[On Thursday, February 27, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Nicholson Distinguished Scholar Lecture “The Idea of a Moral and Reparatory History of New World Slavery” by Professor David Scott (Anthropology, Columbia). Below is a response by Grazzia Grimaldi (Anthropology).]
Written by Grazzia Grimaldi
What is the conceptual story of the past of New World slavery that ought to come into the present? What story should the present demand of the past? Opening with these questions, David Scott proposed a reorientation towards a moral and reparatory history of the past of New World slavery. As part of his upcoming book manuscript, this historiographic project responds to shifting temporal orientations of blackness. While slavery produced radical modern futurities for blackness, the organization of late modern black lives has interrupted these promises of the future. Responding to the loss of concepts to describe contemporary worlds, Scott offers a moral and reparatory history that refuses the demands of a progressive history. While recognizing the moral debt that the slave present owes to the slave past, this project acknowledges that some pasts are nevertheless irreparable.
Scott started his lecture reflecting on the collapse of the political narratives of revolutionary black redemption. He explained how traumatic pasts of slavery are anchored in futures of redemption, or liberationist expectations of black socialist futures. The intelligibility of black futurity derives from a progressive conception of time, where the suffering of the past is redeemed in the future. As revolutionary futures were brought to the present, Scott argues that black futurities have evaporated. It is no longer clear how to reimagine the horizon of black freedom, nor how to activate the political momentum to transform the past into the future. We are facing what he calls “a loss of concepts,” a loss of the forms of life embedded in the scripts of revolutionary emancipation. The background conditions securing their intelligibility have vanished. It is precisely the loss of black and socialist revolutions that inspired his book: Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (2004).
Building upon this critique of the teleology of modernity, Scott offers a moral history of the past of New World Slavery, which he distinguishes from a history of ethics. This project responds to a “moral turn” in the social sciences and humanities. It is a late twentieth-century post-Cold War phenomenon that emerged in the wake of global capitalism. This moral turn is also situated in the transition from the modern age of social revolutions, to the age of global humanitarianism, under the aegis of U.S. imperial power and hegemony. Scott uses the concept of “evil,” as part of the idiom of morality, to capture the depth of morally significant injury. Evil is an inexcusable action that destroys moral life and the fabric of moral relations. In the case of New World slavery, it is a systemic wrong, deliberately institutionalized, and inflicting harm on successive political generations.
He also proposes the notion of a reparatory history. This project is disentangled from reconciliatory concerns and is rather animated by the exhaustion of progressive histories. A reparatory history is not interested in futures beyond the present, nor redemptions of the past. Instead, it is attuned to irreparable damages and founding social ruptures, precluding the return to certain forms of life. The tragic finds a place here to express the irreversible human actions in the context of historical capitalism. A reparatory history produces an alternative temporality to the modern teleology: it is a history of an unrepaired harm in the present, but it claims certain pasts as irreparable in a non-progressive story of reparation.
Black reparations are not a future-oriented call for compensation to alleviate disadvantages. In fact, what is owed to black people cannot be ever compensated. Reparations, on the contrary, are backward-looking. It doesn’t depend on progressive futures, where the settler present protects itself from unresolved claims, or where retrospective claims of dignity are constantly transgressed by the continuing neglect of repair. A reparatory history is built upon the following paradox: it examines the past of New World slavery, disavowed by the perpetrators of historical wrongs, as unrepaired in a racialized present. But it has a commitment to a repairable orientation that embraces the fact that unrectified evil remains evil.
With a moral and reparatory history, Scott rethinks the historiographical framework of New World slavery. Examining how the present urges a reorientation towards a moral history, he focuses on the institutionalization of slavery as a catastrophic past that might be irreparable in a transgenerational perspective. A reparatory history embraces a contradiction, affirming the moral debt of the slave past in the present, but refusing reconciliatory histories complicit with settler arrangements of power and property and cheerful senses of futurity. Moving away from old progressive models of black liberation, he proposes to consider disenchantment more seriously, as an impetus to think of pasts that won’t go away and inseparable from the presents they help to make.
During the Q&A, the first question raised by the audience was in relation to Caribbean reparations claims to the U.K. Along with this question, a member of the audience asked about the notion of “redemption.” Scott explained that redemption was referring to the ways in which the past was redeemed in a possible future in radical or liberal imaginaries. He argued that the narrative of redemption was part of a twentieth-century black cultural preoccupation, but that he was interested in the ways in which it harnessed a certain teleology shaping orientations to the political.
The second question raised during the talk addressed the “post-time”: what happens when we pause the progressivist futurity? What kinds of pasts saturate that moment of pause, and what embodied experience of “fleshiness” emerge from damaged pasts? Another member of the audience considered the registers of tragedy that are often voiced by statist developmentalism: who can talk about tragedy without it being distorted? Scott explained that the question of fluency was valid for tragedy, but also for other literary forms, such as the comic or the satirical. He argued that all moral categories are vulnerable to appropriation by all forms of power. The tragic was a way of reattuning us to the contingency in human action. Another question addressed the dangers of universalizing notions such as the notions of the moral, the human, and the evil. Scott explained that his project aimed to return to the possibility of features of human life without which human lives could not exist. He reconsiders ontology, life, and the problem of the human, but outside of a progressive universalization.
Finally, a member in the audience asked about his use of “repair” and “freedom.” Scott explained that repair and freedom constituted elementary ideas of progressive political thinking. What is important is to recognize the role of these scripts in the temporal organization of what we think we should do in the present for the future. Freedom-making is a metaphysical abstraction that shapes a demand in the ways in which we tell the story about the relationship between the past and the present. Today, it has been foreclosed by the dismantling of social movements in places that we presume to be the heartland of freedom-making. He argued that he is not necessarily making a claim to abolish radical futurity, but rather to examine the ways in which metaphysical categories organize modern subjectivity in politics. He asks us to consider what happens if we move away from the metaphysical effects of these categories and think instead of pastness and the ways in which we live in the present.