- From Slavery to What World? Flight and Exteriority in Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage
Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage is an ambitious and inspiring attempt to rethink the concept of freedom by filling that conceptual vessel with the content provided by the self-activity of those who fled slavery. In so doing, Roberts builds explicitly upon Aimé Césaire’s insistence on verbing a noun, inventing the term marronner to turn the phenomenon of marronage into an active project of marooning.1 Like Césaire’s invented verb, Roberts’ own effort is as much about form as it is about content. Césaire was doing more than to coin a verb to describe a concrete historical referent: he was performatively endorsing the creativity of the poetic against the straitjacket of the scientific. More than simply describing a thing in the world—flight from slavery—for Césaire to speak of marooning as a verb was to set language into a constant and irrepressible motion.
So too with Freedom as Marronage, which seeks to recover not a historical object but a dynamic process—flight from slavery—leveraging that process as a contribution to what Roberts understands to be a still-stunted fugitive turn in political thought. As with Césaire, however, there is clear complicity between content and form—for how better to shed light on the ossified concepts of political thinking—and freedom in particular—than through those fleeing the civilization and society that most named freedom while undermining it in practice? The active process of marooning, of leaving this world for another entirely, might just be the best source for a radical reconceptualization of what it means to be free. For Roberts, the category of marronage exceeds the limitations of the concept of diaspora, while simultaneously transcending predominant debates in the history of political thought by bridging negative and positive concepts of freedom, the flight from slavery and the creation of something new.
Freedom as Marronage therefore names an ambitious project indeed, and tackles that project admirably, consistently, coherently. With great ambitions, however, comes great difficulty, and for reasons of space I will cut right to the chase by emphasizing the difficulties this ambitious vision suffers as a result of having brought into view. These difficulties emerge from Robert’s novel typology of marronage (arguably a difficulty of typology in general), which in turn emerges from his analysis [End Page 193] of the Haitian Revolution. While this choice may seem strange to some, it is by centering this oft disavowed historical moment instead of the long history of flight from slavery—by conjoining revolution and marronage—that Roberts is able to extend existing typologies of marronage in provocative and productive ways.
Specifically, he supplements existing categories of petit marronage (individual acts of flight) and grand marronage (the collective establishment of larger maroon communities) with two new normatively-laden categories that serve to complicate grand marronage in particular. The first, sovereign marronage, is a collective process, but one “achieved through the agency and vision of a lawgiver” and identified historically with Toussaint L’Ouverture. The second, drawing upon Frantz Fanon’s concept of sociogeny, is what Roberts calls sociogenic marronage—“the supreme ideal of freedom”—a non-sovereign form of flight driven not by a leader from above, but by the masses from below.2
It is on the basis three of these four forms of marronage—and in particular from the difficult task that Roberts sets himself of keeping these categories conceptually distinct—that my questions follow. These questions revolve first around the fixity of Roberts’ categories themselves, and then—through the example of the Haitian Revolution—about the stability of the distinction between sovereign and sociogenic marronage. Finally and consequently, I wonder about how clearly we can distinguish these new and intriguing categories from that of grand marronage itself, and whether attempting to do so might end up foreclosing on some of the radical potential they offer.
First, on the question typology and categorization itself, while Roberts seeks to introduce a mobility into considerations of freedom, he seems torn by the (arguably unavoidable) imperative to ground these categories by freezing them, even if momentarily...