Annotation: Sibylle Fischer’s Modernity Disavowed (2004)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Sansay’s Secret History, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Fischer, Sibylle. “Introduction.” Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 1-38. Print.

In the “Introduction” to her book, Fischer interrogates the “silence” surrounding the Haitian Revolution as it was widely censored from official discourses, even from the presses of Cuba just a short distance away from Saint Domingue. She emphasizes the need to analyze these gaps within the historical archive, which requires an interdisciplinary approach and a transatlantic framework that “mirror[s] the hemispheric scope of the slave trade” because crucial information is lost through the fragmentation of academic specialization and attempts to force that information into nationalistic paradigms (2). Fischer accentuates that such an approach reveals that these silences were not absolute and news of Haiti did travel through merchants and traders in informal port systems (4). She also critiques how “Caribbean plantation and the political upheavals in the colonies rarely make it into the canonical histories of modernity and revolution” (7). Fisher emphasizes that above all sugar production in the Caribbean functioned as an emblematic machine of modern capitalist economy, where industrial agriculture was predicated on the exploitation of human labor through the transatlantic slave trade (12). She ultimately characterizes the Caribbean slave economy as a “modernity disavowed.” Fischer takes care to distinguish the concept of “disavowal” from popular discourses about trauma, which merely locates events in the realm of the unthinkable and unspeakable because “disavowal” “forces us to identify what is being disavowed, by whom, and for what reason” (38).

Fischer’s framework of “disavowal” will greatly inform my own reading of Secret History as I examine how Sansay offers a revision of the history of the Haitian Revolution, calling attention to the “disavowal” of female oppression. Fischer also notes the important role women played in abolitionism and how “the language of antislavery was taken up literally by the suffrage movement” (17). This historical connection between the fight for black and female rights is especially helpful in understanding Sansay’s text and how the juxtaposition of the domestic narrative with the political race narrative is not entirely jarring or unfounded. As Fischer suggests, racial and sexual oppression was deeply, almost inextricably intertwined within the institution of slavery, as masters maintained complete “personal domination” over their slaves (17).