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  • Hegel, Liberia
  • David Kazanjian (bio)
A Review of Susan Buck-Morss. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History(Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

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while they have them their the cow hide is hardly ever off of their backs and when they come here they feal So free that they walk about from morning till evening with out doing one Stroke of work by those means they becom to Sufer

— Samson Ceasar, letter to Henry R. Westfall, June 2, 1834

Starting from the Subject as though this were a permanent ground, [the speculative sentence] finds that, since the Predicate is really the Substance, the Subject has passed over in to the Predicate, and, by this very fact, has been upheaved.

— G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit,1807

In the first part of Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, Susan Buck-Morss makes a powerful case for the debt Hegel’s theoretical formulations on speculative knowledge owe to the Haitian Revolution. 1 By carefully recovering a long-neglected intellectual history, she shows how “the idea for the dialectic of lordship and bondage came to Hegel in Jena in the years 1803–5 from reading the press” (49), especially the German-language paper Minerva, which extensively covered events in Haiti between 1804 and 1805. Buck-Morss then asks a consequential question: “Why is it of more than arcane interest to retrieve from oblivion this fragment of history, the truth of which has managed to slip away from us? There are many possible answers . . .” (74). I interrupt this quotation mid-sentence because it brings us to the threshold of a decision anyone who is involved in archival research must make, and does make, though not always with Buck-Morss’s salutary acknowledgment of the question itself. There are indeed “many possible answers” to the question of what to do with our recovered archives, and though Buck-Morss will offer and elaborate one quite specific answer in the rest of her book—an answer I will be substantially critical of in what follows—she nonetheless precisely marks this moment of decision as a moment of possibility.

In this essay I suggest that an under-examined archive from the black Atlantic opens up a possibility that Buck-Morss does not consider: that the most seemingly quotidian and apparently concrete historical moments can offer deeply theoretical and profoundly speculative reflections on freedom. The archive of letters written by black American settler-colonists in colonial Liberia to their family, friends, and former masters during the early to mid-nineteenth century looks, by all accounts, like an empirical record of everyday life. These letters are saturated with greetings and goodbyes, news of births and (much more often) of deaths, requests for food and supplies, and descriptions of daily events. Consequently, they tempt us to read them according to protocols that are common in new social history and social theory, in which such documents offer the raw material for historical recovery and theoretical reconstruction. However, such protocols foreclose the possibility of reading these letters as theoretical treatises in their own right, in the root sense of the word “theoretical,” the sense of contemplation or speculation, as in “beholding a spectacle.” 2 Even further, such protocols foreclose the possibility of reading these letters alongside—rather than as a source or example of—the texts that are traditionally recognized as the period’s most important works of philosophy and political theory. [End Page 7]

Taking inspiration from the encounter Buck-Morss stages between Hegel and Haiti, in which she argues that Hegel derives an overly abstract theory of freedom from the “raw” and “concrete” reality of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Haitian freedom struggles, I stage a more appositional encounter between Hegel and Liberia. In letters to their former masters, I contend, ex-slaves who had been freed from servitude in the United States on the condition that they be deported to Liberia speculate about the very meaning of freedom. Although not directly related to Hegel through the kind of coordinated intellectual history Buck-Morss establishes—“Hegel andHaiti” 3 —these Liberian letters can be read to encounter, interrupt, and improvise, appositionally, the speculative knowledge Hegel himself also theorized...