Can we coherently conjugate high philosophy and slave insurgency under the heading of “universal history”? Is it possible to disentangle “universal history” from its roots in white supremacy and European imperial reason? Susan Buck-Morss' recent answer to that question, which was left somewhat unresolved in her seminal essay “Hegel and Haiti,” turns the Haitian Revolution and its half suppressed echo in Hegel's master-slave dialectic into an emblematic event. Universal ideas of liberty and liberation can only be glimpsed in singular moments of rupture, systemic break-down, and violence. The slave insurgency in Saint Domingue thus becomes a privileged moment in universal history. While I find Buck-Morss' reading of Hegel's master-slave dialectic in light of the Haitian Revolution more persuasive than many other recent attempts at thinking universality in relation to slave insurgency, I am troubled by the fact that Buck-Morss' anti-multiculturalist notion of universality is predicated on an epistemology of catastrophe and the violent stripping of the individual of cultural and social ties. If there is anything we can learn from the Western history of catastrophes, from Atlantic slavery to the Holocaust, it is that the nakedness and vulnerability of the victim is more likely to lead to fantastical cruelty than to the promotion of liberationist thought.
Sibylle Fischer; History and Catastrophe. Small Axe 1 November 2010; 14 (3 (33)): 163–172. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-2010-032
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