Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution

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Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. By Sibylle Fischer. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 364pp. Hardcover, $89.95 ISBN: 978-0822332527; Paperback: $24.95, ISBN 978-0822332909).

In Modernity Disavowed, Sibylle Fischer questions the significance of the Haitian Revolution, an issue that numerous scholars have earlier addressed. But unlike those earlier historians, Fischer uses literary analysis to reframe the Revolution's role in shaping history and culture over the last two hundred years. Fischer is primarily concerned with the silencing of what should have been a seminal event in modernity, noting that most works examining the role of liberty and equality fail to even address the Haitian Revolution, the only revolution that centered on racial equality. Moreover, the tendency towards the study of the nation and national sovereignty in the nineteenth century further relegated the Haitian Revolution to the margins of history. The silencing then, of the Haitian Revolution, is part of an assumption of the universality of a European model of modernity. Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis, Fischer argues that disavowal is a statement of recognition, and the silencing of the Haitian Revolution is a testament to its importance.

Fischer's work is divided into three parts: Cuba, Santo Domingo/The Dominican Republic, and Saint-Domingue/Haiti. That structure allows her to examine the Revolution in the context of the Caribbean, both during the Revolution and after. And although a work of literary analysis, Fischer grounds the study in a thorough investigation of the history and historiography of the region. Through investigation of the José Antonio Aponte conspiracy in Cuba in 1812, she demonstrates that regardless of how the Haitian Revolution would be reinterpreted in future years, Cuban elites living with the very real danger of slave revolt could not afford to ignore the threat the Revolution posed even while simultaneously attempting to discount it. Her study of the arts in Cuba, both poetry and painting, is likewise illuminating. White elites in Cuba grew increasingly concerned over the domination of people of color in Cuban painting and the aesthetic discourse surrounding the paintings thus categorized that art form as "disgusting" or "barbaric." Yet, Fischer argues that there was a great deal more than matters of beauty under attack. Fischer also insightfully reexamines the works of a major Cuban literary figure of the nineteenth century, the poet of color, Plácido, and concludes that the circumstances of his life and death can only be viewed as a traumatic memory impossible to erase. In 1844, Plácido was executed for his supposed role in the La Escalera Conspiracy. While Plácido has long been lauded as a gifted poet tried and convicted more on the basis of his talent and skin color than his guilt or innocence, Fischer not only believes him a poet of questionable quality but views him as representative of the abject, and of what Cuba could have been had elites not taken steps to silence the Haitian Revolution. Thus Plácido should not be seen as a representative martyr of colonial culture, but rather as representative of what elites knew was at stake.

Fischer further investigates the role of the Revolution in Santo Domingo/The Dominican Republic. More than once, Haiti invaded its neighbor to the east, in large part to protect her own Revolution and to liberate the blacks and mulattoes of Santo Domingo. Yet, Dominicans consistently failed to recognize these pragmatic motives and instead created "increasingly bizarre fantasies" to explain the Haitian desire to liberate and its consequential invasions (170). Thus, the appearance of revolutionary slaves became an inversion in the normal social order, requiring a dramatic rebuttal. …