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Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution

Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution

by Sibylle Fischer

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Modernity Disavowed is a pathbreaking study of the cultural, political, and philosophical significance of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Revealing how the radical antislavery politics of this seminal event have been suppressed and ignored in historical and cultural records over the past two hundred years, Sibylle Fischer contends that revolutionary


Modernity Disavowed is a pathbreaking study of the cultural, political, and philosophical significance of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Revealing how the radical antislavery politics of this seminal event have been suppressed and ignored in historical and cultural records over the past two hundred years, Sibylle Fischer contends that revolutionary antislavery and its subsequent disavowal are central to the formation and understanding of Western modernity. She develops a powerful argument that the denial of revolutionary antislavery eventually became a crucial ingredient in a range of hegemonic thought, including Creole nationalism in the Caribbean and G. W. F. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

Fischer draws on history, literary scholarship, political theory, philosophy, and psychoanalytic theory to examine a range of material, including Haitian political and legal documents and nineteenth-century Cuban and Dominican literature and art. She demonstrates that at a time when racial taxonomies were beginning to mutate into scientific racism and racist biology, the Haitian revolutionaries recognized the question of race as political. Yet, as the cultural records of neighboring Cuba and the Dominican Republic show, the story of the Haitian Revolution has been told as one outside politics and beyond human language, as a tale of barbarism and unspeakable violence. From the time of the revolution onward, the story has been confined to the margins of history: to rumors, oral histories, and confidential letters. Fischer maintains that without accounting for revolutionary antislavery and its subsequent disavowal, Western modernity—including its hierarchy of values, depoliticization of social goals having to do with racial differences, and privileging of claims of national sovereignty—cannot be fully understood.

Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
It is ironic that, just as the fad of cultural studies appears to be sinking under the weight of its obtuse verbal obscurantism, a book appears that does much to vindicate the special insights that this approach originally promised. In this case, it is also on a topic of major contemporary importance: Haiti's seemingly endless struggle for social, economic, and political stability 200 years after its independence from France. Fischer brings together an immense amount of material to examine the unique circumstances of Haiti's emergence as a nation, the profound wounds that this process left in its collective psyche, and the ways in which these events affected external perceptions of Haiti. Her main point is that Haiti is central to the story of the "Age of Democratic Revolution"; the unique nature of Haiti's bloody struggle for independence, with its radical challenge to the status quo of slave-based societies, left a deep imprint throughout the Americas but also led to the "silencing" of the Haitian example. Ultimately, Haiti's radical antislavery position could be sustained only at great cost to itself.
From the Publisher
“Modernity Disavowed is a superior work. It is not only important but also needed.”—Alicia Ríos, coeditor of The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader

“Modernity Disavowed is a tour de force. This magnificent work is the best book on its subject and at the forefront of a new wave of scholarship that is already transforming both the study of the Caribbean and the study of modernity. I fully expect it to become a classic in its field.”—Lewis R. Gordon, author of Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought

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Duke University Press
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Modernity disavowed

Haiti and the cultures of slavery in the age of revolution
By Sibylle Fischer

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3290-6

Chapter One

The Deadly Hermeneutics of the Trial of Jose Antonio Aponte

In the early weeks of 1812, a rumor began to circulate among Cuban slaves and free people of color: the Spanish Cortes in Cadiz had abolished slavery, it said, and the Cuban slaveholders were cheating their slaves of their liberty. Unrest was in the air. In a letter to Salvador Muro y Salazar, Marquez of Someruelos-the Captain General of the island-someone reported having overheard a black woman announcing that "it won't be long now before the land will be ruled by Blacks, and we'll have a King." Then news arrived about an assault on the sugar plantation of Penas Altas, in the vicinity of Havana: after a brief and bloody battle, the plantation had been burned to the ground. On March 19, 1812, the authorities arrested nine conspirators. After three weeks of interrogation by a special council, the accused were sentenced to death. On the eve of the execution, Someruelos addresses himself to the Cuban people:

There was an attempt to overturn the old and well-established submission of the serfs ... which lacked all fact and antecedent except in the conceited and heated brain of the black Jose Antonio Aponte and of some others who, deceived by his clumsy and laughable calculations, wanted to quench their stupid ambition withhonors and employments in the ambit of that fantastic king. It is therefore absolutely necessary that they [the slaves] be relieved of the illusion that slavery has been abolished, by telling them frankly that there is not, and never has been, such liberty....

In light of these facts, the public will cease to believe in the extraordinary significance and supreme transcendence that have been given to this matter, which did not exceed the knowledge of a few, without plan, coordination, help, or support of natives or foreigners....

What remains to be announced to this respectable public is that I have ordered the announced sentence to be executed next Thursday morning, in the usual place, and that the heads of Aponte, Lisundia, Chacon, and Barbier will be exhibited in the most public and convenient places as a warning lesson for those of their class. (217-19)

The proclamation ends with a call for calm at the time of the execution, so as to prove yet again the "enlightenment, religiosity, and understanding" at which the Cuban people had always excelled.

Someruelos is rehearsing a strategy that we will find time and again in the elite's dealings with slave rebellions and events potentially linked to Haiti. He reaffirms the hemispheric bonds of colonialism that link Cuba to Spain and denies any connections that would violate the boundaries of empire. Aponte's insurgency is presented as a unique event, the result of the megalomaniacal aspirations of one individual, with neither local nor foreign support for the uprising: the conspiracy was based on misinformation, delusions, and deception. Someruelos's proclamation betrays its secret through what it denies: by calling Aponte a "fantastic king," he conjures up the image of the Haitian king Henri Christophe, whose portrait had supposedly been in Aponte's possession. The coconspirators' attempt to "quench their stupid ambition with honors and occupations" again hints at the precedent in Haiti, where the former slaves had indeed received honors and employment by heads of state coming from their own ranks. The real specter behind Someruelos's calming and reassuring remarks to the enlightened public can be discerned only through the sequence of denials and denunciations. Haiti remains unnamed.

The political and strategic payoff of this redescription is clear. A dismissal of the political activities of the nonwhite population as delusionary fantasy would not preclude cautionary measures. But to the extent that the reality of these activities is acknowledged, their political meaning and transcendence are denied. By establishing a close link between the events of the conspiracy and the rumors about an abolitionist Spanish law, Someruelos disavows the revolutionary intent of Aponte and instead assimilates it to moderate abolitionism. This, it seems to me, is more important than his hard line on abolitionism itself: together with any possible connection with Haiti, he eliminates the third possibility, that of black agency, and of a slave revolution on the Haitian model.

Part of the extensive transcript compiled through three weeks of interrogation relates to a variety of artifacts that were reported to have been in Aponte's possession, among them portraits of Toussaint Louverture, Henri Christophe, and Dessalines. Most notable, however, was an oversized book wrapped in black oilskin that contained an eclectic array of more than sixty pictures with religious, political, and historical themes. The transcript of the interrogation about the pictures reads like a record of deadly hermeneutics: it takes us to the border point where transculturation and the fight over meaning turn into a struggle for dominance and survival, and where even the question of verisimilitude becomes a question of life or death.

The Problem of Interpretation

The record of the Aponte trial is arguably the most powerful document we have of the imaginary of radical antislavery in the Caribbean. Like the antislavery narratives of the liberal elite, Aponte's book was, for the most part, propaganda literature. It provides us with a glimpse of the forms of cultural production, the aesthetic preferences, and cultural practices that may have been associated with the struggle against slavery among those who lived in the plantation zone. It does not matter that a good number of the pictures have no obvious thematic connection to antislavery: they are testimony to forms of appropriation and resignification of cultural materials, which in turn could become the vehicle for subverting prevailing ideas of legitimate authority and articulating dissident ideas of liberation. More than any other document from the revolutionary age in the Caribbean, Aponte's transimperial, multilingual, and radically heterogeneous book is a reflection of the hemispheric scope of the slave economies as well as a testimony to the influence of revolutionary ideas coming from Haiti and France.

But like so much else that pertained to that cultural and political ambit, his work vanished. The only record we have is the transcript of the trial-not the sort of evidence to be taken at face value. And the problems go further than that. The strongly narrative character of many of the pictures described suggests that they were painted not to stand on their own but to be used in connection with oral instruction, perhaps on the model of wall paintings in Catholic churches, which always served as illustrations for the official exegetic discourse. Whereas the Creole abolitionist literature existed in a cultural sphere that was beginning to diversify and where individual works could be consumed in privacy, by simply following the rules of interpretation suggested by key terms such as a novel or a cuadro costumbrista (picture of local customs), Aponte's book is clearly more dependent on related social activities and contextual factors, which we may not be able to reconstruct.

The conflict over how to interpret the book is thus at least in part also a conflict over what sort of object it is. It is called a book, but most of the writing it contains is in Latin and English and not comprehensible for those who would contemplate the pictures. Had Aponte initiated a transnational practice of, say, revolutionary picture book making, perhaps we would now be in a better position to interpret the book. But the point of the proceedings was precisely to suppress such artifacts. So it was lost, destroyed, or stowed away in some attic and has not been seen since the time of the trial. The only remnants we have are the (interested, tainted, forced) testimonies of the accused, reflected in the transcripts of proceedings whose deadly outcome was clear from the beginning. The book's heterogeneous materials, its mixture of styles, topics, and purposes, make it almost impossible to find a historical or aesthetic term that would capture the nature of this artifact.

Further issues arise in relation to Aponte's biography. According to Jose Luciano Franco, Aponte was a Cuban-born cabinetmaker and artisan sculptor of Yoruba descent, who had his own workshop and occupied a position of distinction in the emerging petite bourgeoisie of free blacks and mulattoes. Like his grandfather, who had fought with the Spanish troops during the English occupation of Havana, Aponte held a military rank in the militia of free people of color. He was an active member in various religious and social organizations of African origin, the leader of his local Shango-Tedum chapter, a member of a powerful Nigerian secret society, and a ranking member of the religious order of the Lucumi. Unfortunately, Franco does not tell us in any detail where he collected this information; for the account of Aponte's activities in the Afro-Cuban religious community, Franco credits "oral history" in certain popular neighborhoods in Havana. The transcript of the proceedings, however, is completely devoid of any reference to Afro-Cuban religion.

One may wonder, then, how reliable Franco's account is, given that his gathering of oral testimony took place about 150 years after Aponte's death. But perhaps this skepticism is misplaced. The Afro-Cuban religions not only require secrecy from those inducted; they were also, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, subject to attempts to suppress them. It seems plausible that religious communities, especially if they operate in secrecy and suffer persecution, would provide an institutional frame in which memory and oral history would play a crucial role and thus be more stable and reliable than in other circumstances. If Franco's account of Aponte's role in Afro-Cuban religious and social institutions is true, it may have been Aponte's conscious decision to keep those connections out of the trial. The pictures may well have borne some similarities to contemporary Santeria imagery. If so, we would also know that without information about the spatial organization of the pictures, this level of meaning will forever be beyond our reach:? unfortunately, the trial records give us few such indications beyond simple left and right distinctions.

But skepticism about our ability to read Aponte's book is not without its own dangers. There may of course have been some secret code or some hidden meaning in the pictures which has become lost to us through the double impact of distorted evidence and cultural discontinuity. But should we disregard the material we do have for a purely hypothetical gain or theoretical purity? Might we not, through our interpretative abstinence, end up underwriting the commission's attitude? After all, the investigators, too, assumed that Aponte's book could not be read simply as a piece of political and ideological work of the sort that anybody involved in a revolutionary struggle would produce. Interpretative humility might end up mimicking the colonial slaveholders' attempt to deny all forms of political agency and activity to the nonwhite population. Personally, I suspect that many of Aponte's pictures did not mean much more than what was obvious, and that it was the authorities' reluctance to recognize the political, ideological, and educational intent behind the pictures that prompted the prosecutors to keep asking for something else. Even if we give full weight to these cautionary considerations, they should not lead us to dismiss what we can learn about Aponte's political and educational work. The fragility of Aponte's image, its precarious status in the history of the emerging nation with traces in collective memory and criminal archives rather than official annals, is emblematic of the uncertain status of the emancipatory ideas he represents. The transcripts of Aponte's trial remain one of the most extraordinary records of the revolutionary Atlantic.

Aponte's Book

Aponte's book appears to have been an eclectic assemblage of different media, materials, languages, and styles. The pictures range from religious to historical themes, from classical mythology to Spanish heroic history, from genre pictures to maps. There is a picture full of flames, a picture with vipers, and one that shows a broken crown and scepter that according to Aponte's testimony was given to him at the time of the French Revolution (170-71). Many of the pictures are internally syncretized and freely mix events and anecdotes from different cultures or mythologies. Picture 26, for instance, represents an encounter between the Cynic philosopher Diogenes in his barrel and the Spanish king Rodrigo. Diogenes is shown as protected by the Egyptian goddess Isis, which explains, according to Aponte's comments on the picture, why Diogenes wins a battle of wits against the king (139-40).

The syncretism of content is mirrored by a syncretism of form: many of the pictures appear to be more like what we might call a collage than a Western-style painting. Appropriating whatever materials he could find, Aponte assembled, more than painted, the pictures. He would cut out landscapes from prints and fans, and even paste shards onto the paper (picture 1). For more complicated pictures, he relied on the assistance of a local boy who worked for a painters' shop and had a knack for drawing figures. Of course it is impossible to say what these pictures really looked like. However, it seems fairly clear that many pictures had a strong narrative character: picture 62, for instance, is described as representing the whole Iliad and Odyssey, complete with the rapture of Helena, the burning of Troy, Ulysses' travels, and the sirens (162). Given the narrative density and the enormous number of figures on some pages, I find it hard not to think of cartoon books where reductive outlining, the omission of anything that is not central to the action, and a combination of writing and drawing also allows for packed action.

One of the more incriminating pictures is described by Chacon: "There are two armies engaged in a battle, shooting, with several blacks mixed in with the one on the right: and the same on the following sheet, there are white and black soldiers; one of the black ones is on a horse, with a severed head on a pike, and another black who holds a severed head dripping with blood, the whites being here in the situation of the defeated" (113). When asked what the picture means, Chacon claims complete ignorance.

Another picture shows two ship landings, and a group of black men, some of them in secular, others in ecclesiastic, garb, among them an archbishop. Asked about the meaning of this picture, Chacon again claims ignorance but then adds that he remembers that "Cristoval Henriquez [Henri Christophe] ... was pointing with the left hand and in the right hand [there was] a saber, with a sign at his feet which said 'Carry out what has been ordered'" (115).

One of the more puzzling moments in the trial is the discussion of an oil portrait that bears Aponte's name. In the interrogation, Chacon is asked "how he can be so sure that it is a portrait of Aponte ... since there are no similarities between the copy and the original that would justify the designation." Chacon responds that Aponte told him so, and that he had explained that "he placed the portrait in the book so that it would be known the day of the revolution that he was an exemplary person and that it was foreseen that he would be King" (114). Now, if these pictures indeed represented Aponte, why did they not bear any resemblance to him? One possibility is that Aponte simply added his name to someone else's portrait, but that does not fit very well with the discussion of the picture during the interrogation of Aponte himself:

The numbers twenty five and twenty six: In these the author of the book appears in a portrait, with the laurel of fidelity on his chest[,] the palm tree of victory[, and] apparently a ruler-to the left we can see the carpenter's bench where the book in question was produced ... and infancy is represented by the figure of a child tied to a column and on the opposite page there is the face of an elderly person which means that the memory of infancy attains to old age, there are also on the bench an ink pot, a ruler, and pots of paint. (138)

Aponte denies Chacon's claim that the portrait showed him as a king after the revolution, pointing out the presence of rather unregal attributes such as a carpenter's bench and pots of paint (173).


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Meet the Author

Sibylle Fischer is Associate Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University.

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