A good deal of recent scholarship into the slave past proclaims that the past’s political significance resides in its continuity with our present, finding both ethical moment and critical motivation in a recovery imperative that seeks to continue, reanimate, or complete the political projects of those who were defeated by history. This ethic of recovery has at times gone by the name “melancholy historicism,” and its paragon text has been Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This essay questions whether recovery predicated on such assumptions is the only way to either have or do slave history, and it ponders the possibility that the unforthcomingness of the past may be the fount of its deepest political (if not human) significance. The essay seeks to make the case for the writing of a history of discontinuity, the model for which is again provided by Morrison, in A Mercy, which by way of its ungenial textual effects expresses the author’s apparent turn away from the affective history project she earlier so capably inspired.
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Stephen Best; On Failing to Make the Past Present. Modern Language Quarterly 1 September 2012; 73 (3): 453–474. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-1631478
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