Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Chapter 3, "Aesthetics and Ethics of the Spectator"

I learned from taking notes on the first two chapters that it's hard to get a handle on Blumenberg's approach to his material. It isn't an argument in any usual sense, nor is it a typology or a narrative. His organization is loosely thematic, in that he takes up some variant or aspect of the seafaring metaphor and examines it for some stretch before moving on to another topic. Within his exploration of these topics, he tends to follow the series of treatments chronologically, but not rigidly so. So while there is no overarching account of either the structure or the genesis of the metaphor, there is episodic insight into both. In pursuit of a better understanding of sum of these insights, I will seek to record not just Blumenberg's observations about the different treatments of seafaring metaphors, but the logic of his transitions, insofar as I understand them.

In the image of the shipwreck with spectator, the spectator carries on the ancient ideal of theory as contemplation, but with a new object. Instead of the cosmos, the object of contemplation is man's own consciousness. (26-27)

Lucretius describes the forms of the natural world as being like debris from a shipwreck thrown up from an inexhaustible ocean of atoms -- making the point that man would do well to remain a spectator to these forms instead of trying to comprehend them. The birth of a human being is also depicted as a kind of shipwreck, like a sailor being thrown ashore from the sea. The notion that seafaring is unnatural informs these uses of the shipwreck metaphor. This analogy is metaphorical and literal at the same time -- seaborne commerce really is driven by a refusal to accept all limits to desires as natural limits. Remaining content within the boundaries of natural needs = staying ashore. Wanting and pursuing in excess of those needs = taking to the seas and risking shipwreck. (27-29)

The Enlightenment, by contrast, sees the danger of shipwreck as the price that must be paid in order for their to be wind, and therefore sea commerce, at all. (29)

29: "In complete contrast to this, it will be one of the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment that shipwreck is the price that must be paid in order to avoid that complete calming of the sea winds that would make all worldly commerce impossible. Through this figure is expressed a justification of the passiones, the passions, against which philosophy discriminates: pure reason would mean the absence of winds and the motionlessness of human beings who possess complete presence of mind."

This formulation of the Enlightenment attitude is taken almost directly from the debate between Herostratus of Ephesus and Demetrius of Phalerum in Fontanelle's Dialogues of the Dead -- with the omission of an explicit reference to the possibility of shipwreck. (The context is that Herostratus, destroyer of the temple of Ephesus, is arguing for an equal claim to fame with Demetrius, who had erected 360 statues in Athens, because the destructive work of the passions is a prerequisite for clearing the ground in order for new human achievement to be possible.) (29-30)

Blumenberg proceeds to another dialogue from Fontanelle's work in which shipwreck is thematized -- the argument between Margaret of Austria and Hadrian about whose death was better. In the case of Margaret, this was an imagined death by shipwreck rather than her actual one. Margaret sees her reckoning with this death, expressed in a poem, as superior because it was not planned ahead of time. Hadrian sees his as superior because his calm acceptance, also expressed in poetry, achieves the classical ideal. Hadrian poses the question whether her poem was not actually composed after her brush with shipwreck, to which Margaret counterposes the question whether his poem was not actually composed well before his death. The dialogue is resolved on the acceptance of moderation even in virtue. Blumenberg finds irony both in the ultimately unacknowledged fact that the poetic ideal was separated from actualization in both cases, and in the exaggerated metaphysical distance of the interlocutors from the human predicament in that they are dead and thus beyond any threat of disaster. (30-32)

A shipwreck metaphor also comes up in Fontenelle's pioneering Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, which imagines the Earth as it would be seen through the higher rationality of an intelligent alien. The work's protagonist, the marquise, boldly wishes for a shipwreck of such aliens on the Earth so she could see what they look like. She has to be warned, none too successfully, that the aliens could reverse the role of spectator and specimen, since they could just as well catch her like a fish as be shipwrecked. (32-33)

Voltaire and his circle focus on the passions as the indispensable moving force in human existence. Candide, for instance, may retreat to his garden in the end. But he does not start with renunciation like Lucretius' spectator. Rather, it is the actual experience of the arbitrariness of shipwreck which extinguishes his passion for believing that things could be better. In the Marquise de Chatelet's "On Happiness," reflection is portrayed as a force that delays action until it is too late to achieve happiness. She counsels that time is short, and feeling and thinking must not be delayed by too much careful preparation -- like a ship always in port being caulked rather than being made use of while it could. For Voltaire, moreover, even the role of spectator with shipwreck is seen as the result of a passion -- curiosity -- rather than, as Lucretius would have it, as an opportunity to dispassionately comprehend one's own security. And he believes that animals share the passion of curiosity. (34-36+)

Voltaire describes himself in his letters as shipwrecked when he hastily escapes from the Prussian king. Compares his feeling of security to that of passengers who are saved from a shipwreck, and look back at their experience from a safe harbor -- but then goes on to express doubt that there is a safe harbor in the world. (37)

Voltaire's Micromegas describes a shipwreck caused by curious alien giants examining what, to them, are tiny vessels -- so small that they are unable to perceive the men in them at all. Through this story, Voltaire hopes to illustrate triviality of human history. Here Blumenberg says that man is removed from the possibility of even being a spectator, as in Fontanelle's story, of more advanced beings , and is only an object -- but in fact it seems he is not even that! (37-38)

Voltaire takes on Lucretius' account of the spectator again in his article "Curiosity" for the Encyclopedia. He shows his revulsion with an analogy to an angel who would use his observation of the sufferings of the damned as an occasion to reflect on his his own imperviousness to suffering; this angel, according to Voltaire, would be indistinguishable from a devil. And he goes on to say that it is his experience and that of others that curiosity rather than taking pleasure in safety drives people to gawk at a shipwreck. (38-39)

Abbe Galiani contradicts Voltaire in a letter to Madame d'Epinay. Curiosity only exists where there is security, he contends, otherwise men would be occupied with his own immediate concerns. Moreover, animals do not share the ability to be curious, because they lack the capacity of detachment from what is strange and frightening, and the sense of security it brings. Galiani forgoes the shipwreck metaphor altogether in his argument, preferring the to illustrate his point with the image of a theater. There, spectator are able to take interest in the drama because they are sheltered and secure. Blumenberg notes that the dangers of the spectacle to which the audience devotes its interest are not even real, so that in preferring this metaphor to that of the shipwreck Galiani aestheticizes what was originally a moral relationship. In suppressing the shipwreck metaphor in this case, Blumenberg also sees an abandonment of the classical implication of precarious human existence in the face of nature. Instead, in his Dialogues sur la commerce des bles, Galiani portrays the relationship between man and nature as a somewhat equal struggle between to indefinite powers. And so seafaring and shipwreck metaphors are made available for use to illustrate the proper prudence of administration informed by the best available evidence. (39-41)

Blumenberg notes that the first appearance of the shipwreck with spectator theme in German comes in Ewald's short poem Der Sturm from 1755. The poem has an intense, present tense description of a storm and shipwreck, with a an abrupt transition to a past tense coda when the topic switches to the "I" which is revealed to have been only a spectator. (41-42)

Blumenberg takes this as an opportunity to revisit Horace's employment of the shipwreck and spectator theme. Here the spectator's interest is justified by an attempt to warn the battered ship to return to port -- the involvement is moral rather than aesthetic. This leads to a reflection on the relative degree of involvement of Cicero's narrator and the narrator of the Greek poet Alcaeus' shipwreck story (which Cicero had used as his model). Although Alcaeus' narrator's experiences the storm aboard the boat, his involvement is in a way both more passive, because it is the perspective of confused immediacy, and more detached, since it is the view of an even that has passed. The orientation of Cicero's narrator, on the other hand, is toward the future, and an attempt to prevent the imminent peril to the ship. In this sense, the view from the Alcaeus' surviving passenger is more that of a spectator, than is the view of Cicero's actual spectator. (42-43)

And from here, we have a remarkably stream-of-consciousness set of transitions. Blumenberg notes that Ewald's poem was written in 1755, the year of the Lisbon earthquake which shattered Leibnizean metaphysical optimism. Then he notes that Herder, in turn, used the shipwreck metaphor in 1792 to describe the relationship between the German public and the French Revolution. He then turns to trace the succession of Herder's use of seafaring references, starting back in 1769. In that year, when he sailed from Riga to visit the Enlightenment thinkers in France, he uses sea exploration as a metaphor for philosophical discovery. On the return voyage the next year, Herder was shipwrecked on the Dutch coast; though it does not seem that Herder himself made this into a metaphor of anything, Blumenberg notes the irony of the sea intransigently asserting its power in light of the previous year's remarks. By 1774, Herder is using the shipwreck metaphor to express the current situation of philosophy in his Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. In his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity of 1792, he turns this metaphor, and the metaphor of the theater, to the task of accounting for the reception of the French Revolution in Germany. He sees the relationship between the events in France and the German public as a comfortably distant one (secured by the difference of language) akin to that between spectators and actors, or a spectator and a shipwreck. Blumenberg notes that the shipwreck metaphor is deployed with an unusual destabilizing twist, however: Herder suggests that a demon toss the spectator into the sea. Also, as with Galiani, Blumenberg notes that the shipwreck is presented as the superficial level of a more profound metaphor of theatrics. (43-46)

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 13, "The War of Independence"

The tragedy of Toussaint: he would not face up to the need for a decisive break from France, because San Domingo needed association with France in order to develop, and he believed that black freedom was impossible to reverse in any case.

Napoleon instructed his commander, LeClerc to accommodate Toussaint and the black leaders until he got his army established. Then the black leaders were to be arrested, the black officers dismissed, and the black populace disarmed so that "special laws" -- meaning, according to James, slavery -- could be imposed. The plan required a lot of naivete on the part of the black revolutionary leaders, but excepting Toussaint, Dessalines, and a few others that expectation was well justified.

After Toussaint prevented Christophe from handing over Le Cap to the French, the battle for the town began on February 4th, 1802. The black army retreated, burning Le Cap behind them -- the beginning of a scorched earth policy that the island's defenders would pursue with vigor throughout the war.

Toussaint made little headway raising the mass of laborers, who were disillusion by his policies of accommodation with the white planters. Moreover, the officer's of the San Domingo army themselves vacillated in the face of French demands for submission, and several key positions, including the capital Port-Republicain, were surrendered without a fight.

In the West, Dessalines waged a campaign that combined audacious raids behind French lines with a fighting retreat, and also initiated his policy of massacring all the whites who fell in his hands.

The French tried to use Toussaint's sons to persuade him to give up, but to no avail.

Toussaint's strategy: use his smaller forces delay and harass the French until the rainy season without getting drawn into a decisive battle (with the wet weather would come disease that would deplete the French).

From mid-February, LeClerc's forces marched on Gonaives by converging routes. Christophe and Toussaint fought and orderly fighting retreat in the east, while Maurepas in the northwest and Dessalines in the south halted the French entirely. Just as the black masses were stirring to revolt in the north, however, Maurepas' was left exposed by the unexpected surrender of several of his subordinates who had been alienated by Toussaint's policy of destructive defense. Maurepas, too, submitted to preserve his position as a military leader. The French immediately put him to work leading the suppression of the revolt, with the added aim of undermining his credibility among the black masses.

As LeClerc prepared another offensive, this time aiming to converge on Verrettes, Toussaint struck out into the north to rally the laborers to revolt. He left Dessalines to hold the key fortress of Crete-a-Pierrot. The French suffered thousands of casualties attempting to seize the fort. Meanwhile, the political divide between the sides widened. Dessalines rallied his defenders behind a new cause: independence. French retaliation for Dessalines' massacres increasingly turned the black population in favor of revolt. Toussaint returned south to relieve the siege, but the black defenders broke out before he arrived.

With Crete-a-Pierrot subdued, LeClerc felt able to begin a crackdown on the mulattoes by deporting Rigaud. But Toussaint, hoping to secure a truce, refrained from seeking an alliance with the mulattoes. In the meantime, LeClerc received reinforcements and resumed the offensive against the rebel forces, but all of the French attacks were repulsed.

Toussaint still hoped for a favorable peace with the French, and began secret negotiations with LeClerc through Cristophe, one of his generals. Christophe's decision to surrender his forces -- accepting French guarantees to maintain black officers in their positions -- was a blow to the revolution and the negotiations. Toussaint persisted, however, and came to terms with LeClerc in late April on surrender with the same essential guarantee.

Though all Toussaint's commanders submitted to the deal, this was the key event that made Dessalines lose confidence in him. Dessalines began planning to lead a fight for independence himself. First, by suggesting that Toussaint was conspiring against the French, he goaded LeClerc into arresting and deporting him. This disposed of the only leader who could halt the momentum for Independence once fighting renewed.

In the wake of Toussaint's arrest, black laborers rebelled in some areas of the north, and these scattered rebellions spread and persisted thereafter. The black military leaders did not join the rebellions, and helped to contain them, but in the meantime the white French army was wasting away from disease. In late July, blacks in San Domingo received word that slavery had been reimposed in Guadeloupe, and the rebellions intensified, but the black generals still remained loyal to the French.

Finally, in October, 1802, first Petion, and then Clairveaux, Dessalines and Christophe, joined the rebellion with their troops. LeClrerc died at the beginning of November and was succeeded in French command by Rochambeau, who sought a more aggressive policy. He sought permission to restore slavery (not realizing that Napoleon had already authorized it to LeClerc). Once he received reinforcements, he went on the offensive and also started massacres of the mulattoes. This policy incited the mulatto-dominated South province to revolt. Meanwhile, Dessalines and Petion were bringing the local rebels under their control, training and imposing army discipline on them.

Toussaint died in a French prison in April, 1803.

In 1803, war had resumed in Europe. This was a turning point for the revolution, since there were no further reinforcements from the French, and the national army could buy all the arms it needed from the British. In November, the national army attacked Le Cap. The French fought off the attack. The battle convinced Rochambeau that the French position was too precarious to sustain, however, and he evacuated Le Cap.

On December 31st, the national leaders issued a declaration of Haitian independence. The following October, Dessalines declared himself emperor.

In early 1805, partly at the instigation of the British (who sought to stifle French trade), all the remaining whites in the country were massacred. In consequence, Haiti was isolated from the rest of the world for generations, and its development was stifled.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 12, "The Bourgeoisie Prepares to Restore Slavery"

Napoleon was determined to subdue San Domingo and restore slavery. His motive was not prejudice (although he had plenty of that) or an eagerness for colonies but profit for his bourgeois supporters. Once his plans to use Russia to strike at British India were foiled, he had no reason to hesitate any longer. Fully aware of the formidable foe he faced, he launched the largest French overseas expedition in history -- 20,000 men -- on 21 November, 1801.

Toussaint continued his policy of appeasing whites, hoping this would convince Napoleon not to invade. He was not able to come to terms with the fact that the die had been cast, that the decision to attack had already been made. Revolutionary blacks became increasingly discontented with Toussaint's policy, and they revolted in the North province in late September. Toussaint harshly suppressed the revolt, and had Moise, whom he suspected of anti-white revolutionary tendencies, executed as well. Toussaint's approach disoriented the black masses who were essential to defending the island while also failing to overawe the white who could disable the island's defense from within.

James contends that if if Toussaint had communicated the prospect of an invasion and the aim of his policies in forestalling it more openly, he could have retained the support of the black laborers. He draws a parallel to Robespierre, who also crushed his left-wing supporters and destroyed his own defense in doing so. But, according to James, Robespierre could only be expected to do this because he was, after all, bourgeois, while there was no difference in political outlook between Toussaint and the masses. Their difference, he contends, was only in the view of how to manage the issue of race in order to secure the interests of the laborers. Accommodation had to be made to the understandable anti-white feelings of the black masses, according to James, in order to sustain their support for revolution -- and there was little to be lost, since the whites within and without could not be won over by further accommodation, anyway.

This seems right as a prescription for policy, but I have to think that James has misapprehended his man here. It strikes me that there was an ideological gap between Toussaint and the masses. In the end, it was not just a vain hope for appeasement that drove Toussaint's policy, but his essentially bourgeois inclinations. He saw promoting and protecting of the rights of property -- albeit without slavery -- as a positive good. And in the end, the black masses were not going to be content as mere laborers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 11, "The Black Consul"

Can we just sum this up by stating that Toussaint was bourgeois in both policy and mores?

Toussaint put great stock in the bourgeois virtues of work, education, and sociability. He strove to make the colony productive and to develop the human capital of its people. His methods were authoritarian rather than liberal: for instance, he compelled the black laborers to stay on the estates, while guaranteeing them a share of the produce.

Besides serving the end of economic development, his protection of propertied interests was also designed to forestall conflict with metropolitan France. This was also true of the favor he showed to whites. The black masses remained suspicious of the whites, however, and James argues that Toussaint's signal failure was neglecting to explain his approach to them. I will allow myself to doubt that the masses would have been swayed. In any case, this division between Toussaint's policy and popular attitudes became his key political vulnerability.

Toussaint's ruled as a dictator. He took advice from many people, but made all decisions himself. This arrangement was codified in the constitution he promulgated for the colony. This constitution opened up a new breach with France, since it gave no place to metropolitan France in the rule of the colony at all. Napoleon, meanwhile, refused to acknowledge Toussaint's position as ruler of San Domingo at all -- avoiding an open beach as yet, but refusing to grant legitimacy as well.

Friday, April 2, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 10, "Toussaint Seizes the Power"

This is a disappointing chapter. James fails to satisfy me on a significant point, the nature of the conflict between the the mulatto-ruled South and the the North ruled by Toussaint. James makes this out to hang upon the personal conflict between Rigaud, who was unfailingly loyal to France, and Toussaint, who was sought to unify the island under his own control in preparation for independence. James even suggests that if Beauvais had been allowed to succeed Rigaud -- a succession which was stymied by the new French governor, Roume, in order to sow division -- unification could have taken place without conflict. But the vigor of the Southern defence belies any such expectation. I think we must understand this level of commitment as rooted in social and economic differences which could hardly have failed to produce an insurrection, no matter how peaceful the initial unification had been.

In any case, here are the main narrative points. (1) Toussaint cut a trade deal with the British. Given the British control of the seas, he could hardly have done otherwise, whatever his intentions towards France. (2) Toussaint conquered the South and dealt unusually harshly with the defeated mulattoes. (3) Toussaint then Spanish San Domingo to bring the entire island under his rule. (4) Toussaint kept the purpose of these actions largely to himself and failed to engage the people on the conflict with France for which he was preparing them.