Works Reviewed: Susan Buck-Morss. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 151 pages.

“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.” The twilight shade with which Hegel cast his work, at least here, lends an aura of sad nobility to the pursuit of philosophy. The pallor of grey in grey drapes like a banner over Western historical consciousness. The small consolations of philosophy are not really on offer to the living world; its aptitude and appetites lie with the contemplation of the ashes of history, of forms of life grown cold and dead. This philosophical mood, which cannot really be what Hegel intended, has received an exaggerated place in the public and academic conception of the practice and uses of philosophy. It has been further exacerbated, within the academic realm, by disciplinary entrenchment; philosophers are read in the context of other philosophers and history takes place elsewhere. Hegel’s symbolic choice of Minerva’s owl, which encapsulates nature and the Greek birth of philosophy, seems to consolidate this notion of a perennial, and ahistorical, wisdom.

Minerva, however, has another resonance for Hegel, one which places him within the context of daily newspapers and world-historical events, rather than simply within the rarefied atmosphere of Aristotelian philosophy. Minerva was the name of a German newspaper, written with a Girondist cosmopolitan perspective. Throughout its run the paper included extensive coverage of the revolution on the island of Saint-Domingue. G.W.F. Hegel was known to be an avid reader of the news, and of this journal in particular. It is to this connection, this resonance, that Susan Buck-Morss points in her book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. The picture of Hegel that emerges ifs one in which the philosopher is both the bold composer of a philosophical defense of history inspired by the Haitian revolution and yet, by virtue of the silence of metaphor which surrounds that philosophical development, also complicit in the silence around the role of racism as a tool of suppression at the foundation of the modern world.

Buck-Morss central thesis is that Hegel draw his inspiration for the master-slave dialectic from the Haitian revolution and the uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. This event, which should have shook the foundations of Western political philosophy, given that slavery had become the root metaphor in Western thought for “all that was evil about power relations,” was shunted into relative obscurity. There was, Buck-Morss notes, a glaring discrepancy between the rise of the economic practice of slavery, as the systematic capitalist enslavement of non-Europeans as a labour force in the colonies, to the point where it came to form the basis of the entire economic system of the West, and the use of slavery as the political metaphor that formed the antithesis of the highest political value of Enlightenment thought; freedom. This discrepancy went unnoticed by rational, ‘enlightened’ thinkers and, Buck-Morss contends, continues to be ignored by present-day writers who unproblematically construct Western histories as ‘coherent narratives of human freedom.’ The persistence of these kinds of narratives, in face of all the evidence, stems in part from the rigidity of academic boundaries in which ‘national histories are considered as self-contained, or when separate aspects of history are treated in disciplinary isolation.’ Bringing together the conceptual and empirical aspects of history, as signalled by Hegel and Haiti respectively, form the strands of Buck-Morss project of decentering the legacy of Western modernity, while salvaging modernity’s universal intent.

Buck-Morrs proves an adept guide at navigating the depths of suppressed history, and drawing lost, or nearly lost, strands into sharp relief. The picture of history that emerges is neither a tentative pastiche nor a dogmatic relief; the author is keenly aware that writing history, especially with its universal horizon in view, is an ongoing process that is and should be subject to constant correction and improvement. It is not, for that reason, a project to be despaired over, but one to be faced resolutely through conceptual development as well as gathering of facts. Facts,  for Buck-Morrs, become most useful when they shatter the boundaries of previously held conceptions or world-views: “Critical thought is empowered by the facts only by being pushed over the brink of the discursive worlds that contain those facts.”(139). The Haitian Revolution, she argues, is a site full of precisely these kinds of facts, not only with respect to the brutal fact of slavery in the modern world and the radical gesture of defiance offered against it, but also, in connection with that act, a breaking open of defined roles of race, religion, and gender. She examines the connections between sexuality, racialization and economic and political domination in brief, but fruitful sketches. The role of religion, and particularly of Islam, is also brought, somewhat more tentatively, back into the purview of a universal history of emancipation.

Slavery is connected to sexuality, to the “boundary-disrupting potential of women’s sexual agency that was economically powerful and escaped political control.” This disrupting power was what prompted Napoleon to order Leclerc to expel from Saint-Domingue all white women who had slept with black men. The boundary-disrupting potential of women is not simply limited to the field of sexuality, however, but extends to the perceived disruption of the order of a narrative of Western progress. Buck-Morrs attends to these “historical anomalies”, that, for example of the women under Toussaint L’Ouverture’s system of “military agragrianism” making the unprecedented demand for equal pay. “Simply stated, the women saw themselves as individual and equal workers – and the men did not object.” This particular victory is short-lived, as the French representative to Haiti appeals to notions of gender inequality to convince them otherwise. The “historical anomaly” still stands, however, as an example that allows for an emancipation of the political horizon of the past, and subsequently of the present as well. In the field of religion Buck-Morrs makes a similar move, using as a starting point the stories surrounding the slave ceremony at Bois Caiman that initiated the insurrection. The evidence here is fragmentary; a speech by a black man named Boukman and a sacred ceremony by a priestess called Fatiman. “What if” conjectures Buck-Morrs – “you learn that Boukman…was named Boukman – Bookman- because he was literate and could read the Book, but that the Book was not the Bible?” She argues that evidence points to Boukman being a Muslim, and that this allows for a reading in which he is a preacher of jihad, but also, and more convincingly, for a reading that is framed in the context of a larger, messier, and more universal emancipation.

This, after all, is her overarching project, to rescue history from the systems imposed upon it, even while learning to use the conceptual tools of those systems of thoughts with a greater degree of imagination and freedom. The Haitian Revolution is not a simple story of good vs evil, bu a history formed through “all the existential uncertainties and moral ambiguities of a struggle for liberation under conditions of civil war and foreign occupation.” At the heart of this struggle, however, a universal horizon can be definitively found, one which transcends the political imaginary of our own time as much as of the past; “Haiti’s political imaginary as liberated territory, a safe haven for all, was too grand for statist politics. Its absolutely new extension of both freedom and citizenship transracially and transnationally, does not lend itself to political appropriation as a definition of national identity.” It is, in short, a universal history, or, at least, a moment of historical rupture in which we can see with clarity that radical anti-slavery is a “human invention that belongs to everyone.” A political philosophy that results from authentic and sustained engagement with universal history, which extends the boundaries of moral and political imagination, because it helps us see more clearly. The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk,  but it flies towards the dawn.

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