- Liberal Modernity and Its Fictions Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents
Amid the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing decolonial and settler decolonial struggles within the United States, Israel, and elsewhere—in the apparent likeness of Black and Palestinian life and death enunciated during the events of the summer of 2014—a June 2015 electronic roundtable on anti-Blackness and Black-Palestinian solidarity convened by the independent e-zine Jadaliyyabrought together over a dozen public intellectuals to weigh in on their linked, yet at times fraught, struggles. 1Roundtable participants highlighted the challenges of solidarity between the two, critiquing anti-Black racism within Arab communities in the United States and the Arab world, and discussing how Zionism has been the default position among African American leadership, at least prior to 1967. While many scholars have addressed the historical logic to this apparent paradox, roundtable participant Robin D. G. Kelley argues, “we need to know more and engage these questions at a much deeper level . . . [that] grasps how slavery, colonialism, dispossession, the war on terror, etc., are constitutive of the current racial regimes in all of its global dimensions” ( r ). [End Page 207]
Lisa Lowe’s ambitious The Intimacies of Four Continentsemerges as a notable enactment of this call to historicize the colonial and capitalist present and the racial regimes that encode and reproduce such relations of power, and to remain attentive to their differently situated yet inextricably linked histories. Yet in developing a historically situated, anti-racist, decolonial, and settler decolonial politics, Lowe’s work draws forth some of the intellectual and political tensions between Black studies (particularly the school of thought known as Afro-Pessimism) and Native American and Indigenous studies. Ultimately, however, Lowe fashions a shared space for both without fore-closing the incommensurabilities between them. In both content and methodology, The Intimacies of Four Continentstherefore coheres the myriad modes of analysis prompted by past and present intimacies between seemingly disparate racialized and colonized peoples—such as the mutually intelligible forms of anti-Black and anti-Arab settler state violence and capitalist dispossession, and shared strategies for survival—while at the same time providing new points of departure for further dialogue and for imagining alternative futures.
Lowe’s work takes as its starting point those intimacies that link colonial divisions of humanity to the formation and fictions of modern liberalism itself: the mixing of enslaved peoples, Indigenous peoples, and colonized laborers within the Americas during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By way of these emergent “intimacies of four continents,” Lowe moves against and through the Eurocentric accounts of modern liberalism’s origins—including those that pinpoint its origins in the French Revolution of 1789, the emergence of secular scientific explanation, the shift from mercantilism to industrial capitalism, the growth of modern bureaucracy, or citizenship within the modern state. Such accounts have long treated liberalism’s abstract promises of human freedom, rational progress, and social equity—and the particular narratives of political emancipation through citizenship and the state, and the promise of economic freedom in the development of labor and exchange markets—apart from the global conditions on which they depend ( ifc , 2, 3). Rather, The Intimacies of Four Continentslabors to trace how the global itineraries of colonialism, slavery, capitalism, and empire created the conditions of possibility for modern liberalism itself ( ifc , 1). As [End Page 208]such, Lowe investigates some of the furthest reaching questions of the colonial and capitalist past and present while pressing for reconsideration of how we come to ask and frame those questions.
While The Intimacies of Four Continentsis challenging to distill given its analytical expansiveness and historical specificity, Lowe develops a cogent framework through which to understand the origins of modern racial forms, which is also an account of the origins of the political philosophy of modern liberalism ( ifc , 3). Broadly, she situates the mutually imbricated formation of modern liberalism and modern racial categories over the course of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries as the elaboration of colonial difference...