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  • Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution by Millery Polyné
  • Millery Polyné
Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. By Sibylle Fischer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

The political, financial and environmental turmoil that has rocked Haiti during its bicentennial celebrations of Haitian independence triggered a number of critics, Haitians to non-Haitians, to question Haiti’s participation in Western modernity. The typical narrative of Western modernity is a history of progress, independence and order. This past year Haitians have endured an upsurge in civic violence and an absence of state order, democratic processes, and political rights to many of its citizenry. The language of inexpressible terror and disarray that has plagued contemporary Haiti mirrors the fears of European settlers and colonial assemblies, who reduced the historic events between 1791 and 1804 in Saint Domingue to barbarous acts of “unspeakable violence, [that remain] outside the realm of civilization and beyond human language.”(4)

In Sibylle Fischer’s meaningful book, Modernity Disavowed, the author defends the literary, philosophical and political significance of the Haitian Revolution in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, itself. In addition, Fischer asserts that the transformative achievements for racial equality and abolitionism during and after the Haitian Revolution are essential to a fuller understanding of modernity and its evolution during the Age of Revolution. The author astutely asserts that the discussion of modernity, essentially absent from the discourse on slavery and slave resistance, has simply been “Eurocentric particularism parading as universalism.” (24)

This call for a thorough reconsideration of the concept of modernity positions Fischer among a number of scholars who are dissatisfied with the evolution of modernity within academic circles. A healthy critique of Paul Gilroy’s theory of a “counterculture of modernity” bookends the author’s introduction. Fischer contends that Gilroy’s theory is “too closely tied to cultural phenomena that survived into the present, and too much based on the assumption of a continuous memory and history.” (37) Furthermore, the author understands Gilroy’s modernity as relegated to the “master’s domain.” Thus, the enslaved and black freepersons are “forever condemned to recoil: memory, double consciousness, critique of regulatory regimes, and so forth.”(36)

Fischer’s proposal is the theory of a disavowed modernity that reveals the “conflictive and discontinuous nature of modernity in the Age of Revolution.” (37) However, the author’s concept has only diverged slightly from Gilroy. A disavowed modernity still remains rooted within the “master’s domain.” The reader must ask and answer: Who is repudiating? And why? What structures embody a refusal to acknowledge the liberation struggles and its real consequences on an individual, group or nation? How does it inform the historical experiences of the exploited and the exploiter? “Disavowal” seems to still center power in the hands and pens of oppressors and elites and their philosophical and legal vestiges that continue to have deleterious effects on the development of African-descended communities and identities. In other words authoritarian forces—(post)colonial elites, governing bodies, and metropolitan militaries—continue to orchestrate history, and, in many ways, the quotidian experiences of the powerless. By no means does this negate the myriad of ways enslaved Africans resisted hegemonic forces and cultivated a Creole modernity, but it challenges scholars to develop multiple modernities, or rather a manifold of sites and theories of a group’s participation in a modern experience, that inform, but are not fixed within the master’s domain.

Fischer’s explanation of a disavowed modernity is at its strongest in the first chapter, which examines the trial of José Antonio Aponte. Accused of an anti-slavery conspiracy against the Cuban colonial government Aponte, a Cuban-born cabinetmaker of Yoruba descent, was tried and sentenced to death. However, as Fischer points out, Aponte’s “revolutionary intent” or the conspiracy’s possible connections with Haiti’s black revolution were disavowed by Cuban colonial officials “by establishing a close link between the events of the conspiracy and…moderate [Spanish] abolitionism.” (42) Fischer’s other chapters are well-researched and quite informative for Caribbean scholars across disciplines. The author’s re-examination of the modifications of Haitian constitutions...

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