- Haiti, Modernity, and U.S. Identities
The politics and ideology of radical antislavery ultimately ran up against the strictures imposed by the colonial world order; they were not to set the agenda.—Sibylle Fischer, Modernity Disavowed
The colonial past may never let go. This is a hard truth.—David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity
Without question, interest in Haiti is resurgent lately, inspired by the bicentennial commemorations of both Haitian Independence and, in the United States, of the Louisiana Purchase. Of longer standing, though, has been the tremendous growth and diversification of scholarship on slavery and the slave trade over the past 35 years. Here, the status of resistance to these central engines of the dominant economic system has come under scrutiny, with Haiti as the exception to the rule as the only successful slave revolt in modern world history. The shift in Anglo-American scholarship from national history toward Atlantic Studies has also cast Haiti in a pivotal role. Saint Domingue is first the “pearl of the Antilles,” the most perfected example of the plantation system, and then its most egregious failure, a decline from splendor to unparalleled squalor in the years following independence. Lost in between is the emergence of the Haitian state itself, a history overshadowed by the attention to the traumatic response of white creoles to the violence of slave revolt. The Haitians’ radical antislavery is displaced by efforts to describe modes of creole solidarity both within and across the incipiently independent regions of the western hemisphere.
Tremendous challenges face scholars who hope to draw Haiti and the Caribbean region more generally into the orbit of early national American studies. Certainly, the critique of insular and exceptionalist analyses of U.S. culture has opened up new avenues for research, while also presenting new [End Page 453] methodological obstacles to hurdle. The adoption of postcolonial theory, for example, offers ways to compare and to link North American colonialism, anticolonial struggle, and postrevolutionary ambivalence to larger regional patterns. But the complexities of assigning causality, relation, and comparison are vast. One register of these difficulties can be traced in the appeal of psychoanalytic terminology in the studies under review. We read of a “disavowed” modernity, of postrevolutionary America’s “creole complex,” of negation, repression, disidentification, and denial. Of the three monographs that repeatedly and, to varying degrees, systematically use these terms, Sibylle Fischer is most explicit about her charge. “The concept of disavowal,” she writes, “requires us to identify what is being disavowed, by whom, and for what reason.” For Fischer, these discriminations sort out claims of victimization by “all those who find it difficult to deal with reality” (38).
Tellingly, Fischer, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature at NYU, is least interested in distinguishing the United States from any other slaveholding region that shares reasons to suppress the significance of the Haitian revolt. For sure, it should come as no surprise that diverse scholarly disciplines would construe the object of study in different ways. Fischer in fact acknowledges this as a problem in her introduction, where she explains that the disciplinary balkanization of the study of slavery and slave resistance has made it “increasingly difficult to see the map of the slaveholding Atlantic in its entirety, with its complex networks of communication and exchange that included Africa, Europe, and the Americas” (10). From this perspective, any approach to slavery, the slave trade, or to Haiti and slave resistance more broadly that is circumscribed by a particular national framework is bound to militate against comparative and synergistic analysis of the Atlantic system. But Fischer’s concern is both more targeted and, thus, more provocative. With an aim to give voice to the history of a radical antislavery, which she describes as a “shadowy, discontinuous formation with a rhizomic, decentered structure,” Fischer cautions against the very procedure of analysis that Sean Goudie proposes in his Creole America: The West Indies and the Formation of Literature and Culture in the New Republic. The cultural contradictions, the struggles for sociocultural autonomy and political and economic sovereignty that together comprise what Goudie will call the early Republic’s “creole complex” are precisely not...