on the Afterlives of Slavery
Afterlives and New Lives:
Bearing Witness to Epochal Shift
Deborah A. Thomas
University of Pennsylvania
My obsession over the years has had to do with processes of coloniality in the Western hemisphere. When Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France set sail to the so-called “New World,” they inaugurated a shift that generated new systems of economic production and consumption, new forms of social hierarchy, and new kinds of political relationship. These transformations led to the rise of the modern West and, through white supremacy and imperialism, the global dominance of Western civilization. I have been grappling in different ways with the following questions: If the modern West was built on Indigenous dispossession and slavery through development of plantation-based agriculture, and if both Indigenous and African-descended populations were excluded from modern personhood, then what could it possibly mean to be human – politically – in the wake of the West? How have people confronted the unpredictable afterlives of colonialism and slavery, nationalism and state formation in ways that perform not only a material transformation but also an affective one? What does sovereignty feel like? These are the questions that have been haunting me over the past many years as I have been developing archives of the relationships between sovereignty and violence in Jamaica.
The “Tivoli Stories” project is, in many ways, a visual representation of the afterlives of the plantation, of a modern political organization created in, through, and against coloniality. It is a representation of our contemporary condition that speaks through the discourse of “crisis” – the collapse of liberal democracy, the evisceration of a civil public sphere and of the notion of rights, and the erosion of the very health of the planet and any certainty regarding our environmental futures. But I have also been wondering over the past couple years about what it would mean to frame an understanding of our contemporary condition in the language of epochal shift rather than crisis. If we know that imperialism and slavery have many afterlives, what would it mean to assert that this moment constitutes another epochal shift, the death of Western modernity? And if this is true, how would we investigate this death ethnographically? How do we capture the everyday-ness of epochal shifts? What forms of evidence can we mobilize to perceive shifts that aren’t always understood as world-changing while they’re happening, when they sneak up on us, or, conversely, when they seem to appear suddenly in our faces? And how will we understand the work racism will do in a new epoch, and identify the avenues through which people will refuse and resist it?
In thinking about how people are currently engaging the intensified Chinese presence in Jamaica (China’s Caribbean hub), I have been probing three kinds of archives and spaces; rumors and discourses that circulate regarding the Chinese presence; the forms of activism that have developed in relation to Chinese development initiatives; and visual and sonic evidence (or the lack thereof) of the large-scale logistics projects that have been announced. Over the past several years, there has been a breathlessness to the “Belt and Road” language, to the assertion that Jamaica will be a central part of a new global maritime Silk Road made up of new urban forms that generate new jobs and training opportunities. This is a future that appears as if it is just beyond the horizon. Yet what is new also contains palimpsests of prior imperial moments, moments that constantly interrupt plans already begun. And even when projects seem to be underway, even when it looks like the government is going to take your land, or that you’ll be trained for a job in aviation services, you can never be sure these plans will fully materialize.
While we might imagine that an epochal shift necessarily inaugurates novel relationships to concepts and experiences of sovereignty and security, we must also be attuned to the ways new global articulations of political and economic power enable new forms of struggle (and therefore new channels toward accountability), while also disabling others. If this is the end of the world as we know it, the death of western modernity and the rise of…something else, then let us be attuned to the new dispositions of racism, security, and control beyond the plantation.