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Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment [Paperback]

David Scott , Scott

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Book Description

Dec 3 2004
Conscripts of Modernity points the way toward a rethinking of the present postcolonial moment. David Scott argues that if scholars of modernity and postcolonialism want to alter understandings of the stalled and disillusioned present--and thereby offer new prospects for the future--they must reconceive the relation of the past to the present. He asserts that anticolonial stories have typically assumed a distinctive narrative form: that of romance. Usually narratives of overcoming and vindication, of salvation and redemption, these stories largely depend on a certain utopian horizon toward which the emancipationist history is imagined to be moving. Scott suggests that as a mode of narrating the colonial past in relation to the postcolonial present and future, tragedy provides a more useful narrative framework than romance does. In tragedy, the future does not appear as part of a seamless forward movement, but instead as a slow and sometimes reversible series of ups and downs. Scott explores the political and epistemological implications of the narrative relation between the past and future through a reconsideration of C. L. R. James's masterpiece of anticolonial history, The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938. In that book, the story of Toussaint Louverture and the making of the Haitian Revolution is told as one of romantic vindication. As Scott points out, part of what makes The Black Jacobins a work of enormous historical and political interest is the fact that in the second edition, published in the United States in 1963, James inserted new material suggesting that that story might usefully be told as tragedy. Scott uses this shift in James's story to compare the relative yields of romance and tragedy in telling the story of the passage from the colonial past to the postcolonial future.

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"Conscripts of Modernity is a highly original and lucidly argued text, a major advance in David Scott's effort to elaborate a new form of postcolonial criticism in the wake of the collapse of the emancipatory hopes embodied in the anticolonialist moment. Scott's position will be found controversial by some. But it will not and cannot be ignored." Stuart Hall, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, The Open University

About the Author

David Scott is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of "Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality" and "Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil." He is editor of the journal "Small Axe."

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5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful March 19 2009
By Irami Osei-Frimpong - Published on
Scott serves up a trenchant rehearsal of C.L.R. James' historical, moral, and political imagination, and what these qualities mean for the project of doing history.

Briefly, Scott takes James' "Black Jacobins" as a point of departure to talk about the work of history. By employing Hayden White's scholarship, Scott understands James' initial release of the "Black Jacobins," in 1938, to be an anti-colonial historical Romance, a telling of the Haitian Revolution that plots Toussaint Louverture as the heroic symbol of indomitable freedom on the march. Scott then views the 1963 re-release as of the "Black Jacobins" as a post-colonial Tragedy, suggesting that the political facts of post-colonial violence and corruption during the intervening years between 1938 and 1963 moved James' from an anti-colonial historian to a post-colonial thinker. Scott sees James as making key changes in the narrative to reflect his growing ambivalence about the moral probity of post-colonial politics and life.

Scott argues that the anti-colonial "problem spaces" that yielded the vibrate Romance of The Black Jacobins in 1938 is substantively different from the post-colonial "problem space" of 1963, due to James' growing understanding of modern material, political, and cultural conditions, and the balance of the book concerns the question, what kind of things are history, politics, and narrative prose discourse, such that 25 five years in the twentieth century can drastically change the telling of a revolution that happened in the 18th and 19th Century?

In discussing this shift in historical plot from Romance to Tragedy, Scott draws ably from Aristotle, Hegel, James, White, Aeschylus and Shakespeare among others to craft a beautiful and compelling narrative about what we do when we do history. I don't agree with him every step of the way, and I found the prose at the beginning to be slightly affected in trying to lead the reader through his project, but once he gets going, the journey is richly satisfying. As ever, do not buy this book from Amazon, buy it from your local independent bookstore.

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