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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 here that are directly relevant to freedom as marronage: first, the social life of resistance and flight itself (i.e. the experience of the fugitive under the conditions of permanent fugitivity, codified in the United States, for example, by slave law and the original terms of Article 4, Section 2 of the US Constitution), and second, the social life produced parasitically by social death (i.e. the living off of the other which Patterson originally identifies as constitutive of slavery itself).

These second forms of freedom are dangerously tied up with those forms of social life which persist not necessarily openly but quietly under the terms of liberation, where it is not (as Roberts puts in a formulation that I found odd and which is challenging my own reading of Patterson) that the “ultimate slave is the human parasite” but that freedom itself has historically become a form of parasitism.4 Freedom [End Page 202] of this parasitic sort is in fact freedom precisely because it “purchases” life at the expense of death. This is what we mean by noting that something like sovereignty cannot be what it claims to be: autonomy, independence, or true freedom.

What does marronage looks like from this side of the dialectic (what I’m calling the double-negation, the parasitic social life produced by social death), in which it may be parasitic on the subjugation of others? Underlying Roberts’ analysis is a move that I’m methodologically suspicious of: the positing of a trans-historical account, and the seemingly stable notion of the human psyche that underlies Roberts’ reading of agency. As I read it, Roberts’ response to Patterson is to offer a divergent account of social death which refocuses our attention on the psychology of the slave agent, in so far as the practice of flight itself “creates possibility for actualizing revolutions against slavery through natality embedded in its processes of movement.”5 Throughout Roberts’ book, he turns us again and again to questions of psychology and the interiorization of slavery at the level of (self-)consciousness. While seemingly always attending to the external, in fact Roberts appears primarily interested in the internal, and possibly unable to account for parasitic forms of marronage. And this leads me to my second question.

Question 2: What would it mean to emphasize the phenomenological dimensions of the slavery/freedom dialectic rather than prioritize its psychological dimensions?

If what is at stake for Roberts is to define multiple forms of marronage, each of which avoid the trap of ontologizing the condition of enslaved persons and neglecting their agency, then this helps to explain why the critique of Patterson drives Roberts toward his re-reading of Douglass in Chapter 2 (and to a typology of freedom emphasizing the distinction between being free in form and free in fact).6 Roberts’ concern for Patterson’s inattention to the psychological agency of the enslaved person, it seems, continues to drive his engagement with Fanon in Chapter 4, elaborating an account of sociogenic marronage (in which the physical “flight” from bondage is less central than the flight from the zone of non-being, a primarily psychological process).

While placing Fanon in the tradition of phenomenology, on my reading, Roberts nevertheless reads Fanon primarily as a revolutionary and a psychologist. This is not surprising given the specific shortcomings of Patterson’s analysis that Roberts is so attentive to. But by Roberts’ own account, wouldn’t it be more useful to instead read Fanon is a critical phenomenologist (following Lisa Guenther’s account, for instance, with its focus on the material practices and conditions of intersubjectivity)?7 This difference in emphasis matters because a critical [End Page 203] account of phenomenology attends to the specific thing that Roberts tracks in his book: the passage between the “world” and the “self” that allows for, if not demands, the interiorization of the position of an enslaved person and the rebuilding and re-inscription of that world as a material practice. Moreover, it is in the critical phenomenological register that sociogenic marronage itself appears possible. In contrast to Fanon the revolutionary or Fanon the psychologist, Fanon the critical phenomenologist—tracing the inter-subjectivity of the self rather than the self’s interiority, produced and sustained through material forces and the sort of sociogenic interactions that Roberts in points too—might be better suited to make the argument and be more applicable to other cases.

I am invested in Fanon the critical phenomenologist because it appears that sociogenic marronage is the tool that I want to turn to for making sense of a paradigmatic form of social death in the United States today: the prison.

Hence, Question 3: Can marronage (petit vs. grand vs. sovereign vs. sociogenic) let us not just think about prison breaks, riots, and uprisings, but encourage and support them?

My central (and itself arguably parasitic) question is how freedom as marronage can help us account for the struggles, uprisings, rebellions, and riots of incarcerated and criminalized persons? If marronage is a form of freedom as refusal of the given conditions and an escape from those conditions, then how might it help us theorize resistance to and flight from the slavery of incarceration?

The connection here between the dialectic of freedom and slavery traced here and the phenomena of incarceration is easily established in Roberts’ own terms. Roberts writes, “Slavery is social because its institutional network situates slaves as part of a polity’s structural institutions. States include slaves in the political system as liminal beings who are paradoxically marginal yet socially integrated.”8 This sentence arguably also describes the United States’ structural institutions and political system in terms of its placement of roughly 1% of all persons in the U.S. inside jails and prisons, and placing nearly 3% of the population on some form of state supervision (such as parole or probation). And of course, under the terms of the 13th amendment, these same captured persons can be (and are) forced to labor, systematically stigmatized within the structures of the state. Under various names, the felon, the criminal, and the inmate all mark a similar social location of liminality who are “marginal yet social integrated” in political and economic life. As critical gender, race, and disability scholars (to name just a few) have noted, the production of these very categories of difference are (re)produced through techniques of state punishment and incarceration.9 [End Page 204]

Roberts (following Douglass’ own figuring of fugitivity alongside felonity, and with Angela Davis, Joy James, and many others) appears open, therefore, to drawing non-metaphorical connections between slave societies and prison societies and between practices of slavery and practices of incarceration. And this is why I routinely turn to Roberts’ account of freedom as flight when I teach courses on incarceration. It is an account which resonates with my students. And the line quoted above is often the cornerstone of how I discuss with students the structural homology between chattel slavery and the contemporary prison regime in the United States.10

And yet, I am also somehow still left grappling with how to think about the various forms of marronage (petit, grand, sovereign, and sociogenic) literally with respect to this particular manifestation of carceral slavery and social death, under the specific technology of the prison and the broader carceral logic which extends far outside the prison walls through modes of surveillance and domination that do not require physical bondage. When turning to the specific case of the prison, I end up thinking about marronage metaphorically again, where physical flight and escape from the carceral archipelago and the disciplinary apparatus is impossible, where claims of sovereignty and sociogenic remaking are precisely the practices targeted by the state.

That is, with the exceptions of specific fugitives themselves (such as Assata Shakur or Angela Davis), the right places to take up appear to be organized boycotts and strikes, as we have seen in the Free Alabama Movement, or with the Short Corridor Collective in Pelican bay from 2011–2013 (who organized the mass refusals of meals by 30,000 incarcerated persons across California in the summer of 2013). Yet even here, we risk leaving the tricky moments of riots and uprising themselves out of the picture, be they the prison riots that broke out in France in the early 1970s, or those at Attica roughly 45 years ago, or the most recent riots in Texas and Alabama prisons. These each take up moments of fugitivity in as clear a sense as I can understand it, and were violently suppressed. Yet these are fugitives for whom the possibility of distance from slavery (a key part of Roberts’s account of what makes up marronage) was systematically blocked (nor in fact, directly sought by incarcerated persons in some cases). Unless, of course, I am continuing to read Roberts wrong, metaphorically rather than literally?

That is, let me rephrase all three of my questions in a different way: How ought I—as a prison and police abolitionist and someone dedicated to W.E. B. Du Bois’, Joel Olson’s, and Angela Davis’ notion of “abolition-democracy”11 as the form of democratic practice to which we are called by fugitives themselves to pursue—practice freedom as marronage in non-metaphorical ways? [End Page 205]

Andrew Dilts

Andrew Dilts is Assistant Professor of political theory at Loyola Marymount University and a Member in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study (2016–2017). His work focuses on the relationships between race, sexuality, political membership, sovereignty, and punishment in the United States. He is the author of Punishment and Inclusion: Race, Membership, and the Limits of American Liberalism (2014) and co-editor of Active Intolerance: Michel Foucault, the Prisons Information Group, and the Future of Abolition (2015). Andrew may be contacted at


1. Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 15.

2. In the interests of full disclosure, I have had the pleasure of thinking along with Roberts at some early moments of this project and I have the had the opportunity to learn directly from him during our time together as graduate students. My own understanding of freedom has no doubt been shaped by a long scholarly and personal engagement with Roberts’ thought. And as I read the final version of Freedom as Marronage, I realize just how much I continue to learn from Roberts’ thinking.

3. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 4.

4. Ibid., 17.

5. Ibid., 20.

6. See, in particular, Ibid., 77.

7. See Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

8. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 17.

9. See, for instance, Eric A Stanley and Nat Smith, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, 2015; Liat Ben-Moshe and Allison C. Carey, eds., Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2011).

10. Specifically, Roberts’ account works as a powerful theoretical explanation of Angela Davis’ historical readings of Douglass and convict leasing, to Loïc Wacquant’s structural analysis of this homology, and of Joy James’ locating of the transcription of social death from slavery to incarceration through the 13th amendment to the US Constitution. See Angela Davis, “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System,” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 74–95; Loïc Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” New Left Review, no. 13 (2002): 41–60; Joy James, The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005).

11. See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Joel Olson, The Abolition of White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005). [End Page 206]

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