Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Haiti and the Black Box of Romanticism

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Haiti and the Black Box of Romanticism

Article excerpt

THE CAMERA OBSCURA COULD BE CONSIDERED A "BLACK BOX" OF RO-manticism. Unpacking it can give access to thoughts and transatlantic interactions that have been lost since their initial appearance hundreds of years ago. One of the main recovery efforts that helped locate this remarkable black box began with Sarah Kofman's study on the recurrent invocations during the nineteenth-century of the camera obscura as a theoretical model. (1) Kofman brought to the fore the critical importance of this black box by showing how its image-making function deeply impacted the exploration of cognitive and epistemological questions in authors such as Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. She observed that, over time, the meaning conveyed by the camera obscura shifted from transparency to opacity. Varying interpretations of the camera obscura had at least one thing in common, though. They manifested, often unwittingly, a fetishist disposition in European scientific thinking.

Auguste Comte was the first philosopher to consider this disposition through a theory that underlined the intimate link between modern science and fetishism. For the founder of positivism, fetishism is the true intellectual point of departure of humanity and therefore already contains in an immature form the power of speculation and practical reasoning characteristic of the scientific mind. (2) In the primordial stage of fetishism the outside world is considered a direct extension of one's life, will, and passions. The fetishist is then more invested in earthly matters and inclined to explore them than the polytheist, monotheist, and metaphysician, whose beliefs in supernatural, indirect, or transcendental causes divert them from empirically investigating their immediate surroundings. Georges Canguilhem has noted that Comte's rehabilitation of fetishism marked a break with the traditional Enlightenment idea of progress as the gradual attainment of perfection, which implied an intrinsic transformation of human nature, and the devalorization of the past. (3) In Comte's positivist and evolutionist scheme, human intellectual development cannot transcend or devalorize fetishism because this primordial stage already manifests the fundamental dispositions that characterize the scientific mind in an immature form.

Comte's controversial revalorization of fetishism became particularly apparent in his 1850s works, where, in provocative passages, he considers the logic of African fetishists far more rational and wise than the metaphysical "verbiage of the superb Germanic doctors." (4) The transgressive racial implications of Comte's conception of fetishism would fully concretize in Antenor Firmin's Of the Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology (1885), where it became a cornerstone in the Haitian anthropologist's groundbreaking critique of nineteenth-century scientific racism. Firmin's innovations also derived from his pioneering experience as a citizen of the first postcolonial black state. The achievements of the self-emancipated African slaves and their descendants in Haiti become in his study undeniable evidence of black intellectual ability. (5)

Together with positivism, Haiti's unprecedented postcolonial experiment helped Firmin undermine the epistemological framework that was leading European scientists astray. The Haitian critical tradition of interrogating European science began when self-emancipated slaves brought into question the so-called universality and objectivity of their French master's Declaration of the Rights of Man, and when, following Toussaint Louverture's radical abolition of slavery, they had to defeat the formidable army Napoleon dispatched to re-enslave them. Since they declared their independence in 1804, Haitians have therefore been keenly aware of the inherent conflicts and contradictions of what CoHn Dayan has called "white enlightenment," (6) and have often exposed or attempted to solve these problems by tackling their scientific and ideological foundations. …

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