Modernity Disavowed

Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution

Modernity Disavowed

Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: 10 illus., 4 maps Published: April 2004

Author: Sibylle Fischer

Caribbean Studies, Latin American Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

Modernity Disavowed is a pathbreaking study of the cultural, political, and philosophical significance of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Revealing how the radical antislavery politics of this seminal event have been suppressed and ignored in historical and cultural records over the past two hundred years, Sibylle Fischer contends that revolutionary antislavery and its subsequent disavowal are central to the formation and understanding of Western modernity. She develops a powerful argument that the denial of revolutionary antislavery eventually became a crucial ingredient in a range of hegemonic thought, including Creole nationalism in the Caribbean and G. W. F. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

Fischer draws on history, literary scholarship, political theory, philosophy, and psychoanalytic theory to examine a range of material, including Haitian political and legal documents and nineteenth-century Cuban and Dominican literature and art. She demonstrates that at a time when racial taxonomies were beginning to mutate into scientific racism and racist biology, the Haitian revolutionaries recognized the question of race as political. Yet, as the cultural records of neighboring Cuba and the Dominican Republic show, the story of the Haitian Revolution has been told as one outside politics and beyond human language, as a tale of barbarism and unspeakable violence. From the time of the revolution onward, the story has been confined to the margins of history: to rumors, oral histories, and confidential letters. Fischer maintains that without accounting for revolutionary antislavery and its subsequent disavowal, Western modernity—including its hierarchy of values, depoliticization of social goals having to do with racial differences, and privileging of claims of national sovereignty—cannot be fully understood.


“[Fischer’s] analysis of Haiti’s post-revolutionary constitutions provides new, much needed insight into the society . . . . Modernity Disavowed rests on a thorough investigation of both history and literature, and is an example of a well-executed interdisciplinary work . . . . Fischer provides a welcome addition to the literature that no scholar of slavery of the Haitian Revolution can afford to ignore.” — Sarah Franklin, Southern Quarterly

“[Fischer’s] narrative mode offers an interesting and provocative contrast on the history of the Atlantic world. . . . Fischer thus offers an account of Atlantic modernity narrated not in the modes of Romance or tragedy, but rather the conjectural, hypothetical and counterfactual. This is a ‘speculative’ discourse on history. . . . about what ‘might have been different’, an anti-determinist narrative mode that insists on the radical openness of the past and suggests how this might serve as a resource for crafting alternative visions, knowledges, and politics of the global.” — David Lambert, Cultural Geographies

“[T]his is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking work that combines bold generalization with a profusion of arresting detail and ingenious argument.” — David Geggus , The Americas

“[T]his work stands out because of the author’s approach: in a field dominated by historians, Fischer turns to literary criticism. Consequently, she brings novel theoretical and methodological tools to bear on interpretations of this seminal event….” — Ashli White , New West Indian Guide

“While Fischer’s analytical compass finds its proverbial north in the region of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, her recovery of archived material—from colonial muralscapes to revolutionary documents and literature—reveals a series of discursive revolutionary ripples that emanate far beyond these shores.” — Frederick Luis Aldama , Latin American Research Review

"Modernity Disavowed is a decisively original contribution to Caribbean studies that is not likely to be surpassed in the future, but it also transforms and enriches our understanding of modernity, of the alternatives within it and the multiple ways in which they have been silenced." (Translated from the Italian) — Sandro Mezza , Studi culturali

"[A] pathbreaking study that takes the Haitian Revolution from the margins, where it has been relegated, to place it at the center of the development of western modernity. Fischer conducted extensive historical and cultural research in archives in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. With her evidence, she makes a compelling and nuanced argument about the significance of race, national and political identities as a reflection of fear and trauma in the new world during revolutionary times." — Gina Ulysse, BOMB

"[W]ell-researched and quite informative for Caribbean scholars across disciplines. The author's re-examination of the modifications of Haitian constitutions is profound indeed." — Millery Polyné, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

"A remarkable new book. . . . Modernity Disavowed is a deeply challenging, philosophically fluent book. . . ." — Deborah Jensen , Interventions

"Fischer brings together an immense amount of material to examine the unique circumstances of Haiti's emergence as a nation, the profound wounds that this process left in its collective psyche, and the ways in which these events affected external perceptions." — Foreign Affairs

"Sibylle Fischer . . . has written a most provocative book about the image of the Haitian Revolution in the literature of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti itself. . . . [A] work that will cause historians and literature scholars to rethink accepted interpretations of the Haitian Revolution and its influence." — James A. Lewis, History: Reviews of New Books

"To write an over-three-hundred-page text based on traces, inaccuracies, and silence is, to say the least, a daunting endeavor. Yet it is a task that Sibylle Fischer handles masterfully in Modernity Disavowed." — Kaiama L. Glover, Research in African Literatures

“Modernity Disavowed is a superior work. It is not only important but also needed.” — Alicia Ríos, coeditor of The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader

“Modernity Disavowed is a tour de force. This magnificent work is the best book on its subject and at the forefront of a new wave of scholarship that is already transforming both the study of the Caribbean and the study of modernity. I fully expect it to become a classic in its field.”—Lewis R. Gordon, author of Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought — N/A


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Price: $29.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sibylle Fischer is Associate Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Introduction: Tuncations of Modernity 1

Part I. Cuba

1. The Deadly Hermenuetics of the Trial of Jose Antonio Aponte 41

2. Civilization and Barbarism: Cuban Wall Painting 57

3. Beyon National Culture, the Abject: The Case of Placido 77

4. Cuban Antislavery Narratives and the Origins of Literary Discourse 107

Part II. Santo Domingo / The Dominican Republic

5. Memory, Trauma, History 131

6. Guilt and Betrayal in Santo Domingo 155

7. What Do the Haitians Want? 169

8. Fictions of Literary History 180

Part III. Saint Domingue / Haiti

9. Literature and the Theater of Revolution 201

10. “General Liberty, or The Planters in Paris” 214

11. Foundational Fictions: Postrevolutionary Constitutions I 227

12. Life in the Kingdom of the North 245

13. Liberty and Reason of State: Postrevolutionary Constitutions II 260

Conclusion 273

Appendix A. Imperial Constitution of Haiti 275

Appendix B. Chronology 283

Notes 287

Index 355
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Rights and licensing

Co-Winner, Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Award, Caribbean Studies Association

Winner, 2006 Bryce Wood Book Award, Latin American Studies Association

Winner, Frantz Fanon Prize, Caribbean Philosophical Association

Winner, Katherine Singer Kovacs Award, Modern Language Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3290-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3252-7
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