Annotation: Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “An Unthinkable History” (1995)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print.

In his article, Trouillot offers important historical background on the Haitian Revolution. He exposes the paradox of Enlightenment thought, which celebrated universal human rights and equality while oppressive institutions of slavery and racial oppression still persisted. Trouillot asserts that “Colonization provided the most potent impetus for the transformation of European ethnocentrism into scientific racism,” where the enslavement of blacks were rationalized as a result of their inherent biological inferiority (77). He demonstrates that for the first time, humanity was considered in terms of varying degrees, where some groups were more human than others. It was widely believed that at the very bottom of this scale, “enslaved Africans and their descendents could not envision freedom—let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom” (73). Trouillot therefore argues that even as it happened, the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the people of the time and even afterwards as world nations refused to officially acknowledge the new republic. Trouillot borrows Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “unthinkable” as referring to “that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions are phrased” (82). He describes how French delegates, such as Jean-Pierre Brissot, could not immediately accept the news that a revolution had occurred in Sain Domingue, outlining reasons for its sheer impossibility. Trouillot further asserts that when such facts became undeniable, much effort was expended to specifically narrate the revolution in a way that would fit into a white European worldview and uphold its racial and cultural hierarchies.

He discusses two different “formulas of silence” employed, one that involves complete erasure of the Haitian Revolution all together through archival omission and the another that attempts to trivialize the event by ignoring its radical, singular components (96). As examples of the first Trouillot cites Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age o Revolutions 1793-1843, which makes almost no reference to the Haitian Revolution and the way in which French historians have long downplayed the significance of losing Haiti, its most valuable colonial possession at the time. (99, 101). The second, which Trouillot seems to identify as even more troubling, is how specialists on Haiti persist to search for external factors that influenced the revolution rather than accepting and recognizing the internal work of the slaves themselves.

Trouillot’s emphasis on the importance of analyzing how the Haitian Revolution is narrated and for what ends will be particularly helpful in formulating my own thesis. In Secret History, Sansay herself seems to directly comment on how the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the French who believed that it would be easy for them to quickly re-colonize the island. I will examine further whether this is due to her status as an American in Saint Domingue. I am also interested in exploring how the narrative addresses other realms of the “unthinkable” in regards to gender relations—the murderous jealousy of Creole ladies and women of color as well as Clara’s own horrifying experience of domestic abuse which was “unthinkable” for her sister.

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).

Annotation: Rosalind Morris’ “M. Butterfly: Transvestism and Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Critique of Empire” (1994)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation is written in reference to my paper, titled: “David Hwang’s Metamorphosis of Madama Butterfly: Critiquing Orientalist Fancy and Building Bridges Towards Cultural Understanding.”

Morris, Rosalind. “M. Butterfly: Transvestism and Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Critique of Empire.” Gender and Culture in Literature and Film East and West: Issues of Perception and Interpretation. Ed. Nitaya Masavisut, et al. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. 40-59. Print.

In this article Morris discusses how M. Butterfly merely reestablishes the hierarchal “gender system” inherent in Orientalist philosophy. She claims that while the figure of the “transvestite” seems to offer a means of overturning gender stereotypes through its fundamental ambiguity and fluidity, it is nevertheless “contained by heterosexual opposition between male and female” (49). The transvestite (man-as-woman) becomes a representation of the “emasculated rather than liberated male” (49). Therefore, at the end of the play when Song undresses he reasserts his masculinity, whereas Gallimard in donning Butterfly’s kimono is emasculated. This reversal rather than collapsing gender hierarchies in M. Butterfly speaks to the play’s failure as a deconstruction of Puccini’s opera.

Annotation: Susan Buck-Morss’ “Hegel and Haiti” (2009)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Leonora Sansay’s Secret History. See my prospectus here.

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Part One: Hegel and Haiti.” Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 3-75. Print.

In this excerpt of her book, Buck-Morss emphasizes the need to further examine how Haiti and the Haitian Revolution influenced Hegel’s philosophy. She discusses that as the first philosopher to describe “the deterritorialized, world of the European colonial system,” Hegel argued that rather than freely entering a contractual agreement, human beings were always already caught in a complex network of “commodity exchange” (8, 10). Buck-Morss asserts that antislavery revolution “provides the theoretical hinge that takes Hegel’s analysis out of the limitlessly expanding colonial economy and onto the plane of world history which he defines as the realization of freedom” (12). Therefore, rather than the traditionally Marxist-centric analyses of Hegel’s work, Buck-Morss accentuates the importance of considering how the slaves’ struggle for freedom in Saint Domingue, which directly occurred during Hegel’s lifetime, influenced and shaped his philosophical thought.

Hegel’s explication of the master-slave relationship begins with the slave in the position of total dependence on the master to provide him sustenance through colonial economic surplus, where the state of “slave consciousness” is that of “thinghood” (54). Yet the reversal comes when the slaves realize the master’s dependence on them, allowing them to view themselves as “not things, not object, but subjects who transform material nature” (54). While Buck-Morss asserts that Hegel becomes “silent” about what follows this moment of realization, she contends that the slaves ultimately achieve their humanity and agency in determining to fight a revolution to secure their freedom. Buck-Morss’ elaboration of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, how self-realization inspires a revolution for freedom will provide a helpful framework from which to analyze the events in Sansay’s <em>Secret History</em>. If she parallels the struggle for slave and female emancipation it would be interesting to consider Clara’s moment of self-realization and her own revolutionary path to freedom.

Annotation: Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s “The Secret History of the Early American Novel”

Peer-Review: 0

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

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” <em>Novel</em> 40.1/2 (2006): 77-103. Print.

In her article Dillon asserts that while Sansay’s attention to balls and dress may appear frivolous and wholly disconnected from the revolution that rages throughout the island, both the domestic and colonial political narratives intersect and overlap in important ways. She reveals how Clara’s attempt to liberate herself from her abusive husband strongly parallels the revolutionaries’ efforts to establish a free, sovereign black nation-state. Dillon demonstrates that in the novel, colonization not only stands for the racist institution of slavery and economic exploitation but also the oppressive patriarchal order of colonial society. She emphasizes that female liberation is achieved as an unexpected consequence of the Haitian Revolution and “when Mary and Clara flee Saint Domingue for Cuba, they repeatedly find themselves in the company of unhusbanded women who appear to blossom in the absence of men who previously controlled them” (92). Dillon suggests that the novel presents America as the site where this female utopian community can be finally realized. I argue, however, that Sansay leaves us in a troubling de-localized space of transition, ending with a similar voyage on the high seas that opens the epistolary narrative. While the success of the revolution in St. Domingue will culminate in the establishment of a new contained black nation-state, Mary and Clara traverse borders and multiple terrains, forming transatlantic connections with other women that deeply challenge the notion of such a closed system, where America, as the final destination, becomes figured as more a point of continuous encounter and “exchange” in the words of Tennenhouse.

Dillon further argues that the elaborate descriptions of colonial palaces, finery and balls, in the novel, do “not bespeak sustained delusion (or colonial nostalgia) so much as an astute analysis of the relations of production and social reproduction that stand at the core of colonial politics” (78). She distinguishes “production” as economic, referring to, for example, the manufacturing of sugar, whereas “social production,” refers to the creation and perpetuation of the social relations, practices, ideologies, and environment necessary to sustain capitalism. Dillon explains that according to Marxism, the capitalistic enterprise of colonialism compels a geographic separation between the site of production and social production, where the colony serves as the economic factory or engine for wealth, while the colonizing country consumes and replicates the social conditions that enable capitalism to persist. She demonstrates that in Sansay’s novel, however, this geographic distinction is lost entirely as St. Domingue emerges as a place of both sugar production and Creole social production as exemplified by the madras headscarf, which becomes a popular consumer good.

Dillon defines Creole as a European born in the colony whose social production is considered “illegitimate precisely because reproduction has occurred at the site of capitalist production (the colony) rather than at the site of consumption (the metropole)” (86). She suggests further that the Creole occupies a liminal space as a “native who is non-native,” which is strongly reflected in their culture as the madras headscarf was used to restrain the sexuality of indigenous females and banned in Europe (95). Dillon ultimately offers the term Creole as a more productive means of conceptualizing American identity because it deftly captures the country’s vexed position as both a colonizing power and a postcolonial “nation.” Rather than “Americanization,” which suggests assimilation to some retrospective, conceived notion of a collective “national” identity, “Creolization” does not attempt to deny or erase America’s historical implication in complex systems of colonialism.

In her article, however, Dillon too readily dismisses the importance of fantasy in Secret History in favor of a more concrete analysis of production and social production. I argue that the novel is very much shaped and predicated on a fantasy structure, where the French, for example, imagine that they will be able to easily suppress the black revolutionaries, where Mary continuously fantasizes about a blissful colonial past, and where the “nation-state” itself is revealed to be merely a fantasy.

Prospectus: Leonora Sansay’s Secret History (2007)

This is my prospectus for Leonora Sansay’s Secret History. Some of my ideas are a little diffuse at the moment and I may be trying to accomplish too much in this paper but as always constructive criticism and other secondary source suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

In Secret History or The Horrors of St. Domingo, Leonora Sansay complicates our understanding of the Haitian revolution as a colonial race war by foregrounding gender relations and narratives of domestic violence. Rather than the brutal massacres and military conflicts of the times, Sansay suggests that the true “Horrors of St. Domingo” pertain to the repressed history of female oppression, particularly through the tyrannical institution of marriage. By embroiling acts of patriarchal violence in the context of a broader revolutionary struggle, Sansay troubles the conventional conception of the “domestic” as a closed, private sphere. In my paper I am interested in exploring how male-female relations are politicized in the novel, how they are shaped by colonial power structures and deeply implicated in the colonial project.

Many of Mary’s letters describe an intense “public joy” for impending balls (71). The prospect of participating in such a social engagement seems to enable Clara to physically overcome her yellow fever and emotional depression. Mary further emphasizes that this is the first time Clara appears to be truly happy since their arrival on the island. Therefore, rather than frivolous, peripheral events, I argue that these balls serve as a crucial space for the performance of “normative” male-female relations—structured dances, courtship, and romance—to reinforce the fantasy of colonial control and social order. Despite the constant uprisings and threats from Haitian revolutionaries, Sansay suggests that these extravagant displays of wealth, fashion, and culture are necessary to uphold a sense of European supremacy and indeed a means for the French to convince themselves of their ability to recapture their colonial possessions.

Sansay presents the courtships that occur in the ballroom as a revealing lens for understanding the broader revolutionary conflicts of the times. In one letter Mary notes: “the gallantry of the French officers is fatiguing from its sameness. They think their appearance alone sufficient to secure a conquest, and do not conceive it necessary to give their yielding mistresses a decent excuse by paying them little attention” (77). Here, the deliberate embroiling of the rhetoric of colonial conquest in situations of courtship and romance compels a political reading of these lines. When Mary suggests that the French believe their “appearance alone” is enough to ensure victory, there is an ambiguous conflation between physical appearance, in terms of the attractiveness to win ladies’ hearts and literal arrival on the island as sufficient to defeat the Haitian insurgents. Mary critiques the French for being totally absorbed in the fantasy of European white supremacy and failing to recognize the precariousness of their situation, an insight made possible by her position as an American woman in Haiti.

But while the balls perpetuate a colonial fantasy, they also have real political consequences as funds are drained to pay for these lavish social events and soldiers’ attention is drawn away from the riots and military conflicts. Clara’s relationship with General Rochambeau particularly demonstrates how male-female interactions are not only shaped by the conditions of the Haitian revolutions but also directly influence colonial politics. In the novel, Rochambeau uses unsafe wartime circumstances as an excuse to lure Clara to his home and later imposes an embargo to prevent her from leaving the island. Sansay therefore re-writes women into the colonial race narrative of the Haitian revolution, not as simply subjects of private domestic abuse but rather figures of public, political consequence.

In her essay, “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonara Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue,” Elizabeth Maddock Dillon further discusses how the depiction of “elite, white domestic relations” parallels and intersects in interesting ways with the “anti-colonial revolution” (78). She asserts that while Clara is initially introduced as a “French colonial wife,” General Rochambeau’s continual pursuit and attempt to conquer her, transforms Clara into an oppressed subject whose body faces the threat of colonization (91). Dillon also notes that in the novel, Sansay figures female liberation as the surprising, simultaneous consequence of the Haitian revolution: “when Mary and Clara flee Saint Domingue for Cuba, they repeatedly find themselves in the company of unhusbanded women who appear to blossom in the absence of the men who previously controlled them” (92). By the end of Secret History we do see an emerging transnational, cross-racial network of women that strongly parallels the “Underground Railroad” in helping oppressed peoples attain freedom. In my paper, however, I want to shift the focus to a more nuanced analysis of the complex and highly antagonistic female relations depicted at the beginning of the novel, which can be problematically overlooked if we too readily embrace the feminist fantasy Sansay leaves us with. The Secret History does not present the Haitian revolution as merely a racial, colonial conflict or even a simple battle between the sexes. Sansay also vividly describes the brutal acts of violence that women commit against each one another.

Jeremy D. Popkin, in “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection,” asserts that the Haitian revolution sharply destabilized Euro-American conceptions of race by demonstrating that people of color were capable of successfully organizing a revolt and defeating a white colonizing power. Sansay’s novel reveals another interesting facet of this argument by presenting accounts where women of color pose a real threat to white women, emerging as competitive rivals for male desire and affection. In my paper I intend to examine the colonial structures that fuel the murderous jealousy and ruthless competition between the women in Haiti. I will particularly explore the implications of Mary’s systematic, almost anthropological observation and classification of women and whether the common vulnerability towards patriarchal violence and domestic abuse can transcend national, racial and class difference to serve as unifying link for the establishment of a transatlantic female network.

Works Consulted

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Part One: Hegel and Haiti.” Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 3-75. Print. (Annotation)

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” Novel 40.1/2 (2006): 77-103. Print. (Annotation)

Drexler, Michael J. “Haiti, Modernity, and U.S. Identities.” Early American Literature 43.2. (2008): 453-65. Print.

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

Gaul, Theresa Strouth. “Recovering Recovery: Early American Women and Legacy’s Future.” Legacy 26.2 (2009): 262-83. Print.

Popkin, Jeremy D. “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003): 511-33. Print. (Annotation)

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print. (Annotation)

Woertendyke, Gretchen. “Romance to Novel: A Secret History.” Narrative 17.3 (2009): 255-73. Print. (Annotation)

Annotation: Sue-Im Lee’s “We are Not the World” (2007)

Peer-Review: 1

This annotation is for a paper I am currently writing for my ENGL 391W course at Queens College on Science Fiction. I will be conducting an analysis of the science fictional and magical realist elements in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange and the novel’s implications on contemporary discourses about globalization. See my prospectus here.

Lee, Sue-Im. “‘We are Not the World’: Global Village, Universalism, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 52.3 (Fall 2007): 501-527. Print.

In this article Lee demonstrates how Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange challenges the “collective, singular subject position that stands as the ‘we’ in the ‘We are the world” slogan (502). Rather than creating the equal, interconnected community promised through its associations with the “global village,” she argues that this universal “we” obscures the stratified nature of global politics. First World nations in fact use this “singular subject position” to impose their values and interests on to Third World countries, acting as the “few who presume to speak for all,” thus neglecting the persisting inequalities that exist in our age of globalization and transnational migrations (503). In addition to critiquing universalism, Lee reveals that Tropic of Orange simultaneously calls for the development of a new “collective subject positioning,” a re-imagining of the global village that emphasizes voluntary and reciprocal participation (502). Only by encouraging mutual involvement in the global community, she asserts, can we retrieve the critical potential of universalism and make progress in our demands for human rights and improved interethnic and intercontinental relations. Towards the end of her article, Lee explains how “the fantastic genre” contributes to this revitalized vision of the global village, but the brevity of her discussion fails to communicate the complexity of the novel’s narrative structure (521). Therefore, in my paper I hope to extend Lee’s arguments by exploring how Yamashita’s interweaving of science fictional and magical realist elements in the text influences our perception of this global community as well as its participants.