Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Mungo Park's Artificial Skin; or, the Year the White Man Passed

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Mungo Park's Artificial Skin; or, the Year the White Man Passed

Article excerpt

There is no recognition without self-forgetfulness.

--Alexander Garcia Duttmann, Between Cultures (1)

I want to begin with two endings, or perhaps more tellingly, the question of ends. That one of these texts could be said to traverse the borders of the historico-philosophical moment we call the Enlightenment (1799, Africa), and the other to occupy a space still suffering its legacy (1952, Antilles), begins to suggest something of the broad historical stakes of the argument that follows, although my concerns are finally much more local, intimate, improvisational. Both of the privileged passages I begin with suppose a stark dichotomy between blackness and whiteness, and thus could be said to summon the limit case of Duttmann's claim that recognition necessarily involves some form of self-negation, for each passage tacitly asks: What, and how much, need one forget in order to acknowledge an other? How do we ensure that recognition--and, by extension, self-forgetting--is a shared venture, securing thus an end to blackness and whiteness both? (2)


An extended meditation on the psychopathology of colonial recognition, Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks ends with a strategic oscillation between rhetoric and negation, between questions that the text answers by asking ("Do I have to be limited to the justification of a facial conformation?") and assertions that insist resolutely on what cannot be asked ("I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other"). (3) The tactic is designed in part to counter the debilitating logic of colonial subjectivity that Fanon diagnoses in the body of his text, whereby the phobic structures of coloniality arrest any promise of reciprocity at the border of black skin: accordingly, the often oracular style of Black Skin's conclusion strives to hold open alternative modes of thinking the subject in and of history. Pleading that "the tool never possess the man," Fanon offers a now famous, and famously truncated, aphorism at text's end that eludes the instrumentality of certain colonialist grammars: "The Negro is not. Any more than the white man" (231). This instance of ungrammaticality turns on a generative break--an arrest somewhere between caesura and sentence, between the dialectic of recognition and the rhythms of being--and as such makes audible Fanon's constant imperative throughout Black Skin, White Masks to "Listen." (4) Part of what resounds here is the dangling promise of "not any more" that must be heard otherwise, but one also hears what Homi Bhabha calls Fanon's "writing to the edge of things," a logic stalled somewhere between emergence and erasure and thus narrowly averting the "crushing objecthood" of colonial interpellation (or, in Fanon's formative account, "Mama, see the Negro! I'm frightened!"). (5) If earlier in Fanon's text the black soul is "the white man's artifact" (14)--a projection "woven ... out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories" (111)--here, in the stutter of enunciation is an unreclaimable version of negritude, one that resists the facile categorization of what Fanon christens "the epidermal schema" (112).

There is an intriguing correlative to Fanon's dislocating phrase a century and a half earlier, another moment of effacement that marks an end to narrative. When the Scottish explorer Mungo Park emerges frail and beleaguered from the African interiors at the conclusion of his Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799), he is accompanied by his "Negro benefactor," Karfa, and the cluster of slaves that Karfa dutifully escorts to the coastal ports. The addition of the African subject at the end of Park's narrative is significant not simply because it complicates the romantic image of the intrepid and singular explorer, but because Karfa bears witness to the narrator's reintegration into the scene of colonial production. (6) After twenty-six chapters of Park's often meticulous proto-ethnographic account of Africa's indigenous cultures, Karfa's sense of wonder in the presence of European "improvements" allows for a momentary reversal of the narrative's general visual economy: "observing the improved state of our manufactures, and our manifest superiority in the arts of civilized life, [Karfa] would sometimes appear pensive, and exclaim with an involuntary sigh, fato fing inta feng, 'black men are nothing. …

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