Monday, April 27, 2009


Haiti coverMichel-Rolph Trouillot's Haiti: State Against Nation. The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism is a comprehensive account of Haiti from independence in 1804 to the downfall of Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier in 1986. Precisely the fact that Trouillot feels the need to go back to the early nineteenth century in order to explain Duvalierism demonstrates how deep-rooted he feels the problems that plague the country to be. And though the book concludes with the end of the Duvaliers, it hardly evidences much optimism for what would follow. As Trouillot confesses, "If wishes alone sufficed, I would have ended on a more cheerful note" (228). He is as scathing about intellectuals and others who opposed Duvalierism as he is of the sycophants who enabled it to survive so long: "For if the Duvalierists are understandably among the villains of the story, there is nevertheless no clear champion of the popular cause" (228).

One wonders what Trouillot made of the rise of Aristide and Lavalas. Unfortunately, as far as I can see he has published nothing on the topic--and my understanding is that sadly he has been quite seriously ill for some time, so is unlikely to write anything on Haiti again in the near future. He argues here, however, that "any solution to the Haitian crisis must face the peasant question" and "it must find its roots in the resources of that peasantry" (229). Perhaps, for Trouillot, Lavalas may have offered the possibility of some kind of "solution" to the deeply-entrenched crisis that he analyzes as having afflicted the country almost from the moment of its birth.

It's important to note, however, that the role that Trouillot argues for the Haitian peasantry is quite different from that taken by peasants in just about any other Latin American country. Indeed, though it is to be welcomed that Haiti is now (finally) being studied as part of Latin America, and not utterly ignored as has been the predominant tradition, Trouillot's book does also demonstrate the significant ways in which Haiti's history and social and political structure have long been very different from the Latin American mainland, or indeed the rest of the Caribbean. Above all, it seems clear that social struggles in Haiti have not primarily revolved around the ownership of land.

Whereas in most of Latin America throughout the nineteenth century and up until fairly recently, the prime source of social conflict has been the disparity between large (often absentee) landholders and subsistence farmers, this does not appear to have been the case in Haiti. Here, in Trouillot's account, the Revolution decisively destroyed the power of the landlords. Against even the desires of the so-called leaders of the Revolution, who "all agreed on the need to maintain largescale export-oriented plantations," the former slaves utterly refused such an arrangement: "they knew that the plantation system was close to slavery and they rejected it" (49). Hence very early on land was redistributed to the peasants, although this did not of course necessarily mean an end to economic or social inequity: the elites "surrendered land in order to win control of the state" (48). In so far as landlords became rulers, however, they did so as "often nothing but rulers" (76).

What resulted, then, was what Trouillot terms a "republic for the merchants" in which the state gained a high degree of autonomy (and hence separation from civil society), its relations with the peasantry mediated through the merchant class, and its exploitation exercised through taxes, particularly export taxes levied at the custom houses. "It is thus fair to say," Trouillot concludes, "that the landlords have remained, since the 1840s, in the shadow of the alliance of rulers and merchants, never again becoming an autonomous social force" (78).

In a subsequent post I will look at the conclusions that Trouillot draws from this anomalous social structure, which enables the face-off between state and nation that he sees coming to a head under the Duvaliers. I will also examine how this relates to the concept of hegemony that Trouillot employs, and particularly to Laclau (who provides the book with one of its blurbs, but I will argue singularly inappropriately).

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Ian McGuire's Incredible Bodies is a campus novel, and true the genre also therefore a comedy of academic manners--or their lack. In the spirit of Lucky Jim, the protagonist Morris Gutman is a insecure and harried lecturer (assistant professor) near the bottom of the totem pole in an English department at a university located in a drab provincial British town. He labors without success on the work of a marginal writer, and lives in fear of his colleagues, his students, and his family alike who in turn collectively regard him with a mixture of disdain and (worse still) pity.

By one of those strange coincidences, however, that drive comic novels, Gutman finds himself accidentally dispatching one of his tormentors, a horribly over-confident and over-articulate graduate student by the name of Dirck van Camper, and subsequently presents an essay of van Camper's, entitled "Total Mindfuck: A Study in Ethics and Embodiment," as his own. Gutman's luck starts to change.

Now fêted by all and sundry, not least his over-theoretical and over-sexed colleague Zoe Cable, Gutman finds himself at the forefront of the burgeoning discipline of Body Studies, and enjoying all the perks of a successful academic life: conferences in Los Angeles, approbation from the Dean, a book contract, and co-directorship of a "Research Hub." Naturally, such an idyll can only last so long. Gutman finds that his fall from grace is as abrupt as his meteoric rise. Moreover, he plunges far further than he had previously ascended: divorce, alcoholism, jail.

In the end, however, things start looking up again for Gutman. A series of further coincidences enable him to seek his revenge on those who have brought him low: directorship of the Hub is once more on the cards. But an encounter with a long-lost acquaintance who had chosen not to go on to academia from his PhD puts him right: the moral of the story turns out to a refusal of the entire game of "outsmarting other people, being clever, cleverer, cleverest" and accepting rather a "life of cheerful underachievement" (366).

For all the satire, then, (and McGuire's novel skewers academic fashion more effectively than many others in the genre) Incredible Bodies is ultimately shaped by something more like compassion. It revolves around an appreciation for what is under-appreciated, perhaps precisely because it is under-appreciated. Here, for instance, is Gutman's wife's reflection on her relationship with this consummate loser:
Her love for Morris was still there, she realised. It was like an outfit hanging in her wardrobe which she didn't wear anymore, but couldn't throw away. Every now and then, when she was looking for something else, getting ready for her day, she would notice it again. Now as he lay there, silent, perfect [. . .] she thought it possible she could try it on again, it might suit her. She took a blanket from the rocking chair and laid it over Morris so just his head was showing. He smelt of something, of what? Of Morris. She groaned at this evidence of his absoluteness. (371-72)
Finally, this novel is less notable for the comedy (though it is certainly funny) than in fact for its unexpected affirmation of a form of embodiment (habits, affection, smells) that somehow perpetually escapes the fashionability of "Body Studies."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


The Wednesday quotation, part XII: Anthony Lane on "Lips" (on the right in the photo), the lead singer of Canadian heavy metal band Anvil:
How can you not love a man who thinks like that, dredging the television of consolation from the swimming pool of disaster? ("Rock Solid", The New Yorker [April 20, 2009])