First Post

October 7, 2009

'John Bull takes a clear view of the Negro Salvery Question' - George Cruikshank (1826)

'John Bull taking a clear view of the Negro Slavery Question' - George Cruikshank (1826)

‘Critical theoretical practice today is caught within the prison house of its own academic debates. We are confined within the globally extended theory world, as artists are within the globally incorporated art world’

Susan Buck-Morss – Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (p.139)

I had intended to use this quote to open the first post of the blog for some time but in the three weeks since I set up Zombie Diaspora I’ve been unable to find that special ‘extra’ prompt that would make me stop procrastinating and actually start writing, to put the first post in the blogging ground.

And in the end it was not this quote that did it. It was another, much more obtuse trigger that I will get to later. But the above quote has the value of being  relevant to the immediate purpose of the blog and for bringing together two of the three inter-related themes that have been proposed for Ghetto Biennale Conference: the ‘Critique of the Biennale Circuit’ and ‘Of Revelation and Revolution’

It is the latter theme – which will explore the relevance of Haiti’s revolutionary history for contemporary art –  that I feel most comfortable and confident addressing here. That’s why I chose to begin the blog with a quote from Susan Buck-Morss. I will write more about the critique of the biennale circuit later in the blog. But for the time being I’d like to stay in the cosy and reassuring environs of critical theory and cultural history.

In the run up to writing this first post I have been working on two other distinct but inter-related projects. The first is the development of the curriculum content and reading list for a course called the General Theory Forum which I teach at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London (henceforth the GTF). The GTF introduces postgraduate art and design students to a range of theoretical concepts, discourses and debates which help them to contextualise their creative practices in critical, contemporary and theoretical  terms. Because the students come from a diverse range of international and educational backgrounds I try to find primary readings for each topic (e.g. ‘Identity and Difference’, ‘Culture, Taste and Distinction’) that can serve as general introductions to the subject area. Each year I try to update and adapt the syllabus and find new and better readings for each lecture. The course begins in two weeks time. So that’s what I’m doing now.

The second plate I have been spinning is a presentation for a forthcoming event called ‘Performance Fictions’ organized by the Art-Writing-Research-Network at Birmingham University. I’ve been entertaining the idea of formally developing a notion of ‘Paranoid Critical Theory’ as a research/writing  method for some time now and have  been given the opportunity to do so to public audience later this month.  In order to present the theory I will be relying on and demonstrating an idiosyncratic, subjective archiving system that first revealed itself to me when I began to read ‘theory-in-general’  with-a-mission, as it were, during my first academic degree in Art History and Theory at Essex University in 1986. The intellectual-academic mapping system which emerged involuntarily at that time built itself upon the territory of my home town in the north of England. Upon the ground of York many clusters of academic, textual, and literary ‘information’ have become invisibly mapped in fixed locations, usually in the environs of my earlier learning institutions.  When I take in new information, stuff that makes me think ‘theoretically’, it tends to gravitate ‘unconsciously’ to these specific places, as if there was a phantom librarian wandering around the maps of my memory, archiving books and ideas according to a delirious indexing system known only to them.

I have been aware of this mapping system for twenty years or more and have tried to analyse, interpret and represent it several times before. Although my relationship with the system occasionally (or in some places) borders on the hysterical, today I’m not worrying too much about who or what the phantom librarian is, or why he/she processes the information the way that they do. It is simply always there, quietly, in place. And whenever I work on some theoretical-writing project it gradually comes in to focus on the backdrop of my mind’s eye.

Since the co-ordinates of ‘Paranoid Critical Theory’ are firmly mapped on this memorial ground, it is currently proving (with the miraculous assistance of Google Earth) a particularly useful way to outline the academic pre-texts for the theory that I intend to present in Birmingham (henceforth PCT). Furthermore, in the process of mapping the co-ordinates of PCT I inevitably encounter the archival co-ordinates of Haiti on my biographical map (arbitrarily situated in an open area between the exam hall and coffee bar of the technical college I attended when I left secondary school in 1980. The three essays posted on the Pages section to your right, for instance, were written with here as the backdrop).

Haiti Cluster

So these are three spinning plates that I am trying to keep in the air as I attempt to get this blog rolling: the GTF, PCT and the Ghetto Biennale Conference (henceforth the GBC).

Two days ago I awoke thinking about PCT project, remembering an important co-ordinate cluster that needed to be marked on the Google Earth map. Close to the finishing line of the race-track in York my secret librarian had placed two texts by Freud; the first ‘A Note upon the Mystic Writing Pad’ and the second a section from Civilization and its Discontents where he reflects on the archaeology of Rome as a metaphor for the layering of memories in the brain (a section which, incidentally,  I have quoted in full in the ‘Spectral Futurology’ lecture posted in the ‘Pages’ section to your right).

As I put the place-markers for these texts in the map I realised that another key text was hovering over the same area, one which seemed to hold the others in place: Jacques Derrida’s chapter on ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’ from Writing and Difference. I quickly googled the book, found the chapter and began to read it again. As I did so I immediately felt the urge to take notes from the text and to copy out this particular sentence: ‘Despite appearances, the deconstruction of logocentrism is not a psychoanalysis of philosophy’. As I did so I realised that I could use this quote for the GTF as an example of the kind of ‘high-end’ theoretical construction that, at the beginning of the course, I would expect few of the students to understand. If, by then end of the course, they had some level of understanding of the sentence, I could use it as a measure of how well the course had worked. It was just an idea. Worth noting at least. So I did.

And then, as I began to write it out, plate one spun into plate two, plate two spun in turn into plate three, and I realised that this sentence might  be the very quote with which I could being the GBC blog.

Which is what it was. And here’s why. It takes us back to Buck-Morss.

I was first prompted to read Hegel, Haiti and Universal History after attending a conference ‘On the Idea of Communism’ at Birkbeck College in London in March this year at which Slavoj Zizek gave a talk entitled ‘To Begin from the Beginning over and over again’. In it Zizek spoke about the Haitian revolution in the context of his discussion of the 4th great challenge we face in an age of ‘capitalism gone mad’: the loss of an antagonism between the included and the excluded that might be strong enough to prevent capitalism’s indefinite reproduction. It would be too much to summarise Zizek’s argument here (overviews of Zizek’s position can be found at Lacuna 2.0 and Pinocchio Theory) but it is worth noting in terms of a particular revolutionary Haitian current running through contemporary critical theory and political philosophy at the moment, one exemplified by Buck-Morss, Zizek and Peter Hallward for instance, who also spoke ‘On the Idea of Communism’.

But it is not simply an association with ‘high theory’ through one of it’s most high-profile contemporary representatives (i.e. Zizek) that makes the Derrida quote point back to Buck-Morss, but the way it resonates with one of the sections of her book that I had not intended to write about. For the PCT project I had begun thinking about Critical Theory in terms of the popular blue and red pill dilemma from the film The Matrix (1999) (Zizek had already reflected in this in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) What I mean to suggest by ‘The Red Pill of Critical Theory’ is that approaching ‘one’s self’ and ‘the world’ from its multiple perspectives can seem to have an irreversible effect on one’s reality picture, that once you have learned to see the world through the bi-focal lenses of Marxism and Psychoanalysis in particular you can never return to a place of ontological innocence, to a place of un-knowing.

It is with reference to the complex relationship between these two dominant discourses of critical theory that Derrida’s sentence brings us back to Buck-Morrs’ ‘First Remarks’ in the ‘Universal History’ section of Hegel, Haiti and Universal History in which she expresses her intention to “unearth certain repressions surrounding the historical origins of modernity” and “to reconfigure the enlightenment project of a universal history in the context of our too-soon and not-yet global public sphere”.  To do so she discusses three images which she approaches as a rebus (in the manner of Walter Benjamin) in order to ask what happens if we consider Haiti as an agent in Europe’s construction rather than as its victim. (Echoing Buck-Morss,  Zizek suggested in his Birkbeck lecture that ‘we’ need the Haitian revolution to understand European communism).

The first image is an illustration to Voltaire’s Candide from 1787 in which the central protagonist of the novel encounters a slave in the Dutch colony of Surinam who has been physically mutilated by his master. The caption of the illustration consists of the slave’s final words: “It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe”.

“It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe”

“It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe”

When the illustrator Jean-Michel Moreau designed a second series of prints for the 1803 edition, this scene was omitted. Buck-Morss argues, following Mary Belhouse’s analysis of the imagery in her article ‘Candide Shoots the Monkey Lovers’, that this omission is a consequence of the slave revolution that had subsequently taken place in the sugar rich French colony of Saint-Domingue and that the shift in representational strategy was characteristic of a post-revolutionary tendency in French visual culture to replace depictions of blacks as “infantilized, subservient, and dismembered” subjects with representations of them as “physically violent and dangerously sexualized actors” who reduce whites to “bodies in pieces”.

Slave Uprising in Saint Domingue

Slave Uprising in Saint Domingue

Bellhouse analyses Moreau’s early image through the lens of psychoanalytic theory discovering “multiple signifiers of ‘phallic’ power in the hands of whites”. It is an approach which Buck-Morss is critical of and one which the Derrida quote reminded me of.

While acknowledging the theoretical value of Freud’s hermeneutic methods for cultural analysis, she argues that “something is lost when the theoretical apparatus of psychoanalysis is mapped directly on to a political analysis of the collective unconscious, lost to both sides of the interpretative process, the personal (psychological) and the political (social)”. She continues:

‘[I]f there is anxiety expressed in the image of the mutilated slave, we ought not to exclude consideration that it was lodged in the reality of the social situation, which cannot be reduced the castration fears of men…Not all guilt is sexual in origin…The figure of Candide expresses the undeniable political experience of guilt that we humans feel when witnessing something deeply wrong with the principles that govern our everyday world’.

The spur of Buck-Morss criticism of the psychoanalytic approach  is expressed most emphatically in a footnote, in which she writes:

‘To see fear of castration as the source of European racism, propelled by rumours of atrocities committed by rebelling colonial slaves, and to read that fear in the visual stereotypes in the “atrocity prints” of physically threatening, sexualised black males, is to short-circuit precisely the historical specificity that Bellhouse’s research so brilliantly discloses. In adopting the pre-Oedipal, Lacanian language of desire and loss (the maimed slave figures as Lacan’s “body in pieces”), she is led to ahistoricity against her intent’.

To support her argument Buck-Morss then recounts an anecdote the story of the French soldiers, on arriving at Haiti in order to reclaim it, heard the self-liberated slave army singing the La Marseillaise and questioned whether they were fighting on the right side. (Zizek, incidentally, used the same anecdote to illustrate his argument about the Hegelian-Universal claims of the French revolution – i.e. it’s first repetition and thus the first concrete realization of its proper universality). Buck-Morss uses the story to illustrate how guilt can derive from the gap between reality and social fantasy (i.e. the universality of the ideals of the French revolution) rather than between reality and individual fantasy.

The second rebus brought in to play by Buck-Morss is a waking vision reported by Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher, reported in a letter to a friend in 1664 “of a certain black and mangy Brazilian, whom I had never seen before”. Though Spinoza championed the rights of the physically empowered “multitude” he was blind, as were most later Enlightenment thinkers, to the social exclusion ‘with which the multitude was riddled’ (Buck-Morss).  Following Warren Montag in Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries (1999) Buck-Morss argues that this figure is a “condensation of all those whom Spinoza would legally deny a voice…[who] taken together comprise a numerical majority in any given society: women, slaves, wage-laborours, foreigners…They are the multitude whose real power no laws, no constitution can make disappear and whose very existence political philosophy seeks precisely in its most liberal forms to deny”.

The final rebus for us to ponder is an image from the life of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), the book which, as Buck Morss notes in her introduction to Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, profoundly influenced Hegel’s early philosophy civil society, the modern state and the ‘system of needs’ (Buck-Morss p. 3 – 20). Smith, a moral philosopher who condemned slavery as an “intolerable obstacle to human progress”, had one distinct vice: his fondness for sugar. She recounts the story of Smith compulsively stealing lump after lump of sugar from the tea-table of an elderly maiden lady: “his appearance mumping the eternal sugar was something indescribable”.

"The two wanderers heard a few little cries"

"The two wanderers heard a few little cries" - Illustration to 'Candide' (1803) - Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune

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One Response to “First Post”


  1. […] the Radical Enlightenment. Slavoj Zizek’s attention to these works, as mentioned in the ‘First Post‘ of this blog, has further added to this popular academic […]

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