[Marxism] '...in Haiti', selection from the new Zizek book
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Mon Nov 2 15:45:25 MST 2009
I am violating Zizek's intellectual property rights here because I think what he has just written (below) in 'First as Tragedy, Then as Farce' is, as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle might say, mondo tubuloso dudes! I am reclaiming it as a "commons" therefore. I also consider it, among other things, the most outstanding critique of postcolonial studies I've read to date. It goes well beyond Aijaz Ahmad's critique of Edward Said, if only in renewing Marx's actual approach to the question. Also, there is a telling polemic concerning the "sans-papiers" which I will end with, considering I'm on a public library computer at the moment and my session is ending. My only criticism at the moment might be that "Zeez", as I now affectionately refer to him, messes up when he writes of a 'global capital which is inherently multiculturalist and tolerant.' Nahh... really? --Max
All this, however, is still insufficient if we want to talk about communism. What then is missing here, in such Kantian enthusiasm? To approach the answer, one must turn to Hegel, who fully shared Kant's enthusiasm in his own description of the impact of the French Revolution:
'This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of the epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men's minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the divine and the secular was now first accomplished.'
But h added something crucial, implicitly at least. As Susan Buck-Morss has demonstrated in her essay 'Hegel and Haiti,' the successful slave uprising in Haiti, which resulted in the free Haitian republic, was the silent --and, for that reason, all the more effective-- point of reference for (or the absent Cause of) Hegel's dialectic of Master and Slave, first introduced in his Jena manuscripts and developed further in his Phenomenology og Spirit. Buck-Morss's simple statement 'there is no doubt that Hegel and Haiti belong together' concisely captures the explosive result of the short-circuit between these twon heterogeneous terms. 'Hegel and Haiti'--this is also, perhaps, the most succinct formula of communism.
As Louis Sala-Molins has put it with acerbic brutality: 'European Enlightenment philosophers railed against slavery, except where it literally existed.' Although they complained that people were (metaphorically speaking) 'slaves' of the tyrannical royal powers, they ignored the literal slavery that was exploding in scale in the colonies, excusing it on culturalist-racist grounds. When, echoing the French Revolution, the black slaves in Haiti revolted in the name of the same principles of freedom, equality, and fraternity, this was 'the crucible, the trial by fire for the ideals of the French Enlightenment. And every European who was part of the bourgeois reading public knew it. "The eyes of the world are now on St. Domingo".' In Haiti, the unthinkable (for the European Enlightenment) took place: the Haitian Revolution 'entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened.' The ex-slaves of Haiti took the French
revolutionary slogans more literally than did the French themselves: they ignored all the implicit qualifications which abounded in Enlightenment ideology (freedom--but only for rational 'mature' subjects, not for the wild immature barbarians who first had to undergo a long process of education in order to deserve freedom and equality...). This led to sublime 'communist' movements, like the one that occured when French soldiers (sent by Napoleon to suppress the rebellion and restore slavery) approached the black army of (self-)liberated slaves. When they heard an initially indistinct murmur coming from the black crowd, the soldiers at first assumed it must be some kind of tribal war chant' but as they came closer, they realized that the Haitians were singing the Marseillaise, and they started to wonder out loud whether they were not fighting on the wrong side. Events such as these enact universality as a political category. In them, as Buck-Morss put
it, 'universal humanity is visible at the edges':
'rather than giving multiple, distinct cultures equal due, whereby people are recognized as part of humanity indirectly through the mediation of collective cultural identities, human universality emerges in the historical event at the point of rupture. It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose culture has been strained to the breaking point gave expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits. And it is in our emphatic identification with this raw, free, and vulnerable state, that we have a chance of understanding what they say. Common humanity exists in spite of culture and its differences. A person's nonidentity with the collective allows for subterranean solidarities tha thave a chance of appealing to universal, moral sentiment, the source today of enthusiasm and hope.'
Buck-Morss provides here a precise argument against the postmodern poetry of diversity: the latter masks the underlying sameness of the brutal violence enacted by culturally diverse cultures and regimes: 'Can we rest satisfied with the call for acknowledging 'multiple modernities,' with a politics of 'diversity', or 'multiversality,' when in fact the inhumanities of these multiplicities are often stikingly the same? But, one may ask, was the ex-slaves' singing of the Marseillaise ultimately not an index of colonialist subordination--even in their self-liberation, did not the Blacks have to follow the emancipatory model of the colonial metropolis? And is this not similar to the idea that contemporary opponents of US politics should be singing the Stars and Stripes? Surely the true revolutionary act would have been for the colonizers to sing the songs of the colonized? The mistake in this reproach is double. First, contrary to appearances, it is far more
acceptable for the colonial power to see its own people singing others' (the colonized's) songs than songs which express their own identity--as a sign of toleratnce and patronizing respect, colonizers love to learn and sing the songs of the colonized... Second, and much more importantly, the message of the Haitian soldiers' Marseillaise was not 'You see, even we, the primitive blacks, are able to assimilate ourselves to your high culture and politics, to imitate it as a model!' but a much more precise one: 'in this battle, we are more French than you, the Frenchmen, are--we stand for the innermost consequences you were not able to assume.' Such a message cannot but be deeply unsettling for the colonizers--and it would certainly not be the message of those who, today, might sing the Stars and Stripes when confronting the US army. (Although, as a thought experiment, if we imagine a situation in which this could be the message, there would be nothing a
priori problematic in doing so.)
Once we fully integrate this message, we white Leftist men and women are free to leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt. Although Pascal Bruckner's critique of contemporary Left often approaches the absurd, this does not prevent him from occasionally generating pertinent insights--one cannot but agree with him when he detects in European politically correct self-flagellation an inverted form of clinging to one's superiority. Whenever the West is attacked, its first reaction is not aggressive defence but self-probing: what did we do to deserve it? We are ultimately to be blamed for the evils of the world; Third World catastrophes and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes. THe positive form of the White Man's Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man's guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters
of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after-effect of colonization: they are merely imitating what their colonial masters used to do, and so on):
'We need our miserabilist cliches about Africa, Asia, Latin America, in order to confirm the cliche of a predatory, deadly West. Our noisy stigmatizations only serve to mask the wounded self-love: we no longer make the law. Other cultures know it, and they continue to culpabilize us only to escape our judgments on them.'
The West is thus caught in the typical superego predicament best rendered by Dostoyevsky's famous phrase from The Brothers Karamazov: 'Each of us is guilty before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others.' So the more the West confesses its crimes, the more it is made to feel culpable. This insight allows us also to detect a symmetric duplicity in the way certain Third World countries criticize the West: if the West's continuous self-excoriation functions as a desperate attempt to re-assert our superiority, the true reason why some in the Third World hate and reject the West lies not with the colonizing past and its continuing effects but with the self-critical spirit which the West has displayed in renouncing this past, with its implicit call to others to practise the same self-critical approach: 'The West is not detested for its real faults, but for its attempt to amend them, because it was one of the first to try to tear itself out of its own
bestiality, inviting the rest of the world to follow it.' The Western legacy is effectively not just that of (post)colonial imperialist domination, but also that of the self-critical examination of the violence and exploitation of the West itself brought to the Third World. The French colonized Haiti, but the French Revolution also provided the ideological foundation for the rebellion which liberated the slaves and established an independent Haiti; the process of decolonization was set in motion when the colonized nations demanded for themselves the same rights that the West took for itself. In short, one should never forget that the West supplied the very standards by which it (and its critics) measures its own critical past. We are dealing here with the dialectic of form and content: when colonial countries demand independence and enact a 'return to roots,' the very form of this return (that of an independent nation-state) is Western. In its very
defeat (losing the colonies), the West thus wins, by imposing its social form on the other.
The lesson of Marx's two short 1853 articles on India ('The British Rule in India," "The Future Results of British Rule in India')--usually dismissed within postcolonial studies as embarrassing cases of Marx's 'Eurocentrism'--are today more relevant than ever. Marx concedes without qualification the brutality and exploitative hypocrisy of the British colonization of India, up to and including the systematic use of torture prohibited in the West but 'outsourced' to Indians (there really is nothing new under the sun--Guantanamos already existed in the midst of nineteenth-century British India): 'The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.' All Marx adds is that:
'England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindu, and separates Hindustan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history....England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? IF not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.'
One should not dismiss the talk of the 'unconscious tool of history' as the expression of a naive teleology, of trust in the Cunning of Reason which makes even the vilest crimes instruments of progress--the point is simply that the British colonization of India created the conditions for the double liberation of India: from the constraints of its own tradition as well as from colonization itself. At a reception for Margaret Thatcher in 1985, the Chinese president applied to China Marx's statement about the role of British colonization in India: 'The British occupation has awakened China from its age-old sleep.' Far from signaling continuous self-abasement in front of the ex-colonial powers, statements like these express true 'post-postcolonialism,' namely, a mature independence: to admit the positive effect of colonization, one has to be really free and be able to leave behind its stigma. (And, symmetrically, rejecting self-blame, while fully and--why
not-- proudly claiming one's emancipatory heritage, is a sine qua non for the renewal of the Left.)
Someone who cannot be accused of softness towards the colonizers is Frantz Fanon: his thoughts on the emancipatory power of violence are an embarrassment for many politically correct postcolonial theorists. However, as a perspicuous thinker trained in psychoanalysis, he also, back in 1952m provided the most poignant expression of the refusal to capitalize on the guilt of the colonizers:
'I am a man, and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world. I am not responsible solely for the slave revolt in Santo Domingo. Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with this act. In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past peoples of color. In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself a man of the past....My black skin is not a repository for specific values....Haven't I got better things to do on this earth then avenge the Blacks of the seventeenth century?...I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the passt of my race. I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master. I have neither the
right nor the duty to demand reparations for my subjugated ancestors. There is no black mission; there is no white burden. I do not want to be the victim of the Ruse of a black world....Am I going to try every means available to cause guilt to burden their souls?....I am not a slave to slavery that dehumanized my ancestors....it would be of enormous interest to discover a black literature or architecture from the third century before Christ. We would be overjoyed to learn of the existence of a correspondence between some black philosopher and Plato. But we can absolutely not see how this fact would change the lives of eight-year0old kids working in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe....I find myself in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.'
Along the same lines, one should critically confront Sadri Khiari's acerbic dismissal of French Leftists' attempts to provide proper papers for the 'sans-papiers' ('illegal' immigrants):
'A White of the Left has a for the 'sans-papiers.' Undoubtedly because the latter doesn't exist at all. And because, in order to exist just a little bit, he is obliged to ask the Left for help. A sans-papiers doesn't exist at all because, in order to exists, he has to threaten to finish off his own existence. The proof that I exist, he says, is that I'm dying. And he stops feeding himself. And the Left sees in this a good reason to denounce the Right: 'Give him the papers so that he will feed himself and cease to exist!' Since, if he obtains the papers, he is no longer a sans-papier, and, if, as a sans-papier, he didn't exist at all, when he has the papers, he just does not exist, that's all. This is some progress.'
The underlying logic is clear and convincing: the 'undocumented' immigrant worker has no legal status, so that, if he is noticed at all, it is as a dark external threat to our way of life; but once he gets his papers and his status is legalized, he again ceases to exist properly, since he becomes invisible in his specific situation. In a way, he becomes even more invisible once legalized: he is no longer a dark threat, but is fully normalized, drowned in the indistinct crowd of citizens. But what Khiari's dismissal nonetheless misses is how getting hold of 'papers' opens up the space for further political self-organization and activity. Once one has the 'papers,' a vast field of political mobilization and pressure is opened up which, since it now involves legitimate citizens of 'our' state, can no longer be dismissed as a dangerous menace from outside.
Furthermore, when we talk about anti-immigration measures, about the different forms of immigrant exclusion, and so on, we should always bear in mind that anti-immigration politics is not directly linked to capitalism or the interests of capital...."
Have to go now (too early), sorry!
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