Untimely Vision: Aimé Césaire, Decolonization, Utopia
I have no ambitions about finding a solution. I do not know where we are going, but I know that we must charge ahead. The black man must be liberated, but he must also be liberated from the liberator.
— Aimé Césaire, Nègre je suis, nègre je resterai
I inhabit a three-hundred-year war.
— Aimé Césaire, “Lagoonal Calendar”
Freedom and History
In his lucid mediation on “the tragedy of colonial Enlightenment,” David Scott asks why scholars continue to produce Romantic narratives of anticolonial revolution when the politicohistorical framework within which such histories were once relevant has changed decisively. In an era when the Bandung project has collapsed, when the future of national sovereignty that it envisioned has receded into the past, Scott wonders, what is the political utility of producing more stories of colonialism that focus on overcoming and emancipation? He argues that the emancipatory hopes of a superseded anticolonalism are no longer adequate to illuminate the political impasses of our postcolonial predicament. Scott therefore calls on scholars to confront the disjuncture between the outmoded histories we continue to write, the altered problem space in which we live, and the postrevolutionary futures that we can now realistically anticipate. By developing these issues through an insightful reading of The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James’s great historical epic of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, Scott establishes the Caribbean as the paradigmatic space of colonial modernity.1
This radical challenge to postcolonial studies by one of the field’s most influential practitioners demands our attention, not least because of its incisive formulation and far-reaching analytic implications. It also resonates with other calls by important critics to revise the stories we tell about anticolonialism.2 Thinking along with Scott, however, I would like to suggest that it is possible to accept his critique of revolutionary anticolonialism without concluding, as he does, that all stories of colonial emancipation must be replaced with stories of impossible alternatives and tragic dilemmas.
Scott persuasively argues that traditional dreams of total revolution, political emancipation, and national sovereignty are ineffective antidotes to a form of power that can only be negotiated, and not overcome through acts of autonomous agency and heroic resistance. This perspective leads him to gather together these distinct phenomena under the single rubric of “Romantic anticolonialism.” But once a chain of equivalence is established among colonial overcoming, anticolonial revolution, political emancipation, and national sovereignty, it becomes impossible to challenge any one of these positions without also automatically discounting the others. The general possibilities of colonial overcoming and political emancipation are thereby reduced to a limited revolutionary nationalism. And because Scott understands the latter to have lost its political purchase today, he figures all histories of emancipation as Romantic. He thereby affirms, however inadvertently, the central assumption of the anticolonialism that is the object of his criticism — namely, that colonialism can be overcome and postcolonial freedom secured only through a revolutionary nationalism whose objective is formal territorial sovereignty. Scott’s account thus rejects as outdated the very prospect of colonial emancipation itself rather than the revolutionary and national forms through which it was pursued at a particular historical moment. In other words, it reproduces a historically specific logic of decolonization that naturalized the relationship between colonial emancipation and national liberation.
It is not clear that a constitutive understanding of colonial modernity requires a tragic understanding of colonial politics. Why should the options for thinking about postcoloniality be limited to choices between romance or tragedy, revolution or impasse, emancipation or negotiation, salvation or impossibility? Such restrictive oppositions make it difficult to remember or recognize within decolonization those movements or voices that struggled to institute forms of nonnational colonial emancipation. This framework obscures alternative histories of decolonization that challenged precisely the anticolonial nationalism whose ongoing relevance Scott rightly questions. Sharing Scott’s commitment to move beyond the historiography of revolutionary nationalism, this essay examines the kind of histories that his argument implicitly discounts: histories of colonial overcoming that are at the same time histories of negotiation with colonial modernity. Such discounted histories, I suggest, do in fact speak to the political demands of our postcolonial present.
This essay also endorses Scott’s claim that historical temporality should be a central concern of postcolonial scholarship. But it develops a different understanding of the provocative notion of “futures past” that Scott adapts from the historian Reinhart Kosellek.3 For Scott, revolutionary anticolonialism’s dream of national sovereignty became a historically superseded and politically obsolete future past when it failed to secure political freedom for colonized peoples. Such a past future, he contends, can no longer meaningfully animate emancipatory projects in our radically transformed conditions. I am less concerned with future arrangements whose promise faded away after they were imperfectly implemented or with futures that corresponded to a world that no longer exists and to hopes that are no longer possible. Instead, my interest lies in futures that were once imagined but never came to be, alternative futures that might have been and whose not yet realized emancipatory possibilities may now be recognized and reawakened as durable and vital legacies.4
This essay focuses on Aimé Césaire’s post – World War II commitment to colonial emancipation without national independence. It examines how his constitutional initiatives to enact a future with France in an age of decolonization may be read as politically untimely and strategic utopian engagements with the complex problem of (colonial) freedom. I will suggest that they can be grasped as such only if we recognize that Césaire’s 1946 program to transform Antillean colonies into French departments and his subsequent attempt to reconstitute France as a federal republic were mediated by the spirits of Louverture and Victor Schoelcher and the legacies of the 1790s revolution in Saint-Domingue and the 1848 abolition of slavery. At these crucial turning points, imperial conditions had created the possibility of nonnational colonial emancipation even as certain kinds of instituted liberty themselves obstructed the prospect of substantive freedom. For subsequent generations, such failed initiatives then became futures past that condensed not yet realized but ever-available emancipatory potentialities.
By revisiting Césaire’s discredited and outmoded projects for nonnational colonial emancipation, this inquiry seeks to reflect critically on openings within the postwar order that were foreclosed by a nationalist logic of decolonization. It also pays special attention to the layered histories and temporal condensations entailed in Césaire’s political interventions. And through reference to contemporary Martinique it suggests how his vision in that opening may speak directly to the challenges and opportunities of our postcolonial present. Finally, in light of his recent death, it raises the more general question of Césaire’s historical legacy.
The Problem of Freedom and the Time of Utopia
In his landmark study of postemancipation society in colonial Jamaica, the historian Thomas C. Holt figures the British abolition of slavery in 1833 as a “problem of freedom.”5 He not only demonstrates that freedom for slaves immediately became a problem for powerful whites who could no longer directly compel emancipated black cultivators to work on plantations. Through his account of the coercive and restricted free labor regime actually instituted by emancipation, Holt also indicates that freedom immediately became a problem for former slaves as well. Abolition, we learn, marked the commencement rather than the conclusion of a modern form of colonial racism. Slave emancipation instituted a regime of freedom from which slaves would now struggle to be emancipated. In this essay I emphasize that freedom understood in this way is a long-term “problem” that reemerges forcefully at crucial turning points in the history of colonial emancipation (i.e., the 1790s, 1848, 1945).
This refractory problem compelled Césaire, Schoelcher, and Louverture to develop self-reflexive and experimental approaches to colonial emancipation. They refused to presuppose the political forms through which freedom should be instituted. Such arrangements would have to be imagined, invented, and attempted in relation to existing and emergent conditions in any given conjuncture. A pragmatic spirit led them to use forms that worked and to move on when they were no longer effective. A utopian spirit led them to imagine unprecedented alternatives and to pursue the unimaginable concretely. Their examples illuminate a political orientation that we might call “strategic utopian.” Strategic utopia, as I try to develop the concept, entails concrete interventions that enact (envision, perform, pursue) and anticipate (precede, foresee, call forth) a transformative set of coordinates. This imagined alternative order appears to have no evident relation to actual conditions even as it is already immanently discernible and embodied, however fleetingly or spectrally, in existing consciousness, practices, or institutions.
Strategic utopia thus describes an antinomy between potentially transformative acts that must in some way presuppose an already transformed world, on the one hand, and an envisioned transformation that could be realized only through such transformative acts, on the other. This seemingly irreconcilable opposition is mediated precisely by the concrete historical acts that I refer to as utopian. Act here should be understood in the triple sense of performance, action, and law or juridical intervention. Such acts are thus situated on the almost imperceptible line between the possible and the impossible, the actual and imagined, the existent and emergent, the immanent and transcendent — a boundary that is often both infinitesimal and impassable. Strategic utopia is not simply about claiming the impossible instrumentally to make moderate gains today. But it does indicate the political effectivity of acting “as if” — as if the future was imminent, as if a seemingly impossible order already existed — to rework existing coordinates (by anticipating alternative arrangements) and to bring forth “utopian” alternatives (by awakening immanent possibilities in the present). Here we see the indispensable temporal dimension of strategic utopia; such utopias are necessarily untimely.6
By untimely I mean out of sync with the corresponding historical period. Such actions and events are the kind of phenomena that Ernst Bloch refers to as “nonsynchronous” and Kosellek as “the contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous.” 7This is not only a matter of something being outmoded or ahead of its time, of merely moving against the historical current. Nor do I use the term to refer only to the phenomenon of uneven historical development. Rather, untimely here indexes processes and practices of temporal refraction whereby people act “as if” they inhabit a different historical moment, whether intentionally, as part of a political strategy, or unconsciously, as symptom of a syndrome. Untimeliness here also refers to instances when conventional distinctions among past, present, and future become blurred, when disparate times are condensed within reified objects.8
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This essay is drawn from my current book project tentatively titled 'Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, Utopia.' For opportunities to present earlier versions of the essay at Harvard University, Duke University, Northwestern University, the University of Missouri, and the New School, I thank my hosts Abiola Irele, Laurent Dubois, Tessie Liu, Mamadou Badiane, and Ann Laura Stoler. I am also grateful for comments on earlier drafts from Claudio Lomnitz, Paul Saint-Amour, the editorial board of Public Culture, and especially Laurent Dubois. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
- David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004).
- See Achille Mbembe, “African Modes of Self-Writing,” Public Culture 14 (2002): 239 – 73; and Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
- For Kosellek, in any given epoch there exists a historically specific relation between present and future that determines its sense of historical temporality as well, therefore, as the kinds of historical narratives that it produces. Reinhart Kosellek, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
- Here I build directly on the insights about reified objects, emancipatory potentiality, and historical temporality in the work of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Ernst Bloch.
- Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832 – 1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
- I thus seek to embrace the radical potential of political imagination while respecting Karl Marx’s critique of historically ungrounded and politically unmediated utopian fantasies. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International, 1948), 39 – 42. This understanding of utopia resonates with, though differs from, more minimal or formal attempts to recuperate utopia as either the human capacity to imagine a radically alternative social totality (Adorno) or the valorization of political fantasy as such (Fredric Jameson). It also differs from Jacques Derrida’s conception of messianic waiting without expectation for a democracy to come that denigrates politics (as necessarily instrumental) and deifies ethics (transhistorically). Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch, “Something’s Missing: A Conversation between Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing (1964),” in Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), 1 – 17; Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (London: Routledge, 1994); Fredric Jameson, “The Politics of Utopia,” New Left Review, no. 25 (2004): 35 – 54.
- Ernst Bloch, “Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics,” New German Critique, no. 11 (1977): 22 – 38; Kosellek, Futures Past, 95, 237 – 46, 266.
- Benjamin invites us to listen carefully for “a sort of theological whispered intelligence dealing with matters discredited and obsolete” (“Some Reflections on Kafka,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn [New York: Schocken, 1969], 144). Jameson points to the inverse process: “Utopias in fact come to us as barely audible messages from a future that may never come into being” (“The Politics of Utopia,” 54). Adorno writes that “our thinking heeds a potential that waits in the object” and also that “the interpretive eye . . . sees more in a phenomenon than what it is — and solely because of what it is.” His negative dialectics therefore entail “the penetration of . . . hardened objects” by means of “the possibility of which their reality has cheated the objects and which is nonetheless visible in each one.” For Adorno, “cognition of the object in its constellation is cognition of the process stored in the object.” In this way, “the history locked in the object . . . is delivered” (Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton [New York: Continuum, 1983], 19, 28, 52, 163).