This is the first of a three-part summary of the excellent 1804 and Its Afterlives conference that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on December 7th and 8th as part of the events programming accompanying the Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou exhibition. Video recordings of the sessions can be found on the above link. I will focus here only on salient points from the many inspiring talks that touch upon issues of direct relevance for the Zombi Diaspora narrative and the work of the Ghetto Biennale.
Friday 7th (Day One)
The keynote lecture – ‘The Gods in the Trunk (or Writing in a Belittered World)’ – was given by Colin Dayan, author of Haiti, History and the Gods (1995) and the recent The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011). Her talk offered “a context for reconfiguring our understanding of the supernatural…that asks: What could we feel if we could feel what we experience sufficiently?” Prompted by her knowledge and experience of Vodou practice she questions the meaning of justice, the reach of cruelty and the uses of reason within the generally decorous and polite academic discussions of ‘humanism’, ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘human rights’, in an attempt to “breach the gap between body and mind, dead and living, human and non-human”.
Her focus on the language of ‘humanism’ and ‘humanitarianism’ has bearings for earlier posts that have addressed post-earthquake disaster relief as a form of neoimperialist violence that masks and intensifies the suffering of the populations it claims to be aiding. As I have argued in a forthcoming text for the Transmission annual on Catastrophe, the militarization of aid in post-earthquake Haiti was an intensification of the strategic utilization of humanitarian aid as part of an ongoing neoliberal strategy that has been undermining the possibility of Haitian popular sovereignty since the Duvalier era. There is a kind of humanitarian wall built around Haiti that hides and prevents access to the real violence being waged there in the interests of a tiny international, capitalist elite. The systematic suppression of Vodou, despite not beginning with it, seems to intensify during periods of occupation, significantly during the US occupation of 1915 to 1934, the UN occupation beginning in 2004 and the second phase of US occupation that began after the earthquake in 2010. President Martelly’s recent repeal of Article 297 of the Haitian constitution, and the arrest of Ougan Zaza and nine other participants at the annual Bwa Kayiman ceremony this year, suggest that a renewal of the anti-Vodou program may be underway. At the same time, as Reginald Jean Francois’ account of the defacing of the Florentine boar in Plaza Italia by UN peace-keepers in 2004 suggests, there are aspects of the MINUSTAH mission that exceed ‘pure’ security and stability objectives.
Dayan began her lecture with a question – “What is the particular terrain for human cruelty and who gets to command its shifts in terms of species and race?” – which she contextualized in terms of a turn towards a “political metaphysics” of the sacred which affirms the “concreteness of Vodou practice” and attemptins to locate “in granular and theoretical registers” the “often invisible nexus of animality and human marginalization”. In a gesture evocative of the ‘surrealist ethnogapher’ Michel Leiris’ 1938 essay The Sacred in Everyday Life, Dayan proposes that “the unlikely and extraordinary are part and parcel of the commonplace” and “how rituals thought bizarre become ordinary”. She asks how we might re-figure our understandings of the supernatural to include “everyday practices of casual cruelty and commonplace harm” sketching out a landscape of that “defies reason” and “skirts transcendence”.
Dayan based her talk on Haitian novelist Marie Vieux Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, Colère, Folie (“Love, Anger, Madness”), completed and first published in 1969, but unavailable until 2009 due to fears of reprisal against Chauvet’s family by representatives of the Duvalier regime. Focussing on the final novella of the trilogy – Madness – Dayan uses Chauvet’s works to stage a series of fundamental ethical and historical questions about what we consider to be human, and what happens when the poles of magical and the juridical, supernatural and rational are ritually reversed. “Are we prepared” she asked “to re-adjust ourselves to a conception of human life that turns our own reality upside down?” Within what she calls the “precincts of Chuavet’s fiction” that exist in the nightmare landscape of Duvalier’s Haiti, “the immediate thing is the supernatural” and the real is “no more than a symbolization of events in the world of ritual”. In such circumstances “the most incorporeal is re-cast as reasonable” and this “relentless acceptance of unreality” Dayan claims is a necessary part if Haitian history and crucial to its mythology.
Dayan addresses the management of “societal refuse” in which distinctions are drawn between “the free and the bound, the familiar and the strange, the privileged and the stigmatized”. There was something very Bataillian about this formulation of “an unreal rationality of racism” depending for its power on “the conceptual force of the superfluous, what can be rendered as remnants or waste or dirt”. Given Dayan’s response to the show’s curator Alex Farquharson’s question about ‘the abject’ during the Q&A session, and her evident aversion to ready-made and over-used theoretical terms that often work to cover-over and obscure the very things they claim to be addressing, I propose this reference with some circumspection. Bataille is undoubtedly a philosopher whose concepts (like ‘formless’, ‘transgression’, ‘dépense’, ‘sovereignty’ etc.) have been used in precisely this fashion in respectable academic and artworld circles for many years now. That said, I think it is worth re-stating here the general thesis of a polarity of the sacred in which the impure elements are associated precisely with filth, waste and other forms of repellent ‘base matter’ that threaten, unsettle and destabilize those modes of “civility, consensus and rationality” upon which academic claims to decency are made. The Psychological Structure of Fascism, for instance, written in 1934, attempts to account for the role of imperative ‘pure’ forms of heterogeneity (loosely, the sacred) in the formation of Fascistic totalitarianisms, that depend upon the violent suppression and elimination of material (human, animal or otherwise) deemed unclean, abhorrent and ignoble. Bataille was concerned particularly with the affective register of sacred forces, going so far as to suggest that “the object of any affective reaction is necessarily heterogeneous”. Informed by Alexander Kojève’s lectures on Hegel which he was attending at the time of writing, he developed an idiosyncratic, psychoanalytically inflected account of the master-slave dialectic, deeply resonant with Dayan’s reading of Chauvet. According to Bataille “the heterogenous nature of the slave is akin to that of the filth in which his material situation condemns him to live” while “that of the master is formed by an act of excluding all filth: an act pure in direction but sadistic in form”.
As those familiar with Bataille’s work will know, the spectacle of sacrifice and the “making of the sacred” were fundamental concerns for him, as they are for Dayan. “In the spectacles of sacrifice that concern me today” she said “to be disposable is not having the capacity to be dispossessed, to be nothing more than dispensable stuff”. With this in mind she made reference to the medieval law of the deodand, literally a “thing given up to God” symbolizing “forfeiture and power, loss and gain” and “an object or thing that becomes endowed with intent and malice and thus must be sacrificed or forfeited to the state, church or king”. Then, in a gesture which recalls the thought experiment known in consciousness studies as ‘the zombie problem’, she asked us to “imagine that this thing-like-thing returns in the shape of things that look like humans but are really evacuated of all characteristics that make social personhood possible…just at the moment that their life, their resistance is most present and visible”. For Dayan Wilson Bigaud’s portrait of a bull – Conflicts and Tensions (1957) – exhibited in the Kafou show captures what this thing-like-thing, that is so filled with spirit, might be.
Although Dayan was not intending to reference the philosophical problem of zombies, her argument makes an uncanny inference from these ‘imaginary’ but ‘visibly resistant’ beings, evacuated of social personhood, but for whom:
different from the zombie, what thinks, suffers, gets destroyed in such bodies, has been rendered fully inconsequential, in one sense, but it’s made to perform tremendous symbolic labour in the fictions that uphold the violence of legal language. It unleashes upon what I call walking meat, an inflection of witchcraft, that Chauvet understood as a subjection both linguistic and social.
I’m not sure I understand what the ‘it’ is here that unleashes this “inflection of witchcraft”: the human thing-like-thing, the gift given over to god, the violence of legal language, or the thing-in-the-thing-like-thing that gets destroyed and made to perform symbolic labour. Whatever the case, I wonder how different this difference is between zombies and human-like things, this walking meat, “inflected with witchcraft”. Much, of course, depends on how the term zombie is being used in this context, something I attempted to communicate during the zombie metaphor talk and the discussion that followed. Precision of meaning is not simply a didactic issue here, rather it allows us to recognize the chimerical nature of the figure, which like the human thing-like-thing evoked by Dayan, has been made to perform diverse symbolic work in different cultural and historical contexts. In the transition from popular folkloric accounts of zombis to their classic cinematic incarnation, a legal article from the Haitian constitution performs a juridical-epistemological justification for the existence of a narcotically induced, and “witchcraft inflected”, state of being seemingly dead. When considered from the perspective of people in actual disaster zones like post-earthquake Haiti, the current trend for disaster preparedness programs, based on apocalyptic scenarios derived from post-Romero cannibal zombie movies, however tongue-in-cheek their representation in the popular media may be, take on an ominous and only too real a meaning. As Dayan put it “in a morally disenchanted world, cruelty and violence accompany the call for order” and at times “the need for security” entails a “systematic disposal of creatures deemed threatening or unfit”. Especially, one might add, if these poor, filthy and borderline creatures appear to be threatening, or resistant to, the order being imposed upon them.
Dayan goes on to propose a “sorcery of law” constituted by the rules of the Haitian lwa (the gods or spirits of Haitian Vodou, from the French loi or “law”) “which depends on a re-enforcement of control, while giving the appearance of channeling a docility, that is always fictive”. Despite the quasi-juridical violence enacted by Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes, the real demons to be feared rather than the lwa, “resistance is never shattered, it is only put away or forgotten” just as the gods for Chauvet are “never gone, but shut up in a trunk and held tight in the mind”.
I was reminded here of a section from Spencer St John’s 1884 Hayti, or the Black Republic, an exemplary racist account of Haitian historical decadence and alleged cultural atavism written by the former British Consul and resident minister there. During the “long civil war” under President Sylvain Salnave St. John had observed that the “more civilized” Haitians were moving to the cities, leaving the rural districts to the “fetish worship and cannibalism” of the “barbarous lower orders” of negro. One of the many horrific stories of human sacrifice and cannibalism, given juridical credibility by the legal trial attended by the author, involved the murder of a young girl who had allegedly been killed for sacrifice and cannibalism by a group of Vaudoux fetish worshipers. The prisoners were brought into a courtroom where, on a table before the judge was the skull of the victim, her calcined bones and, in a jar, the remains of a soup made from her flesh. At first the defendants denied the charges, claiming their confessions had been extracted under torture, which, the author asserted, without concern, they had. He recounts how the judge, sensing the anxiety of a young girl amongst those accused of the murder, asks her to come closer to him: “He placed her with her back to the prisoners, and putting his arm around her, drew her gently to him, and said in a soft voice, “Tell me, chère, what occurred”.” She seemed to be whispering something to the judge, and, though no one in the courtroom heard what it was, all, including the young girl, were quickly found guilty and publicly executed by firing squad the following day. To prevent their bodies being carried away during the night, picquets of troops were placed round the spot. But in the morning, according to St John, the bodies of the two priests and the priestess had disappeared.
Chauvet, Dayan explains, repeatedly demonstrates in the repetition compulsions of her characters, the ritual and irrational nature of moments of reason that “turn the personality inside out” and “discipline the rawness of blood and sex”. Her characters “take what others would hide or throw away and turn these pieces of matter, whether fecal or just rotten into something that can be cherished”. “What many political theorists refuse to recognize” Dayan claims, “is not only the attachment of rational agency to the magical but most of all, that the fusion of the two, the fantastic and the rational, is never far from the values of enlightened society.”
For Dayan there is no such thing as an a-political natural history, and the institutions of slavery and Vodou – “the ritual practice born of its terrors” – shaped the way in which the earth – “its landscape, its flora and fauna, its animals” – was imagined historically (a point underlined by the curators decision to include the native trees associated with particular lwa in the chart that accompanied the exhibition). In a gesture that once again recalls the philosophy of Georges Bataille, Dayan suggested that an alternative title to her talk could have been “Predatory Animism”, a quality of Chauvet’s writing that “confuses substances, matter and mind, material and ideal, reason and madness”. For Bataille religion is founded upon what he calls “animal intimacy” (and at other times ‘immediacy’ or ‘immanence’) which is given when one animal eats another. When this happens it is always a fellow creature that is eaten and no affirmation of difference can be made between them, no relation of subordination, such as occurs when men reduce others to slavery. Although humans are generally separated from the continuum of animal intimacy, they seek ritual means, like blood sacrifice, to open themselves to its vastness. “Something tender, secret, and painful draws out the intimacy which keeps vigil in us” he writes, “extending its glimmer into that animal darkness” (Theory of Religion).
Clermont Julien Orange Figure with Yellow Stomach (1989)
In the work of artists in the Kafou exhibition Dayan senses a stance that shares the “spectral vitality” of Chauvet’s fiction, one that aims to grant “supreme intentionality to various and disparate entities of the cosmos” involving “a strange seepage between subjectivities” both human and non-human, and an ethics of seamless division between humans, animals and gods, sacred and profane, physicality and mysticism. “We have to recognize” she proposes, “how inhuman we are for opposing humans to animals” and asks “Why does a sense of unreality block our attempts to understand our moral relation with other animals?” This is not an animal rights position, she tells us. It has more to do with Hannah Arendt’s questioning of humanism and a language of ‘human rights’ that can lead to denying the enemy the quality of being a human being. She asks, with reference to the presence of UN peace keeping forces, NGO’s and local charities in Haiti “What are the implications of a logic at the heart of an illegality that is moderated, legitimized and reproduced by the humanitarian concern that is analogous to it?”
Under the mantle of civility and reasonableness, the Haitian government, in league with foreign interests, continues its assault on those who are always hit with the kind of violence that controls everyday life, whether in the camps or evicted from the only homes remaining after the earthquake. The abuse of life, as Chauvet knew, is a lethal magic that relies on the claims of culture in order to guarantee its malignancy.
By way of conclusion Dayan recounts the story of a personal encounter with a monster pig “grown out of extinction”, a hybrid of the creole pigs that were almost completely eradicated by USAID and the Haitian government in 1980 to prevent an outbreak of swine fever, and the much larger, greedier and environmentally ill-adapted US pigs brought in to replace them. It is an emblem of Haiti. Like the Gods, the Creole pigs are not gone, they have changed “adapted to a new Haiti that always bears traces of the old”
Dayan concluded with four points:
1. Nothing she can write can capture the horror IDP camps in Haiti.
2. She was there when MINUSTAH arrived in Cite Soleil in 2004 killing young and old alike and leaving their bodies in the street. MINUSTAH are still in Haiti and have not been brought to justice for their crimes. Instead they remain, as was their UN mandate, to ensure stability and security in Haiti, with the added responsibility to ‘speed up the implementation of the government’s resettlement strategy for displaced persons’.
3. Cholera was brought to post earthquake Haiti by Nepalese UN soldiers who dumped their excrement in the Artibonite, Haiti’s main river, causing an epidemic that has killed more than 7,000 people and sickened 5% of the population.
4. There are rumours that US security service companies are planning to build new prisons in the remote rural areas of Haiti where resistance to the neo-liberal business plan is strongest.
Michel Rolph Trouillaut, Dayan tells us, once called Haiti “the earliest testing ground of colonialism” and it’s excesses “have always forced our imaginations high and low, the pearl of the Antilles, or the sewer of the western world”. But now, “pockets of misery are everywhere…in plain sight” and “they signal, as if in a deposit of history, the fruition of all the hate and the prejudice, of both insiders and outsiders, the conversion of years of nasty rhetoric into the facts of death”.
She asks, finally, “Where can one go to find a history that can help correct the present?” We must “hunt out, in the acceptable scripts of civility, what is harrowing, what is spurred on, by unalleviated greed”.
Our task today is to engage our hearts and our minds, through the force of Haiti, the seriousness and depth of discrimination, in its history, its art, and its ever adaptive and resilient ritual practice. Vodou, though threatened and repressed, again now, as numerous places are being trashed, Vodou takes a stance to the world and life that upends our preconception, and most of all its rituals, dredge up the dead and the disregarded, and they prompt the return of everything that had been buried for so long under a tide of good feelings and bad faith.
In the Q&A session that followed Dayan was joined by Alex Farquharson and Leah Gordon, the curators of the exhibition. Leah asked, given the ‘radical materiality’ of Vodou pratice and the centrality of material in Haitian art, what Colin Dayan thought about the future of Haitian art as the squalor starts to overtake the splendour in the current extreme conditions she describes. She responded that in 1987 Vodou was recognized as a religion but under President Martelly the Haitian government is planning to remove that allowance and put back into law what used to be called the “anti-superstition campaign” which was a way to get rid of all practices that were considered heathen. That he would do this while so many missions (usually evangelical Christian) are setting up shop in Haiti is a matter for real concern. Under these circumstances the radical materiality of Vodou, inspired by a sense of the spirit that pervades every day, every hour of your life, is at great risk. Atis Rezistans, she proposes, are the witnesses to, and remarkable transformers of, this word of increased dispossession and terror. Haiti, and Haitians in particular, the majority at least, have always lived under the sign of foreign interests and the presence of their own elite who have made their lives very difficult. Their art has been produced out of the remnants, what remained. The real question has to do with the kind of ‘resistance’, though this is perhaps too easy a word, that Leah captures in her photographs of Kanaval, “a particular encounter with catastrophe on the part of Haitians”.
Leah proposes that perhaps the biggest threat to Haitian creativity is not so much the extreme conditions but neocolonial, multi-national companies like Digicel, the first Haitian companies to treat the Haitian poor as potential consumers, creating them as consumers through advertising. Dayan responds that Macys (who now have a ‘Heart of Haiti’ Fair Trade product range) and Donna Karan (who is currently working with the Clinton Foundation to find “creative business development opportunities in Haiti) have a big effect too, reducing Haitian art to “mere exotica” on a large level.
Leah explains how big companies like Digicel are effecting carnival by encouraging people to wear their t-shirts rather than their traditional costumes, as has happened already in Trinidad where traditional aspects of carnival, like degizmen (disguises), have already been effected. Dayan responds that there is a real “hatred of blackness” in the corporate media’s promotion of a “whitened world” reminiscent of what happened in Jamaica where media representations of the desirable look, permissible skin colour, stance, etc., all of which were coming from the US, were more destructive than anything a government could have done. To be recognized, to have a presence, you were expected to mime and become like the image of beauty. Dayan herself finds it difficult to “live through the onslaught…of US ceremonial celebrity culture”. How much more difficult for people in Haiti.
In places like Haiti, this form of culture comes to “substitute for history”, because once you begin to despise a certain colour, characters like Dessalines, who claimed themselves black and made of that colour something particularly Haitian, saying that to be human is to be black, “that entire reflection upon what it means to be alive is being…destroyed [and] your whole interior life is being controlled”. But this she says, is something we all experience to some extent, certainly in the US.
Alex then asks Dayan about the proximity of the abject and the opulent, which, he claims, is unusual from the perspective of European culture and European mind, and asks if the “political category of the abject” is a term she recognizes as covering words like stench and squalor, because it is very different from the political resources of the civil rights or Black Power struggles, whose emphasis was on ‘power’ and ‘beauty’, while at the same time there is a “wider, international, anti-colonial…anti-discriminatory political abject” common to people like Aimé Césaire or Jean Genet. Does she consider the term abject a culturally and politically militant category that “holds for her thought” about Haiti?
In response Dayan says it is a term she adamantly refuses to use, not for what it holds, but because there is a certain kind of terminology that makes her, as a professor, go wild because you end up in classrooms where a term like the abject “covers over everything and anything discomforting”, like all theoretical terms that have been accepted by the academy. “It becomes an alternative world that suppresses the world that you claim to be speaking for, and it silences those you claim to be speaking for”. In terms of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements the legal tools they could use were very distinct from the kind of remnants, remains and matter that Chauvet reclaims in her fictions, as offering “a possibility for meaningful change”.
Looking back on her work on legal ritual practice, Dayan realizes that when one is thinking and writing about the law, though one might imagine rejecting its worst excesses, “there is something about the frame of mind it allows that makes you colder or less attuned to the facts on the ground”. Is there another means of thinking and writing, she asks, that could include many things seen by our western minds as “not salient or enlightened or central to our concerns”?’ Could we “think through them to get to the histories that are hidden and silenced”? The more she lives with and thinks through Vodou practice, and what she calls its real philosophy of mind, she continues, “the more I recognize that we all have so much to learn from the…ritual approach…to life that you might get if you spend some time with people…who inhabit a space that is informed by the gods”. The conversion of everyday waste into something extraordinary or sacred comes out of an experience of ritual, repetition and faith. She is arguing for a spirituality that comes along with practical change.
Alex asked a second question about the theme of ‘radical animism’, which has recently gained currency in the contemporary art world, in the context of recent attention paid to the Haitian revolution by political philosophy, which see it as a challenge to the revolutions of France and America, and standing for the realization of a truer form of radical humanism. Does the concept of ‘predatory animism’ not contradict this representation of revolutionary Haiti as “radically humanist”?
She responds that she does not intend the term to be applied to those of us outside Haiti, which has been “mediated through its bones with colonial myths and modernity”, that she is writing against the terminology that comes out of Enlightenment humanism. The term “predatory animism” has less to do with the magical eating of animals and more a gesture of “throwing down a gauntlet” to a language of humanitarianism that covers up the true nature of those who use such terms. The term animism certainly captures the non-duality of things we like to keep separate, but the term predatory is the one we really need to think through. She gives the example of Dessalines, who, despite being the founder of Haiti, is rarely written about by western authors, which focus almost exclusively on Louverture and Henri Christoph. What is it about Dessalines, she asks, that offended so many and for so long? “Why is his bloodletting so savage and the bloodletting of others not? In other words, who gets to be cruel?”
Leah points out that in the community of Grand Rue, or Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines, everyone identifies with him. Dayan responds that Papa Dessalines is, or used to be, one of the most potent loa in Haiti. She then asks Leah what she sees of Vodou now. It depends on where you are she says. The flag-makers of Bel Air in Port-au-Prince were all Ogou while those in Grand Rue are Gede, and no doubt see Dessalines as one too. The biggest change has been the fashion of the celebrants who now wear Calvin Klein. In Gonâve, Dayan tells us, they still have a three-day celebration of Dessalines. She quotes Edmund Wilson, American author of Red, Black, Blond and Olive (1956), who once wrote that “Vodou would never… disappear from Haiti unless the Protestants came…because without rum the gods are not going to come”. Now we have an onslaught of Protestant missions in Haiti. One of the reasons MINUSTAH trucks are going through the countryside in Léogâne, rather than for so-called ‘stability’, is to create an atmosphere so fearful for people that they begin to self-censor what they do.
Leah asked Dayan why she thinks Martelly repealed the freedom of religion laws. She responded that writers like Lawrence Harrison (formerly of USAID, now Director of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University and author of The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (2006)) make the argument that true progress can only occur if these “savage practices” are eliminated, that it is a retrograde way of living, in other words, it is claimed, Vodou practices are holding Haiti back from entering the 21st century. Dayan “goes on record” to say that Martelly is an instrument of foreign interests with this agenda. Isobel Whitelegg, one of the co-ordinators of this event asked Dayan if she thought the authorities fear forms of resistance coming from Vodou. She responds that Vodou is not only always resistant but is also part of the land that many people still live on. As Jean Dominique (the agronomist/Radio Haiti journalist assassinated in 2000 and the subject of Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist (2003)) understood, if you want to start agribusiness and ensure that industrialized farming practices take root, you have to destroy belief in the gods and in the land in which they reside. And you have to teach people that thinking about the dead and their ancestors on that land doesn’t matter. “Vodou practice is a daily discipline that links people to their pasts, to what matters most to those who have been dispossessed. It is also another kind of history of resistance that Vodou holds for so long”. The “US Protestant Mission Conquest” is wiping out years of history and the identity that matters to so many.
I asked a question from the floor about the role of the myth of cannibalism in the denigration of Vodou by foreign interests, and its relevance for her concept of ‘predatory animism’. She responded that during the AID’s crisis there was a lot of writing about the campaigns against Haitians because of the role of blood in Vodou. The idea of predatory, no-holds barred consumption on the part of Vodou practitioners is crucial, and, in the current campaign, the issue sacrifice is central. She gives the example of showing footage of sacrifice from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen to students, who turn their heads so as not to see the cruelty. She argues that both animal sacrifice and cannibalism “are taken up by humanist and good, well-meaning liberal folks to be cruelty”. What she is trying to do is go back to what we find most “primitive” and think through what those practices are and how we might speak of them because, once you can describe and label what is primitive, a symbol or metaphor for the dispensable, “you then have the perfect cover for state practices that are far more genocidal, far more far reaching…really pervasive and cruel, and have nothing to do…with a religious belief in something…beyond the self.”. What we are witnessing is “greed made manifest, nothing beyond the self, the self writ large through the destruction of others…that you have demonized”. That’s why it is crucial to think through what it means to sacrifice a particular animal, in a particular context, in this case Vodou, and from this to “re-read the ways in which history has been written in order to silence large groups of people…and to justify the ravages against them”.
She compares with situation in Haiti with Gaza and the incredible destruction visited upon innocent civilians that goes largely unnoticed in the US. This is why one wants to recuperate other ways into discourse so that we are not silenced. Our typical way of thinking is though dichotomies, we’re either for or against something like ‘terror’, whereas Dayan is trying to promote a ‘both/and’ way of thinking, so that one can speak about “the horrors of Gaza” without being accused of being an anti-semite. We should counter the language of dichotomy with one of proliferation, she suggests.
From the floor Milory Polyné, author of From Douglas to Duvalier (2010), asks, given the value and usefulness of human rights discourse for things like the Civil Rights movement, how does Dayan square this in relation to her criticism of humanitarian language. She responds that she is not talking against human rights in this sense, but what happens to them when certain organizations who claim to offer them, use it as a mask to impose conditions of change for the people they help that they didn’t ask for. The offering of charity often gives more to the givers than the receivers and reaffirms hierarchies in ways that are damaging to those in receipt of aid. She quotes from Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, who wrote, thinking of a portrait of a suffering Rwandan infant, and prefiguring Renzo Marten’s Enjoy Poverty III, “it is only by putting the humanitarian into the inhumanitarian context from which it comes, that you understand its true inhumanity”.
Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool, asked a two-part question about the construction of prisons in Haiti, which he proposes may constitute “the insertion of Haiti into a new global order”, and the privatization of infrastructure as a means of undermining Haitian popular sovereignty. She responded that a month after the earthquake a contract for prison construction was given to GEO Group, awarded by the Department for Homeland Security, through the Bureau of Immigration and Enforcement, for “guard services”. Prisons seem to be forerunners of social change within the new global order, and far more is spent on them than on finding homes for the displaced population or on health care and education. It is part of the means by which so much wealth can continue to be put in the hands of so few people while so many others are put out of their lives and homes. In the wake of the war on terror, the penal regime has become part of a permanent state of warfare. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, envisioning the liberation of slaves in the south, the new order must find “receptacles for that race of men”.
A question from the floor asked if the prison contracts mentioned were an explicit response to the growing awareness of Haiti in the rest of the world. Dayan responded by saying how incredible what France, the US and Canada have done against Aristide since he was elected in 1991. His presence not only brought hope to many Haitians but also allowed for a growth of intelligence about the daily practices of injustice there. The US state department was aware of this which is why it limited aid at this time. There was great fear at the time on the part of those who have always feared the majority, a fear that involves a remembrance of Haiti’s possibility for radical change, including the bloodless revolution of 1946. A “fabric of containment” is being planned in precisely those areas where resistance is expected to be strongest.
Isobel asked a final question about the ‘reservoir of resistance’ in Haiti. Dayan responded that the very people who are being most reduced by the current regime are those most feared. It is the “forms of thinking that are feared”. As Gramsci once said, speaking about professors, “we are all experts in legitimation” and in that sense help to preserve the status-quo. But there are counter-methods. ‘Civility’ and ‘reasonable consensus’ are great silencing methods. What happens, she asks finally, if we just erase them and affirm instead ‘conflict’, ‘collision’ and ‘fighting’ rather than polished and polite academic practices?
The next speaker was Nick Nesbitt, author of Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (2008). He was introduced by Charles Forsdick who spoke about the rapid expansion of Haitian historiography in the last decade, with which several of the conference speakers have been associated, that has effectively challenged what Michel Rolph Trouillot famously called “silencing the past” of Haiti. Forsdick suggests that this has been accompanied by parallel achievements in popular culture, similar to that last enjoyed by Haiti in the inter-war period following the Harlem Renaissance and the first US occupation, and exemplified by the works of Madison Smartt Bell, revolution inspired music by Courtney Pine and Wyclef Jean, the planned bio-pic of Toussaint L’Ouverture by Danny Glover and a forthcoming RSC production of Anthony and Cleopatra, set in Haiti on the eve of the Revolution.
There are several difficulties with this claim, not least that non of the artists associated with this new Haitian renaissance, with the exception of Wyclef Jean, are actually Haitian. This is more than just nitpicking. Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been lecturing in contextual studies in UK art schools for the last decade, despite a diverse international and generally culture-wealthy student population, I rarely encounter students with any substantial awareness of either contemporary or historical Haitian culture. Leah Gordon’s Kanival work is an exception, as is her work with Atiz Rezistans and the Ghetto Biennale, or Soul Jazz records’ release of the ‘Rara in Haiti ‘collection. These, I would argue, have done more to bring awareness about contemporary cultural production in Haiti to the UK art world (which I use here to include both educational and gallery contexts), than the artists proposed by Forsdick (again, perhaps with the exception of Wyclef Jean). Most widely known, I would suggest, is Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic’s 2007 sensationalist mockumentary feature film Ghosts of Cité Soleil which is set in the immediate aftermath of the second overthrowing of President Aritside in 2004. Although this is a deeply problematic film on many levels, and, as with previous examples, was neither made nor funded by Haitians or Haitian cultural institutions (despite a cameo appearance from Wyclef Jean), it is a film that exported a rare representation of the complexity and extremity of life for some people in Haiti to popular international audiences.The film-maker Raoul Peck, who was briefly Haitian minister of Culture in 1990, is also known by some students, particularly for his film Moloch Tropical (2009) which transplants Aleksandr Sokurov’s film about Hitler and Eva Braun set in the Bavarian alps, to Citadelle Laferrière sometime in the second half of the 20th century, where a recently elected Haitian president celebrates a short lived victory.
Perspectives, contexts and opinions differ, obviously, and it is notoriously difficult to assess this thing called ‘the popular.’ But given the context of the Kafou exhibition it seems important to be precise about this. The social and political conditions in Haiti since the Duvaliers have not been the kind that foster an optimistic cultural sphere or a parallel academic culture, and there are few of the kinds of cultural institutions we take for granted in the metropoles of North America and Europe. Political turmoil, military coups, occupations, anti-democratic foreign interests, and natural disasters have all contributed to prevent an internationally-orientated culture industry developing in Haiti. Anyone who has visited Lakou Cheri where the Atis Rezistans community live and work will be only to aware of how different from ours their ‘live-work’ conditions are. Given these circumstances it was an incredible achievement for artists from Atis Rezistans to exhibit their work in the first Haiti Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. But let us not forget, as the Ghetto Biennale continues to remind us, the great economic, cultural and infra-structural differences between our world and that of the majority of Haitians, and how this fundamentally effects the kinds of works that can be made, circulated and exhibited, and the kinds of critical-theoretical discourse associated with them. One of the great challenges of any cultural initiative that seeks to collaborate with contemporary Haitian artists today, is how to accommodate, account for and theoretically engage these extreme cultural and economic differences without recourse to the kinds of polite cultural, artworld decorum, like that challenged in academic circles by Dayan, that inadvertently obscures these concrete life conditions and extreme socio-cultural differences.
As Forsdick points out, Haiti is probably most known to the outside world because of the dramatic political and calamitous events that have been broadcast via the international news media. It is a country associated with extremes, as Dayan pointed out, of wealth, poverty, environment, and political violence. Vodou, which I would argue, is Haiti’s most powerful and important cultural export, is woven into these representations, sometimes in nuanced and at others blatantly racist and xenophobic ways. One of the tasks for international artists, academics and curators working for and with Haitian artists, is to think through the importance of Vodou, not only as a ‘reservoir of (creative) resistance’ for Haitian people and their arts, but as a vector for the internationalization of contemporary Haitian identity, art and culture. Shows like The Sacred Arts of Vodou at the Fowler Museum in 1996, the current In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art (also at the Fowler) and the 2008 Le Vodou, Un Art de Vivre exhibition in Geneva, have all made important contributions in this direction.
Forsdick argues that the revolution of 1804 is central to the current interest in Haiti and recounts the story of President Aristide, ousted for the second time in 2004, after touching down on the runway in the Central African Republic, giving a speech in which he claimed that those who had overthrown him had “cut down the tree of peace”. “But it will grow again” he continued “because its roots are Louverturian”. The tree-roots metaphor, often used by Aristide, echoes the words of Louverture in 1802 before returning to France who said: “in overthrowing me you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty, it will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous and deep”. Such are the legacies of the revolution too. Gary asks us to acknowledge, using an intriguing infrastructural metaphor “the various vehicles by which the ideas, the spirit and the meanings of the revolution are freighted”. One such vehicle is the visual arts, like those exhibited in Kafou, where heroes from the revolution figure directly in the works, like Séneque Obin’s equestrian portrait of Touissant Louverture (1950)
or Frantz Zépherin’s painting of The Slave Ship Brooks (2007).
He concludes his introduction with two points: the first concerns the divisive legacy of the revolution in Haiti, particularly between Louverturian and Dessalinian interpretations of history and the ideological positions to which they lead. The second has to to with the revolution as a privileged foundational event within a network of other interconnected events, like the land reforms of 1809, the US Occupation of 1915 to 1934, the Duvalier Regime and the earthquake of 2010. All were seismic events that raise questions about the place of the revolution in the new narratives of Haitian history.
Nick Nesbitt’s talk – ‘Vastey and the paradoxes of Haitian Independence’ – focussed on Pompée Valentin Vastey’s 1814 treatise Le Système Colonial Dévoilé (or ‘The Colonial System Unveiled’) which he proposed was an early example, perhaps the first, of a Caribbean, post-colonial critical theory. Vastey, the ‘public scribe’ of Haiti’s first president Henri Christof, attempted to justify his patron’s legitimate right to rule during the Thermidorian Reaction in France (the name given to the conservative response to the excesses of the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror) which led to the fall of the Jacobins and the subsequent repeal of their universal abolition of slavery. As a consequence, in 1802, the French Consulate under Napoleon, re-introduced slavery to France and its colonies.
Given France’s ambition to re-impose slavery in Haiti, the revolutionary project of universal emancipation and trans-national abolitionism after independence was placed in a paradoxical double-bind. The imperial economies still depended on slave labour for the extraction of surplus profit, and so felt Haiti’s existence to be immensely threatening. Neither France nor the US would recognize it diplomatically for decades to come, and France, which plotted to re-invade the country from 1804 onwards, would eventually extort diplomatic recognition at gunpoint to the sum of 150 million French francs in 1825. That sum, calculated for loss of men and colony during the revolutionary war of 1791-1804, and estimated at $21 billion today, was not re-payed until 1947. Following the Bourbon restoration of hereditary monarchy in France in 1814, and subsequent threats to re-impose plantation slavery there, Haiti had to retract claims to export anti-slavery elsewhere in the americas in order to prevent the international powers from re-invading.
Vastey’s writing embodies this paradox, taking the form of “a critique forced to mediate between a violent and uncompromising denunciation of colonial slavery, colonialism, and the various contemporary threats to Haiti’s independence, and at the same time, the impossibility of articulating a positive political vision in consonance with universalist anti-slavery…that is the very raison d’etre of the Haitian state”. Instead he retreated “from a defense of the militant universalist anti-slavery of Louverture and Dessalines to a conservative defense of the independence and mere self-preservation of his country”. Black Atlantic universalism “no longer a politics of right…takes on its more restrained discursive modality…a Black Atlantic re-voicing…of a Kantian call for a free and public sphere of global enlightenment”.
Writing back to Europe from the peripheries, Vastey’s work can be read as a continuation of a European tradition of anti-slavery writers like Diderot and Henri Grégoire, performing a sustained and bivalent critique of colonialism and plantation slavery which, on one hand takes an abstract perspective on the “empirical immediacy of the experience of slavery…in order to cognitively map the totality of its function in the atlantic world of his time”, while on the other hand recounting “detailed and even excruciating testimony to the actual suffering of the enslaved” which Vastey had experienced first hand. For Nesbitt this duality marks both the originality and limitations of his thought.
Short of time and resources Vastey was forced to improvise a critique of the system of colonial slavery that would not be taken up formerly until 100 years later by the likes of Eric Williams and CLR James. He intuits the totality of colonialism as a global structure but gives no detailed descriptions of its operations, forms or relations. Unlike Marx he had no British Library to help him to construct a detailed and systematic critique of capitalism’s global structures. Instead he constructed a post-colonial critical apparatus, “an ideological war machine rather than a scientific critique”, which “takes up the mantle of the defense of human dignity and freedom in what Kant had already called the (global) public sphere”.
“Public opinion” Vastey wrote “is the queen that governs the civilized world, calling to her tribunal Kings and Peoples, dictating to them her impartial and irrevocable judgements, a divine force, independent of all human powers, one that spans time and space, embracing the past and future, extending her empire over the universe”. As Toussaint Louverture had remained tragically faithful to the ‘idea’ of 1789 (the rights of man, justice as universal equality) as the French nation moved to the right and back to the institution of slavery, so Vastey remained faithful to a slave-free Haitian state, while his position as Christoph’s scribe “obligated him, whether in good or bad faith, to defend various ancien régime ideologies, including hereditary monarchy and its attendant forms of authoritarian inequality”.
A critique of violence is central to Vastey’s writing “distinguishing the unjust terror of slavery from the just Haitian struggle against slavery at all costs from 1791 -1804.” For Vastay, as for C.L.R. James, “plantation slavery was the site of ultimate horror, violence in its most terrible forms, transmuted into a regime, upheld by the rule of codified law, both before 1791 and after 1804, standardized, rationalized and reified…a regime of ultra violence rarely equalled in history”. On these grounds Vastey defended the rightful destruction of the plantations during the revolution:
In order to destroy this system, so deeply enrooted by time and prejudice, there were but two methods, either gradually by the will of the oppressors, or else, despite them, through violent shocks that would necessarily entail a struggle, fraught with crime, blood and destruction, spread across many years. The latter would be sudden, the conflict originating with the oppressed, contrary to the wishes of our tyrants and engendering a bloody and protracted clash between the oppressed and the oppressors, pregnant with crimes, carnage and horrors. This is what occurred.”
Paradoxically, given the very real threat of invasion and recolonization, and in order to preserve the gains of the revolution, Christoph had to institute forced labour in Haiti. To do otherwise would, according to Nesbitt, have been suicidal. Haiti was encircled by antagonistic and hostile forces that were willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent the message of anti-slavery, universal equality and emancipation spreading to any more of their slave-holding colonies. This betrayal of the universalist revolution, Nesbitt proposes, would not have occurred if France and the US had stood beside Haiti, rather than against it. Haitian anti-slavery was one of the great achievements of the modern age, but after 1804 it was no longer a Haitian struggle. “Monarchy and forced plantation labour are fundamentally inegalitarian” Nesbitt argues “and by definition render justice as universal equality impossible”. This is the paradox both Christoph and Vastey were forced into, namely “anti-slavery in one state”.
Despite these contradictions, Vastey, Nesbitt argues, remains a key figure in a tradition of critique that extends from Kant to Foucault, sharing their commitment to enlightenment which for Kant, as Foucault reminds us, was an escape (or ‘sortie’) from a subject’s minority. For Kant this escape was from immaturity to a free reasoning individual within the law, or as Foucault put it a “contract of rational despotism with free reason: the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition…that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason”. Vastey, envisioning an escape from the bestialization of slavery and colonialism into a “becoming civilized”, supported the regime of the Haitian state as legitimate to the extent that it instituted a slave-free society without proposing a positive doctrine of emancipation for the present and future. He remained “content to condemn slavery and colonialism only retrospectively in a strictly non-interventionist public sphere” and “the doctrine of a universal Black Jacobin emancipation… that Louverture freely and publicly expressed, becomes unutterable after 1804”.
For Kant and Vastey alike power is always state power, right is always the right to preserve property, including the preservation of ourself, as property, with critical discourse in a free public sphere of expression a rhetoric, a rhetoric of the critique of violence, whether it’s the threat to human dignity for Kant, or the violence of colonialism and slavery for Vastey, without a corresponding emancipationist politics.
Vastay, as scribe and post-colonial theorist, paradoxically inscribes the forced retreat of Louverture and Dessaline’s politics of universal emancipation to the defense of the freedom of the global public sphere, with Henri Christophe celebrated as the “immortal protector of the freedom of the press”. He does so Nesbitt concludes “as a citizen of a state tragically shorn of the means to pursue this struggle in a Black Atlantic world that would remain largely under the yolk of slavery for decades to come.”
The next speaker was Dick Geary, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Nottingham. His lecture, ‘The Contradictory Legacy of Haiti for Slave Revolt in Brazil’, used his discoveries about the latter to understand Haiti and to re-instate Africa as part of this story. “For as long as there has been slavery” he began, “slaves have sought to deal with their slavery in different ways by developing various sorts…of survival strategies.” These have included individual strategies that aim at accommodation with slave-owners, such as good behavior, which in some slave societies could result in manumission (the granting of freedom by the masters, or the purchase of freedom) and strategies of resistance such as flight, suicide, infanticide or feigned illness. Collective forms of resistance have included modes we might ordinarily associate with modern labour struggles, such as going on strike and violent collective bargaining sometimes involving the destruction of tools, animals and property. Other forms include collective flight and the establishment of maroon communities, and, of course, open rebellion and armed uprisings as in Haiti.
Such uprisings are nothing new, Geary asserts, the earliest recorded uprisings in the Americas happening in Santo Domingo in 1522. In the 18th century all major urban centres experienced slave revolts, including New York in 1712. From 1720 to 1770 there were continuous maroon wars in Jamaica and Surinam that culminated in treatises with the colonial authorities. But Haiti was something new, Geary claims, because there the mulatto and black populations overthrew a colonial white government and gained full political independence from Europe. While not denying the massive historical impact of this event Geary identifies problems with traditional narratives of the Haitian revolution (such as Eugene Genovese’s) that claim it inaugurated a dramatic change in the nature of slave revolt generally, marking a turning point from African dominated to Creole-led slave revolts. Touissant Louveture, Geary argues, exploited the space created by 20 years of colonial conflict, culminating in Napoleon’s attempt to re-colonize the island, causing a new alliance of blacks and mulattos that would eventually lead to the foundation of an independent republic. But Toussaint detested Vodou as unchristian superstition.
If I understand Geary correctly, his argument attempts to dispel certain myths perpetuated by the ‘grand narrative’ of the Haitian revolution as a heroic and romantic Republican alliance of Eurocentric Enlightenment mulattos, creoles and African slaves, a story which places the French revolution as the guiding inspiration for revolutionary uprisings in the slave-holding Americas. Geary does not deny this influence, but instead argues that there were other important, less European factors at work. “Arguments about the penetration of radical western values in slave societies” he says, “begin to break down in various ways when we look at those movements which explicitly claimed a debt to Haiti and the enlightenment”. In some ways his is an argument against the ideological Black Jacobin narrative proposed by Nesbitt.
Neither the French nor Haitian revolutions were a great influence on slave rebellions in Brazil for example, where there influence can be found in movements of mulattos and creoles but not amongst Africans, who were by far the most insurgent group there. Apart from two small conspiracies initiated by creoles in Brazil, and those involving only small amounts of people, creoles were not involved in any of the major slave uprisings there. But there were marked differences between Haiti and Bazil. The slaves in Brazil we predominantly African rather than Creole (‘Creole’ meaning here born into slavery in the colonies rather than transported there from Africa). Moreover, unlike in the French and US slave-holding colonies, manumussion was a common practice in Brazil and most of the slaves, who worked in manufacturing, agriculture and transport, could also earn income on a secondary labour market to buy their freedom should circumstances, though still exceptional, make that possible.
Why were things so different in Haiti? In some ways, Geary claims, they weren’t. There were similar tensions between Creole and African slaves in Haiti too. The vast majority of uprising slaves in the Northern plains were from Africa, and in the words of Jean Francois Papillon, himself an African born slave, “spoke not a word of French”. How do we reconcile C.L.R. James’ claim that Vodou was the medium of the revolution, Geary asks, with Touissant’s condemnation of it, the inference being, I assume, that Vodou is a characteristically African practice and therefore indicative of an important cultural difference between Eurocentric and Africanist revolutionary orientations. This is a very important question for Zonbi Diaspora, and one I will be addressing in more detail in a forthcoming post. For the time being, and in the context of Geary’s claims, it is worth noting that, according to the new historiography, two of the most important figures associated with the Vodou narrative of the Haitian Revolution, François Mackandal and Dutty Boukman, were most probably Muslims, and, according to Sylvianne Diouf, perhaps even marabouts, Islamic holy men and teachers known for prophesy and making magical amulets (or gris-gris).
In conclusion, and by way of bringing his argument back to Nesbitt’s, Geary suggests that the final settlement that takes place in Haiti after 1804 “namely the erection of a regime of militarized agriculture, in which the labor of supposedly liberated former slaves originally controlled, and their access to freedom tenuous” was not simply a function of the need to preserve the revolution, but may also have been the expression of a conflict of values, and residual differences, between African and Creole former-slaves in Haiti
In the Q&A session that followed Nesbitt responded to the suggestion that the case for Black Jacobinism has perhaps been overstated, parodying his own position in Universal Emancipation as “Spinoza caused the Haitian revolution”. However, that said, he went on to affirm that since writing the book he has come to see that his interest is in the “principles of revolutionary practice” developed through a generally Spinozist theory of transcendental principles, like those passed down from the 13th century Monday Charter written in Mali, the first known declaration of human rights, which proposed, for instance, that ‘everybody has a right to life and to the preservation of physical integrity’, or the Haitian proverb ‘Tout Moun se Moun’ (‘All People are People’), as tools that can be made practical revolutionary use of in given situations What gets lost when thinking of Spinoza or Diderot, he says, is this idea of ‘principle-as-tool’. It’s not so much a question of who made the tool, “whether it was a white European or an African in the 13th century”, but what people can do with it. Like the ideas of liberté and égalité or indeed, the Vodou loa, such transcendental tools precede us as potential resources. The point is “not to set the idea of Vodou off against the European high enlightenment but rather to explore this basic proposition, that there have been resources transcendental to our situation that anyone can draw upon and put to different uses”.
I might add here that Nesbitt’s proposal of a Spinozist foundation of the Haitian revolution is a particularly alluring one for those of a Foucault or Deleuzian political persuasion. Nesbitt divides European Enlightenment political thought into conservative and radical currents, both of which played a part in the ‘singularity’ of this historical event. But the radical current proved to the most decisive. The radicality of Spinoza’s thought, according to Nebsitt, lies in his proposition of indivisible, inalienable and universal human rights that are the outcome of his fundamental axioms: “the universe consists of a single, universal substance, and movement and the capacity for self-determination is inherent in matter itself (natura naturans), not instilled by an external First Mover”. The basis of Spinozist rights is “the infinite, open-ended productivity of beings who constantly singularize themselves as expressive beings” (Universal Emancipation, p.22). Furthermore, and in defense of Nesbitt, he explicitly speaks of the ‘tools’ available for the revolutionaries in Haiti as including “the surviving shards of African human rights traditions and the Catholic, Masonic, Enlightenment and Vodun moral codes that circulated more or less freely throughout colonial Saint-Domingue” (ibid, p.30).
Geary responded that the meaning of ‘liberty’ to a slave may be very different from contemporary liberal humanist conceptions. The opposite of being a slave for themselves may have meant being a slave owner, as it often did for manumissioned slaves in Brazil. This is the problem with the plasticity of the principles. He gives the example of insurrectionary movements within Candomblé, “a Brazilian syncretic religion a bit like Vodou”, which “some people associate…with opposition to the system..and to Christian Brazil”. There are certainly examples of such revolts, like the Urubu Quilombo revolt of 1826, in which, unusually, women played a major role. The problem with this argument, Geary says, is that Candomblé was started by Africans but, by 1850, most practitioners were free or freed, mixed race, including whites. Those who were still slaves, and usually African, would buy potions made by the babalaos (priests) used to tame their masters. Ironically, in some situations, such as an example given from Salvador, the priests who were giving these charms were themselves both manumission supporters and slave-owners. This, he says, shows what Candomblé is and is not about. He goes on to give examples of where ‘law’ is appealed to by slaves as a route of accommodation for slave women who turn to courts of law after 1850 in Brazil.
From the floor Colin Dayan took issue with Nebsitt’s use of the term transcendental, which she suggested was misleading, and in reference to Geary’s question “What would be the opposite of being a slave?”, the term transcendental “lifts it up a bit more than you might want” because “Vodou is not so much opposed to enlightenment” but is “producing it in a different register” and “it’s that register we might want to look at”. She went on to suggest that, given the issue of Creole and African slaves, the problem with Enlightenment-based narratives of revolt is that they tend to leave figures like Georges Biassou (insurgent slave leader alongside Jean François Papillon) out of the story. We should look for the suppressed histories of those “at the bottom” and ask our questions from there. How for instance, does one go about thinking through the Muslim-based narratives, given that Jean Price Mars in Ainsi parla l’oncle (1928) deals at length with the misrepresentation of Vodou as a combat between Christian and African based beliefs, on the grounds of the many slaves that were practicing Islam at the time. How do we recover that narrative in a comparative frame?
In response Nebsitt defended his use of the term transcendental, restating that he specifically did not say ‘transcendent’ and didn’t play it off against Vodou, explaining his thinking of the transcendental as “within our understanding of what Deleuze called pure immanence…not of a beyond as another world but…something which is in excess of our experience”. The subject finds themselves in a world in which things come to them from without. The key is to think about things like statements or experiences of the loa as certainly immanent rather than transcendent, but none-the-less “transcendental to our experience”.
Geary responded to Dayan’s question about Musllim-based narratives by recounting the example of written police records of interrogations of captured African slaves after an uprising in Bahia in 1835, in which they described their captors as ‘infidels’ and explained how they would wear Koranic charms and pieces of the Koran wrapped round their arms when they went into battle. Many of them had been involved in jihads on the edges of the sahara before they had become slaves.
Finally Nesbitt returned to the Louverture/Dessalines divide or distinction discussed earlier in the day, explaining how, even in his own book, Dessalines is not mentioned. However, if we look at the questions of violence, sacrifice, terror which Dayan has written and spoken extensively and so well about, Dessalines is a key figure, because after independence and the subsequent massacre of the remaining (and significantly white) planteur class “both Dessalines and Robespeire put in play a similar critique and defense of violence which made a distinction between rightful and unjust violence, where they make the judgement…that this group of people…have shown by their actions, by the extreme forms of violence to which they have gone to try to reinstate…the slave system, that a slave-free society cannot exist as long as they are in that society, and he makes the decision, rightly or wrongly, that they should be killed.”. In that sense Nesbitt concludes, Dessalines was an “eminently Black Jacobin.”