Slave Codes in Colonial Santo Domingo: Note 1

In 1522, the first slave uprising in the so-called New World broke out in Santo Domingo. More uprisings and escapes ensued ultimately culminating in the decision of the Spanish Crown to issue the Slave Codes (Ordenanzas para el Sosiego y Seguridad de los Esclavos Negros) in 1528. These ordinances are revealing for how well they capture slave and master dynamics on the island. But of all these ordinances, I found the one trying to rein in the widespread rape of black and indigenous women the most despicable and horrifying, not least because of the implications we can draw from the Spanish Crown having to put this into a colonial ruling.

“No one may take a female slave or an Indian woman out of her owner’s house for a day or a night. Do not force them to have sexual relations. Do not prevent them from performing household duties for their owners.

Anyone who has a female slave or an Indian woman out of her master’s house for a whole day or a night shall be given a hundred lashes if he is a person of low condition, and if he is a maestre, or someone of higher status, he shall pay twenty gold pesos, to be shared as in the previous Ordinance. And if he takes her by force, by day or night, in order to have his way with her, he will be punished with the lawful penalty for those who rape women. And if they detain them while they are performing household duties for their owners, they shall pay three gold pesos, to be split equally between the judge and the accuser.”

“By the end of the sixteenth century,” writes the Dominican Marxist historian Franklin J. Franco, “so many children had been born to Spanish fathers and black slave mothers that the Crown ordered, ‘because we are informed that some of the soldiers of this fortress [i.e. the fortress of Havana] have fathered children with some of our slaves, and they want to buy the children and set them free, if the children whom these soldiers have fathered with our slaves are to be sold, you shall give preference to their fathers who want to buy them for that purpose.”

Source: Blacks, Mulattos, and the Dominican Nation by Franklin J. Franco, pgs. 26, 30-5.

E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

What is HistoryE.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History? offers an excellent introduction to the philosophy of history, outlining some of its central debates and concerns. The method Carr deployed takes the reader through a series of trends in the writing of history and engages with the key intellectual exponents of these various schools of thought with the ultimate aim of arriving, through a process of negation, at a synthesis to the beguilingly simple question: What is history?

Carr’s first interlocutor, the German historian Leopold von Ranke, enjoined other scholars to “simply to show how it really was.” Responding to the moralizing trend of medieval and Enlightenment histories, Ranke developed a scientific approach to historical scholarship based on the careful study of primary documents and a focus on understanding events in the past as the people who lived in those times might have made sense of them. More importantly, Ranke’s true claim to renown rests on establishing history as a discipline separate from literature and philosophy.[1] Carr argued against Ranke’s conception of history on the grounds that historians work within a definite social context from which they cannot extricate themselves as they please and become mere value-free compilers in the Positivist “cult of facts.”[2] The answer historians give to –what is history? — “consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answers to the broader question, what view we take of the society in which we live.”[3] Neither the historian nor the subjects of her investigation can stand outside history, or what’s more, apart from the society in which men and women make their mark on the historical unfolding of human experience.[4]

Carr rejected the separation of subject and object in the empiricist tradition of his own country. He argued instead that facts gain their meaning from the interpretation historians develop and shape from the careful “processing” of the available evidence. “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”[5] Writing history involves selecting the facts and organizing them in a cogent fashion and thereby rendering a judgment that can pass muster as a sound interpretation.[6] History is not the belief that “facts speak for themselves” unmediated by a human consciousness. [7]

History, although written on the empirical evidence at hand, is “always refracted” through the mind of the historian and therefore its meanings never come to readers as “pure,” “self-evident” or “implicit.”[8] To drive home the point, Carr used the intellectual formation of the Whig historian George Macaulay Trevelyan as evidence of an inescapable general truth: a historian’s political disposition or standpoint leaves an indelible mark on the historical narrative that emerges through the drafting process and sifting of evidence. In what is one the most memorable an d quotable passages in the book, Carr wrote, “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts […] The facts are really not at all like fish in the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use–these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”[9] Carr elaborated on this claim further in chapter two, “Society and the Individual,” in which he provided compelling examples to support the claim that depending on where the historian finds herself in the course of history will “determine” her “angel of vision over the past.”[10]

Arguing that through the interpretation of the sources, the historian brings her intellectual and political disposition to bear on her subject, Carr made the first of three claims drawing on both Benedetto Croce’s work and R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. In the second claim, Carr argued that the historian must possess an “imaginative understanding” for the social agents she is analyzing in her work, and in the third, that she can only come to comprehend the past through the eyes of the present.[11] For the second claim, Carr offered as examples the difficulty of reading historians on Soviet Russia and Medieval Europe because of their inability to practice an “imaginative understanding” of the people they studied; and for the third, he provided the examples of the German historian Theodor Mommsen, who, according to Carr, writing about ancient Rome in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848, longed for a modern-day Julius Caesar, “the strong man to save Germany from ruin.”[12] Along with Trevelyan, he also included the renown Polish-born historian Sir Lewis Namier, who, similarly frightened by 1848, retreated to study the accession of George III, during an age before the French Revolution when the world was “immune from the fanaticism of ideas, and of that passionate belief in progress.”[13]

After outlining these three propositions, Carr qualified them in two regards for fear that they might give credence to total skepticism and subjectivity on the one hand and a vulgar pragmatism on the other. In response to the dangers of complete skepticism and subjectivity, Carr recognized that if history has an “infinity of meanings, none more right than any other,” then it follows that there couldn’t be any objective history whatsoever.[14] The second danger, because of the emphasis Collingwood placed on the present, rendered historical inquiry a pragmatic enterprise veering towards presentism by making the criterion for a valid interpretation its utility to the current social moment. To reconcile the contradiction of either giving too much weight to “the theory of history as a compilation of facts” or “the theory of history as the subjective product” of the historian’s mind, Carr offered his writing process as a solution, which he characterized as “reciprocal action” “between the historian and his facts” and “between the present and the past.”[15] More concretely, Carr shared that he read and wrote simultaneously when he worked on a project to do otherwise made one liable to run into one of two problems: copy-and-paste history or propaganda.[16]

As we began, we end: What is history? Carr’s answer: history “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”[17] I can’t think of a better way to describe what historians do.

[1] Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1999), ch.1, esp., 14-15.

[2] E.H. Carr, What is History? (Vintage Books: New York, 1961), 5, 18, 20. The historian Richard J. Evans translates the German phrase Ranke used –wie es eigentlich gewesen–as “how it essentially was.” Evans offers a fuller explanation of Ranke’s contribution to history as a discipline, by for example clarifying the religious dimension behind the German historian’s thinking. Carr states that Ranke believed that all the historian had to do was compile the facts and “divine providence” would take care of the meaning behind these facts. Evans, however, argues that Ranke’s contribution to history as a field lay in universalizing all states, not just Prussia, as “spiritual substances…thoughts of God” and thereby “stripp[ing] away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past.” See Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History, 14-15.

[3] Carr, What is History?, 5.

[4] Ibid., 36-37. Throughout the book, Carr referred exclusively to historians using masculine pronouns. As a corrective to unacceptable bias of his generation, I will refer to historians using the feminine pronouns. I also find it stylistically ugly to use he/she.

[5] Ibid., 9, 16.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid.,15.

[8] Ibid., 21 and 24.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] Ibid., 43

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 43-4.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Ibid., 39

[15] Ibid., 34-35

[16] Ibid., 33.

[17] Ibid., 35.

The Games People Play in “Force Majeure”



Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” begins with a postcard perfect image of bourgeois life. The screen goes pitch black, polite voices discuss a photo opportunity and suddenly emerges a foggy white expanse of snow that reveals an attractive young couple and their children posing for a picture, the sublime French Alps looming behind them in the backdrop. The husband Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are on vacation at an upscale ski resort. If this were a Luis Buñuel film (think “Exterminating Angel” or “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), the human rot at the center of the bourgeois ideal would be savagely attacked with surrealist humor. But instead of goats and bears and suicides in closets and dinners at the funeral of a restaurant owner, we get the crashing movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and echoes of Michael Haneke movies.

No doubt the film could have been much better. Not because it needed to be more like Buñuel’s movies but because it could have been shorter, perhaps ending at 10 minutes instead of turning into a meandering, 120-minutes psychodrama. (Philippe Orreindy’s short film “J’attendrai le suivant…” springs to mind as an example of what can be done with less time.) The dramatic center of the film is on day 2 of the family’s five-day vacation. Tomas and Ebba and their children are sitting at an outdoor café with breathtaking views eating lunch. Their lunch is interrupted when they hear a rumbling and then see an avalanche roll towards them. At first, unperturbed, Tomas snatches his iPhone from the table to immortalize the spectacle in pixels (for whom? I would imagine envious friends back home, or just as well the viewer). Struck with the peculiar millennial inclination to selfie every waking moment, Tomas ignores his wife and kids’ worries and keeps on beaming an easy smile enthralled as he is by the photo opp. Enthrallment turns into the brute instincts of self-preservation when fearing that unlike the other controlled avalanches this one is real, Tomas and other diners’ survival instincts kick in, and they bolt for safety. As he prepares to flee, Tomas grabs his iPhone and gloves, leaving his wife and kids behind alone. Nothing happens, but the family, while physically unscathed, will never be the same again. The rest of the film explores the psychological fallout of Tomas’s unmanly actions.

On the surface, the film might be said to explore the patriarchal fantasies of valor and heroism women have come to expect men to fulfill (case in point: Ebba staging a scene for Tomas to rescue her in front of the kids to restore their father’s honor) or to offer insight into the foibles of a bourgeois marriage in crisis, neither of which would be inaccurate. But I think the film also explores the elaborate lies we tell ourselves, and those closest to us, to keep up a façade of well-adjusted bourgeois normality. Therein lies the problem with the length of the film. The psychodrama that unfolds after the scene at the café somehow obscures the scripts the characters perform to reassure each other in the games they play to sustain a false but predictable life. Take Mats (Kristofer Hivju), Tomas’s friend, who upon watching video evidence of Tomas running away from his family rationalizes an explanation for his friend’s cowardly behavior. The general consensus, from Grand Turk to the French Alps: a man is not supposed to abandon his family. Rather than confront Tomas’s actions,  Mats comes up with an elaborate exculpation for his friend’s behavior. Left unchallenged  is the very premise underlying the expectation for Tomas to behave heroically and selflessly because he is a man. These are the scripts we perform. At first, they become habits and routines and, overtime, unquestioned norms. Once they accept these scripts, people reconcile themselves to the expectations that underlie them and thereby enter into games not dissimilar from the role of victim Ebba plays for Tomas to come to her rescue. Every victim needs a perpetrator and a saver. These scripts assume many social forms (including patriarchal fantasies) but they also range more broadly to encompass our entire social lives.

Tomas, Ebba and their children, the nuclear family society holds up as successful emblems of middle-class stability and security, are ultimately revealed, in the course of the film, as frail and deceitful. The closing scene with the vacationers stranded on a road leaves the viewer not convinced that Tomas and Ebba have survived and emerged renewed from an internal dystopian wilderness but rather more solidly rooted in the delusions of domesticity and conventionality. The scales have not fallen from their eyes.








The Post-9/11 World in “A Most Wanted Man”

500px-Spy_silhouette“A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt aptly noted. Equally dangerous, I might add, is the romantic functionary who believes s/he can single-handedly outmaneuver the machinery that makes an unjust system run ever so smoothly.

In “A Most Wanted Man,” the unjust system is all too familiar– extraordinary rendition and entrapment, the whole bureaucratic apparatus of anti-terrorism covert operations and the societal fear that gives moral cover to violating the human rights of those suspected of being terrorists. Günther Bachmann, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his most haunting performances, is our unlikely hero of sorts. Bachmann is a seasoned spy in the German intelligence service. Heavyset, morose and disheveled, he is no James Bond. Bachmann’s true merit as a spymaster rests on his tactics. Unlike the brash and counterproductive methods of American operatives, Bachmann attempts to run a more humane and efficient operation. He bids his time when monitoring a potential terrorist or ideological sympathizer and, through coercion and manipulation, even enlists a suspect’s relatives in his surveillance work, the better to lure in the true masterminds with the financial wherewithal to fund terrorist cells.

Bachmann is stationed in Hamburg, Germany where 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and his co-conspirators lived a decade before that fateful day. The air is rife with anxiety and the overzealous desire to track, and foil, even the slightest threat to Americans or their European allies pervades the atmosphere. We have entered the nebulous world of George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Bachmann has been sent to Hamburg as a form of punishment for exposing agents working under him in a previous case. A wan world-weary despondency hangs over Bachmann as he scrambles to enact a moral code in a system that has so far outpaced his capacity to outwit the duplicitous machinations of higher-ups in the intelligence bureaucracy.

No doubt Bachmann is a man waiting to get played. The opportunity to throw into high relief the conflict between Bachmann, the cog, and his superiors, the holders of the levers on the machine, arises when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) turns up in Hamburg seeking political asylum after being tortured at the hands of his Russian captors. Karpov also arrives with a letter of introduction that grants him access to millions of Euros his Russian Mafiosi father deposited in the vault of a Hamburg bank. Sure enough his appearance in Hamburg raises red flags for intelligence agents. The Americans and Germans take a keen interest in Karpov. Half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim, Karpov is a man of split loyalties. Or so American and German spies perceive him to be. Indeed, he is an emotionally unstable man. He alternately evinces a crazed intensity, an affecting sensitivity and childlike innocence, all of which make it easier for the viewer to empathize with the brutalization and torture he has had to endure while also lending credibility to the fears of his incognito pursuers.

These contradictory sentiments could have assumed a greater saliency and poignancy when expressed through the actions of the idealistic naïf Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights activist turned mole, who becomes Karpov’s trusted guide. Richter is Bachmann’s counterpart to the extent that they both have moral codes that will become undone as the system exerts its ruthless power. But while Bachmann played by Hoffman dominates the screen with his vital presence, McAdams doesn’t truly rise to the occasion. One moment she is a seemingly trusted friend to the immigrant family that offers refuge to Karpov. Next she is collaborating with Bachmann to use the traumatized Karpov as bait for a sting operation targeting a prominent Muslim scholar and philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) with possible ties to terrorists. For someone with liberal credentials in the world of human rights, Richter strains plausibility with her alacrity to collude with Bachmann. Even when Bachmann illegally holds her in a clandestine prison cell, it doesn’t faze her. Ideally, Richter’s moral code would have been informed by her activism, but whatever political work she’s done is never fully explored, much less acknowledged. She is a cipher in the film aside from the function she plays to advance the plot.

Director Anton Corbijn’s isn’t interested in character. He wants to offer the viewer a vision of the new normal we inhabit in the post-9/11 world. Based on John Le Carre’s book of the same title, “A Most Wanted Man” depicts a brutally austere and efficient system that will ultimately go unchallenged despite the best efforts of the so-called good guys on the inside, romantic fuckups like Bachmann who seek to steer the system’s power brokers toward rational thinking and pragmatic decision-making. One way of understanding the film is as an ineradicably unjust system marshaling all its power to discipline and make an example of an internal dissident. Once Bachmann’s liberal faith in deliberation and persuasion runs up against the blatant disregard for these shibboleths and outright betrayal displaces the guessing game with which the Americans and Germans have entertained him, he has only one option at his disposal: go rogue, down the righteous and courageous path of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Except that the film withholds this possibility of social redemption through  personal ethics and instead provides in its place a dark, hopeless fatalism.

The images Corbijn has carefully selected bring us into a violent world sparing in its exploration of human suffering and death; all the subjective violence is elided, and what remains is objective devastation, the contrasting allure of open offices made of Plexiglas and whirring fans in holding cells. Torture, for the most part, is left out of sight. And rightly so. What is in plain view, however, are the calculated maneuvers to keep the system running as smoothly as possible into perpetuity. And that invisible exercise of power is what needs exposure more than anything else to raise the question not of individual acts of resistance à la Manning or Snowden but of collective politics and struggle for systemic change.



The Unexamined Life in “Another Woman”

In Woody Allen’s film “Another Woman,” Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) has no need to elicit the approval from the professorial doyens whose ranks she’s worked her whole life to be a part of. As the chair of a philosophy department in some prestigious college in New York, she commands it. But Marion’s high estimation of herself doesn’t accord with other people’s perceptions. She is a cold, intellectual bully with no appreciable understanding or interest in other people’s emotional worlds. She has set aside the deeper sympathies and bonds people form with each other and opted instead for the unctuous self-regarding dribble of small talk at academic gatherings. And yet as she moves through the world unaware of how other people perceive her and the effect she has had on friends and family, she is poised and self-assured with no whiff of intimation to indicate what a vacuous existence she leads. Like some many films dealing with the self-doubts that plague academics cloistered in a world built on the fragile egos and power trips of colleagues and administrators, Marion comes across as a savant grappling with some terrible, unidentified sadness of the heart. In due course, we learn that behind the persona of a stodgy and priggish bore is a woman living an empty and meaningless life.

Marion has worked her whole life to become an academic luminary, a paragon of a formidable, accomplished and respectable philosopher. Yet she exhibits an air of erudition devoid of any hint whatsoever of the all-consuming, propulsive passions that make the pursuit of knowledge an insatiable lifelong obsession. The high-minded cultural knowledge her position assumes gives Marion a predictable and superficial intellectual shtick.She makes insubstantial quips about translations of Brecht’s work into English and draws attention to other signifiers of a cultured life by the mere mention of authoritative namedrops.

We have entered a world of appearances. In this world, Marion has no distinguishable marker of authenticity other than a conservative intellectual disposition joined to a pseudo-feminist posture marked by literary allusion, drab attire and life experience. She has all the makings of a left-liberal intellectual minus any semblance of concrete political convictions.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, when the ex-wife of her adulterous husband Ken (Ian Holm) barges into the party they are holding, Marion can’t help but admire how coolly Ken dismisses his visibly distraught ex-wife with the words: “I accept your condemnation,” the very words he will later utter to Marion upon her discovering infidelity and womanizing is how he feels less alone in the world. After rejecting the sexual advances of Ken’s friend (Gene Hackman), Marion compliments her husband for minimizing the drama at the party through his temperate and diplomatic handling of a potentially embarrassing situation. No real affection, much less passion, exists between them.  “I love his company,” she tells Ken’s friend. What Marion prizes most is the controlled and assured stability of her stature as a member of an intellectual club and all the assumptions and privileges that carries with it.

Her life is so controlled that she can only know how she truly feels through what might be described as transference, identifying the despair of another woman (Mia Farrow) as her own. Marion eavesdrops on the sessions with the psychologist next door to the apartment she rents to write a new book. In this way, she gains access to her emotional world, and her unfeeling self enters into crisis. The most empathy Marion is capable of showing comes through her identification with the anguish of the pregnant woman next door. The new insights into self she gleans through access to another mind crumble the insular world she’s long inhabited.

By the end of the film, Marion shows signs of becoming a self-conscious social being. And the conservative ideal of the intellectual who lives apart from the social world falls into shambles.

“Another Woman” offers a sardonic take on how people lose themselves and submit to an unexamined life.






Reading List: European Revolutions

  • Liberty Leading the People, July 28th, 1830' by Delacroix.

Liberty Leading the People, July 28th, 1830′ by Delacroix.

  • Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution
  • Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital
  • Roger Price, The Revolutions of 1848
  • Colin Jones, The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon
  • Peter Jones, The 1848 Revolutions
  • Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851
  • Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution
  • The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History Ed. Lynn Hunt
  • Jacques-Louis Ménétra, Journal of My Life
  • Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution
  • William H. Sewell, Jr., Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848
  • R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution
  • François Furet, Revolutionary France, 1770-1880
  • Timothy Tackett, When the King Took Flight
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
  • Thomas Paine, Rights of Man Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution
  • Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (Rereading)
  • Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Rereading)
  • Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Rereading)
  • François Furet, Marx and the French Revolution
  • George Rudé, The Crowd in History
  • The Old Regime and the French Revolution Ed. Keith Michael Baker
  • Maurice Agulhon, The Republican Experiment, 1848-1852
  • Eric Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution
  • Robert Wokler, Rousseau, the Age of Enlightenment, and Their Legacies
  • Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History
  • Robert A. Kahn, The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848-1918
  • E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
  • Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions ?
  • Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature
  • Gustave Flaubert, The Sentimental Education
  • Karl Marx, Address to the Communist League
  • Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
  • V.I. Lenin, What is to be done?