pdf Download PDF

Reviewed by
Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. By Susan Buck-Morss. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 164. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. $45.00 cloth; $16.95 paper.

When Susan Buck-Morss published the essay, "Hegel and Haiti," in Critical Inquiry (2000), it prompted responses in fora as varied as art catalogues, workers' newspapers, and [End Page 407] the blogosphere. While the essay earned praise for undermining Eurocentrism, it also was criticized for reviving the idea of universal history. In this book, Buck-Morss develops the essay's humanism more forcefully. Linking her project to the post-9/11 era, she proclaims its "political urgency" (p. ix). Buck-Morss is a political theorist, and her treatise is more ambitious than conventional monographs. At its narrowest level, the work intervenes in Hegel scholarship by revisiting a classic question in that field: "Where did Hegel's idea of the relation between lordship and bondage originate?" (p. 48) Where other scholars have sought answers in the writings of other European intellectuals and seen Hegel's discussion of slavery as abstract, Buck-Morss builds on the work of Pierre-Franklin Tavarès and Nick Nesbitt to argue that Hegel was deeply aware of—and responding to—events in Haiti.

This argument is apparently revolutionary within Hegel scholarship. However, its importance may not be apparent to scholars of the Caribbean, for whom the relevance of any single European philosopher is not self-evident, even one who was foundational for both Marx and Aimé Césaire. Moreover, as Buck-Morss admits, Haitian academics already knew about the Hegel-Haiti connection when she spoke on the island in 2005. Nevertheless, even if the Hegel-Haiti linkage is either obvious or of peripheral interest to historians of the Caribbean, the author's reflections on how it has been erased provide much food for thought. She makes several meta-arguments. First, she sees the disconnecting of Hegel and Haiti as providing an important vantage point into the historical construction of Eurocentrism. The shock of the Haitian Revolution, she argues, spurred the development of a European culture that insisted, despite all counterevidence, on its own superiority and commitment to freedom. In fact, she notes, Hegel's later writings, reflecting growing horror about Haiti, fed nineteenth-century justifications of imperialism. In this regard, the book is an intriguing addition to recent studies of the aftereffects of the Haitian Revolution.

Beyond Eurocentrism, Buck-Morss's greater opponent is disciplinarity, which she believes obscures the interconnectedness of humanity. It is one thing, she argues, for Enlightenment writers to have deemed freedom their highest value at the same time as colonialism and slavery expanded, and for them to have ignored this contradiction. However, the fact that modern political philosophers still can construct "Western histories as coherent narratives of human freedom," without reference to Haiti, is to her a sign of the dangers of specialization: "Disciplinary boundaries allow counterevidence to belong to someone else's story" (p. 22). Buck-Morss links this kind of blindness to a modern politics in which the disavowal of inconvenient truths runs rampant, with deadly consequences.

Buck-Morss's largest goal is a humanistic one. While she shares with many modern post-colonial theorists a critique of Eurocentrism, she also believes in the necessity of "salvag[ing] modernity's universal intent, rather than calling for a plurality of alternative modernities" (p. ix). The latter outlook, she argues, has made it too easy for powerful nations to treat others differentially, as "political collectives proclaim themselves champions of human rights and the rule of law and then deny these to a whole list of enemy exceptions, as if humanity itself were the monopoly of their own privileged members" (p. 149). Buck-Morss urges scholars to recover moments and anomalies when the promise of universal freedom was glimpsed. [End Page 408]

Certainly, Buck-Morss's book adds little empirically to existing studies of the Haitian Revolution; her depiction of intellectual historians (people who write apologetics for past thinkers in the guise of contextualizing them) is also outdated. However, this brief review cannot do justice to the many ways her provocative and beautifully written book forces us to reexamine our academic labors. Buck-Morss also deserves praise for placing the Haitian Revolution firmly at the center of modernity—and insisting that scholars in many fields contemplate its lessons.

Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
California State University, San Marcos
San Marcos, California