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  • Césaire, Senghor, and the Decolonial Political Imagination: On Wilder’s Freedom Time
  • Neil Roberts (bio)
Gary Wilder, Freedom Times: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 400pp. $28.95 (pbk), $99.95 (hc). ISBN: 9780822358503

European polities and their former colonies seemingly have remained inextricable despite the desires of the latter to forge degrees of separation. Following 1492 and the New World view that Sylvia Wynter, Charles Mills, and Enrique Dussel contend emerged as a result of conquest, plunder, the transatlantic slave trade, our modern conceptions of race, and white supremacy as a global system structuring social and political orders, Europe came to occupy the position of hegemon, interferer in, and dominator of territories and their inhabitants throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Africans, African-born slaves, and African-descended peoples in diaspora existed as colonial subjects during the Columbian aftermath. Their experiences of colonization, enslavement, and creolization generated imagined temporalities and alternative visions of future worlds outside modes of living shrouded in unfreedom. Emancipation was often a critical precondition condition for Afro-modern actors to ossify such visions, and we may understand its incarnation as having predominately taken two forms: slavery emancipation (abolition) and political emancipation (independence). However, with the rise of abolitionist movements and materialization of the first type of emancipation in regions including the Caribbean and Africa beginning in the eighteenth century—whether fought for by enslaved agents or decreed by colonial powers—what Thomas Holt calls the problem of freedom after emancipation endured. Gary Wilder’s impressive study Freedom Time wrestles with the implications of this problematic distinction between “emancipation” and “freedom,” a differentiation frequently elided by commentators.

Wilder troubles our conceptual landscape, asking readers to reconsider the assumption that an autonomous, sovereign, self-determining, independent nation-state must always be a teleology for the cultivation of freedom after slave emancipation among inhabitants seeking to bring into being a postcolony. In “desacralizing independence” (161), he turns to Francophone discourses on departmentalization in the Antilles and imaginings of statecraft in West Africa to ascertain freedom dreams that do not fit within conventional models of national political independence. Wilder proposes “unthinking France,” “working through empire,” and “deterritorializing social thought” (5–12). Federalism without state sovereignty is an unrealized vision resulting from this epistemological disposition. Wilder suggests the remaking of imperial France into a transnational democratic federation inclusive of her former colonies is a framework warranting our attention (133–66, 241–59). His book demonstrates that Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, and theorists working in European and Euro-American intellectual traditions do not have a lock on conceptualizations of postnational democracy.

To be clear: Wilder isn’t interested in backward-looking explanations of so-called tragic anticolonial nationalist narratives exemplified in the contemporary work of David Scott. Rather, in attempting to deprovincialize African and Caribbean writing for a global audience (258), Wilder excavates “untimely,” forward-looking, unrealized futures that, in his estimation, demand revisiting. As he states, “I am not primarily concerned with futures whose promise faded after imperfect implementation nor with those that corresponded to a world, or to hopes, that no longer exist but instead with futures that were once imagined but never came to be” (16). The real tragedy for Wilder is the failure to actualize a tabled federalist project. He writes with this conviction.

On method: Wilder advances “intellectual history as critical theory” in the writing of Freedom Time (12). But the book has broader applicability. Scholars interested in black studies, intellectual history, critical theory, French and Francophone studies, postcolonial political theory, Africana political thought, political philosophy, aesthetics and politics, human rights, and decolonial theory will all find great value in its contents.

On content: Freedom Time investigates the idea of freedom, its connection to time, and processes of decolonization integral to both in order to arrive at answers. It contains a preface, chronology, and nine chapters in between, each adorned with one epigraph by the following thinkers respectively: Theodor Adorno, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Henri Lefebvre, Édouard Glissant, C.L.R. James, Immanuel Kant, Georg Lukács, and William James. The book’s protagonists are the polymath poets, philosophers, and politicians Aimé Césaire (1913–2008...

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