QUESTIONING FREEDOMS IN THE ATLANTIC WORLD
. . . nothing is less articulated or problematized . . . than the nature and stakes of what we call ‘freedom’ (Nancy, 1993: 1)
The question of freedom has received much attention in the context of the exercise of power aimed at securing modern liberties and citizenship; this question, of course, also extends to related themes of ‘human rights’, ‘security’, ‘development’, and even ‘competitiveness’ in today’s neo-liberal world. But while these issues continue to clamor for our attention, the conversations in response express a continued fragmentation of, or even an antagonism among, attitudes and analytical perspectives concerning power and freedom. This is especially the case, given the impact of neo-liberalism on the conditions shaping the sovereignty of nation states and their citizens, from East to West. Neo-liberalism has prompted debates on the state’s demise, diminution, or reconfiguration (Arrighi and Silver, 1999; Ilgen, 2003; Sassen, 1996, 1998; Weiss, 1998), and we believe that there has been an unsettling uncertainty about these vexing issues for states, individuals, communities, and ‘societies’, despite the argued centrality of freedom to the very possibility of development (Sen, 1999), and to the stability of the global economy in the Atlantic world and beyond.
This conundrum is not new. Scholarly literature on the Atlantic world often investigates the histories and legacies of manumission and the paradox of slavery, given republican ideals of citizenship established during the Enlightenment (Clark, 2002; Fick, 2007; Nesbitt, 2005, 2009). Because institutionalized bondage and other forms of plantation labor linked places where potentially quite different understandings of freedom and citizenship circulated, these concepts require elaboration in relation to specific local conditions and differently racialized populations (Metzger, 2008). Nevertheless, the questioning of freedom as experienced within the rise of modern structures of power has been repeatedly rehearsed in the Atlantic womb of a modern world that has been (and is being) constituted through ‘relational histories’.
The notion of ‘relational histories’ here is borrowed from Philip McMichael (1990) to emphasize the ways in which seemingly distinctive spatial regions are interconnected in their mutual making and unmaking. For example, one may observe this relationality within the interstices of Atlantic regions, reflected in the 19th-century rise of the slavery complex in Cuba and the coincidence of decline on other Caribbean islands, in South America and the US South (Tomich, 1994). More recently, but perhaps less obviously, such relationality continues in new and different ways. Consider, for example, the simultaneous decline of agricultural crops like bananas and sugar in one region, notably the Caribbean and the Pacific, and their expansion in others, like Latin America as one of the enduring outcomes of neo-liberalism’s globalization projects. Present articulations of, and struggles for, constructions of freedom are thus being worked out through these relational spatial histories, which have engendered diverse processes of ‘becoming’ within a world system inflected by historical contingencies and the imaginations of its peoples. The idea of ‘becoming’ here refers to processes through which social spaces articulating identities, selves, times and ‘cultures of power’ become refashioned and transformed through diverse practices. However, as Stuart Hall emphasizes in his work on identity and its politics of becoming, such processes of (historical, cultural, political, or social) transformation, are unfinished and incomplete projects (Hall, 1997, 2000). For example, Barnor Hesse cites three spheres through which Black British identity has been refurbished, beyond the parochial British templates. He argues that this occurs as follows: first, through the ‘migratory orbit of familial ethnicities’, second, ‘as antiphonal forms of commodification in popular culture, through music, film, literature, sport, fashion or vernacular’, and third, through forms ‘of political, cultural and intellectual relations of elective affinities’ (Hesse, 2000: 116). As seen in this example, then, the historical exercise of forms of modern social power, and its ensuing transformations, have both accelerated and given rise to new territorial reconfi gurations, sociocultural interlocutions, and psychic identifications. This has forced a need for a continuous re-examination of the iterative constitution of freedoms and unfreedoms in a modern Atlantic and world economy constantly in a state of flux (Crichlow and Northover, 2009). Becoming’, however, cannot be read in isolation of processes of unbecoming, predominantly emanating from a ‘modern’ order, founded through a ‘global idea of race’ (Ferreira da Silva, 2007) or through a ‘coloniality of power’ (Quijano, 2000). In other words, diverse processes of ‘othering’ have been mobilized in state-formations and nationalisms. While Benedict Anderson argued in his celebrated work, Imagined Communities (1983), that nationalism and racism are separate phenomena, this assertion has been critiqued by those who point to the various forms of racism intrinsic to projects of nationalism: nationalism has been imagined and constituted through various strategies of racialization (Mertz, 1995).
Under these conditions, what then is the potential or possibility for actually unsettling or transforming the ‘freedoms’ emplaced in these conditions of being? Are ‘freedoms’ made in one location manifestly different from freedoms experienced or pursued elsewhere? What are the ‘relations’ through which seemingly disparate and discrete (un)freedoms are being stitched together? Is freedom to be appropriated as an absolute? Is freedom an immanent quality of human existence in the world (Northover, forthcoming). More specifically in guiding our inquiry into processes of freedom and unfreedoms and their interconnections across Atlantic time and space we asked;
- How do interlinked Atlantic places and spaces become transformed into spaces and places of belonging, rest, settlement?
- What kinds of imaginations of freedom and unfreedom are woven into these making of places as articulations of home or spaces of settling, unsettling, and resettling in the hope of ‘modern freedom’ and how?
- What kinds of agencies and ‘movements’ articulate and are articulated in the flows of bodies (social and material) and lives (as subjects and objects) re/presenting spaces as homes, places as homelands?
- Why exactly and how do these practices of and movements for homestaking and dwelling become transformed into movements of violating or profaning and leaving as well?
These are the sorts of questionings that we pursue in this Race, Space, Place project seeking to think and unthink ontologies of being, spaces and places, defetishizing them along the way, and in the words of Sylvia Wynter, “unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom,” (Wynter, 2003).
Therefore we welcome essays and processual thinking, ideas from places of, and beyond the Atlantic that operate with this notion of relationalities. Our ultimate investment is in an inclusive politics that thinks through identities, such as race in terms of processes of ‘othering’ that include considerations of color/ethnic questions, but go beyond them to recognize these larger processes of othering that have underscored and been a condition of ‘the ascension of modern state systems.’ We concur with those analysts who read this process as “a central symbolic motif for politically fixing/reifying or resisting/unsettling the sacred identity categories, or relations, that are invested in ‘capital’ as a modern social power” (Northover & Crichlow, 2007).