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Difference and Self-Determination

Whether in literature, philosophy, the arts, or politics, Black discourse has been dominated by three events: slavery, colonization, and apartheid. Still today, they imprison the ways in which Black discourse expresses itself. These events have acquired certain canonical meanings, three of which are worth highlighting. First, there is separation from oneself. Separation leads to a loss of familiarity with the self to the point that the subject, estranged, is relegated to an alienated, almost lifeless identity. In place of the being-connected-to-itself (another name for tradition) that might have shaped experience, one is constituted out of an alterity in which the self becomes unrecognizable to itself: this is the spectacle of separation and quartering. Second is the idea of disappropriation. This process refers, on the one hand, to the juridical and economic procedures that lead to material expropriation and dispossession, and, on the other, to a singular experience of subjection characterized by the falsification of oneself by the other. What flows from this is a state of maximal exteriority and ontological impoverishment. These two gestures (material expropriation and ontological impoverishment) constitute the singular elements of the Black experience and the drama that is its corollary. Finally, there is the idea of degradation. Not only did the servile condition plunge the Black subject into humiliation, abjection, and nameless suffering. It also incited a process of “social death” characterized by the denial of dignity, dispersion, and the torment of exile. In all three cases, the foundational events that were slavery, colonialism, and apartheid played a key role: they condensed and unified the desire of the Black Man to know himself (the moment of sovereignty) and hold himself in the world (the moment of autonomy).

From a historical perspective, the emergence of the plantation and the colony as institutions coincides with the very long period in the West during which a new form of governmental reason emerged and was affirmed: that of mercantile reason. It considered the market as the ultimate mechanism for exchange and the privileged locus of the veridiction both of the political and of the value and utility of things in general. The expansion of liberalism as an economic doctrine and a particular art of governance took place at a time when European states, in tight competition with one another and against the backdrop of the slave trade, were working to expand their power and saw the rest of the world as their economic domain and within their possession.

The plantation specifically and later the colony were in gestation from the second half of the fifteenth century. They constituted an essential machinery within a new form of calculation and planetary consciousness. It considered merchandise to be the elemental form of wealth and saw the capitalist mode of production as being fundamentally about the immense accumulation of merchandise. Merchandise had value only to the extent that it contributed to the formation of wealth, which constituted the reason for its use and exchange. From the perspective of mercantilist reason, the Black slave is at once object, body, and merchandise. It has form as a body-object or an object-body. It is also a potential substance. Its substance, which creates its value, flows from its physical energy. It is worksubstance. In this view the Black Man is material energy. This is the first door through which he enters into the process of exchange.

As an object of value to be sold, bought, and used, the Black Man also has access to a second door. The planter who purchases a Black slave does so neither to destroy nor to kill him but rather to use him in order to produce and augment the planter’s own power. Not all Black slaves cost the same. The variability in price corresponds to the formal quality attributed to each of them. But any use of the slave diminishes the attributed formal quality. Once subjected to use, consumed and exhausted by their owner, the object returns to nature, static and henceforth unusable. In the mercantilist system, the Black Man is therefore the body-object, the merchandise, that passes from one form to another and—once in its terminal phase, exhausted, destroyed—is the object of a universal devalorization. The death of the slave signals the end of the object and escape from the status of merchandise.

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