A Note for Discussion Concerning Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection. October 15, 2020.

I think it is possible to reflect on Saidiya Hartman’s 1996 book from the point of view of the text that has arguably summarized the political stakes of modernity most decisively: the handful of pages in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit about the master-slave dialectic, which predict its own resolution through labor in history and through history as labor.  What is consequently decisive in Hartman’s book, and presumably the motor or at least one of the motors of the frame of mind that has come to be known as Afropessimism, is the fact that Hartman’s book presumes no political or even social resolution in final reconciliation of the tension between mastery and servitude.   Labor in history will not do the Hegelian trick.  Mastery will continue to assert its privilege. 

The book shows how, from antebellum slavery through Emancipation and Reconstruction all the way through to the liquidation of the separate-but-equal statutes around 1967, servitude only managed to modulate its position of servitude while mastery kept its dominion in the form of white supremacy, white privilege.  I think it is fair to say that the issue of race is historically contingent to the very extent that it is not primarily a matter of white versus black as a function of any imagined racial hierarchy; it is precisely a matter of the fact that mastery needs an other to exert itself, and slavery, which means the slavery of Africans, propitiated the structure both directly, in antebellum times, and indirectly, through the maintenance or resurgence of black subjugation after emancipation.   

Which makes it no less poignant for blacks.  They are the symbolic subaltern in a social structure where political assertions of equality have not managed to achieve the factical elimination of racial subjugation.  But this means that the Hegelian master-slave dialectic proves itself to be just another story, and a wrong and misleading story at that.  Under those conditions, the narrative of emancipation, which emblematizes the predicament of the black slave, has no visible happy ending, that is, no political resolution in an equalitarian symbolization of the social.  Subalternity will not be eliminated; racial subalternity is an irreducible condition of the social as we know it, against and in the face of every piety of the liberal-democratic argument.  What is to be done under those conditions?

Fred Moten, in a review published in 2003, says: “There is an intense dialogue with Douglass that structures Scenes of Subjection.  The dialogue is opened by a refusal of recitation that reproduces what it refuses.  Hartman swerves away from Douglass and thereby runs right back to him.  She also runs through him into territory he could not have recognized, territory no one has charted as thoroughly and as convincingly as she has done.  Still, the structure of this turn away from, to, and through Douglass is familiar, perhaps disturbingly so.  Is there any other way for Hartman to have done what she has done?  This is to ask: Is Douglass inescapable for the theory of (black) performance and the theory of (black) subjectivity?  Can one simply opt out of this primal scene?  Can we think the generativity of that scene in its generality?”  (171).

Douglass’s primal scene is the primal scene of direct, sadistic domination of the human by the human.   It is also the primal scene hidden in the Phenomenology pages.  Hence the question about opting out is also a question about opting out of the political categories of modernity; that is, of modernity’s narratives of tendential democratic equality through labor as production, through social and economic development, through the various adjustments, reforms, even revolutions history will provide through its own teleology of fettered but still inevitable progress. 

In page 65, in the context of a discussion of slave infrapolitics, Hartman says “Even the Gramscian model, with its reformulation of the relation of state and civil society in the concept of the historical bloc and its expanded definition of the political, maintains a notion of the political inseparable from the effort and the ability of a class to effect hegemony.”  It is a rather subdued statement in the context of the book, which nevertheless amounts to a straightforward denunciation of the radical insufficiency of hegemony theory in any guise or form.  Essentially, the contention is that equality is not to be found as a consequence of any inclusionist strategy on the side of dominant culture–that hegemony, that is, mastery, is always to be maintained means that the rhetoric of liberation must be purchased in every case at the price of mimicry, and mimicry is subjugation, which means that, where it succeeds as mimicry, it fails as emancipation.  Already in Anita Patterson’s review of Scenes of Subjection Patterson, who was nevertheless enthusiastic about the book, felt compelled to finish by saying: “I remain unpersuaded by Hartman’s suggestion that we dispense with notions of individuality, freedom, and civil rights just because the discourse of democracy has at times been put to bad use.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding, very tedious twenty plus years later.  Hartman does not “dispense with” those notions. She simply thinks that they are notions that, when wielded by hegemony or as hegemony’s mimicry, that is, even through counterhegemonic efforts, will double down on subjection, and will perpetuate subjection. This should alert us, should have alerted us, to the fact that counterhegemonic applications of hegemonic procedures will not suffice and have not sufficed for any equalitarian symbolization of the social.

This is where the claims for posthegemony and infrapolitics come together and meet and, in the case of the notion of infrapolitics that interests me, exceed subaltern studies.   Hartman refers to infrapolitics and to the “infrapolitics of the dominated” in obvious dialogue with James Scott’s theorization of infrapolitics.  It is clear enough, in Hartman’s book, that politics is a limited tool that cannot account for existential emancipation and that dooms the subaltern to endless subjugation.  The contention, which is made only in the form of a repeated question in Scenes of Subjection, is that infrapolitical practice can at least provide pleasure; that it is the very site of pleasure for subaltern sectors of the population.   Through infrapolitical practice subjugation is bracketed and negated. 

It is interesting that Scott, Robin Kelly, Hartman, Moten and Stefano Harney, seem still somewhat unwilling, at least to me, to take their very thoughts regarding infrapolitical practice to their logical next step and choose to remain constrained by an understanding of posthegemonic infrapolitics still circumscribed to its negative determination.   For them, infrapolitics names a restriction in the concept of politics, given the insufficiency of politics for black emancipation.   Am I right in this?  In any case, this is what I would like to submit to discussion.  In my view, it is a change in the notion of infrapolitics as somehow “prepolitical,” to make use of Ranajit Guha’s unfortunate term in reference to similar phenomena of subaltern revolt and subaltern pleasure that would not be registered in political terms, that could replace “pessimism” in order to open another horizon.  Infrapolitics is not to be thought of as simply a way out of politics.  Can we expand the notion and make it good for an other beginning of politics not constrained or circumscribed to Hegelian dialectics and its implicit philosophy of history? 

I think the notion of the “wayward subject” in Saidiya’s more recent book, Wayward Lives, is a step forward.   Can we continue to push that thought, and see where it takes us? 

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