restricted access Social Death/Life, Fanon’s Phenomenology, and Prison Riots: Three Questions for Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage
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Social Death/Life, Fanon’s Phenomenology, and Prison Riots:
Three Questions for Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage

Neil Roberts’ central thesis in Freedom as Marronage—that freedom as flight from slavery, freedom as marronage, powerfully illuminates the experience of freedom itself—ought to be un-controversial. As he demonstrates throughout this work, this claim is both correct (as an intervention into how we ought to theorize freedom and as an empirical framework useful for understanding the Haitian Revolution) and important (in that it can and should alter how theorists consider the concept and practices of freedom). And I am convinced by Roberts’ account that marronage, as the “flight from the negative, sub-human realm of necessity, bondage, and unfreedom toward the sphere of positive activity and human freedom,” is a real thing in the world.1 I am further convinced that this account is a useful and powerful way to theorize freedom, agency, and the practices of domination, oppression, and marginalization that structure experience in specific historical and contemporary moments. Specifically, as both a theoretical and an empirical account of freedom, marronage directs our attention toward the experience of freedom and the way in which that experience is anything but static or settled. Rather, freedom is mobile—predicated on and experienced through motion and movement. This realization ultimately underscores the negative side of the dialectic of liberation, moving with (and not simply against) more “positive” conceptions of freedom that continue to pervade political theory. Quite simply: the experience of active refusals, resistances, and rejections are spaces of freedom.

My overall endorsement of Roberts’ work does not, of course, mean that I necessarily agree with Roberts on every page. As one of our mutual teachers once told me: one should never argue with someone you don’t respect.2 And it is out such respect that I will pick several arguments with him, framed as questions. The force behind these questions is less that I think Roberts is wrong in his analysis, but rather that I want to know how to productively build on his work, to bend, extend, and adapt freedom as marronage to additional ends. If Roberts makes good on his promise, that freedom as marronage “presents a useful heuristic device to scholars interested in understanding both [End Page 201] normative ideals of freedom and the origin of those ideals,” then a crucial test ought to be if, as a sympathetic fellow traveler, I can better understand the ideals and origins of our shared lexicon of freedom and slavery.3

Question 1: What is the relationship between social death and the forms of social life produced by slavery such that we might distinguish between parasitic and non-parasitic forms of social life under the rubric of marronage?

Roberts opens his book engaging with the work of Orlando Patterson, accepting Patterson’s basic framework that freedom ought to be understood through slavery. Robert insists, however, that that we must look beyond Patterson’s most well-known work, Slavery and Social Death, if we are to properly theorize the agency of enslaved persons. In this wise move, Roberts joins critics of Patterson (especially those in a roughly afro-pessimist mode) who claim that Patterson’s account in Slavery and Social Death ontologizes the condition of enslaved persons and neglects the psychological construction of enslaved persons’ agency (if not outright denying it). And I think Roberts’ work with (rather than against) Patterson—identifying the broader available resources for theorizing slave agency in Patterson’s later work—is incredibly helpful here. Yet later in his book, Roberts insists that the framework of social death is nevertheless insufficient for understanding freedom precisely because first, it denies the significance of the psychology to freedom to the slave agent, and second, it cannot explain the metaphysics of freedom itself.

This is a fine analysis. But it is necessary to push Roberts back to Slavery and Social Death, tracking the negation of the negation of social death before leaving it behind, identifying the social life produced by social death and ask Roberts how we ought to conceive of that produced form of life. There appear to be at least two forms of life produced...