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Notes from the underground: post-colonialism and rights (also links)

26 November 2013

I don’t especially like basements. Always been an open spaces and large windows sort of guy. Odd, then, that my new basement office space with my doctoral research group has lent itself to a surge of productivity. Work on my secondary literature review has surged ahead, as have the paper I’m to present in January at the Newberry Renaissance Library Graduate Student Conference and a short presentation for this coming weekend on my doctoral research. My office is growing increasingly habitable as I adorn it with books and (eventually) some art and/or pictures (I may even try my hand at a potted plant, my black thumb notwithstanding). So now that I’m more or less settled into my new office space (and growing slowly accustomed to its stuffiness and endlessly variable temperature) and agreeably productive, I can make a brief but triumphant return to my blog. Because it has basically become my life, I thought I might share some of the current state of my doctoral work.

The first big problematic to rear it’s head this term has been the relationship between the nature of rights theories produced in a given country and that country’s role in the slave trade. By some truly remarkable coincidence, I have found that countries which were the centers of the slave trade, notably Portugal and the Netherlands, tended to produce ‘subjective’ (my preferred terminology would be ‘subjectivising’) theories of rights, based on those of medieval French scholastic Jean Gerson, which allowed for an individual to alienate their own liberty. In other words, slave trading nations produced theories which allowed individuals to morally sell them selves (and thus be purchased or traded) into slavery, a theory called ‘voluntary slavery.’ Countries which were not the major players in the slave trade tended instead to produce ‘objective’ theories of rights, derived from the thought of Thomas Aquinas, which did not allow for an individual to alienate their own liberty. It’s certainly not a one-to-one pattern. Dutchman Hugo Grotius, greatly concerned to justify the overseas actions of the Dutch East India Company and burgeoning Dutch colonial empire, produced a notably ‘subjectivising’ theory of rights which couldn’t allow for voluntary slavery, leaving him to issue a half-hearted defense of the Aristotelian category of natural slavery, which held that some individuals are better off as slaves, since they lack the capacity to govern themselves in their own best interest. Natural slavery, you may recall from my piece on ‘common humanity,’ fell somewhat out of favour in Iberia after Francisco de Vitoria won the Valladolid Controversy by arguing that while the category was theoretically valid, there were likely no humans who fit it.

I don’t know exactly what to make of this. Some implications are obvious: a larger economic role for the slave trade meant a tendency to auto-justify the practice. However its relationship to my topic, political consent, is both complex and rather obscure. The nature of rights is extremely important to the question of political consent, since alienable rights are necessary for many theories of consent to function. Thus, accepting a theory of voluntary slavery to justify the slave trade may force a thinker to endorse a different model of political organisation and/or consent. Alternatively, a thinker may be forced to hamstring their work with by awkwardly affixing an already-discredited theory to justify slavery when their larger set of ideas doesn’t allow for the current theory to function, as in the case with Grotius (whose ideas at the time did not allow for the total alienation of rights under any circumstances). I’ll be diving into some post-colonial theory in an attempt to sort it out but for the moment it remains an interesting but vexing question.

As an aside, I thought I might share a couple of links to more topical things I have dashed off on tumblr or read elsewhere that I thought might be of interest to that branch of the readership I apparently have.

On the recent ‘knockout game’ panic

Some very brief thoughts on a recent Vlogbrothers video

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the seemingly never-ending debate over who gets to say ‘nigger.’

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