One of the things I want to emphasize is that our perception of global events, and the knowledge we may lack about other people’s histories, is a function of our position as citizens of the world’s largest empire.
Living in the imperial center means never needing to learn about other countries except when the US invades them, or when they impede the exercise of American power. Haiti claimed its independence in 1804. The US did not recognize this fact diplomatically until 1864. Over the next 150 years Haiti was invaded, occupied, and lost some of its territory as a result of American foreign policy. The 1856 Guano Islands Act allowed the seizure of uninhabited islands such as Navassa. In 1915 the US began an occupation of Haiti that lasted for eighteen years. In 2004 American forces ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Let’s think about our move into Saint-Domingue during the Age of Revolution, roughly 1770-1830. The great bourgeois revolution of US independence, which created a herrenvolk democracy on the margins of a largely unmapped continent. The deeper-reaching French Revolution which overthrew an existing social order and at its most energetic and radical attempted to restructure society as a whole, prising power and wealth from the aristocracy and the Catholic church. The world-changing Industrial Revolution, fueled by the proceeds of slavery and other forms of primitive accumulation. And the Haitian Revolution, as James says history’s only successful slave revolt, which raised up the lowest and toppled the highest.
Article XXXIII. The slave who has struck his master in the face or has drawn blood, or has similarly struck the wife of his master, his mistress, or their children, shall be punished by death. . . .
Article XXXVIII. The fugitive slave who has been on the run for one month from the day his master reported him to the police, shall have his ears cut off and shall be branded with a fleur de lys on one shoulder. If he commits the same infraction for another month, again counting from the day he is reported, he shall have his hamstring cut and be branded with a fleur de lyson the other shoulder. The third time, he shall be put to death.
Article XXXIX. The masters of freed slaves who have given refuge to fugitive slaves in their homes shall be punished by a fine of three hundred pounds of sugar for each day of refuge.
I began my project with a clear idea of which image I wanted to discuss: the cover illustration of Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. The first thing I learned about this image was what I read on the back of the book, where notes about cover art are usually placed. The note informed me that the image was of Saladin and Richard jousting from a 14th century text called the Luttrell Psalter.
The discourse of “the West and the Rest” relies on the method of Othering. The construction of the myth of the West depends on its other, the Rest. If the Westerner is defined by attributes such as industriousness and fondness for liberty, for example, then the non-Westerner is necessarily lazy and slavish.
Here is a quote from Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts:
“[T]he Other [is] a form of cultural projection of concepts. This projection of concepts constructs the identities of cultural subjects through a relationship of power in which the Other is the subjugated element. In claiming knowledge about [non-Westerners] what [the discourse of “the West and the Rest”] did was construct them as its own (Western) Other. Through describing purportedly [non-Western] characteristics (irrational, uncivilized, etc.) [“the West and the Rest”] provided a definition not of the real [non-Western] identity but of the Western identity in terms of the oppositions which structured its account. Hence, irrational Other presupposes rational Self. The construction of the Other in [West/Rest] discourse, then, is a matter of asserting self-identity, and the issue of the Western account of the [non-Western] Other is thereby rendered a question of power” (Edgar and Sedgwick 2002).
Jacobin Magazine and Verso Books are producing a series of weekly podcasts over the course of March that address chapters from one of our required texts, The ABCs of Socialism. Nivedita Majumdar’s remarks are significant for a number of reasons, though in a US context one insight here might be that capitalist identity politics is a core element of the defense of socioeconomic inequality (see also Touré F. Reed’s Why Liberals Separate Race from Class or Nancy Fraser’s article “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism” on the course information page).