Monday, 16 March 2015

Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment

Youlendree Appasamy

This assignment will be examining Nesbitt’s concerns with modernity and the dialectic of the universal and the singular/particular in the Haitian Revolution. The concept has rightly been problematised by the events of the Haitian Revolution – not showing a lack in the universal concept of modernity but rather how the slaves of the Haitian Revolution were actively de-centring the seemingly fixed centre of modernity. The universality of modernity (as a European centred) will be examined to further elaborate on how the significance of the Haitian Revolution was most pronounced in the “symbolic domain” (Nesbitt, 2008: 189).

 “The localised destruction of the global slaveholding regime and the institution of a political system of undivided human rights should have rightfully shamed the United States and France. Instead it terrified them.” (Nesbitt, 2008: 4)

The terrifying nature of the Haitian Revolution, as Nesbitt (2008) argues, is multi-causal but on a pragmatic level the Haitian Revolution economically toppled European and American colonial powers who depended on the produce extracted from the island, its labour and toil. More importantly were the surpluses it produced, as this provided colonising powers with an excess from which to maintain an oppressive dominance. The entire economic world-system as the colonisers created it depended on the subservience of the colonised. It is arguably, more reasonable to be on the side of universal emancipation, than it is to be on the side of clearly exclusionary Enlightenment ideals however, as Hallward (2007) points out, the sustainability of the coloniser’s way of life was at risk by the assertion of universal emancipation. 
Hallward’s point is made clearer by the use of a basic binary - “The rules that apply to ‘us’ cannot reasonably be made to apply to ‘them’ without jeopardizing the stability of our investments, without risking global recession, terror or worse” (Hallward, 2007: 1). When the Haitian Revolution came into being as a deliberate act or assertion of inalienable and undivided human rights, it conceptually destroyed the site of modernity (as being situated in Europe). The de-centring process shifted the geography of reason, to paraphrase Lewis Gordon in his work entitled Problematic People and Epistemic Decolonisation.

“[…] the Haitian Revolution was not merely an event emanating from modernity’s periphery, as theorists of globalisation would have it.” (Nesbitt, 2008:  133). The Haitian Revolution manages to express, in its own right and in its own particular way, that the closest representation of universal emancipation can come from the margins of the civilised world. When looking at the concept of modernity and the significance of the Haitian Revolution in overturning this, it proves useful to understand the function of the overarching Enlightenment ideals in the creation of a seemingly ‘grand’ narrative.

Laclau’s theorisation on universality is taken as a starting point in this discussion. The “infinite deferral and incompletion” (Nesbitt, 2008: 137) within a hegemony is what Laclau and others, such as Zizek, refer to as the universal. The negative space or void of absence is seen as a characteristic of the universal. “Universality is […] never fully instantiated, but always informing the struggle of different social actors to embody its promise.” (Nesbitt, 2008: 135). The fulfilment of this promise is not contingent on any number of social factors – thus it could be simplistically thought of as the normative ideal, shaping social actors actions. So what does Nesbitt mean when he states that the Haitian Revolution shattered “the very concept of universal itself” (Nesbitt, 2008: 136)?

 As Gordon (2007) notes, “The “universal” was, and continues to be, an over-asserted particularity” (Gordon, 2007: 125). The primary particularity in this instance, I argue, would be Enlightenment ideals. The Haitian Revolution presented contestations to the then current hegemony as it fundamentally extended (or perhaps, subverted) the landscape of radical political action with regards to the universality of Enlightenment. However, another particularity which became ‘over-asserted’ was that of the capitalist slaveholding system. The Bossale and ex-slaves who had come from Africa had an understanding of a different way of life which was not that of the capitalist colonial economy. “One must affirm unequivocally the universal possibility of all humans to participate in such a hegemonic struggle to reformulate the parameters of emancipation” (Nesbitt, 2008: 136). The extension of the abovementioned parameters is one of the pivotal aspects of the Haitian Revolution that establish it as a symbolically significant project. The Haitian Revolution was a disruption in the dialectic between the universal and particular.

The concept of singularity/particularity when applied to the Haitian Revolution itself, did not form a universality because of the following quandary Nesbitt (2008) outlines:

 “Since the Haitian slaves could only participate in this global discursive sphere only by asserting their rights through violence, they ultimately remained trapped within the logic of the very will to power that the public use of intersubjective, communicative reason in the Enlightenment hoped to overcome.” (Nesbitt, 2008: 80)

Nesbitt (2008: 137) argues that the violent aspects of the Revolution, both post-1789 and then post-1804, should not be postulated as problem with the Haitian Revolution or detract from the substance offered in the symbolic domain. Rather, it should be understood as a nuanced expression of violence (a particularity) – as it was not enacted under the same historical, social or economic context as Haiti pre-1793. Due to the Haitian Revolution’s destruction of the pre-existing (oppressive) universalities, its own particularities fell outside the framework of acknowledgment, recognition and, perhaps, respect. Michel-Rolph Trouillot explains in his book, Silencing the Past, how the narratives surrounding the Haitian Revolution have been erased and ignored – often deliberately so – as it shattered the universal claims made by both the Enlightenment thinkers and colonialists alike.


Hallward, P., 2007, Haitian inspiration: On the bicentenary of Haiti’s independence. Accessed from: from 7 March 2015.
Gordon, L., 2007, Problematic People and Epistemic Decolonisation in Postcolonialism and Political Theory (ed. Nalini Persram). Accessed from on 8 March 2014.

Nesbitt, N., 2008, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment, Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press.