the population with the aim of governing its biological life. In this project, an important role is played by the control and regulation of sexuality, not only through a continuation of the marriage alliances which are an established socio-historical feature of western societies, but also with the production of knowledge, through pedagogy, medicine and demography, which intervene in an all-pervasive manner in the biological processes of birth, reproduction, disease, longevity and death. This double technology of disciplining individual bodies and regulating the biological processes of the human species – a new technology of power centred on life – produces a normalised society and, consubstantial with it, a new form of normalised racism. The relationship between the statalisation of biological science, that is to say the use of the sciences of life in order to govern the State, and the birth of modern racism was explored during the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France in 1976, published posthumously with the title Il faut défendre la société (1997).”


Today it’s also the second day of the conference that celebrates the 50 years from the foundation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). You can find the program of the conference here.

stuart hall

Dispositivi di cattura e processi di soggettivazione nella metropoli contemporanea. Una riflessione di Giorgio Agamben

Here is a review of Giorgio Agamben’s What is an Apparatus, which I originally published in 2006 on the on-line journal of Intercultural Studies Trickster.


Nel vuoto teorico e concettuale che sembra impedire oggi una riflessione approfondita e innovativa sui meccanismi di funzionamento, di governo e di potere della metropoli e di articolare di conseguenza delle strategie politiche di conflitto e di rottura che siano in grado di bloccarne gli ingranaggi, il paradigma del dispositivo, elaborato da Michel Foucault soprattutto ne La volontà di sapere (1976), è oggetto recentemente di una rinnovata attenzione e di una serie di rielaborazioni teoriche costruttive.

In un agile libretto pubblicato recentemente da Nottetempo, Che cos’è un dispositivo? (Roma: I sassi – Nottetempo, 2006, pp. 35) il filosofo Giorgio Agamben si interroga su questo concetto, tracciandone una genealogia e soprattutto cercando di oltrepassare il quadro ed il contesto descritti da Foucault, per situarlo in una riflessione politica attuale.

Il concetto di ‘dispositivo’ è di fondamentale importanza nella strategia di pensiero del filosofo francese, a partire soprattutto dagli anni Settanta, cioè da quando Foucault comincia ad occuparsi di problematiche legate alla biopolitica e alla governamentalità. Egli, però, non lo definisce quasi mai con precisione, data la sua stessa natura di insieme eterogeneo che include virtualmente qualsiasi cosa, tanto nell’ambito linguistico che in quello non-linguistico: discorsi, istituzioni, edifici, leggi, misure di polizia, proposizioni filosofiche ecc. Ciò che qualifica un dispositivo è sostanzialmente la rete che si stabilisce tra elementi eterogenei e, soprattutto, la sua funzione strategica concreta, che s’iscrive sempre in una relazione di potere. “Come tale”, afferma Agamben, “risulta dall’incrocio di relazioni di potere e di relazioni di sapere” (p. 7).

Con metodo efficace, rigoroso e collaudato, il filosofo italiano rintraccia una genealogia del concetto che gli permette di ricollocarlo nel presente e di elaborare e proporre delle strategie oppositive e di resistenza. Passando attraverso Jean Hyppolite (maestro di Foucault), Agamben risale ai concetti di destino e di positività nella filosofia della Storia di Hegel. In particolare, il termine “positività”, che Foucault utilizza nella sua prima produzione e che sostituirà poi con “dispositivo”, gioca un ruolo centrale nel pensiero del filosofo tedesco, soprattutto nell’opposizione fra “religione naturale” e “religione positiva”. Senza soffermarci qui sulla problematica hegeliana, la “positività” è “il nome che, secondo Hyppolite, il giovane Hegel dà all’elemento storico, con tutto il suo carico di regole, riti e istituzioni che vengono imposti agli individui da un potere esterno, ma che vengono […] interiorizzati nei sistemi delle credenze e dei sentimenti” (p. 11). Ci troviamo chiaramente di fronte alla tematica centrale di tutto il pensiero di Foucault, ossia l’investigazione del rapporto tra l’individuo come essere vivente e l’elemento storico, inteso come l’insieme delle istituzioni, dei processi di soggettivazione e delle regole in cui si concretizzano le relazioni di potere. Riassumendo, quindi, nell’uso foucaultiano il termine “dispositivo” indica un insieme di pratiche e di meccanismi che hanno lo scopo di far fronte ad un urgenza e di ottenere un effetto più o meno immediato.

La riflessione di Agamben, però, prosegue oltre, riallacciando la genesi di questa strategia alla genealogia teologica dell’economia. La parola greca oikonomia, ci ricorda il filosofo, significava l’amministrazione dell’oikos, ossia della casa e quindi, più in generale, gestione, management, governo degli uomini e delle cose. Si tratta perciò di un’attività pratica che cerca di far fronte ad un problema e ad una situazione particolari. Senza seguire nel dettaglio l’articolata riflessione di Agamben, in breve egli afferma che i padri della Chiesa introdussero il termine oikonomia nel discorso teologico per significare l’affidamento da parte di Dio a Cristo, e quindi alla Chiesa, dell’amministrazione e del governo della storia degli uomini, senza perdere, per questo, la dimensione trascendente del divino. “L’oikonomia divenne così il dispositivo attraverso cui il dogma trinitario e l’idea di un governo divino provvidenziale del mondo furono introdotti nella fede cristiana” (p. 17). E infatti, conclude Agamben, il termine dispositio, da cui deriva il nostro “dispositivo”, traduce nei testi dei padri della Chiesa proprio la provvidenza divina e viene ad assumere su di sé tutta la complessa sfera semantica dell’oikonomia teologica.

Il concetto di dispositivo, così come lo usa Foucault, è in qualche modo connesso con questa eredità teologica, nominando ciò in cui e attraverso cui si realizza una pura attività di governo senza alcun fondamento nell’essere, un governo puramente immanente e slegato dalla trascendenza della sovranità. Per questo i dispositivi devono sempre implicare un processo di soggettivazione, devono sempre, cioè, “produrre il loro soggetto”. La filosofia del novecento ha indagato sotto vari aspetti i processi di soggettivazione, ma uno dei punti comuni riguarda proprio l’impossibilità di porre la questione del soggetto in termini di essenza, in quanto esso implica un’idea di divenire e di processo, nel quale si esprime un movimento verso lo stato di soggezione e di soggettività. Per Lacan, ad esempio, il soggetto non è mai originario, ma esiste come effetto di ritorno della parola che lo costituisce in un universo simbolico di discorso e di istituzioni. Per Foucault, d’altro canto, il soggetto non preesiste alle pratiche sociali nelle quali è inserito e si costituisce in e attraverso i giochi di verità e le relazioni di potere che attraversano un dato campo sociale. “Foucault ha mostrato come”, afferma Agamben, “in una società disciplinare, i dispositivi mirino attraverso una serie di pratiche e di discorsi, di saperi e di esercizi alla creazione di corpi docili, ma liberi, che assumono la loro identità e la loro ‘identità’ di soggetti nel processo stesso del loro assoggettamento” (p.29). In quanto macchina che produce soggettivazioni, dunque, il dispositivo è anche una “macchina di governo”.

Una volta poste queste premesse, Agamben propone di situare i dispositivi in un nuovo contesto, per mezzo di una “generale e massiccia partizione dell’esistente in due grandi gruppi o classi: da una parte gli esseri viventi (o le sostanze) e dall’altra i dispositivi in cui essi vengono incessantemente catturati”, ossia da una parte “l’ontologia delle creature e dall’altra l’oikonomia dei dispositivi che cercano di governarle” (p. 21). Così, nella sua prospettiva ancora più ampia rispetto a Foucault, rientra in questa categoria “qualunque cosa abbia in qualche modo la capacità di catturare, orientare, determinare, intercettare, modellare, controllare e assicurare i gesti, le condotte, le opinioni e i discorsi degli esseri viventi” (p. 22), non solo le istituzioni disciplinari (prigione, scuola, ospedali ecc.), ma anche la penna, la sigaretta, il computer, il cellulare, la letteratura, il linguaggio stesso. In questo quadro si distinguono dunque due grandi classi: gli esseri viventi e i dispositivi, e fra loro si trova il soggetto, inteso come prodotto della relazione, o meglio, del “corpo a corpo” che si produce in continuazione tra i viventi e i dispositivi. “Alla crescita sterminata dei dispositivi nel nostro tempo”, afferma Agamben, “fa così riscontro una altrettanto sterminata proliferazione di processi di soggettivazione” (p. 23). Il luogo di questa gigantesca proliferazione e accumulazione di dispositivi e di questo continuo corpo a corpo è proprio la metropoli contemporanea nella sua fase estrema di sviluppo capitalistico postfordista.

Agamben è di recente intervenuto in un seminario organizzato a Venezia da Uninomade, proprio sul tema “Metropoli e moltitudine”, riprendendo alcuni concetti elaborati in questa recente pubblicazione e facendoli “giocare” con le articolazioni dinamiche e conflittuali della metropoli postmoderna. Anche in quest’occasione egli parte dall’etimologia greca del termine “metropoli”, che significava “città madre”, riferendosi al rapporto tra la polis e le sue colonie. Il termine metropoli, quindi, implica e porta con sé l’idea di una massima dislocazione e disomogeneità spaziale e politica. L’isonomia che caratterizzava la polis greca e l’idea di città che ne è derivata in Occidente, è quindi esclusa nel rapporto tra metropoli e colonie e oggi questa disomogeneità si riproduce nel proliferare disordinato del tessuto urbano della metropoli contemporanea. Quest’ultima si va generando, secondo Agamben, parallelamente al passaggio descritto da Foucault tra la sovranità moderna e il biopotere contemporaneo, che è nella sua essenza governamentale. Per capire quindi la metropoli dobbiamo capire quel processo che ha portato progressivamente il potere ad assumere la forma di un “governo degli uomini e delle cose”, ossia di una economia. La metropoli è il dispositivo o l’insieme di dispositivi che prende il posto della città quando il potere assume la forma di un governo degli uomini e delle cose, un biopotere che passa attraverso la natura stessa dei governati, implicando la loro libertà, un potere, quindi, assolutamente immanente. Non siamo perciò di fronte a una crescita o espansione dell’antica città, ma alla nascita di un nuovo paradigma, di cui uno dei tratti caratteristici è appunto il passaggio dall’antica polis, che aveva al centro uno spazio pubblico – un’agorà – alla progressiva depoliticizzazione della metropoli, in cui non è più possibile distinguere ciò che è spazio privato da ciò che è spazio pubblico.

Foucault ha cercato di definire alcuni tratti di questo nuovo spazio metropolitano, segnato dalla governamentalità, vedendovi la confluenza di due paradigmi del controllo sociale che sino ad allora erano rimasti disgiunti, quello della lebbra e quello della peste. Nel primo caso si trattava di “chiudere ed escludere”, nel secondo si creava per la prima volta un modello di sorveglianza, controllo e articolazione degli spazi urbani, un quadrillage del territorio urbano, sorvegliato da intendenti, medici e soldati. Mentre “il lebbroso era preso in una pratica di rigetto e di esclusione, l’appestato è incasellato, sorvegliato, controllato, curato attraverso una complessa rete di dispositivi che dividono e individualizzano, articolando così l’efficacia del controllo e del potere”. Il paradigma della peste segna quindi, secondo Foucault, il passaggio alle forme della società disciplinare. Lo spazio politico della modernità e lo spazio metropolitano contemporaneo sono pertanto il risultato della fusione di questi due paradigmi, per cui si comincia a proiettare sullo schema di esclusione e di separazione della lebbra lo schema di sorveglianza, controllo, individualizzazione, articolazione del potere disciplinare. I fatti di Genova dell’estate 2001 sono un perfetto esempio di applicazione di questi due paradigmi, per cui vengono creati all’interno della città confini e spazi diversi che non hanno il solo scopo di escludere e separare, ma di articolare spazi diversi, di individualizzare spazi e soggetti.

All’interno di questo quadro, come si accennava sopra, assumono un ruolo fondamentale proprio i processi di soggettivazione che risultano dal corpo a corpo tra i viventi e i dispositivi. Non esiste dispositivo senza che avvenga un processo di soggettivazione, in cui il soggetto assume pienamente la sua doppia valenza di soggettivazione, ossia di creazione di un’individualità, e di assoggettamento ad un potere esterno. Inoltre, i dispositivi moderni non implicano soltanto una creazione di soggettività, ma in ugual misura anche dei processi di desoggettivazione e quindi di cattura totale nella macchina governamentale. La metropoli, in questo quadro, andrebbe quindi vista come uno spazio in cui è in corso un immenso processo di creazione di soggettività, un immenso corpo a corpo tra il vivente e i dispositivi che lo governano. La nostra analisi e la nostra conoscenza della metropoli, suggerisce Agamben, dovrebbe proprio rivolgersi non solo ai suoi aspetti sociologici, seppur importanti, ma ad un piano quasi ontologico, in cui è in questione spinozianamente la capacità di agire dei soggetti, il suo aumento o la sua diminuzione come risultanti delle relazione sopra descritta. L’esito dei conflitti in atto nella metropoli dipenderà, secondo Agamben, proprio dalla nostra capacità di intervenire e di agire sui processi di soggettivazione, di articolare nuove strategie di profanazione dei dispositivi, cioè di creazione di controdispositivi capaci di operare una “restituzione all’uso comune di ciò che è stato catturato e separato in essi” (p. 34). L’obbiettivo del conflitto nella metropoli è dunque quello di portare alla luce quel punto di ingovernabilità su cui può far naufragio il potere come governo, “quell’Ingovernabile che è l’inizio e, insieme, il punto di fuga di ogni politica”.


Post Scriptum: il film del 1996 di David Cronemberg, Crash, tratto dal romanzo di J. Ballard del 1973, è, a parer nostro, una splendida ed estremamente provocatoria rappresentazione di questo corpo a corpo tra la carne ed il dispositivo, la cui capacità di provocazione, tragica, gelida e grottesca al tempo stesso, scaturisce proprio dalla collisione orgasmica dei dispositivi di sessualità e di tecnologia.

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

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

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 …