Slavery, Enlightenment, Critical Theory by Sabine Broeck



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Slavery, Enlightenment, Critical Theory

by Sabine Broeck
Even though the extent to which Western economies and societies have profited from the internationally expansive phenomenon of slave trading, and slavery in terms of financial revenue remains an object of controversy, slave trade historians have come to a basic agreement: transatlantic modernity was socially, culturally and economically “made” and mobilized in crucial ways by the slave trading economy. The implications of this reach far beyond the notorious argument among historians and economists as to the effective monetary value the trade generated. The ubiquity and dynamic character of the trade, the profitability of vthe system of slavery on so many different levels adjacent to the shipping and handling proper, afforded early modern merchant societies, and European burgeoning nation state systems, with opportunities of mass social experiment, with a form of human laboratory on a scale hitherto unavailable. The slave trade, as an indispensable momentum of early colonialism, provided the transatlantic world with an effective testing ground for the transition from feudal direct and locally personalized deployment and inscription of power to mercantile indirect, globally mediated forms of organization of power not over persons fixed in space (as in feudal societies) but over movable objects. Scholars have been addressing issues of the Black Atlantic for some time now, supplementing our view of modern and postmodern Western societies with research of Black literatures, or the travels of musical cultures, or the intertextual relations in political rhetoric of the postcolonial moment. Gender Studies, Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Studies have taken on the issues of colonialism, of difference theories and of a critique of modernity for its relentless hegemonial insistences. They have begun to provide a space in which scholarly interest in the underside of modernity’s so called progress can be developed and questioning may be sustained in interdisciplinary ways. However, the slave trade, and slavery have not become an actively engaged issue outside its “proper” sub-discipline of the history of slavery, or of Black Studies.

I want to juxtapose the slave trading economy of early modernity with the course of its displacement in Western collective memory of Enlightenment. How could it happen that the history of the inscription, and dissemination of the Enlightenment’s insistence on freedom as the human subject’s universal right could write the slave trade out of modernity’s self-reflexivity almost completely, displacing the issue onto a handful of specialists who happen to study the history of abolitionist movements, or of slavery itself? And why and how have discourses of liberation, in this case feminism, from movements for women’s rights in the 19th into gender theories of the 21 century, overall failed to address white women’s social and epistemological implications in European slave trading, and slavery. The paper will engage in a cross-reading of Enlightenment figurations (from Locke to Adorno‘s critique) of universal freedom with recent US and European gender theories with a radical de-colonial, post middle-passage critique. (Aime Cesaire, Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers). Attentiveness to these voices raises the question why even postmodern critical narratives of occidentalism, of the subject, of human rights feel compelled to anchor themselves, even if in the negative, in Enlightenment’s propositions and not in Black diaspora testimony. Why Hegel, and not Haiti? Instead of unwarranted returns to the Enlightenment's projections I argue for a hermeneutics of epistemological suspicion: the “subject” of Enlightenment was structurally contingent on the "abjectification" of humans.


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