The Black Atlantic Revisited, The Body Reconsidered: On Lingering, Liminality, Lies, and Disability
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The Black Atlantic Revisited, The Body Reconsidered:
On Lingering, Liminality, Lies, and Disability
On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World, Jonathan Elmer. Fordham University Press, 2008.
Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel, Edlie L. Wong. New York University Press, 2009.
The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation, Marcus Wood. University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Sovereignty is a myth, the law is incoherent, and freedom is a lie—these are the truths of slavery and emancipation. The study of the black Atlantic reckons with these tenets, revealing the bleak state of things not only as they were then but also as they are now. Whether explicitly, the critics studied in this essay write from within frameworks of human states of exception in their discussions of literature, law, and visual culture. Their titles vivify the liminal and at times paradoxical states of being, which generations descending from the black Atlantic inhabit: of lingering, being neither/nor, and acquiring a horrible gift. Influencing much of the discourse around human, legal, and cultural conditions of indistinction is the work of Giorgio Agamben. The process of conceptualizing such indistinct states of being, particularly in light of the power structures producing them, can conjure a craving for discourses of subjectivity that are more promising, or, frankly, less depressing—a desire to seek forms of black resistance and agency within such liminal subjectivities that counter apparatuses of white power circulating during slavery and still today. As hope seems to run almost cyclically through black Atlantic studies, these books suggest that we are currently in one of the more pessimistic phases. We seem to want—as Marcus Wood insists we should—"to shift [our] emphases" (356), to complicate our concentration on the limitations of white systems of rule and regulation and their renderings of black subjectivity toward modes of black expression, [End Page 814] creativity, and activism, and their critique, negotiation, and subversion of structures of power, domination, and subjugation.

Extending the lines of questioning emerging from these three excellent contributions to scholarship of the black Atlantic, I want to consider Wood's plea and the potential discourse lurking everywhere in these three studies of slavery and emancipation and across the field as a whole, but that, rather surprisingly, rarely—with some notable exceptions—gets much direct attention in the critical conversation: disability. Literary critics and historians of the black Atlantic often use rhetorics of disability as they describe systems and events that have crippling, paralyzing, disfiguring, and deforming effects, for example, yet only a few expressly address actual disability and the critical potential of a disability studies lens.1 Prompted by these studies of racialized sovereignty, freedom suits, and emancipation iconography, I ask what disability can tell us about the creative and critical work of those occupying such zones of indistinction and exception. What would such a framework reveal about the modes of resistance and agency of those inhabiting conditions of indistinction and exception? How might it help us question and frustrate the Atlantic frame's potential to reproduce, in Brian Connolly's words, the "terms [of] global capitalism" (par. 19)? Connolly convincingly argues that the current tendency in historical (and I would add literary) studies to naturalize transnational flows of people, goods, and so on—not to mention the self-congratulations that go with a sense of having freed ourselves from the oppressive ideologies of the nation and nationalism—risks overlooking the role of the "transnational [as] . . . a necessary condition of national expansion" (par. 18).

Connolly's project of interrogating the naturalness of transnationalism involves asking what is at stake also in naturalizing transnational subjectivities? What can disability add to consideration of the states of exception and zones of indistinction that oppressive structures produce? What can it tell us about the way the body knows, creates, and responds to power in the context of the black Atlantic? Rethinking the individual and collective implications of such modes of being, investigating their creative potential, and questioning the field's investment in transnationalism may be asking too much of a disability studies intervention, but it's a worthy...