Anthony Bogues. Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, and Freedom.
Conducted at Dartmouth College in Spring 2007, Anthony Bogues' lecture series Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, and Freedom takes an imaginative approach to American slavery, placing it in an essential position in regards to the modern globalized landscape. Seeking to think about "what it means to live inside an empire," Bogues orients his lectures upon three core inquiries (1). First, Bogues evaluates the ways American exceptionalism produces totalized versions of subjectivity based upon closed definitions of the term "liberty." Bogues locates American liberty synonymously with America's imperializing goal to spread its ethos around the globe. Bogues' second objective builds off of his initial genealogical study of American empire and argues that current political theories about the "state of exception" mishandle American power, which has at its heart the exception of "racial slavery and dependent Native American nations" (99). He argues against Giorgio Agamben's analysis about the state of exception, using racial slavery to draw attention to the direct correlation between juridical norms and state violence. Bogues' final objective revolves around the reformulation of critical theory toward a politics of "the radical imagination" (37). Using what he names Franz Fanon's "radical humanism," Bogues insists that critical theory must shed its western influences and embrace the perspective of those who have experienced colonial domination (118). This embracement, Bogues explains, allows us to glimpse how forms of humanization develop and emerge. Running through each of these overarching queries lies an intense dedication to the production of new ways of living that can overcome colonial violence not by covering over the past, but by listening to its echoing cries into the present. Bogues' study seeks to answer the mourning he hears reflected in the violence America's empire of liberty produces.
Starting with a genealogy of American empire, Bogues' first lecture engages in a historical analysis of American imperial practices. He explains that the American notion of "liberty.... seeks to capture desire and imagination, to consolidate its single truth as the only way of life, thereby confirming to itself and us that we are indeed at the end of history" (12). Bogues utilizes Foucault's conception of "pastoral power" to argue that the emergence of mass production and the abolition of slavery in America turned its politics to the production of particular modes of desire and the drive to totalize the American lifestyle globally.
Bogues second lecture, "Race, Historical Trauma, and Democracy," focuses on the intersection between trauma studies and historical survey, the "politics of the wound" (40). Bogues argues that certain historical events produce wounds that get repeated over time, via communal flashbacks and collective memory (39-41). In terms of American politics, "racial slavery was the originary trauma: antiblack racism becomes the frame for the repetition of the wound and constructs the parallel lives for African Americans" (44). In opposition to the white male representative system that produced the originary trauma, Bogues turns to W.E.B. Du Bois' Black Reconstruction and reads this text to produce an alternative approach to black trauma. Instead of treating slavery as a history to let go of as proponents of formal representation argue, Bogues argues for Du Bois' "abolition democracy," a style of democracy interested in shaping politics around the production of inclusivity (59).
In "Death, Power, Violence, and New Sovereignties," Bogues steps back from his analysis of American politics and turns to contemporary theories of violence in regards to their relationship to power, arguing that violence, in the modern colonial era, behaves like a form of power. He specifically centers upon genocide, torture, and colonial violence in Jamaica and argues that each of these events produces ways of life based upon fear and bodily harm. Using Foucault's conception of power, "based upon a relationship in which a subject emerges," Bogues explains that in situations of genocide, the purging of the body politic becomes a communal norm (75). In terms of torture, Bogues counters Foucault's analysis in Discipline and Punish and places torture practices in a historically essential position within the Western ethos based upon the exclusion and punishment of the black slave. Lastly, Bogues performs a genealogical study of Jamaica and argues that the state's failure to consolidate sovereignty produced the conditions in which black masculinity could only exist through the enactment of violence. Violence became the way Jamaican communities regulated both themselves and others.
In his last lecture, Bogues turns his attention to the production of new modes of analysis. Taking up two conceptions of political progress, Hegel and Fanon's, Bogues explains that "the issues raised by colonial power... complicate not only rule and rights but also our responses to them" (108). Insisting that the "end of history" rhetoric used at the end of the cold war implies the exhaustion of western critical practices, Bogues directs his attention to Fanon's dispute with Hegelian dialectics (105). Using Fanon's refutation of the necessity of the "other" for historical progress, Bogues argues for a dedication toward "the radical imagination," the construction of freedom around constant struggles to imagine better modes of humanization (120).
Bogues' lectures in Empire of Liberty display the radical imagination he wishes critical theory to pursue. Insistent upon centering colonial violence at the heart of contemporary politics, Bogues' analysis sheds brilliant light upon the ways in which critical theory can use its energy to produce a more inclusive future. His deliberate centering on colonialism allows for an examination of the history of critical theory and its failures to account for colonial violence and its production of subjectivities based upon fear and bodily harm. In particular, his refutation of state of exception styles of analysis opens the field of American studies to critically reflect upon the centrality of exclusive juridical norms to the American ethos. It urges scholars to reassess the fundamental link between violence and contemporary American modes of living. By naming America "an empire of liberty," Bogues compels American studies to come to terms with the force of American slavery in relation to broader forces of global American imperialism.
Jennifer Sweeney, Binghamton University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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