Poetic Flight: HotE Review, Ronald Judy
“Humanity can progress of its own accord” were the last words of Professor Ronald Judy’s lecture, “Restless Flying from Haiti to Tunisia: What is ‘After Revolution’ Anyway?” I begin this review with the conclusion of Dr. Judy’s lecture solely for this reason: after-revolution is just the beginning point of imagining the full capacity of our humanity. At the heart of this year’s Humanities on the Edge series is the concept of “Post Revolutionary Futures." The second lecture of the season, Dr. Judy’s conceivably optimistic declaration was not a gesture toward an untenable utopic vision, but rather a critique that began by problematizing—both epistemologically and theoretically—what it means to be human and what it means to be free. This is inherently a political question. But rarely, as in the case of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, is the quest by its citizens for human dignity disputed. These revolutions, based on European notions of humanity and the pursuit of human dignity, are unequivocally just. They are logical. They are within the realm of civil society.
But let us consider, as does the larger discourse of revolution, how the concepts of “human” and “freedom” within certain contexts become subjective. Evidenced through a long history of colonialism and empire, freedom and revolution both were used and thought of almost exclusively through the lens of a European definition of humanity. Insert here Dr. Judy’s two examples that run counter to the aforementioned revolutionary discourse: the Haitian Revolution beginning in 1791 and the Tunisian Revolution of 2011. Separated by space (from the Caribbean to North Africa) and time (the turn of the 18th Century to the 21st Century), both exemplify what could be considered counter-narratives. Instead, these revolutions, much like the individuals who inspired them, were conceived of and made “other." To distance them even further, they were, as was suggested, “other than European, not non-European.” Much in the ways in which Haitians and Tunisians had been disqualified from their humanity and human dignity, the larger discourse of revolution has similarly ignored Haiti and Tunisia as revolutionary models. As Dr. Judy pointed out, Haiti and Tunisia are incomprehensible. But beyond a mere incomprehensibility, this dismissal, or what Dr. Judy calls a “destructive neglect” is a continuation of dehumanization. The counter-colonial revolution, rather than being a protest for political enfranchisement, instead becomes a riot, a rebellion, a lesser example of (un)civil unrest couched in base emotional responses such as anger and/or frustration. Against the expectations of civil society, these “rebellions” are posited as collective irrational emotion, a public commotion that is incapable of and counter to moral reason. Revolutionary practice and violence are then not a matter of speaking out and against racial and colonial injustices, but rather violence for the sake of violence that is stripped of intentionality, strategic organizing, human logic and dignity. Put simply, only humans are capable of revolution.
While this paradigm can be understood to be race-based, and in effect racist, this is not exclusively about race. Here, after-revolution becomes fraught with its own challenges to shake itself from colonial rule. Put another way, revolutions can be swallowed by their own ideologies. What Dr. Judy makes clear, particularly in the case of the Haitian Revolution, is that revolutionary struggle is susceptible to the very institutions and practices it opposes. Unfortunately, colonial subjects and counter-colonial resistance speak the same language as the colonizer. Unable to escape the trappings of capitalism and concerned with how it would maintain and protect its independence, Haiti had to ask itself, “How do we make our independence sustainable?” or rather, “How do we meet both the demand for freedom and the need for a profitable economy?” In other words, can after-revolution afford both?
Unfortunately, overthrowing the French colonial empire did not provide immediate independence or answers to these problems, but unforeseeably perhaps, made Haiti codependent on the empire. Free from the dichotomous relationship of master/slave, Haiti created and reinforced a new dichotomy of owner/worker so much so that work became analogous to the idea and praxis of freedom. As Dr. Judy points out, Haitians would have to “work” for their freedom, often under conditions that were worse than slavery. The new independent state, established in 1801 as a French territory, controlled the market and therefore controlled the definition of what it meant to be human: if one did not live up to their civic duty and work, one was disqualified from their humanity. Apart from, yet still tied to empire, the after-revolution state created and enforced a system of oppression under the guise and promise of a system of independence.
And so ultimately, as Dr. Judy suggested, what after-revolution needed and still needs is a new epistemology of humanism—a language that is not bound temporally or geographically but liberated by a constant restlessness to imagine and reimagine itself. After-revolution is bound only by the limits of its own imagination. Learning from all models of revolution, after-revolution cannot simply afford to be counter to and reactionary. It must be visionary. Using ideas of poetic expression and poetic investigation, we must be able to imagine beyond the anti-colonial, the counter-colonial, and the post-colonial. The revolutionary subject must be able to speak a new language, so to speak, and imagine a world outside the confines of what we know. As Dr. Judy suggested, only when we explore fully the possibilities of the human condition and engage in ethical relations with others or act empathetically when considering what it means to be human and what it means to be free can we begin to envision, on its own accord, the progression of a new manifestation of liberated humanity.