Comments on David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity (Chapter 3)

by Marcela Echeverri, History, College of Staten Island

The following were discussion points for the Caribbean Epistemologies seminar meeting on 29 October 2010.


In Chapter 3 of Conscripts of Modernity David Scott tells us he wants to find a strategic point of criticism from which to write “a new history of the postcolonial present” (p. 119). For this he proposes to displace what he finds are prevalent romantic narrative tropes for tragedy. What does it mean to displace a romantic trope? “To move away from the humanist assumption of a pre-constituted will to resist or will to freedom that studies of slavery and slave revolt are obliged to affirm or illustrate” (p. 122). More specifically, Scott suggests that we should go beyond the prevailing emphasis on cultural autonomy, the predominant focus on Africa and resistance, or the very normative expectations of resistance or overcoming.

Scott envisions another direction for thinking about change and modernity, one in which we are more concerned to examine the modern concepts and institutions upon which resisting projects themselves depended. We must, he argues, acknowledge that “modern conditions” positively shaped the way in which “language, religion, kinship, and so on were reconstituted” (p. 115). A focus on the making of colonial modernity reveals that modern subjects “find themselves conscripts of that structure of power” and, therefore, our inquiry should be on “how colonial power shaped the conceptual and institutional conditions of possibility for social [and political] action” (p. 119).

This approach inspires the question, what is modernity? In the chapter Scott understands modernity “in the Foucauldian sense of a positive power structure … shaping the material and epistemological conditions of life and thought” (p. 106). This definition seems quite general, yet Scott actually oscillates between a vague notion of “modern power” and the affirmation about the centrality of plantation slavery to modernity. And in dialogue with the historiographical debate marked by authors such as Eric Williams, Scott also uses C.L.R. James’ theme of the modernity of slavery to argue that the Caribbean and particularly plantations are quintessentially modern and that “transplanted black slaves … were integrally modern subjects” (pp. 112, 123-30).

I endorse Scott’s suggestion that we should inquire more forcefully into the intersections between black political action and colonial legalities. In fact, in the last decade historians have developed important research about the multiple ways in which free and enslaved Africans across the Atlantic world engaged legal reasoning and sought rights in military involvement. But Scott’s exclusive genealogy of modernity or the Enlightenment ultimately does not allow him to drift away or separate from the “anti-colonial story” that he wants to overcome. In relation to the revolutionary project of Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, Scott argues that liberty conditioned willing subjects conceptually and ideologically; thus he concludes that Toussaint is a conscript and not merely an agent of modernity (p. 129). Historically speaking, by choosing the particular case of the Haitian revolution Scott faces an obligatory endorsement of revolutionary tropes – the story he is telling loses nuances and he becomes a conscript of modernity, enlightenment, and revolution. To be sure, the interesting question about which would be an ideal starting point to explore and illustrate alternative (non-teleological) critical narratives is still open.