Slavery and History in Chamoiseau’s L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse

This is a presentation script prepared for Christopher Miller’s course Slavery and its Aftermath in French and Francophone Literature.

L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse is a novel written by Martinican author and 1992 Prix Goncourt winner Patrick Chamoiseau, published originally by Gallimard in 1997. The novel tells the story of an old man who, under the spell of a mythical ailment known only as the décharge, flees captivity into the woods surrounding his master’s plantation. He is thereafter chased by the Master and his mastiff, the rest of the novel recounting the triptych of these three characters’ inevitable boundedness to one another. While there is so much to be said about this short text, my presentation today will attempt to situate Chamoiseau’s novel within a political and aesthetic discourse on history in relation to Martinique’s curious position within the French nationalist archipelago. When we read a novel like L’esclave vieil homme, we are not only reading a novel about a past which has been, within the French cultural and national memory, willfully repressed and unquestionably overlooked, but we are also, in our act of reading, contributing to a counternarrative, a counter-history which brings into questions contextualizes, resists and defies the dominant narrative, that thing which we call History with a capital H. My presentation will look exactly at the question of L’esclave vieil homme as a literary object which attempts to reconfigure the ways we ought to think about French History with a capital H as a historical imposition which subjects of les vieilles colonies in particular must endure. In doing so, I draw broad strokes around the complexities and intricacies of a particularly ultramarin possibility for postcolonialism, given that colonialism in the Antilles and Reunion never formally ended.

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abyssal antihumanism

Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation, Duke University Press, 2018

Calvin Warren’s book Ontological Terror opens with an anecdote. Invited to “meditate on [the] globalized sadism” of antiblackness at a conference at which he anticipated “a festival of humanism in which presenters would share their solutions to the problem of antiblackness (if they acknowledged antiblackness),” Warren’s presentation is met with outright hostility from a crowd typically used to the “’yes we can!’ rhetoric and unbounded optimism” of what he defines as the Black humanist tradition. Early on in Ontological Terror, Warren cleaves himself from what he understands to be the mainstream of Black thinkers, philosophers and social critics by ascribing himself to a heavily Heideggerian camp of what can ostensibly be labeled “Afro-nihilism.” I do not offer this label glibly, in order to signal at the Afropessimist work which hums throughout Ontological Terror; I do so to highlight a specific agenda which is at the center of this short albeit sweeping text. Warren posits, in his response to the outrage of his critique of humanism, of the falsity and impossibility of social reform for what he perceives to be the hearthstone of Western (“world”) civilization – antiblackness, – that the source of the Black intellectual malaise in response to continued violence against Black people is precisely a Black intellectual indebtedness to humanism and postmetaphysics as frameworks wherein Black subjectivity can be isolated and liberated from the bondage of antiblackness. Warren does not posit a posthuman framework, insofar that the affix post may insinuate a departure from a previously established framework, but argues for a kind of antihumanism, an “ontological revolution” which departs from a European intellectual milieu which has been assimilated into a Black cultural perspective and moves towards a framework which can expose the “nothing” of Black being. Or, at least, this is what I read Ontological Terror to be doing. In order to redeem what in many ways is a troubling and disturbing text, I offer this absolutory reading, in hopes that my own interventions, from my intellectual and personal subject position, can situate a text like Ontological Terror. In many ways, this is not possible within our current academic, philosophical and cultural context – how exactly can we approach a humanistic study of Black life if we assume that Black people are in fact not human subjects?

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bibliophobia

What’s in a text? A year ago, I wrote a post called why read? whose content and ruminations continue to shape my perspectives on grad school. In this post are the first grumblings of a profound feeling of dread that grows between me and the primary act of my profession – the task of reading. Although I barely broach the notion in that post, beneath the surface, you can pick out a discourse of what I shall call bibliophobia, or the fear of books. In writing this short piece, I hope to delve further into a series of logical and affective knots in my character, with the (perhaps naïve) hope that their exposition will in some way make these knots, these nodes of discomfort, a bit easier to undo.

While reading, I am struck by two feelings. The first is the will to understand what is being read. This goes beyond the basic skills of reading comprehension that are massaged into us as children, the analytical detective work of exposing what a text says. In many ways, this is related to my predisposition to a kind of obsessive and paranoiac anxiety, for all texts say something, but most texts say things to me which they do not seem to say to others. When reading a novel like Une vie de boy, I’m fascinated by questions of textuality, interiority and the diary form in ways which many critics seem to overlook. Within the academic profession, this is a positive factor; I am filling a gap in the scholarship of this particular novel with my own reading. Yet, it is the very idea that few people have looked at Une vie de boy from this perspective which frightens me. I find that I am frightened by the idea of my own unique reading, primarily because I am disturbed with the concept of misreading. I do not want to be wrong, although I resist the idea of a dominant reading.

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great expectations

It is no surprise that I am my greatest enemy. I’m impulsive, I am not very organized, and I am self-defeating. Yet, beneath it all, I believe, is a great potential. It is perhaps this potential, this possibility for greatness, that fuels the seasickness of my ego; a constant vacillation between a tremendous ambition and an ever-present feeling of dread.

It’s a week into the semester and I’m feeling a bit drained. I have not done a good job of anticipating the tidal wave which is the school year. This summer, as I have already said, was mild and calm. I spent time collecting myself, getting things in order, and taking stock of a tumultuous year. Yet, the semester has begun and I feel already partially undone. Whatever tidying and sealing I did this summer has already started to fray at the edges and untie itself. This much is to be expected, but not at so rapid a pace. A summer spent reading and trying to inhabit the spirit of the “specialist,” to feel knowledgeable about a certain topic or corpus; one week has thrown an entire three months into question. Yet, I refuse to let graduate school rob me of my charisma and of my sense of power.

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on pathos

I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. Last semester was definitely not what I had anticipated, and got in the way of this blog for reasons I regret. At the same time, I stopped posting my blog posts on Facebook, mostly because I was underwhelmed by the reaction to my writing, although I cannot expect people, regardless of how much support they give and how little I seem to be moved by what should be powerful, to fawn over every little sentence I produce. Yet still, while I enjoyed and profited much from my first semester of graduate school, I am remorseful for letting this blog, and my writing in general, fall by the wayside.

This year I am committing myself to being more productive in my writing, in however way I possibly can. A lot of writing this blog is just “practice,” a flexing of the muscles in order to see if I can force the web of thoughts and signifiers flying around my head to yield a meaningful message to, say, a stranger, although I’m sure if you are reading this, at this point in my life, I know you, and know you probably quite well. I have mentioned elsewhere (here) that I have this secret desire to be famous. This feeling bothers me primarily because it doesn’t match the image of myself which I have created, inside of which I try to live; a stoic, elegant, brilliant person with a natural knack for writing, whose talent alone will lead him to greatness. Yet, I cannot say that this image, as narcissistic as it may seem, is yielding the results I’d like. My blog has stagnated in the past year, perhaps because my content has drifted from underresearched essays on race and class to “dealing” with anxiety, something people, I’ve been told, find both impenetrable (because they cannot feel what I feel, and therefore cannot know; are frightened by the tangible limitations of their knowledgeability) and disturbing (for the same reasons). The older essays, while sexy and jarring, nevertheless represent a side of myself trying to wrestle with the essential questions of identity which many POC must know and refuse to acknowledge. My position as a Black man does not make me special, nor does my alleged eloquence help to make the bitter pill of internalized racism and affective violence any easier to swallow. When talking about myself, I am able to seize a kind of authority which no one else, ostensibly, can possess; who else can know you more than yourself? And it is perhaps the reliance on the personal, on the ultimately “unrelatable” as I have been told by my professors, that makes my writing so powerful for some, and disturbing for others.

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how I applied to grad school

Warning! Now that I’ve actually applied to, was accepted to and have committed to a graduate school, I am able to look back and realize the reality of the situation I have just thrown myself into. Do not, truthfully, apply to graduate school as a senior. I was told by so many people, and I ignored them because I thought I knew better, and I wouldn’t necessarily say I regret it, but I do understand the strain now that I have been through and am now out of it. I really don’t recommend it, although for reasons which are different from the ones that my friends told me a little over a year ago. It was a severe drain on my life and honestly not the way I would have wanted to spend my final semesters of undergrad. I was rarely at Swarthmore during the month of March because of all my visits, and I didn’t even go to all of them….

I have been asked more than once about my graduate school application process. I’m not sure why. Perhaps its because this stuff is visible through this blog and through my other social media platforms, or perhaps because people are intrigued by my journey. As I said in the blurb, I really don’t suggest undergraduate seniors apply to graduate school, even if you are as hard-pressed to continue your years of toil as I was. Nevertheless, for all of those who are interested in my detailed process, this post shall be a guide.

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yale-bound

So I wrote this blog post several weeks ago, and I for some reason never posted it, so I’m gonna post it now, but I’m going to add a short preface explaining where I am now. I also added some comments to clarify developments since this was written during my first wave of visits to Yale and Stanford (3/5 – 3/10) and my trip to Berkeley (3/17-3/20).


Soliders and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA

3/31 – I’m in Pittsburgh, presenting a chapter of my thesis which is just about finished. I have a bit of work to do, and my conclusion to finish, but  my thesis is essentially all but done. I have also committed to going to Yale University, after about a month of fretting and second-guessing and listening to people tell me what to do and give me copious amounts of unsolicited advice. Of course, it didn’t help that like, two days after I committed to Yale and declined my offers elsewhere that Stanford sent me a big fat fellowship offer, but I’ve stayed steadfast, realizing that even with that fellowship in addition to my abnormally large stipend at Stanford, the price of living in Palo Alto is so high that I’d likely not have much money left at the end of the day, fellowship or not.

I am ready to be done with the semester. I’m so close, but I still have a huge mountain (Honors exams, lol) to get over before I’m clear. Then, I have a week of downtime before I start taking this Latin class at Yale.

I am sooooo tired, but excited. I want to sleep for a month straight and wake up and it’s Senior Week, a full day after my Honors exam. I wish I could just go on autopilot for the next few weeks, but I need to be present, need to attend this stupid swimming class in order to pass and graduate, need to finalize my summer plans, need to find an apartment, need to….

Anyways, here’s the now anachronistic and probably confusing blogpost that I wrote and just got around to published. I haven’t even changed much, because I know it was super-angsty, and I didn’t want to adulterate any of that raw emotion, since this blog is essentially the only space I give myself to really be emotional. Continue reading yale-bound

learning to edit

Editing is difficult. It requires a sense of introspection and analysis which forces us, in many ways, to lay ourselves bare and open to the scrutiny of our biggest and most hurtful critics; ourselves. When I was younger, I often didn’t edit my papers out of laziness. After having written an entire paper in one sitting, having ideas race through my head for hours, the last thing that I’d want to do is sit down and reread what I’d just written. And I’m still the same way, even today. Although I don’t write in one sitting (unless it’s a short composition), I do find that I allow my work to “sit” for a while in order to allow my ideas to ferment. This is not supposed to be literal; my words aren’t literally cooking in the Word document, but my ideas are growing slowly in the stew of my thoughts. As I go about my day or do my readings for the next class session, I keep my argument at the front of my mind, looking for information or approaches I can use to make my opinions more effective. Then, after a few days, I print my work out, and start the editing process.

As I’m getting older, and beginning to see school less as the completion of arbitrary tasks and more as the formulation of a certain way of thinking and interacting in academic and public space, I’m realizing that there is a lot of information which students are expected to acquire by themselves. Whether this be how to write a cover letter or how to find books in a library, much of the information which a student needs remains relatively obscure and difficult to locate. Most students resort to googling these bits of info due to a lack of institutional instruction. What I want to do here is offer a way of approaching the editing process in a way which proves productive towards crafting a solid argument or comprehensive analysis. The key to editing, as I mentioned earlier, is a sense of introspection which may come easily to some and quite arduously for others. Nonetheless, it is this level of reflection which separates a subpar work from something worthy of publication.

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Summer Research Programs for Students of Color

Go getchu some research experience, fam.

The past few weeks I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help my fellow students of color out. The world of academic is purposefully clandestine, and I find that I often don’t have a lot of guidance. While I rely on my professors and friends for assistance, I still had to do a lot on my own, like finding and applying to programs, writing proposals and figuring out how to market myself as a student/researcher/scholar/etc. I will eventually write a piece on writing these kinds of proposals (once I feel confident enough that I’ve mastered the process my damn self), but by the time that comes, most of these deadlines will have passed so it won’t be as directly useful. Nonetheless, stay on the lookout for things like that.

Last summer I spent about eight weeks at the University of North Carolina as a fellow of the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (MURAP). I’ve talked about the program in bits and pieces, and while I do have some initial *regrets,* which I’ll discuss later on, the program did do its job of shaping me into, in my opinion, a competitive candidate for graduate admissions. The program offered *free* GRE prep, a generous stipend, the opportunity to engage with other scholars in my field, yada-yada. But the greatest part was the opportunity to do engaging independent research. While I had just come from conducting a research project when I was abroad in Senegal, I still found that my time at MURAP was far more intensive and my research far more critical than what I had done abroad. Perhaps it was the competitive atmosphere, everyone attempting to one-up everyone else, show off their deftness of theory and language, or maybe it was because our research was closely being groomed and monitored by scholars in our fields of interests. I’m not really sure. The paper I wrote for MURAP sparked my interest in literary theory and I am still working on it today, several months later.

Source: anu.edu.au
Source: anu.edu.au

This blog post is going to offer you an outline of some summer research programs available to undergraduate students of color interested in pursuing graduate education in a variety of disciplines, most notably the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Although I am a Mellon Mays fellow, many of these programs are not MMUF-specific and are open to students from around the country. I recommend that your read and fully grasp the eligibility and program requirements before applying, although I will attempt to summarize what the linked website say in this post. This is by no means a definitive list, but just a way to get your feet wet in this process.

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five more language acquisition tips

It’s been about a year and a half since I took my last French language class. Since crossing over to literature courses, I’ve had some minor anxieties about losing my grasp of grammar and conventions. While I may be familiarizing myself more with the deployment and use of language in its native format (in literature, in print media, in film, in seminar conversations), I’ve nonetheless had to keep at my basic grammar skills in addition to my studies.

I wrote a post a year ago about tips for learning languages, and I’m going to add on to this list today with some tips for maximizing your energy as a language learner.

  • Learn IPA: IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet, is a helpful tool for anyone interested in learning how a language functions phonetically. IPA is a universal system through which words can be transcribed and therefore pronounced through a set of phoneme representations in Latin (or Latin-like characters). Now, IPA is not necessarily intuitive at first; certain sounds are pretty analogous to their English equivalents, like /g/ in good or /s/ in s Others are not, like /dʒ/ in judge, are not. It will take some time to learn all of the steps and mechanisms of IPA, and for some languages it’s more complex than others. For instance, Mandarin, due to its tonal nature, has markers which tell you what the tone is (these are also present in pinyin). For French, IPA is helpful for distinguishing similarly sounding phonemes, like /u/ in joue /ʒu/ and jus /ʒy/. The vowels [ou] and [u], to the English speaker, look indistinguishable, given that [ou] and [u] in English are often the same sound, as in the words you and june. The phoneme /y/ however, rarely is used in English. IPA is even more helpful more helpful for learning English because it quite frankly doesn’t make much phonemic sense. English is a wildly irregular language in terms of its orthography, and IPA allows English learners to better gauge how certain words are pronounced. Unlike orthographic systems, IPA is universal; it does not change depending on language or even dialect. The /u/ phoneme which appears in Azeri is the same /u/ that appears in Icelandic.

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