Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment

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Duke University Press, Dec 3, 2004 - History - 279 pages
At this stalled and disillusioned juncture in postcolonial history—when many anticolonial utopias have withered into a morass of exhaustion, corruption, and authoritarianism—David Scott argues the need to reconceptualize the past in order to reimagine a more usable future. He describes how, prior to independence, anticolonialists narrated the transition from colonialism to postcolonialism as romance—as a story of overcoming and vindication, of salvation and redemption. Scott contends that postcolonial scholarship assumes the same trajectory, and that this imposes conceptual limitations. He suggests that tragedy may be a more useful narrative frame than romance. In tragedy, the future does not appear as an uninterrupted movement forward, but instead as a slow and sometimes reversible series of ups and downs.

Scott explores the political and epistemological implications of how the past is conceived in relation to the present and future through a reconsideration of C. L. R. James’s masterpiece of anticolonial history, The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938. In that book, James told the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the making of the Haitian Revolution as one of romantic vindication. In the second edition, published in the United States in 1963, James inserted new material suggesting that that story might usefully be told as tragedy. Scott uses James’s recasting of The Black Jacobins to compare the relative yields of romance and tragedy. In an epilogue, he juxtaposes James’s thinking about tragedy, history, and revolution with Hannah Arendt’s in On Revolution. He contrasts their uses of tragedy as a means of situating the past in relation to the present in order to derive a politics for a possible future.


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Scott serves up a trenchant rehearsal of C.L.R. James' historical, moral, and political imagination and what these qualities mean for the project of doing history.
Briefly, Scott takes James
' "Black Jacobins" as a point of departure to talk about the work of history. Employing Hayden White's scholarship, Scott understands James' initial release of the "Black Jacobins," in 1938, to be an anti-colonial historical Romance, a telling of the Haitian Revolution that plots Toussaint Louverture as the heroic symbol of indomitable freedom on the march. Scott then views the 1963 re-release as of the "Black Jacobins" as a post-colonial Tragedy. He sees James as making key changes in the narrative to reflect the growing ambivalence about the moral probity of post-colonial politics and life.
Scott argues that the anti-colonial "problem spaces" that yielded the vibrate Romance of The Black Jacobins in 1938 is substantively different from the post-colonial "problem space" of 1963, due to the growing understanding of modern material, political, and cultural conditions. These changes are reflected in the two editions of "Black Jacobins." The balance of the book concerns the question, what kind of things are history, politics, and narrative prose discourse, such that 25 five years in the twentieth century can drastically change the telling of a revolution that happened in the 18th and 19th Century?
In discussing this shift in historical plot from Romance to Tragedy, Scott draws ably from Aristotle, Hegel, James, White, and Shakespeare among others to craft a beautiful and compelling narrative about what we do when we do history. I don't agree with him every step of the way, and I found the prose at the beginning to be slightly affected in trying to lead the reader through his project, but once he gets going, the journey is a delight.



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About the author (2004)

David Scott is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality and Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil. He is editor of the journal Small Axe.