Saturday, February 16, 2013

Antebellism: The Neoliberal Compromise of the Political

Someone—at least a copy editor—must have read Emory University president James Wagner’s recent “From the President” piece in the Emory magazine. Entitled “As American as…Compromise,” someone must have made sure that everything was spelled properly, that there were no grammatical solecisms, and so on. Someone read this piece before it was published, a someone who probably didn’t say, “Hey, maybe it’s not a good idea to derive a political ethos of compromise from the U.S. constitutional compromise that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person in apportioning state representatives. Maybe this history can in no way justify your desire to defund the liberal arts.” Maybe he or she couldn’t speak up—an editor or employee at a university PR office doesn’t have quite the same amount of power or clout as the president, of course. Or maybe he or she didn’t have any problems with Wagner’s choice of examples. Maybe he or she thought Wagner’s piece showed the serviceability of U.S. history for our political present—a time when money is scarce, after all, and decisions about value have to be made. Whatever the case, we know that Wagner’s zany, crazy use of a fraught example did not leap immediately and transparently from his brain to the page. Rather, Wagner’s piece was the product of multiple forms of collaboration, of socialized symbolic production—from the Emory homecoming panel wherein an anonymously and indirectly cited “distinguished” alum first suggests the exemplarity of the three-fifths compromise to the less distinguished, less-well-paid editor or PR employee whose eyes scanned the release for errors and did not note the most glaring error on the page.  We too are now Wagner’s collaborators, debating the merits of his choice of examples, snarking about him on Facebook and Twitter, and writing fantastic blog posts about the ideological blockages structuring the compromise in historical fact and as contemporary example. We too now participate in the social production of the exemplary. Exemplarity, then, is not a status objectively present in historical events, persons, or things. “So far no chemist,” Marx writes, “has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond.” Neither will the chemist—or historian, for that matter—discover the “example value” of an historical object in the object itself. Such value is produced by and circulates through diffuse social networks of institutions and discourses.  

It’s the diffuse and social nature of the production of the exemplary that accounts for the rapid and voluminous responses to Wagner’s comments. Over the past few years, but reaching a fever pitch in 2012/13, Yankees have increasingly dedicated themselves to the proposition that the antebellum period possesses unique explanatory power for the political dynamics of our present. We shouldn’t be misled into thinking that the antebellum period always and naturally exists as a symbolic repertoire for getting a handle on our present. Bush-era U.S.A. was not so invested in the exemplarity and symbolic power of the antebellum. Certainly Bush paid the requisite homage to Lincoln and whatever, but the symbolic dominant and the primary axis of allegoresis was theological in orientation. Indeed, Bruce Holsinger argues that Bush-era symbolics amounted to a form of “neomedievalism,” wherein the present became legible through cultural codes derived from some imagined medieval world (“crusades,” for instance, or the emergent interest in feudal sovereignty as a mode of thinking states in a globalized world). Just a few years later, we have come to inhabit a new symbolic and discursive formation, one that we might call “antebellism.” Antebellism equips its advocates—from Barack Obama to Steven Spielberg to your uncle who is currently wading through Team of Rivals—with an allegory with which to map the political constellation of the present. My point here is that if Wagner’s choice of example was in some fashion inevitable (and I’ll make this case indirectly), so too was a quick and voluminous response. We’re all keyed into the antebellist register. We have all—right and left—formed a discursive compromise to think the present through the examples and symbols afforded by antebellum history.

Antebellism is a product of, and a hermeneutic for, the U.S.’s political present. For this reason, antebellism is less fascinating for the historical analogy it assembles—an analogy that is, as Wagner exemplarily demonstrates, of dubious historiographical merit—than for how it symptomatizes the way that subjects today think and feel their relationship to the political. Let’s stick with Wagner’s example: the morbidly humorous thing about the history of the compromise is that, well, it did not really work. (It couldn’t, of course, and not for parliamentary or constitutional reasons; the slaves themselves would see to it that every compromise with their own power would fail.) The compromise didn’t contain the antagonism that forced it into existence; rather, the inaugural compromise only ensured that more compromises would come, each more ineffective than the last until, ultimately, the social exploded into war. Any invocation of compromise invokes the haunting fact of its failure, just as, and more broadly, the discursive formation of antebellism situates us in a moment just prior to a war that cannot but arrive. So, how is the world so structured that subjects come to know and feel themselves as political only within the horizon of total catastrophe? What kind of work does this affectively charged imaginary perform?

Antebellism finds its conditions of possibility in the routinized crisis marked by the intertwined processes of neoliberalism and globalization. It provides a dramatic existential hermeneutic by which U.S. subjects can come to grips with the permanent, low intensity, non-dramatic crises of everyday life in a world abandoned to market rationality. Think about Wagner: he invokes the compromise so as to invest the market-based rationale for defunding the humanities with a gleaming symbolic value. Fair enough: you might object that that’s just ideological obfuscation. But why have we—a non-presidential we, rulers of neither universities nor nation-states—come to counter-invest in these symbolics? I want to suggest that, through the antebellist allegory, U.S. subjects can imagine their accumulating, low intensity misery as turning into something—a punctual, cataclysmic, dramatic crisis. The alternative—that is, this world, the real world, the one wherein the accumulation of misery has not transmuted into qualitative transformation, the one wherein the permanent crisis of neoliberalism is lived non-dramatically—is too much to bear. Antebellism confronts the crisis of living without a dramatic crisis, of surviving life subsumed into the biopolitical calculations of neoliberal accountancy, of inhabiting a hum-drum world where accountants rule the roost and wherein politics consists in choosing the best bean counter. In so doing, antebellism transmutes everything being fought over into something worth fighting for: voting for Obama becomes electing another Lincoln, cutting funding becomes a constitutional compromise. The extraterrestrial world of high governance is brought down to earth, a battlefield, and each man must do his part. Politics becomes a felt, tactile, intimate experience at the moment that it is imagined before the war, in the horizon of possible bodily undoing, of death. By routing contemporary politics through an affectively charged (if vaguely grasped) historical grid, antebellism domesticates—even as it aggrandizes—the arcane antagonisms structuring contemporary political disputation. Backdoor deals between congressional leaders, gentlemen’s agreements between Wall Street and the White House, the defunding of the humanities…the messy, ignoble stuff of neoliberal governance comes to light and comes to order in the clearing of antebellism’s projected battlefield. Everything gleams with a significant simplicity. Antebellism amounts to a kind of vernacular Schmittianism: it resituates the apolitical world of neoliberal governance in an antagonistic field constituted by the properly political distinction of “friend” and “enemy.” Line drawn, we’re poised just moments before the inauguration of hostilities. But, alas, we’re never supposed to fight it out. The specter of civil war simply drives us back into the arms of collapsing institutions and a state whose democratic deficit tracks its budgetary shortfalls. Antebellism produced that bizarre discursive world wherein neosecessionists tried separating from the U.S. by petitioning Obama

Ultimately, antebellism gears us up for political war only to tell us that the battle has already been decided—there’s no longer any politics, no longer any open struggle through which the future will be decided. Instead, we’re invited to invest political meaning in the technologies of neoliberal governance, in what Wagner calls “the rich tools of compromise.” We need to read Wagner’s choice of example, then, as the end result of an attempt to derive a political feeling from the withdrawal of the political. Ultimately, that’s what all antebellism does: it allows us to feel political even as we abandon the political—or, rather, even as the political abandons us. “Compromise” both names this withdrawal of the political and invests our acquiescence to it with a pseudo-political affect. It does not so much describe a peaceful, pacifying working relationship between willful and opposed political subjects (Republicans and Democrats, say, or partisans of the humanities and the sciences) as it does the conformation of varied and antagonistic political wills to an exorbitant, apolitical logic (i.e., neoliberal capitalism). We don’t compromise so much as our possibility for political action has been compromised. It is our recognition of the compromised nature of any political action that is supposed to subtend all contemporary politics—indeed, it’s supposed to pass as politics. [Edit: please note that in Wagner's non-apology, he writes, "Inevitably, our existence as human beings is a compromised existence, never pure." Yep.] 

How, then, to respond? Almost any form of response to Wagner’s example will amount to a form of collaboration—a (re)production and circulation of the cultural logic through which neoliberalism attempts securing acquiescence to the withdrawal of the political. No doubt this circulation cannot be stopped by fiat or through simple demystification. No doubt antebellism is an ideology, one that imagines our relation to the real in mystified and mystifying ways, but this imaginary is secured by an intensely felt sincerity that sutures subjects to its terms, and I’m not sure that ideology critique is adequate to undoing this suturing. We might be left with antebellism as a cultural allegory until some event displaces it and induces the production of new forms of pop political sense-making. I think that the minimum that we can do—and this might be a maximal minimum—is to de-naturalize the use of antebellum examples and symbols in the name of a tactical de-dramatization. We need to insistently demonstrate that it isn’t necessary to turn to the antebellum to think our present, show that other symbolic resources are available, and so produce a self-consciousness about the motivations that lead us to think and experience according to a given protocol. The question “Is this exemplary history really adequate to this contemporary case?” can be usefully deflationary. And we need to deflate the symbolics through which neoliberal governance attempts dramatizing and inducing particular felt relations to the non-drama of governed life. We need to be able to say, “Um, hey, prez, you’re talking about budget cuts for university departments—not founding a state and collaborating in the eventual enslavement of millions of people. Drama much? Chill out.” Why? On one hand, and as I’ve suggested, this conduction of affect to the flattish world of budgets and accountancy allows us to feel as political something that is being structured as apolitical.  On the other hand, over-dramatizing aspects of governance like budgets allows us to ignore the lower grade but very real dramas that can flare up around these ways of making and remaking our worlds. Neoliberal life is filled with plenty of crises, low grade as they are, that have a density particular to themselves—a liberal arts grad student at Emory not getting a sixth year of funding, for instance, or a post-doc not turning into a job line because of fiscal cuts. Not as important or dramatic as nations being formed, slavery legitimated, or Africans dehumanized, but certainly crises possessing a drama and import of their own. Let’s just talk about those dramas. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Radical Neglect; Or, Did Dorner have an Addressee?

I stop somewhere waiting for you

We stop somewhere, waiting for one another, on the lookout for someone whom we will recognize as one of us. Sometimes we encounter one another and, in twos or threes but rarely more, read Marx or Kropotkin or whatever together. We hope and despair together about utterly fantastic things. More frequently, our encounters are fleeting: eye meets eye on a train over a copy of Tiqqun, and we share a recognition that we are less alone than we thought—a fact that only intensifies our loneliness when we disembark and head back to our jobs and wonder why we can’t spend all of our time around people with opinions on European insurrectionists. We know that there are more of us than we could know. We scan the world for signs that we are coming, and we tweet and blog in the hopes of finding one another. We hope that someone out there will have said, “I stop somewhere, I’m waiting for you,” that our address will have reached her, and that she’ll write back—leave some trace, some sign, that we’re out there. We know that most of our addresses will never find an addressee, that our writing is an unwriting, that our radicalism will never have taken root in the world. But we write—lonely and alone—within the horizon of a sublime vista of a democracy to come, one to be peopled by people like us. And so we keep writing. And reading.

We are told that Christopher Dorner was killed while hiding out from police. Sure, no doubt he was doing that, but something more, too: Looking out from his mountain cabin upon a fucked up democratic vista, Dorner had stopped somewhere, waiting for us, for we who might arrive, who might resonate to and with his manifesto. No doubt he wrote while he waited; the conflagration that consumed the cabin equally consumed an archive. The fugitive words of a fugitive that will never take root. Dorner killed to gain an audience. To secure an addressee. To become an addressor.

Dorner’s act is not an action that we—the vague we that we are, the inchoate dispersed multitude that fleetingly assembles itself in moments of ephemeral recognition—perform, or even contemplate. I don’t kill to gain an audience for my posts; I write, I leave traces, I let you, whoever you are, know that I’m waiting for you, for us, and I have faith that sometimes you will leave traces, too. I don’t kill to gain an addressee because I have access to an imagined super-addressee, the you that will have arrived, perhaps. It keeps me sane, it keeps me going, it transforms the holding pattern of my political despair into something more like a hopeful vigil, a waiting for our spectral multiplicity to materialize in the world. I want to ask: Did Dorner have access to this imaginary, to imagine his becoming-manifest in the horizon opened by a thought of a radical super-addressee? I’ll rephrase by citing some tweets from Project Cambio from February 13th (@ProjectCambio): “Sad that all these internet radicals are throwing #Dorner to the wolves for his lack of impeccable radical politics.” “Would you have let #Dorner into your radical spaces? Would you have shown #solidarity with a confused and angry ex-cop?” “#Dorner most likely had ZERO access to space to discuss any of the subjects that radicals hold so dear.” The “spaces” cited by Project Cambio are not simply material spaces—bookstores and infoshops, kitchens or apartments. These “spaces” include the imaginative spaces and spacings of our utterances and addresses. Is the imagined ambit of our address wide enough—perhaps even Whitman-esque enough—to have included Dorner as a possible addressee? Would Dorner ever have resonated to a radical text as if it were addressed to him, to him in his particularity? Prior to killing cops, could Dorner have imagined himself as occupying a position as and within the inchoate and dispersed “we” that we—you, me, and everyone we do not yet know—inhabit when we try to become manifest to one another?

I don’t think so. And that’s the lesson that we need to take from the brief public life of Christopher Dorner. Those radicals that aren’t critiquing non-radical aspects of Dorner’s politics applaud his burst of violence with infantile Tiqqun-lite phrases. I’m not against political violence at all, but we need to question the conditions of possibility that made Dorner’s solitary and isolated acts of violence necessary. On one hand, sure, Dorner’s violence testifies to the shrinking space of political legibility accorded to people (and certainly black men in LA) in a neoliberal world. In brief, neoliberal governance names the organization of a social formation wherein the speech of most can never become publically meaningful action. I call it neglect (etymologically, “to not read”): we write and speak knowing that our words will do nothing, that know one is reading them. No institutional mechanisms exist to make our speech acts felicitous. In such conditions, one’s speech only becomes efficacious through contingency or violence; violence becomes a perfectly rational mode of acceding to the airy world of communicative rationality. Dorner knew this; he realized it through his engagement with the LAPD. And so Dorner killed to gain an addressee, to gain a hearing, to become manifest in a world where the words of most do not come to light, where they have no phenomenality, where they are always already ash and cinders.

But, on the other hand, Dorner’s violence testifies to the non-availability of alternative sources of political legibility and alternative modalities of generating meaningful speech. It might be that you, me, and everyone that we do not yet know do not use violence to produce an addressee because we know that there are alternative sites of address, other forms and sources of attention to solicit. We stop somewhere, we wait for one another, and sometimes we connect in university reading groups and in infoshops, in groups writing letters to prisoners and in marches. We are imaginable to one another as an other world, and it’s this imaginary that allows us, jaunty and happy, to ironize the dominant as a source of political legibility, to say Fuck the State, Fuck Capitalism, Fuck the Police. I could be wrong, perhaps I can’t see the other words he inhabited, but I don’t think that Dorner understood himself as living in a world where some waited—even if he did not know them, even if he could not name them—to receive and resonate with his words. We need to ask why. Maybe our addresses can’t gain any traction in the lifeworlds of someone like Dorner, a former cop/naval officer invested in a certain notion of honor. Maybe our addresses never reached him, blocked off by the lines of race, class, and habitus. Maybe our addresses did reach him, but not in a meaningful genre of address. Maybe they reached him and he became resonant with them and he showed up, say, to Occupy, but we were not prepared to receive him; perhaps we turned him away, we said that we wouldn’t wait for him. And, finally, maybe our addresses did reach him and he just didn’t give a fuck about us, whoever we are, whatever we think we’re doing. The fact is, though, that Dorner’s addresses would not have reached us had he not killed. And when the conditions of possibility for legibility within a radical world are identical to the conditions of possibility for legibility within a neoliberal public, well—we’re fucked, people. We need to find a way to find the words not obviously intended for us, to encounter genres and lifeworlds that don’t come packaged in some bullshit Semiotext(e) “intervention,” that aren’t addressed to the U.S.’s radical milieu. We need a radical hermeneutics, one that always reads for whom it fails to read, and in this fashion incorporate into our imagined scenes of address those subjects anxiously bereft of an addressee. We need to stop and wait and see who comes and be prepared to be surprised by who appears.

This isn’t simply a liberal bid for inclusion. To the contrary: Redressing neglect is the minimal demand that we can make of radical politics. Indeed, proliferating sites of political legibility is the positive, constructive work of anarchy. We undertake the negative labor of anarchy—fucking up the “state,” which is nothing more than a catachresis for any form of hierarchized sociality—in order to free up the possibility of proliferating worlds. CLR James excelled at this, at finding new genres to transform the desperate lifeworlds of workers, sharecroppers, colonial peoples into something glowing with political import. The radical possibilities of Occupy inhered in its formation of a space wherein the quotidian, desperate worlds of people could come into contact, wherein complaint—about banks, about debt, about the racism and sexism of the movement itself—could become politically legible speech. At encampments we stopped and waited for one another…and waited and waited, and the speeches got too long, yes, and the GAs became shit-shows, yes, but for a while we waited and listened and, addressed and addressing, we fell into a new world of care. It’s indeed surprising that, after the police destroyed our world, there have not been more Dorners, more subjects craving to feel once more the glow of another’s attention. They are no doubt out there, speaking in genres and idioms and modes of address that we do not know we don’t know. We desperately need to proliferate sites of address for these missives, to incorporate neglected subjects into our not-yet-inclusive democratic vistas.

Dorner stopped and waited. Perhaps he had waited before—not in cabins, no, but in the knowledge that his political speech had meant nothing to the LAPD, in the loneliness of governed urban space, in the racialized castle of his skin. Back then, Dorner did not know that we were waiting for him. We didn’t, either. As Dorner lammed it, as Dorner hid in his cabin, I like to think that he was writing, that he was preparing a new text to manifest himself. This time, though, he wrote knowing full well that his text had an addressee, that people stopped and waited for his words. And did we not all stop and wait as the helicopters circled the cabin, as the pigs closed in, as they burned the cabin down? Archived in the ash, archived as ash, are the only words Dorner wrote with the certitude that someone would read them. Too late, we waited for his words to arrive. Missing him in one place, it remains for us to search another.

To all of you who will have read this address—and, above all, to you whom I will have always neglected to intend.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Surprise of Freedom; or, The Post in which I Attempt Landing a Football Conceit

I have a strange scene playing in my head, drawn from a world I don’t know at all: Yankee football. The play begins, the ball is snapped, bodies in contact, something happens and, suddenly, a heavy lumbering defensive lineman has the ball in his hands. No one scripts a fumble, and while our lineman might have been attuned to the possibility that the ball would appear in his hands, its appearance there will always have been something of a surprise—the strike of the Heideggarian es gibt that inaugurates each world each time. Surprise: the ball seizes the lineman as much as the lineman seizes the ball, and his task is both to carry and be carried away by the event of this seizure.

This little scene has been playing in my head as I try to think the relation between theory and archive, between the philosophy I can’t not read and the history of slavery and freedom that I can’t not think. I want to think of history as the scene where the scripted play of the theoretical comes to crisis in a fumble and—for a brief instant—somebody unexpected might be holding the ball. Today there is a tendency to make theory know (its) history, to expand the philosophical script to incorporate a seedy context: Courtesy of Cavendish, Hobbes was invested in Somers Islands Company, ergo… Locke had stock in the RAC and wrote the Constitution of the Carolinas, therefore… Hegel read newspapers and knew about that whole Haiti thing, so… We reconstruct context to read for the symptom, but nothing surprising happens. At the end of the day, Buck-Morss’ Hegel is still calling the play, holding the ball. It’s just that, for an instant, we’re all on the same team (called “Universal History”) and QB Georg is going to lead us to the endzone, “FREEDOM” painted across its span. (It’s painted in the colors of the French flag, all three, the white restored to redress the particularism of the “black identity [that] functioned as a national myth,” a mythic identity in “tension with the ideas of universal emancipation to which the revolution had given birth.” Okay. Closing the polemic that’s threatening to open. For a more generous read, check out David Kazanjian’s awesome response in Diacritics, I think.)

But then, sometimes, something irreducibly singular happens, appears in the archive, a kind of history that theory would never (want to) know. I’m thinking of a scene in the narrative of Sitiki (alias Jacques Smith, Jack Smith, Uncle Jack, Father Jack—the proliferations of names is crucial), an enslaved person who lived in Florida through the Spanish period, through U.S. annexation, through the Civil War and beyond. I did not know of Sitiki’s narrative until I found it on a shelf in a bookstore, one down the street from my apartment. Like my imagined defensive lineman, I try to stay alert for such chance encounters; like the lineman, I know that nothing will have prepared me for the surprise of the event. I found it over the summer, I’ve now taught it twice, and I must have read it in its entirety fifteen times by now. I can’t count how many times I’ve read the passage I now cite, a passage wherein freedom seizes and is seized by Sitiki. Freedom takes and is taken by Sitiki in a peculiar direction, into a world we would think to call slavery:

During the embargo of Jefferson misfortunes attended us. My master went with the family from St. Marys to Fernandina opposite, on Amelia Island belonging to Spain, leaving me in charge of his house in St. Marys a little way out of town. The British, then at war with us, having come there, the officers carried away the furniture and took me to their quarters. My master applied for me of the admiral, who gave consent that I should go if I chose, and Cockburn gave me a written license to pass where I might like. Several hundred black people were induced at this time to take shipping in the English vessels with the assurance of freedom and embarked for Halifax.
On the day we received news of peace a young mistress was born, in a house near the residence of ‘Old Fernandez,’ still standing on the bay, before what were his corn and cotton fields, behind the wharf at Fernandina new town. In time she became the wife of a surgeon of the Army.
Trivial circumstances seemingly unimportant come to be the tallies that passing over memory often connect for me in their order more to important incidents in life. (19) [The tortured syntax of this last sentence, its beauty and its sadness: I don't know how to read it, I've just included it because it needs to be read.]

Sitiki knows something, something urgent and necessary about freedom, a knowledge that comes to light in his enigmatic decision to remain enslaved. He knows something about freedom that the silly British admiral can’t know when he offers an “assurance of freedom” (a phrasing, like “black people were induced,” that reeks of the style of his amanuensis and former master, Buckingham Smith, but a phrasing that—should we accord Sitiki’s enigmatic decision to stay with Smith the status of a decision, and we should—we must take seriously, that we must take as the co-production of the ensemble Sitiki/Buckingham, the intimate sociality to which Sitiki returned, perhaps happy to witness the birth of a young mistress). He knows something, and so decides as he does, and it is around this decision that Enlightenment philosophy fumbles.

I can think of few texts of Europe’s Aufklärung that do not abstractly and hypothetically stage such a scene of auto-enslavement. Hobbes, Locke, and Hegel certainly do. Yet, such scenes of auto-enslavement (always set in a state of war, as their common source, Grotius, set the scene) only ever function as a fictive vanishing point necessary for and constitutive of the freedoms of the polity. The state of slavery is a vanishing, fictive point due to the dynamics of the speech-act by which the vanquished belligerent would enslave himself to preserve his life. The sovereignty with which the vanquished captive declares “I am your slave” will always already have ironized the state it intends to produce; the victor’s counter-signing, “I am your master; I promise not to kill you”—as Hobbes’, Locke’s, and Hegel’s masters proclaim—immediately introduces contract into the relation of domination. Again, slavery is a vanishing point in all of these texts: subjects are either moving toward it or away from it but can never inhabit the a/social relation it names. Sitiki moves into a philosophical space that is supposed to close as soon as it is opened, one recollected in the philosophical script of modernity only in order to assert its impossibility. O my slaves, there is no slave.

What future for freedom does Sitiki clear (let’s call it an act of Lichtung) in his refusal of the “assurance of freedom” held out by that thing we might call Aufklärung? What does Sitiki know that we do not—that Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and so on do not know?

We read this in class, two classes, grads and undergrads, seizing and seized by the implications of the moment like the heavy lumbering lineman who finds himself holding the ball. Some wanted to find the trace of the Master at each moment of narration; according to this reading, the Master is never more present than in the moment where Sitiki refuses the Anglo “assurance of freedom.” I’m fairly certain that these students think that I’m a conservative monster for insisting that we try to think the future of freedom from the perspective of the slave who auto-enslaves, that we take Sitiki’s narration of his decision seriously and sincerely, that we take it as his decision to relinquish the possessive and self-possessed subjectivity that would allow him to adopt the possessive form subtending the locution “his decision.” It’s worth noting that Sitiki narrated his life as a free man, after the Civil War, having lived decades upon decades in St. Augustine. He was born free and died free: slavery does not constitute the totality of his life. But he did not know that this would have been true when he risked slavery for a different kind of freedom...

Many of us (I include myself) tried contextualizing, sociologizing, and rationalizing this decision. We read a chapter from Jane Landers’ Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, a book that I love and read and reread constantly, in order to grasp the complicated ways that interimperial struggle in the Floridas textured the political subjectivity of free and enslaved blacks. Landers is after those non-revolutionary blacks—the imperial loyalists, the monarchists, all those subjects who don’t do what we good democrats want them to do—who sought freedom in those polities that we would write off as unfree, as undemocratic. Concluding the chapter that my classes read, she writes:

They [i.e., Atlantic Creoles] were fully aware of the inexorable expansionism of the United States, and of the commitment of its southern citizenry to doctrines of racial superiority and to chattel slavery, and thus it is no wonder that Atlantic Creoles chose any political option other than that of the American democracy. (137)

We tried reading Sitiki’s decision in light of this tactical savvy. Spanish Floridian society, some tell us, had legal affordances for enslaved blacks unavailable to even free blacks in Anglo polities like the U.S. or Halifax. The concreteness of Spanish liberties trumped the abstractness of the Anglo “assurance of freedom.” And, yet, I can’t help but be dissatisfied with this rationalization—not least because it is a rationalization. It explains; it doesn’t open; it thinks it knows what freedom is. Indeed, note how the burden of Landers’ prose is to annul surprise, to get us to think that we think freedom in the same fashion as the creoles she studies. Her “fully aware” creoles are, essentially, utility maximizers, sizing up one polity against another and siding with the one promising marginal gains. It is on this basis that we can comprehend the apparently odd decisions of these creoles; the wonder of history is evacuated (“thus it is no wonder”) when we realize that they are just as rational as us, that they think the same thought of freedom

Dispensing with this approach, we also tried coming to terms with Sitiki’s decision via the links between language, space, and affect. Sikiti, as he makes clear, has no real language; he lives between languages, always forgetting the words that he would have known. He tells us, in the first paragraph, that this brokenness of language is why he is writing (or having his words written down):

Persons in San. Augustin who sometimes hear me address my brethren, children of Africans, and see me in the field with the hoe or gathering the fruit of my trees are interested from my advanced age to know somewhat more of me. I have thought myself therefore excusable in giving some written account of my life, inasmuch as my speech is broken and not altogether intelligible to strangers who seem to desire hearing more of me than they learn. (11)

Sitiki’s speech is “broken.” It is, in fact, shattered at the origins: kidnapped as a child, Sitiki does not know the language he once spoke, does not know the name of the land from which he came, until he meets an African in Florida: “One African I talked with seemed to think that I was of a country called Mora. The language I spoke is called Guinea.” One gets the impression that Sitiki hailed each African he knew, repeating the limited set of words of his mother-tongue he recollected—he provides a list—asking, “What is my language?” Sitiki always knows that he does not know language(s): he recalls children in Africa “learning by what they wrote on boards in a language I did not know” (13). He recalls his father, a Muslim who would be killed during his capture, praying; he recalls only the tones, the sonic materiality, and it is master Buckingham who tells him—us—that this language is Arabic. He moves through Spanish and English and took on a French name for a time. Sitiki lives the shattering of language(s), a shattering that is co-extensive with his spatial displacements. It’s from this perspective that we tried to understand Sitiki’s decision. Halifax’s “assurance of freedom,” we reasoned that Sitiki reasoned, meant another exhausting displacement (at least—as we know, black loyalists who went to Halifax began epic journeys to freedom that ended in Liberia, in Australia), another linguistic and cultural code to learn. Sitiki was bound and bounded to the locale he knew, to the intimate world in which his speech might not have seemed broken, where he could preach to the children of Africa and be heard without needing the standardized orthography of writing to save his broken words from being treated as senseless noise.

This reading is perhaps closest to the one that I would pursue, that I will pursue. It begins to get at the being-in-common that philosophy’s freedom can only negatively code as freedom’s vanishing antithesis. This being-in-common isn’t pleasant, it’s not a joyous thing; it’s a broken life, a shattered language, the sociality of a traumatized being trying to get some traction in the world. It is something, though, that we need to know, and that we need to know as a philosophy, as a text that contextualizes nothing. Indeed, Sitiki’s textualization of this obscure, enigmatic freedom will never appear, symptomatically, within the philosophical text of modernity; it will not have been read by a Master Theorist who, in a sovereign and unbroken language, will abstract it into a philosophy of freedom. Rather, Sitiki’s narrative surprises every scripting of what we think freedom is. The task is to carry and be carried by this surprise into a world utterly bereft of conventional “assurance[s] of freedom.”