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The CI Review
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler, eds. The Haitian Revolution and the
Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 448 pp.
Frankétienne, perhaps Haiti’s most celebrated intellectual, once claimed: “Cette victoire de 1804, c’est un bel accident de l’histoire, quelque chose qui à l’époque était
inconcevable, inimaginable, à contre-courant de l’histoire” (This victory of 1804, it is
a beautiful accident of history, something that was at the time inconceivable, unimaginable, running against the current of history).1 Frankétienne is, himself, a bit of a contrecourant : a name we—by which I mean researchers from wealthy, developed nations—
could have known, read, cited, and translated, but do not. As such, Frankétienne’s claim
about the impossibility of Haiti’s history—clearly in dialogue with his more familiar
compatriot Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s paradigm of silencing—is instantiated in his very
person. The factors contributing to the marginalization of one of Haiti’s greatest luminaries are not to be discussed here, but they are, indirectly, explained in Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler’s magisterial The Haitian Revolution and the Early
United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies. This deeply impressive interdisciplinary collection reckons with the “accidents” occasioned by the Haitian Revolution, positioning them in relation to the developing United States. In doing so, the volume contributes to a number of critical lineages that increasingly identify the importance of the
Haitian Revolution on an international stage. (The literary scholar might be familiar with
this turn through the work of Susan Buck-Morss and Nick Nesbitt, but historians—
among them David Patrick Geggus and Carolyn Fick, have been engaging in this reevaluation for quite a long time). As such, the volume both adds to a long neglected historiographical narrative and gestures toward an alternative American canon shadowed by
the missed potentialities of the Haitian Revolution.
1. Frankétienne and Dénètem Touam Bona, “‘Ecrire’ Haiti . . . Gary Victor, Frankétienne,
Lyonel Trouillot, Gary Victor ‘ . . . Perdu dans l’utopie,’”25 May 2004, Africultures,
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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2017
Most historians dismiss counter-history as no more than an elaborate parlor game.
It is to Dillon and Drexler’s credit that their introduction’s conjectural framework,
loaded with perfect conditionals and subjunctive turns, is one of the most historically
rigorous, concise, and intelligent précis of the Haitian Revolution I have read. At a time
when many scholars feel obliged to harness “the Haitian turn,” often with varying degrees of cultural and linguistic preparation, this essay ought to be required reading.
Their masterful introduction excavates the “mutually entwined” relationship between
Haiti and the United States: a relationship that devolved from a possible republican alliance to the antithetical strangeness that arguably still characterizes Haiti-US relations.
Through this narrative of failed partnership, the collection promises to “speculatively
redraw the map on which Haiti and the United States do not appear to share any spatial
or historical relation.” In doing so, they allow new Haitis to emerge—Haitis that, as
these essays show, offered the US models of both terror and inspiration. In a contemporary political moment when Haiti and the United States seem to perversely reflect
each other—the racist ignominies of Donald Trump’s presidential bid charting a parallel course to Haiti’s delayed elections (a product, moreover, of a political system broken
by decades of US intervention)—such considerations are extremely apposite. Moreover,
unlike some comparative approaches, which only examine Haiti in order to subsume it
into a US/European history, each essay in this collection engages with the nation on its
own terms and, in doing so, truly reformulates critical categories: for example, Marlene
Daut reconfigures Northern US print culture through her readings of the Baron de Vastey; Drexler and Ed White establish an alternative African American canon, situating its
origins in Toussaint Louverture’s 1801 constitution; David Patrick Geggus highlights
Frederick Douglass’s engagements with Haiti through an analysis of the Môle St. Nicolas
Dillon has argued elsewhere that we should “mind the gap” between historical and
literary approaches. This volume marvellously heeds her call by placing work by historians alongside those of literary scholars in ways that respect, rather than efface, disciplinary difference.2 For example, Duncan Faherty’s fascinating essay engages with US
print culture to show how North America both metaphorically and literally quarantined
the threat of Haiti; Gretchen J. Woertendyke’s generic approach to the “New-World
Novel” makes a compelling case for the importance of literary methods in Haitian studies. Other essays, too, engage in specifically formalist approaches, revealing aesthetics to
be, not the atemporal luxury of ersatz historians, but the constitutive elements of Atlantic
world historiography (see, in particular, Ivy Wilson’s masterful treatment of Toussaint’s
iconography). However, the volume’s most novel contribution to Haitian studies is perhaps its attention to scientific paradigms. This perspective shifts considerations of early
American science away from Jeffersonian polygenesis to allow for other scientific discourses, including mesmerism (Kieran M. Murphy’s “The Occult Atlantic”) and immunology (as Cristobal Silva demonstrates in his wonderful “Republic of Medicine”).
By showing how Haiti was “written off the map” as Drexler and Dillon claim in their
introduction, the essays in this collection offer diverse narratives that not only skew our
optic in favour of an internationalized early United States, but question the very categories of “Haitian” and the “United States” within the volume’s title. Could, I wonder,
these categories have been further questioned by including Kreyòl cultural production?
For the “illegibility” of Haiti is as much ideological as it is literal; that is to say, very few
scholars can fully engage with the Kreyòl language. We would do well to recall that when
we reclaim the works of francophone Haitian elites, many of whom are featured in this
collection, we also reinforce linguistic hierarchies still operative within Haiti. (To under2. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, “Atlantic Practices : Minding the Gap between Literature
and History,” Early American Literature 43, no. 1 (2008): 205–09.
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The CI Review
score my point, it is significant that I opened with Frankétienne’s francophone rather
than Kreyòl writings.) Our access to Kreyòl in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
archive is extremely limited, but a number of scholars—some of whom are included in
this collection—have elsewhere pushed against these limitations, drawing on performance theory, oral history, cognitive linguistics, and ethnomusicology to stake a stronger place for Kreyòl in the predominantly francophone Haitian archive. Colin Dayan’s
Haiti, History, and the Gods (1995) is perhaps still one of the best approaches to this kind
of enterprise (the reader may also want to consult Carolyn Fick, Laurent Dubois, Benjamin Hebblethwaite, Erin Zavitz, and Kate Hodgson). This does not detract from the
collection—which already covers a vast geographic, temporal, and methodological terrain—but serves as a reminder that even the alternative archive of Haiti has, itself, an
alternative archive.
M A R Y G R A C E A L B A N E S E is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and
Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Literature, ESQ: A Journal of 19th-Century American Literature
and Culture, The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin Biography, SX: A Small
Axe Literary Salon, and The Henry James Review.
James D. Herbert. Brushstroke and Emergence: Courbet, Impressionism, Picasso. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2015. 176 pp.
Brushstroke and Emergence is an extended essay on the formal, procedural, and representational significance of the brushstroke in the work of Gustave Courbet, Édouard
Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Pablo Picasso, artists seen to
exemplify the nineteenth-century myth of the painted mark as a signature of the self.
James Herbert’s framework for thinking about brushstrokes is the philosophical—and,
more recently, scientific—concept of emergence: “the way in which the interactions of
simple behaviors at one level of a complex system can prompt unpredictable events at a
higher level of the system that are qualitatively different from anything that exists at the
lower level” (p. 2). The simple behaviors in this book are brushstrokes, while the higherlevel events are paintings. Emergence, here, is a theoretical model for Herbert’s antiintentionalist art history, challenging accounts based on presumptions of the artist’s mastery and transcendent individuality and instead promoting a mode of analysis that generates
interpretation from the (painted) ground up. The methodological value of such an approach is that it hinges on close looking and dense description as the foundation for interpretation. And indeed, Herbert’s lively, engaging prose delves deep into the material
and semantic intricacies of his pictures, which are carefully selected to showcase some
of the most remarkable reimaginings of the brushstroke in modern painting. The descriptive intensity of the writing alone makes the book a worthwhile read, and the reproductions are top-notch, including some stunning details that make long-familiar paintings
appear refreshingly strange.
The problem with Brushstroke and Emergence is that it makes intentionalism a straw
man by defining it all too narrowly as always self-conscious and deliberate and aligning
it all too predictably with the politically unsavory ideals of mastery and control. Intentionality need not take the form of a premeditated plan, formulated before brush hits
canvas. It can accommodate spontaneity, improvisation, and chance without losing its
guiding role. Herbert’s recurring analogies of ant colonies and economic markets are
especially puzzling, as painters (much less their brushstrokes) are nothing like ants or
investors. Likewise, the use of terms from cognitive science (neural network and neuro-
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