restricted access Questions We Are Asking: Hegel, Agamben, Dayan, Trouillot, Mbembe, and Haitian Studies
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Questions We Are Asking:
Hegel, Agamben, Dayan, Trouillot, Mbembe, and Haitian Studies

The traffic of images of global suffering, for example, creates new communities of sentiment, which introduce empathy, identification, and anger across large cultural distances.

Martin Munro, Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature1

« C’est un autre monde, là-bas, Tatsumi, un pays perdu aux frontières de la soif. […] Tu as bien traversé l’océan pour le voir, non? Ton papier, il va faire sensation, n’est-ce pas?

Fito lâcha les derniers mots avec une colère qu’il ne put contenir. »

Kettly Mars, Aux frontières de la soif2

Introduction: Nationhood, Citizenship, Personhood, and Poverty

This article works through ways in which scholars are answering the following questions: how have scholars understood the project of “nation,” and its “citizens,” over the past twenty years? More specifically, how does nationhood (the desire for it, the lack of it, its necessarily utopian intentions and resultant disappointing outcomes) relate to an individual and/or a community’s sense of personhood? And finally, how does the discussion of nationhood and its citizenry relate to the ever-present dialogue around “poverty”? My intention is to look at how discussions about Haiti relate to the above interrogations.

It is not my aim to make an explicit argument about nationhood or its various incarnations, but rather, I want to consider the complexity of the notion of nationhood and its associated vocabulary—citizenship, state, nation, personhood, and as I will argue at the end of this paper, poverty—as deliberated by scholars working in political philosophy [End Page 6] and postcolonial studies in African, Caribbean, European, and North American contexts. As such, this article may also be read as a coordinated extended review of literature, a putting-into-dialogue of thinkers writing across a transatlantic space. I consider both the aspirations and the disappointments of what the notion and practice of nationhood can and cannot deliver in a contemporary era, one that is necessarily informed by the complex dynamic between modernity’s enlightenment project and neo/post/colonialisms’ exploitation of peoples and places.3

In a roundtable session titled “Encounters in the Archives: A Transdisciplinary Discussion,” Ann Laura Stoler spoke of the relationship, the codependency even, between on the one hand, the ideas, texts, and objects that we put into our archives; and, on the other hand, the questions that we ask.4 What is important, Stoler insists, is that we pose questions that are worth asking; and to do so we must put into our archive, objects, books, and ideas that help us not so much to resolve the uncertainties that lead to the formulation of our questions, but rather that we construct our archives to help us better invite questions that interrogate the urgencies of our present human condition. I have chosen to read through Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Colin Dayan’s The Law Is a White Dog (2011), Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s introduction to Haiti State Against Nation: The Origin and Legacy of Duvalierism (1990) and his essays in Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (2003), Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony (2001), and Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness (2010) because, I argue, they deal similarly with how personhood has been constructed under the weight of the notion and practice of “nationhood.” The writers in question problematize the notion of “successful” nations. For example, the recent work by Harvard and M.I.T. economists Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson titled Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012), written for a general audience, studies the world’s nations through a prism that organizes them according to those that succeed and those that “fail.” Yarimar Bonilla might criticize such scholarship, one which conceives of “nations” as fixed and bordered geographies, with communities attached to them, as scholarship that only reinforces “normative assumptions of our contemporary political world,” “Western political categories” of “nationalism and sovereignty” as “pathologized sites of failed emancipation.”5 From very different contexts and standpoints, the thinkers who are featured in this article put into question the very notion of nationhood...


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