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.


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

Working on a monograph on Édouard Glissant

It’s now quite a long time since I arrived in Birmingham. The first two months have been very intense and challenging. Firstly, because moving to a new country, a new language and way of life and a new working environment, is always quite hard, but it’s a kind of experience that can also give you a lot of satisfaction. Furthermore, in my specific case I live and work through three different languages (Italian, English and French) and I often spend my time, for example, reading a book in French, writing a text in Italian and speaking and studying in English. This can be sometimes challenging, sometimes exciting, but most of the time both of them!

Picture of Edouard Glissant taken by me at Tunis-Carthage conference in 2005

But I would like to update you on my research work, too. Since December, after a couple of very interesting conferences I have already described in my previous posts and after a hard work to prepare my first article in English for Callaloo academic journal, I have been working very hard on my main project for these two years as Marie Curie fellow. It is the project for a monograph on Édouard Glissant, one of the most important French-Caribbean writers, who died two years ago. My monograph will be based on my PhD work, which I will revise and further elaborate during these two years. I won’t go into the details here, but I would just like to explain you that the main issue of my interpretation of Glissant’s extremely large oeuvre (poetry, novels, theatre, philosophical essays etc.) will be focused on the relation between the poetic language and the place (‘le Lieu’), starting from his first poetic production to his late and rich philosophical reflection on the issues of relation, ‘tout-monde’, creolisation, archipelagic thinking etc., and passing through his fascinating and very dense fictional work. The relation between poetic language and the place will open a wide range of fundamental issues, which can link his work to some important and very significant topics of the recent debate in critical theory. Some of these subjects, strictly linked between them, are those of memory, trauma, testimony, community and difference, subalternity, being as relation, writing and the unspeakable, diaspora and nomadic subjects, the border and the threshold, the body and the living. All these issues will be crossed starting from the common question of how the place, and the relation between man and the place he inhabits, can be re-thought starting from a new perspective (both poetical and political) funded on openness and relation to the Other and the diverse, instead of property, closure and protection of the Same. I am actually writing a first chapter, in which I am going to analyse the constitutive relation between the place, the world and the poetic language in Glissant’s literary production of the 50s, from Un champ d’îles (1952) and La terre inquiète (1954) to Soleil de la conscience (1956) and – but this will be in the second chapter – La Lézarde (1958).

For Glissant readers and scholars: I would just like to signal an important and extremely useful initiative on his official website, realised by Loïc Céry. To celebrate the second anniversary of his death, the webmaster has taken the initiative to publish a very wide collection of video and audio materials on Glissant, and to list them in a sort of ‘abécédaire’ of his most important and recurrent subjects. Have a look at it!