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  • Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution
  • David Geggus
Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. By Sibylle Fischer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. xvii, 364. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. Notes. Index. $89.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

This learned and adventurous work by a literary scholar reassesses nineteenth-century reactions to the violent creation of Haiti. Divided into three sections concerning Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, Modernity Disavowed focuses [End Page 700] particularly on Spanish Caribbean literature but it has interesting things to say about a broad array of topics and it ranges widely in its disciplinary approach. Psychoanalytic argument is prominent in the chapters on Dominican indigenismo, on the poet Plácido, and on Cuban antislavery narratives. Elsewhere the analysis is historical, philosophical, political, and legal. Hannah Arendt, Eugene Genovese, Paul Gilroy, and Slavoj Žižek come in for criticism; Étienne Balibar, Robin Blackburn, and Walter Benjamin, for approval.

Fischer develops two central ideas. One, associated with Michel-Rolph Trouillot, is that the West "silenced" the Haitian Revolution. Observing that attempts to suppress the revolution's memory "rarely produced silence," she substitutes the term "disavowed" in its everyday and psychoanalytic senses. The second theme, first championed by Genovese, concerns the revolution's modernity. Fischer claims as modern not only the revolution's libertarian thrust but also its cultural heterogeneity, and the depersonalizing economy of the slave society it destroyed, as well as the Westernized elites that rejected it. She further depicts this rejection of "radical antislavery" as constitutive of Western modernity. Readers might have appreciated some more help from the author in sorting through all these modernities. It is not a book for undergraduates.

Framed by this general line of argument is a wealth of diverse information and discussion of topics, both well-known and obscure. The first and most historical chapter explores the 1812 trial of revolutionary Cuban woodworker José Antonio Aponte and the book of pictures he used to teach his followers. It advances an intriguing thesis about the spread of Egyptocentrism among African Americans. Fischer also illuminates the controversies surrounding Hegel's master-servant dialectic. While accepting Susan Buck-Morss's assertion of Haiti's influence on Hegel, Fischer goes further and attributes the philosopher's failure to resolve his dialectic to the "traumatic" nature of this influence. She sees the same mechanism at work elsewhere, among creole nationalists in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and in the West more generally. In the Dominican case, she offers a complex reading of indigenist literature comparing it to its Haitian counterpart and seeking to explain how it accommodated rather than opposed local Hispanism. Focus on their Indian forbears, Fischer argues, served to erase not the violence of Dominicans' past relations with Haiti, but their neighbor's troubling modernity. The book's most unusual chapter concerns the changing aesthetics of Cuban wall paintings during the first half of the nineteenth century. The author uncovers (with the help of recent urban renewal in Old Havana) a primitive decorative style associated with artists of color, among whom numbered Aponte, and she connects the disappearance by mid-century of both the style and the artistic milieu to the repression of free Afro-Cubans in these years.

The final section, on Haiti itself, contains fascinating analysis of revolutionary theater, the court of King Henry Christophe, and early national constitutions. Fischer perceptively observes that, where constitutions abjured interference abroad, they compensated with citizenship clauses that covertly made the new state a haven [End Page 701] for fugitives. However, she is somewhat less sure-footed in these chapters. She seems unaware of the slave insurrection's ambivalent stance on emancipation and, unjustly criticizing Blackburn, misrepresents the politics of Brissot and the Girondins on the issue. Saint Domingue did not have "more than one hundred different terms" (p. 232) for degrees of racial intermixture, and Haiti did not become "increasingly isolated" (p. 244) in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite such minor blemishes, this is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking work that combines bold generalization with a profusion of arresting detail and ingenious argument.

David Geggus
University of Florida


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