Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why We Should Read Thomas Clarkson

“For let us consider how many, both of the living and the dead, could be made to animate us.” So writes Thomas Clarkson in chapter eleven of The History of the Rise, Progress, & Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-trade (1808), the chapter in which Clarkson explains his famous riverine “map” that traces the confluences of antislavery sentiment that led, in part, to the abolition of the trade in 1807. Clarkson’s graphical depiction of the rhizomatic communication of influence functions as an interesting counterpoint to the rather linear narrative given theretofore. Through the image, we see that political animation—the kind that Clarkson described above—is never linear, obvious; it snakes around, twists about, drawing even on the life of the dead for its motive force. Looking back over the image as I re-read Clarkson’s masterpiece, I was struck by how it approximates one mapping of OWSTwitter networks I had seen two months ago. This similitude prompted a question: How could the social movement propelled by Clarkson’s labors “be made to animate us”? What lessons does Clarkson hold for us?

Admittedly, Clarkson is probably not the literary bread-and-butter of Occupy. Occupiers are more likely to read Marcuse, for instance, or other 20th century quasi-/post-/neo-Marxists, than they are to settle down with a history of a reformist movement composed in 1808. Particularly on college campuses, it is perhaps through an intellectual engagement with the questions of class and exploitation posed by these theorists that students come to desire an involvement with a movement like Occupy. Here, theory quickens and animates, transforming intellectuals thinking about the world into intellectuals attempting to change it. For many Occupiers I know, theory isn’t merely theory: even if theoretical engagement began as a merely scholastic exercise, it became a call to action. And this is the first lesson we can take from Clarkson. In a biographical section of his history, he describes how he came to awareness of the slave-trade. Students at Cambridge competitively submitted dissertations in the hopes of securing a university prize. Young Thomas had won such a prize the year before, and desired the fame of winning first prize again. The prompt for the prize was simple: “Anne liceat Invitos in Servitutem dare? or, Is it right to make slaves of other against their will?” Clarkson eagerly anticipated both the intellectual enjoyments of crafting a fine Latin essay and the honors that such a fine essay would bring. Like a good grad student, he began to diligently research slavery, focusing on the present-day slave-trade. He began to write, but the pleasures he had anticipated were “damped by the facts which were now continually before me. It was but one gloomy subject from morning to night…It became now not so much a trial for academical reputation, as for the production of a work, which might be useful to injured Africa.” A fight for academic prestige, the flexing of rhetorical and analytic muscles…these served to bring Clarkson into ethical, and then organizational, contact with British antislavery.

Lesson one, then: we don’t get to choose the manner of our activist animation, we don’t get to choose how a politico-ethical demand appears within the bland contexts of our everyday worlds. We might begin as silly students, reading Heidegger and Nancy late at night to catch up with our peers in the battle for prestige, but we don’t know, we can’t know, how these texts might serve as so many tributaries sending us, gently at first, to a broader social movement. Nor do we get to choose the manner in which we comport ourselves once we’ve made contact with the animated world of activism; we don’t get to choose, I mean, what the practice of activism looks like. Sure, antislavery historians or Hollywood movies will direct us to the spectacular scenes of popular mobilization—loud speeches, louder crowds, and all topped off with petitions, written on streaming rolls of paper, unraveled before Parliament. But anyone involved with Occupy knows that much of the work of Occupy takes place in front of a computer, navigating cluttered inboxes, making sense of lengthy email chains, reading and writing endless responses. Clarkson had a similar experience. Supposed to send his comrade a “weekly account” of his progress in stirring up initial support, Clarkson describes the textual bloat: “At the end of the first week my letter to him contained little more than a sheet of paper. At the end of the second it contained three; at the end of the third six; and at the end of the fourth I found it would be so voluminous, that I was obliged to decline writing it.” But the reading and writing didn’t stop. Clarkson describes daily sessions that stretched from 9pm until 3am where he and his colleagues examined custom-house receipts until their “eyes were enflamed by the candle.” And Clarkson’s History is itself an artifact of the humdrum textuality of revolutionary activism.

If lesson two is that revolutionary activism entails decidedly nonrevolutionary, unsexy, and (let’s say it) boring activity, the third lesson we can take from Clarkson is the importance of not letting our revolutionary aims be trumped by the feeling of quotidian normality that even revolutionary activity assumes. In a beautiful passage, Clarkson describes how, eyes enflamed, “tired by fatigue,” he and his comrade would “relieve ourselves by walking out within the precincts of Lincoln’s Inn, when all seemed to be fast asleep, and thus, as it were, in solitude and in stillness to converse upon them, as well as the best means of the further promotion of our cause…Having recruited ourselves in this manner, we used to return to our work.” Dreaming dreams in the solitude of night. But we also get a lesson, shortly thereafter, about the possible consequences of failing to dream well enough, to dream deeply enough. Clarkson and company are in a meeting, one of the first of their formally organized society, and someone poses the question: Do we oppose merely the slave-trade, or slavery as an institution? The conveyance of slaves or the very mode of labor? You probably know how the debate goes: Given that plantation slavery relied on fresh imports due to staggering death-rates, and given that Parliament definitely had the sovereign power to regulate commerce but did not have uncontested sovereignty over the internal affairs of colonies with representative assemblies, and given that property rights—even in people—should remain inviolate, the society decided to focus on the slave-trade, leaving slavery a fact of the British world for decades more. It’s tragic reasoning, a failure of imagination, a reformist approach to the real. An anti-lesson.

If we let Clarkson animate us, we’ll derive three lessons: We don’t choose what propels us to act; revolutionary action is less a punctual moment of affective intensity than a humdrum labor that takes time; and, despite the routine and routinized work of revolution, we need to keep our revolutionary dreams alive. Let’s add one more: Clarkson’s work—his history, his activism—demonstrate that another world is indeed possible. For thousands of years, slavery, commerce in people, was simply a fact. Without making too big a claim for Anglo-Atlantic exceptionalism, we need to take seriously the fact that the zone of formal freedom that Clarkson helped carve into being was minimal compared to the zones where human “enslaveability,” to use Drescher’s term, would continue to condition human life. Antislavery beat the odds, beat the weight of history, and made opposition to slavery, and thus formal freedom, a ground-level assumption about human being in the world. There were and are limits to the value of this formal freedom, as any post-emancipation society shows. But taking this long historical view, we might see ourselves as the newest tributaries on Clarkson’s riverine map—we might see ourselves as people struggling to achieve substantial freedom in a world where formal, merely formal, freedom is the norm.

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