Slavery and Social Death + Provincializing Europe

Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (1982) remains one of the most thorough analyses of slavery as an institution and its impact on the individual. Terms like social death and natal alienation remain vocabulary that scholarship since has utilized and contested. Its structure, however, is essentially capitalist. His definition of slavery utilizes three components: violent domination, natal alienation, and consistent dishonor[1]. All three of these are explained within the language of capital in a way that is never consistently true for other forms of ideology. To think in these terms is productive in creating narratives that transcend their localities, but it is also limiting—the absence of a parallel ideological construction of race in the Roman context does not mean, necessarily, that it is best described in terms of capital in the modern one. Patterson is aware of this tension, and navigates the sea best he can. His explanations of ideology tend to fill the justifications for slavery, but the initial forms of domination are created on the productive or unproductive labor that slaves provide.

I emphasize this reading of Patterson because it struck me as parallel to claims made by Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe. The work seeks to utilize similar forces to make universal sense of particular histories. In his introduction, Chakrabarty notes that the very conception of a continuous European intellectual tradition is a fabrication. That being said, it is never quite “dead”. Concepts regularly employed by the subalternists and Patterson serve as examples of this thought process and its role in history. The subalternists look to Marx in particular as a form of restoration—to read against the grain, one was applying Marxist logic to the site of the archive, and official sources. Even within Provincializing Europe, a discussion of Marx is essential: “Marx is critical for the enterprise, as his category ‘capital’ gives us a way of thinking about both history and the secular human on a global scale while it also makes history into a critical tool for understanding the globe that capitalism produces”[2].

The parallel of these projects is to create functional narratives that rely on the concept of capital to unify otherwise divergent threads of historical discussion. Yet, it is not the central theme of the narratives. Patterson, uses language of capital to discuss the unique formations of slavery, but the focus is on the formulation capital utilizes to enforce honor, maintain alienation, and impose violence. Chakrabarty uses Marx and Heidegger to present a line of tension of modern European thought—that between the analytic and hermeneutic traditions—as a gateway to re-evaluate the varying postcolonial histories within separate localities.

Their limitations are also clear. Patterson notes that only Western societies had formulated words for concepts like freedom[3]. The application of capital as a formulation for power seems to implement a set of assumptions that may not necessarily exist within these contexts. This does not disregard the study in any sense—as Chakrabarty reminds us, the world we live in is one that functions from the framework of the West. However, there are new lenses to utilize alongside capital. Historiography has become a site of self-reflection in terms of these tools—consider the reactions to Bernal’s Black Athena[4]. A less polarizing insertion along similar lines might include new discussions of race, gender, and ethnicity in the origins of Christianity[5].

Both these works contributed significantly to their fields. Provincializing Europe provided a framework for a new generation of scholars to begin asking questions about the role of postcolonial thought within historical frameworks. Slavery and Social Death clarified many confusing lines of thought in terms of what we are attempting to portray by slavery in a cross-historical comparison. Watching new histories take on differing frameworks, however, will also be a welcome endeavor.


[1]Slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), page 13.

[2] Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), page 18.

[3] Slavery and Social Death, 1982, 27.

[4] Bernal, Martin Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Vol. 1 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991).

[5] See the collection of essays Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) eds. Laura Nasrallah and Elisabeth Schüller Fiorenza.

A review I got to write.

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