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KIERAN MURPHY Haiti and the Black Box of Romanticism T he camera obscura could be considered a “black box” of Ro­ manticism. Unpacking it can give access to thoughts and transatlantic interactions that have been lost since their initial appearance hundreds of years ago. One of the main recovery efforts that helped locate this remark­ able black box began with Sarah Kofman’s study on the recurrent invoca­ tions during the nineteenth-century of the camera obscura as a theoretical model.1 Kofman brought to the fore the critical importance of this black box by showing how its image-making function deeply impacted the ex­ ploration of cognitive and epistemological questions in authors such as Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. She observed that, over time, the meaning conveyed by the camera obscura shifted from transparency to opacity. Varying interpretations of the camera obscura had at least one thing in common, though. They manifested, often unwittingly, a fetishist disposition in European scientific thinking. Auguste Comte was the first philosopher to consider this disposition through a theory that underlined the intimate link between modern sci­ ence and fetishism. For the founder of positivism, fetishism is the true in­ tellectual point of departure of humanity and therefore already contains in an immature form the power ofspeculation and practical reasoning charac­ teristic of the scientific mind.2 In the primordial stage of fetishism the out­ side world is considered a direct extension of one’s life, will, and passions. The fetishist is then more invested in earthly matters and inclined to exI Kofman, Camera obscura, dc 1’ideologie (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1973). According to Jona­ than Crary, the camera obscura “cannot be reduced either to a technological or a discursive object: it was a social amalgam in which its existence as a textual figure was never separable from its machinic uses.” See Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nine­ teenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 30—31. See also, Lee W Bailey, “Skull’s Darkroom: The Camera Obscura and Subjectivity,” in Philosophy if Technology: Practical, His­ torical and Other Dimensions, ed. Paul T. Durbin (Netherlands: Springer, 1989); and Philippe Ortel, La Litterature a I’ere de la photographic: enquete sur une revolution invisible (Nimes: J. Chambon, 2002). 2. Comte, Cours de philosophic positive, vol. 5 (Paris: J. P. Baillere et Fils, 1864), 25—30. SiR, 56 (Spring 2017) 37 38 KIERAN MURPHY plore them than the polytheist, monotheist, and metaphysician, whose be­ liefs in supernatural, indirect, or transcendental causes divert them from empirically investigating their immediate surroundings. Georges Canguilhem has noted that Comte’s rehabilitation offetishism marked a break with the traditional Enlightenment idea of progress as the gradual attainment of perfection, which implied an intrinsic transformation of human nature, and the devalorization of the past.3 In Comte’s positivist and evolutionist scheme, human intellectual development cannot transcend or devalorize fetishism because this primordial stage already manifests the fundamental dispositions that characterize the scientific mind in an immature form. Comte’s controversial revalorization offetishism became particularly ap­ parent in his 1850s works, where, in provocative passages, he considers the logic of African fetishists far more rational and wise than the metaphysical “verbiage of the superb Germanic doctors.”4 The transgressive racial impli­ cations of Comte’s conception of fetishism would fully concretize in Antenor Firmin’s Of the Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology (1885), where it became a cornerstone in the Haitian anthropologist’s groundbreaking critique of nineteenth-century scientific racism. Firmin’s innovations also derived from his pioneering experience as a citizen of the first postcolonial black state. The achievements of the self-emancipated Af­ rican slaves and their descendants in Haiti become in his study undeniable evidence of black intellectual ability.5 Together with positivism, Haiti’s unprecedented postcolonial experi­ ment helped Firmin undermine the epistemological framework that was leading European scientists astray. The Haitian critical tradition of interro­ gating European science began when self-emancipated slaves brought into question the so-called universality and objectivity of their French master’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, and when, following Toussaint Louverture’s radical abolition of slavery, they had to defeat the formidable army...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 37-54
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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