- Toward a Fugitive PoliticsArendt, Rancière, Hartman
There are ways of being political that are occluded by dominant traditions in political theory. However, it is often in the offhand evasion of occlusion—in fugitive, wayward "practices of refusal" (Campt, 4)—that this politicity takes its form. In this essay I depart from the thought of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière to bring to the fore a fugitive politics that can be identified in the work of Saidiya Hartman but that is also articulated by numerous other scholars writing in the wake of the ongoing legacies of transatlantic slavery.1 Arendt and Rancière have profoundly influenced contemporary debates on politics. On occasion they have been thought in opposition to each other, with Rancière in particular positioning his account of politics as the disruption of accounts that premise politics on certain conditions or capacities, seen exemplarily in Arendt's The Human Condition.2 However, despite these differences, Arendt and Rancière both offer accounts of politics thought in relation to a dominant order that is marked by its members' possession of reasoned speech. For Arendt this is the "shining brightness" (1998, 180) of the public realm, constituted via people's speech and action and immortalized in the polis; for Rancière this is the interruptive force of forms of existence that were previously insensitive and that, via their demonstration of their reasoned speech, transform what he calls the "distribution of the sensible" (2010, 36), making themselves understood as speaking beings when they previously could not be heard in this way.3 In either case, an active relation to a dominant order becomes a necessary condition for activity to be understood as political.
It is difficult to thematize a politics indifferent to a dominant order via the work of either Arendt or Rancière. This matters because practices of refusing abjection, dispossession, and subjection have historically [End Page 1] been a significant way political activity occurs: fugitive, wayward practices, improvised in sociality despite extreme forms of violent domination. The cultural history of the transatlantic slave trade is a key site where these fugitive practices of refusal were enacted. However, if one works from Arendt's or Rancière's accounts of politics (at least as they are articulated in their seminal texts on politics), then these fugitive practices are rendered a- or antipolitical. What this suggests, I argue, is that Arendt's and Rancière's accounts of politics emerge from a tradition that has at its core an antiblackness. This tradition renders insensitive a current of political thought central to (despite being excluded from) European modernity: the study of blackness, or what has come to be called "black study."4
These fugitive practices of refusal are made apparent by the critical scholarship of authors who engage the archive of the transatlantic slave trade and its ongoing legacies. Prime among them is Saidiya Hartman, who offers these narratives of fugitivity and waywardness while simultaneously confronting the fraught nature of engaging archives that themselves enact a certain antiblack violence. For Hartman and others, there is an imperative that these narratives become more than a history of violent acts; that they manifest a sense of practices of fugitive refusal that one can apprehend if one learns how to hear, see, and write differently. These are not only methodological issues, but are also profoundly political issues. Unlike Arendt and Rancière, Hartman and others do not narrativize the archives of the slave trade to demonstrate the enslaved's possession of reasoned speech and thus demonstrate their proper place as a member of the polis; they instead seek to undermine the distinction between phone and logos by demonstrating the failure of these categories to make sense of the vocality of this tradition.5 The apprehension that Hartman and others enact—a way of manifesting the irreducibly relational uniqueness of another, typically through forms of narration—is both a refusal of the figure of the human emerging from the metaphysics of European modernity—that is, presumptively white and male; sovereign, reasoning, and possessive—and a demonstration of the way other forms of life have been and continue to be lived...