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  • Mad Is a Place;or, the Slave Ship Tows the Ship of Fools
  • La Marr Jurelle Bruce (bio)

I. Mad Diasporas

At the onset of Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault chases the ship of fools as it crisscrosses a mad diaspora. To have Foucault tell it, such ships were early modern nautical vessels whose lunatic occupants were deemed nuisances to their communities in Europe, expelled from home, made wards of sailors, and consigned to drift perpetually along European rivers and seas. He declares that the mad seafarer "is the Passenger par excellence: that is, the prisoner of the passage. And the land he will come to is unknown—as is, once he disembarks, the land from which he comes. He has his truth and his homeland only in that fruitless expanse between two countries that cannot belong to him."1 Foucault describes a tragic diaspora of madness: a scattering of captive beings across sovereign borders and over bodies of water, inciting dispossession, abjection, and also novel subjectivities that transgress Western codes of sanity and sovereignty.

To the scholar of black modernity, this description may ring uncannily familiar. It brings to mind many millions of Africans abducted from their native lands and stacked in the putrid pits of slave ships; made "prisoner of the passage" that we call the Middle Passage; estranged from concrete "truth" or stable "homeland" and mired, instead, in a liquid and oceanic uncertainty; dragged thousands of miles across a seemingly "fruitless expanse"; flung into New World dwelling places that, perhaps, "cannot belong to [them]"; and cast into rootlessness that persists, even now, in many of their progeny. Hortense Spillers describes it thus: "Removed from [their] indigenous land and culture, and not-yet 'American' either, these captive persons, without names that their captors would recognize, were in movement across the Atlantic, but they were also nowhere at all."2 Afro-pessimists contend that descendants of slaves are still not American, still denied recognition as citizen and human, still existentially captive, still suspended in that void.3 Whether or not we accept such Afro-pessimistic postulates, these facts remain: African captives accessed what [End Page 303] Spillers calls a "richness of possibility" and realized diasporic mobility, sociality, kinship, creativity, and modes of being that endure, even now, in their marvelously tenacious heirs. In a "fruitless expanse," the enslaved bore fruit, after all.

Both the foolish ship and the slave ship provoke historiographical dispute. Regarding the former, historiographers claim that Foucault mistook an early modern literary and visual trope for a material vessel.4 (How apropos if the foolish ship turns out to be Foucault's phantasm, a philosopher's exquisite delusion!) As for the slave ship, it incites epistemic crisis over the incalculable number of Africans who made it to the other side—by which I mean the Americas and/or the afterlife—and over the depth of the wound the Middle Passage inflicts on modernity.5 Both ships resist and discomfit positivist history: the ship of fools because it is likely unreal and the slave ship because it is so devastatingly real that it confounds documentation.

Spillers further characterizes the Middle Passage as a "dehumanizing, ungendering, and defacing project"—and I would add "deranging" to that litany.6 To "derange" is to throw off, to cast askew, "to disturb the order or arrangement of" an entity.7 Indeed, the Middle Passage literally deranged millions of Africans across continents, oceans, centuries, and lifeworlds. I use "derange" also to signal that the Middle Passage, and the antiblack modernities it inaugurated, cast the African as categorically mad: wild, perverse, subrational, pathological, mentally unsound. By the height of the Euro-Enlightenment, preeminent philosophers like G. W. F. Hegel, David Hume, and Thomas Jefferson posited Africans as ontological foils for the modern, rational, European subject. Europeans repeatedly consolidated their identities as free and reasonable by casting the black-cum-mad as antithetical embodiment of unfreedom and unreason.

Thus, any critical investigation of madness and modernity must confront the matters of blackness and antiblackness in the foundation of modern Reason. (I distinguish "reason" from "Reason." Whereas the former describes the generic process of cogitation within a given system of logic, Reason signifies...