Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World

Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World

by Gary Wilder


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Freedom Time reconsiders decolonization from the perspectives of Aimé Césaire (Martinique) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal) who, beginning in 1945, promoted self-determination without state sovereignty. As politicians, public intellectuals, and poets they struggled to transform imperial France into a democratic federation, with former colonies as autonomous members of a transcontinental polity. In so doing, they revitalized past but unrealized political projects and anticipated impossible futures by acting as if they had already arrived. Refusing to reduce colonial emancipation to national independence, they regarded decolonization as an opportunity to remake the world, reconcile peoples, and realize humanity’s potential. Emphasizing the link between politics and aesthetics, Gary Wilder reads Césaire and Senghor as pragmatic utopians, situated humanists, and concrete cosmopolitans whose postwar insights can illuminate current debates about self-management, postnational politics, and planetary solidarity. Freedom Time invites scholars to decolonize intellectual history and globalize critical theory, to analyze the temporal dimensions of political life, and to question the territorialist assumptions of contemporary historiography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822358398
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/19/2015
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Gary Wilder is Associate Professor of Anthropology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He is the author of The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars.

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Freedom Time

Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World

By Gary Wilder

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7579-1


Unthinking France, Rethinking Decolonization

An emancipated society ... would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.—THEODOR ADORNO

This book is about "the problem of freedom" after the end of empire. The title refers not only to the postwar moment as a time for colonial freedom but to the distinct types of time and peculiar political tenses required or enabled by decolonization. Decolonization raised fundamental questions for subject peoples about the frameworks within which self-determination could be meaningfully pursued in relation to a given set of historical conditions. These were entwined with overarching temporal questions about the relationship between existing arrangements, possible futures, and historical legacies. The year 1945 was a world-historical opening; the contours of the postwar order were not yet fixed, and a range of solutions to the problem of colonial emancipation were imagined and pursued. At the same time, the converging pressures of anticolonial nationalism, European neocolonialism, American globalism, and UN internationalism made it appear to be a foregone conclusion that the postwar world would be organized around territorial national states.

Freedom Time tells this story of opening and foreclosure through unrealized attempts by French African and Antillean legislators and intellectuals during the Fourth and Fifth Republics to invent forms of decolonization that would secure self-determination without the need for state sovereignty. Central to this account are Aimé Césaire from Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal who, between 1945 and 1960, served as public intellectuals, party leaders, and deputies in the French National Assembly. Their projects proceeded from a belief that late imperialism had created conditions for new types of transcontinental political association. They hoped to overcome colonialism without falling into the trap of national autarchy. Their constitutional initiatives were based on immanent critiques of colonialism and republicanism, identifying elements within each that pointed beyond their existing forms. They not only criticized colonialism from the standpoint of constitutional democracy and self-government; they also criticized unitary republicanism from the standpoint of decentralized, interdependent, plural, and transnational features of imperialism itself.

In different ways Césaire and Senghor hoped to fashion a legal and political framework that would recognize the history of interdependence between metropolitan and overseas peoples and protect the latter's economic and political claims on a metropolitan society their resources and labor had helped to create. Rather than allow France and its former colonies to be reified as independent entities in an external relationship to each other, the task was to institutionalize a long-standing internal relationship that would persist even after a legal separation. They were not simply demanding that overseas peoples be fully integrated within the existing national state but proposing a type of integration that would reconstitute France itself, by quietly exploding the existing national state from within. Legal pluralism, disaggregated sovereignty, and territorial disjuncture would be constitutionally grounded. The presumptive unity of culture, nationality, and citizenship would be ruptured.

Given these colonies' entwined relationship with metropolitan society, decolonization would have to transform all of France, continental and overseas, into a different kind of political formation—specifically, a decentralized democratic federation that would include former colonies as freely associated member states. This would guarantee colonial emancipation and model an alternative global order that would promote civilizational reconciliation and human self-realization. At stake, for them, was the very future of the world.

Refusing to accept the doxa that self-determination required state sovereignty, their interventions proceeded from the belief that colonial peoples cannot presume to know a priori which political arrangements would best allow them to pursue substantive freedom. Yet this pragmatic orientation was inseparable from a utopian commitment to political imagination and anticipatory politics through which they hoped to transcend the very idea of France, remake the world, and inaugurate a new epoch of human history. Their projects were at once strategic and principled, gradualist and revolutionary, realist and visionary, timely and untimely. They pursued the seemingly impossible through small deliberate acts. As if alternative futures were already at hand, they explored the fine line between actual and imagined, seeking to invent sociopolitical forms that did not yet exist for a world that had not yet arrived, although many of the necessary conditions and institutions were already present. This proleptic orientation to political futurity was joined to a parallel concern with historicity. They proclaimed themselves heirs to the legacies of unrealized and seemingly outmoded emancipatory projects.

This book may be read in at least two ways. On one level, it is an intellectual history of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor between 1945 and 1960. As such, it extends the account provided in my last book of the genesis of the Negritude project in the 1930s in relation to a new form of colonial governance in French West Africa, the political rationality of postliberal republicanism, and the development of a transnational black public sphere in imperial Paris. Freedom Time follows that story into the postwar period, when these student-poets became poet-politicians participating directly in reshaping the contours of Fourth and Fifth Republic France and pursuing innovative projects for self-determination. On another level, it attempts to think through their work about the processes and problems that defined their world and continue to haunt ours. Their writings on African and Antillean decolonization may also be read as reflections on the very prospect of democratic self-management, social justice, and human emancipation; on the relationship between freedom and time; and on the links between politics and aesthetics. They attempted to transcend conventional oppositions between realism and utopianism, materialism and idealism, objectivity and subjectivity, positivism and rationalism, singularity and universality, culture and humanity. The resulting conceptions of poetic knowledge, concrete humanism, rooted universalism, and situated cosmopolitanism now appear remarkably contemporary. Their insights, long treated as outmoded, do not only speak to people interested in black critical thought, anticolonialism, decolonization, and French Africa and the Antilles. They also warrant the attention of those on the left now attempting to rethink democracy, solidarity, and pluralism beyond the limitations of methodological nationalism and the impasses of certain currents of postcolonial and post-structural theory.

Decolonization beyond Methodological Nationalism

Historians have long treated decolonization as a series of dyadic encounters between imperial states and colonized peoples: the former are figured as powerful nations possessing colonial territories, and the latter as not yet independent nations ruled by foreign colonizers. Such stories are often tethered to parallel accounts of nation formation. Whether focused on European powers or Third World peoples, policymakers or social movements, international strategy or political economy, a certain methodological nationalism has persisted in this scholarship. But to presuppose that national independence is the necessary form of colonial emancipation is to mistake a product of decolonization for an optic through which to study it.

Rather than evaluate decolonization from the standpoint of supposedly normal national states, this book seeks to historicize the postwar logic that reduced colonial emancipation to national liberation and self-determination to state sovereignty. It does so in part by recognizing that decolonization was an epochal process of global restructuring that unfolded on a vast political terrain inhabited by diverse actors and agencies. The outcome of this process was the system of formally equivalent nation-states around which the postwar order was organized.

Historical accounts typically focus on stories of confrontations between national states losing overseas possessions and oppressed nations winning independence. Debates often focus on decolonization's causes, mechanisms, or outcomes as well as the so-called transfer of power. However important, these discussions tend to treat the meaning of decolonization as self-evident by reducing colonial emancipation to national liberation. Underlying such dyadic accounts is the assumption that European states had empires but were not themselves empires.

Alternatively, an approach that begins with empire as an optic emphasizes the real, if problematic, ways that colonized peoples were members of imperial political formations. It proceeds from the fact that European states did not simply surrender colonies but abandoned their overseas populations. Decolonization was among other things a deliberate rending whereby populations were separated, polities divided, and communities disenfranchised. Rather than focus on the mechanisms, pace, or implementation of national independence for colonized peoples, histories of decolonization should inquire into the range of political forms that were imagined and fashioned during what was a process of economic restructuring and political realignment on a global scale. Historians have recently demonstrated that however important liberation struggles and metropolitan transformations were in the process of decolonization, colonized peoples and European policymakers were not always the primary actors in this drama. Other agents—the United States, the Soviet Union, China, the United Nations, international public opinion—were no less important in dismantling Europe's empires and creating the neocolonial system that would succeed them.

Histories that do not start with methodological nationalism can also focus less on who may have helped or hindered programs for state sovereignty than on the various ways that colonial actors confronted freedom as a problem with no intrinsic solution. Public struggles over the shape of the postwar world questioned the meanings of terms long treated as synonyms: freedom, liberty, emancipation, independence, sovereignty, self-determination, and autonomy. This study attends to the historical processes through which these terms came to refer to one another. It does so by engaging seriously Césaire's and Senghor's attempts to fashion political forms that were democratic, socialist, and intercontinental. This method fosters an appreciation of the novelty of their attempts to envision new forms of cosmopolitanism, humanism, universalism, and planetary reconciliation, forms that were concrete, rooted, situated, and embodied in lived experiences and refracted through particular but porous lifeworlds.

Unthinking France, Working through Empire

The French Imperial Nation-State was less concerned with the familiar fact that the republican nation-state exercised autocratic rule over colonized peoples than with how imperial history had transformed the republican nation into a plural polity composed of multiple cultural formations, administrative regimes, and legal systems. Such multiplicity also enabled novel types of political association, identification, and intervention. The crucial question was not how France behaved overseas or how its populations experienced colonial rule. Rather, it was how the fact of empire, including how colonial subjects reflected upon it, invites us to radically rethink "France" itself. I suggested we follow the lead of the expatriate student poets associated with the Negritude project who since the mid-1930s grappled with the imperial form of the interwar republic. In contrast, Freedom Time explores how French imperialism created conditions for an alternative federal democracy that might have been. Underlying both works is a challenge to the methodological nationalism that often conditions the study of French colonial empire. They proceed from the conviction that historians should not simply turn their research attention to colonial topics; we need to do so in ways that turn inside out the very category "France."

Freedom Time again engages the contradiction between France as an actually existing imperial nation-state and the territorial national categories that formed both French self-understanding through the colonial period and historiographic common sense in the postcolonial period. Any attempt to understand the French empire through those same national categories unwittingly reenacts that initial contradiction. But engaging French history from the standpoint of empire invites and compels us to unthink a series of assumptions about the territorial national paradigm concerning the isomorphism among territory, people, and state; the symmetry between nationality and citizenship; the national state as a unitary juridical and administrative space; or the scale and composition of political terrains, public spheres, discursive communities, and intellectual fields.

Treating empire as an irreducible unit of analysis and refiguring France as an imperial nation-state confounds conventional distinctions among national, transnational, and international phenomena and recognizes that the challenge of cultural multiplicity for a democratic republic was an imperial problem that did not begin with decolonization and postwar immigration. In many ways the imperial republic was a profoundly cosmopolitan space in which legal pluralism and disaggregated sovereignty were institutionalized in ways that might illuminate current debates over plural democracy in the French postcolony. In order to "work through" empire, to treat France as an imperial formation and consider French history from an imperial perspective, we must unthink France as object and unit.

Here I am borrowing from Immanuel Wallerstein, who calls on scholars to unthink nineteenth-century social scientific categories and paradigms that once enabled but now obstruct understanding of time, space, and development. He distinguishes the act of rethinking an interpretation based on new evidence from the more radical gesture of unthinking the very categories by which we apprehend such evidence. The concept of working through has multiple associations. On a common-sense level it suggests careful analysis, coming to terms with a topic by unpacking it. But it also indicates how a perceived topic may also serve as an optic through which to rethink and to unthink. Working through thus signals an operation akin to Marxian immanent critique: identifying elements within an existing formation that point beyond it. Working through is also a psychoanalytic term that suggests a different kind of overcoming, another type of emancipation through critical self-reflexivity: mastering an impasse by confronting and untangling it; moving inside and through it in order to get beyond it. Dominick LaCapra has written about the relationship between historiography and the Freudian concepts of acting out and working through. He warns of the danger of "historical transference," the tendency among historians to act out in their work the processes about which they are writing. Working through thus also implies a self-reflexive distance from the object rather than an unthinking identification with it.

Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor spent their public lives "working through" empire and "unthinking" France in just these ways. Proceeding from the insight that Africans and Antilleans were integral parts of the (imperial) nation, they refused to accept that "France" referred to a metropolitan entity or a European ethnicity. They rejected the idea that they existed outside radical traditions of "French" politics and thought. Even as student-poets in the 1930s, they did not simply call for political inclusion but made a deeper demand that "France" accommodate itself legally and politically to the interpenetrated and interdependent realities its own imperial practices had produced. Treating imperial conditions as the starting point for emancipatory projects, they claimed France as theirs and thus challenged the unitary and territorialist assumptions upon which the national state had long depended.

Though their decolonization projects differed, Césaire and Senghor were more interested in reclaiming and refunctioning than rejecting the categories and forms that mediated their subjection. This recalls Adorno's insight about the revolutionary efficacy of a "literalness" that "explodes [an object] by taking it more exactly at its word than it does itself," an approach we might call the politics of radical literalism. Césaire and Senghor repeatedly insisted that while they did not feel alienated from French and France, those who assumed that they should—whether on the left or right—needed to revise their own understanding of these categories. Their politics of radical literalism thus linked immanent critique to poetic imagination, aiming less to negate the empire or the republic than to sublate and supersede them. Rather than counterpose autarchic notions of Africa, the Caribbean, or blackness to a one-dimensional figure of France, they claimed within "France" those transformative legacies to which they were rightful heirs and attempted to awaken the self-surpassing potentialities that they saw sedimented within it. Rather than found separate national states, they hoped to elevate the imperial republic into a democratic federation.


Excerpted from Freedom Time by Gary Wilder. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Index 373

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

1. Unthinking France, Rethinking Decolonization 1

2. Situating Césaire: Antillean Awakening and Global Redemption 17

3. Situating Senghor: African Hospitality and Human Solidarity 49

4. Freedom, Time, Territory 74

5. Departmentalization and the Spirit of Schoelcher 106

6. Federalism and the Future of France 133

7. Antillean Autonomy and the Legacy of Louverture 167

8. African Socialism and the Fate of the World 206

9. Decolonization and Postnational Democracy 241

Chronology 261

Notes 275

Works Cited 333

What People are Saying About This

Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice - David Scott

"Freedom Time is an exemplary work of critical revision. Thinking through the cultural-political writings of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor, Gary Wilder aims to put into question the normative narrative of anticolonial nationalism that yokes the demand for self-determination to the political form of state sovereignty. Why should the nation-state be the necessary horizon of political freedom? In a time such as ours, when postcolonial states have exhausted their emancipationist energies, Wilder's intervention significantly contributes to the possibility of rethinking political futurity against empire."

On the Postcolony - Achille Mbembe

"Freedom Time is astonishing in its originality, breadth of learning, rhetorical power, interdisciplinary reach, and theoretical sophistication. It thoroughly transforms our understanding of the dialogues and disputations that made up the 'Black' / French encounter. With this work, Gary Wilder establishes himself as one of the most compelling and powerful voices in French and Francophone critical studies."

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