Pam Nogales, “Book review: Universal Emancipation, by Nick Nesbitt”

IMAGE: A Romantic portrayal of Haitian
revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture

Originally posted on Eleutheromania.  Though I’ve not read the book, Pam’s review gives me the distinct impression that Nesbitt is working within a Deleuzean frame, with a strong emphasis on “singularity” cribbed from Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza.  Thus, the notion of “radical enlightenment” adopted from Jonathan Israel’s well-known book championing Spinoza is shot through with a distinct Deleuzeanism.  Such are its theoretical underpinnings, anyway, for what it’s worth.

Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. By Nick Nesbitt. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2008. Pp. viii, 261.

“The radical transformation of France after 1789 did not determine the appearance of the Haitian Revolution; instead, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a key element in creating what David Scott has called the ‘conditions of possibility,’ the ontological ground that allowed for a local rebellion’s increasing articulation in terms of universal human rights.” (Nesbitt, 62)

Similar to historian Jeremy Popkin, although with a radically different conclusion, Nick Nesbitt also grapples with the question of whether or not the Revolution in Saint-Domingue was “ideologically predetermined” by the radical ideas of the French Revolution (Nesbitt, 128). While Popkin’s exposition argues that the Revolution was caused by a set of intricate contingencies and the blunders of human reason, Nesbitt’s argument prioritizes the legacy of the Enlightenment tradition as the grounds of possibility for the Revolution in Saint-Domingue. But this is only one side of the argument and it comes after an important clarification: Nesbitt challenges the understanding of the Enlightenment as a homogenous development, located in Europe and “accessible” only to privileged subjects. He argues that this perspective not only obfuscates the conditions under which the Revolution took place but blocks recognition of a critical contribution to the discourse of human rights.[1] By way of its “singularity,” writes Nesbitt, the slaves in Saint-Domingue went beyond the limitations of bourgeois revolutions but in order to learn from this historical rupture, we must recover the link between the Revolution and the tradition of Radical Enlightenment thought. Continue reading