Print Culture and the Problematics of Revolution

Preparing the bibliography on the periodicals in the age of revolution as an assignment in our seminar, I had a chance to glimpse an immense depository of the scholarship which deals with the print culture in the United States, France, and Haiti around 1800, and which increasingly incorporates this subject within the study of the ‘revolutionary’ public sphere. This short-term research was instructive in showing me how the historians in the different fields share research interest and method as well as how they, in their apparently similar approaches, subtly differ from one another. Generally speaking, I find the scholarship on the Haitian Revolution in relation to print and the public sphere quite distinctive from work on the revolutions in North America and France; and, in this post, I would like to address this particularity of the historiography of Haiti, its meaning and implications. I will suggest that the different focuses of the scholarship on the French, American, and Haitian revolutions in regard to print and the public sphere show the different problematics of these revolutions—the difference sometimes overlooked in the process of underscoring the interconnections among them.

At first glance, what characterizes the anglophone historiography of the print culture and the public sphere in regard to the Haitian revolution is its relatively small size and its rapid growth in recent years.[1] One might be tempted to infer from this external fact that the scholarship on Haiti, in this respect, is still deficient or belated, considering that the historians of France and the U.S. have had interest in the public sphere a couple of decades before and in print earlier than that. Yet, I argue that the current state of the scholarship on Haiti—with its own gaps to be filled—indicates not so much its lack or belatedness as a symptom of the specificity of the Haitian revolution, especially as one examines not only its quantitative aspects but also its thematic tendencies.

That is to say, historiography of print culture in relation to the Haitian revolution seems to differ from that of other revolutions in terms of its locus and problematics. First, historiography of Haiti tends to pay significant attention to the foreign press, often more attention to it than to the Haitian press. Representation of the Haitian revolution and Haiti—either by Haitians themselves or by Westerners—in mostly French and U.S. presses features as an essential subject of the recent scholarship on print ant the public culture. Second, in this historiography of Haiti, some of the basic problems of print culture in Western countries such as readership and authorship are converted to a different problem, that is, the problem of literacy.[2]

These peculiarities in the existent scholarship on Haiti suggest not only the urgency of international recognition for Haiti but also what I call the ‘postcolonial’ problematics of the Haitian revolution. The specificity of the problematics is no more evident than in the issue of literacy. What is often not emphasized in the discussions of the literacy of Haitian revolutionaries is the fact that the ‘literacy’ here is not concerned with native language but with the capacity to read and write in a foreign language, that is, French. To understand the ‘literacy’ as the literacy in foreign language(s) helps us to see more clearly what is really at stake when the historians analyze the public sphere by focusing on the Western presses. What they mean by the ‘public sphere’ is, in fact, the public scene of the Western countries which operates upon cultural and discursive exchanges in the Western languages. What I would like to draw attention to not the historians’ ellipsis or erasure of the ‘Westernness’ from their discussion of the public sphere but rather their preoccupation with the public sphere as such. The Western public sphere, in their view, played a crucial role in determining the fate of Haitians at that time, and it was all the more so precisely because Haiti was precluded from that Western cultural/ discursive field in terms of language and race. In other words, the current scholarship implicitly reveals the ‘postcolonial’ problematcis of the Haitian Revolution, the ‘postcolonial’ here entailing the frictions and pressures that postcolonial nation-states encounter in the process of incorporation within the socio-political and cultural matrix of Western modernity.

These ‘postcolonial’ problematics are unique to the Haitian revolution in comparison with the other two revolutions discussed in our seminar. The peculiarity of the Haitian case is quite striking when we think of the American case, because the United States, despite its identical status with Haiti, in theory, as an independent nation and former colony, seems to have not incurred substantial cost for entering into (or remaining in) the Western public sphere. However,  Haiti’s uniqueness, it seems to me, tends not to be acknowledged enough in such a claim that regards the Haitian Revolution as the epitome of Western modernity. I believe it is completely legitimate to make that point, but it is also salutary to bear in mind that stepping over the threshold of modernity demanded irrevocable loss and damage.


[1] I am not in the position to give an overview of the historiography that discusses print and the public sphere in relation to the Haitian revolution, partly due to my insufficient research, restricted to resources published in English. However, as for the historiography’s small size, I would say that, at least, the scholarship on the Haitian press seems to be curiously scant; for example, I could not find any book classified between PN4699 and PN5650 (i.e. the journalism section according to the Library of Congress Classification) that pertains to Haiti/ Saint-Domingue. For a few discussions of the Haitian print culture that largely focus on the pre-revolutionary Haiti, see James E. McClellan III, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue in the Old Regime(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 97-102; John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 124-27. As for the recent increase in the historiography, I will discuss some of representative works within the post and the next note.

[2] For recent works that exemplify these tendencies, see Nick Nesbitt, “The Idea of 1804,” Yale French Studies, no. 107 (2005); Deborah Jenson, Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011). See esp. chap. 1, “Toussaint Louverture, “Spin Doctor”?: Lauching the Haitian Revolution in the Media Sphere.”; Marlene L. Daut, “The “Alpha and Omega” of Haitian Literature: Baron De Vastey and the U.S. Audience of Haitian Political Writing,” Comparative Literature 64, no. 1 (2012). Nesbitt’s article is one of the earliest works that analyses the Haitian revolution by using the concept of the public sphere. Jenson’s and Daut’s works illustrate the recent tendencies I mention, as they discuss the Western (i.e. French and American) public sphere’s influences on the Haitian revolution and independent Haiti and offer substantial analyses of the issue of the literacy (e.g. that of Haitian revolutionaries).

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5 Responses to Print Culture and the Problematics of Revolution

  1. Jeanna Kadlec says:

    Thank you for a really thought provoking post, Haram. Though Haiti isn’t my area of expertise by any stretch (and I look forward to seeing what Julia and others have to add here), I have a few questions about some issues you raise regarding the problematics of Haiti’s positioning, namely about literacy, foreign language, and the public sphere.

    You argue that literacy was qualified as literacy in French, rather than any other language, and go on to say that “To understand the ‘literacy’ as the literacy in foreign language(s) helps us to see more clearly what is really at stake when the historians analyze the public sphere by focusing on the Western presses.” I want to pause on this question of language before asking a broader question about the public sphere. French was the language of the colonizer, of the dominant, privileged (white) class, so it is not surprising that literacy would be (implicitly?) measured as literacy in that language. But was literacy, or has literacy been, “measured” in any other languages in Saint-Domingue/Haiti? What were the other languages, were they allowed to be spoken/written, and, perhaps most pressingly, how dominant was French at this point — was it considered “foreign” or was it at this point “native” to many in the country? When it comes to colonies, the question of native/foreign languages is provocative — I think of contemporary Latin and South America where Spanish or Portuguese are the the “native” or “official” languages, but obviously that is the trickle down effect of colonialism. And if we extrapolate onto this the Lacanian idea that we as subjects are made up by speech acts, the internalization of the colonizer’s language and linguistic and cultural practices to the point where they seem “natural” or “native” is a powerful thing indeed.

    You make the point that Haiti has to reckon with colonial powers and an understanding and positioning of itself through Western language, culture, and ideas in a way that France (obviously) and America (interestingly, also being a colony) do not. I found it interesting that the scholarship on Haiti is reflective of this postcolonial problematic, down to the very notion of the “public sphere” (a Western construct to begin with). I want to keep thinking about this thread you’ve raised, of having to refract even the language of the Haitian Revolutionaries through the language of their slaveowners. However, since Saint-Domingue was a colony, already subsumed within the French Empire, is it also unavoidable to do so? I know this question has been taken up by far more capable hands (I just finished reading Bhaba for another class, for goodness’ sake!), but I’ll ask it all the same.

  2. Haram Lee says:

    Thank you, Jeanna, for raising those questions which I myself would like to pursue further. You’re right in pointing out that what a ‘native’ language means in colonies is unclear, but let me clarify myself that, when I mention the ‘native’ language in this post, I mean Creole in Saint-Domingue/ Haiti, which is a hybrid language (yes!) and seems to have its own distinct system of writing and speech. For instance, the French governors had to translate proclamations made in France (and in French) and post them in Creole to make sure that no one misunderstood their meanings. Still, the questions you raise remain until we answer such questions: How was Creole different from French? To what extent those who only knew Creole understood French? Did literacy in Creole help to foster literacy in French, or vice versa?

  3. Cassandra Berman says:

    A very interesting post, Haram. I am intrigued to hear your thoughts on the distinctiveness of Haiti regarding the public sphere in general and print culture in particular, in part because I was struck by how Haiti figured into my own bibliography. While my bibliography focused on “people” – specifically, women and the family – it necessarily involved some investigation into print culture as I looked into primary sources generated by each of our three revolutions. Keeping my focus on women and families, I quickly discovered that women’s own writings were prolific in the primary source canon of the American Revolution – namely letters and diaries. This reflects significantly on the work of historians, who have, in the last fifteen or so years, been increasingly eager to compile and edit women’s writings (though to be sure, there is still a dearth of published women’s perspectives on the revolutionary era). As I looked to France, I found both published memoirs pertaining to women, but the clear concentration of primary sources exists in political pamphlets written both by and about women. In my research I found much less emphasis on women’s lives pertaining to the family, but I was intrigued to see that quite a bit of this political material did advocate for the liberalization of marital relations. And finally, the primary sources related to women and the family during the Haitian Revolution were largely novelistic, and were overwhelmingly concerned with the experiences of the white residents of Saint-Domingue. These are fascinating sources, but they provide little insight into how the enslaved, or formerly enslaved women of Haiti experienced the Revolution.

    Your post, Haram, is useful as I think about how to approach these primary texts, and as I think about their possibilities as well as their limitations. The historiography is certainly imbalanced, and privileges a Euro-American approach to the public sphere of print culture. In order to fully interrogate this, however, we also must rigorously question our primary source base – what we as scholars are able to locate, what we consider useful or valuable, what assumptions we bring to the reading of these sources. Keeping to complicated politics of literacy and language in mind is certainly important, as are readership and circulation.

    As I final point, I am very eager to explore the American Antiquarian Society’s Caribbean Newspapers database, and to see how some of these issues played out – or were challenged – in contemporary newspapers.

  4. Jane Kamensky says:

    You raise intriguing questions here about the different post-coloniality of San Domingue-into-Haiti, and British North America-into-the-United States. As a historian, I quickly default to demography. The Caribbean colonies weren’t settler colonies with large creole populations in the way that those on the North American mainland tended to be. In New England, printing was virtually coterminous with English colonization. Some of the first pressmen at work on the Harvard college printing press were indigenous scholars, and some of the earliest printing projects in the colonies translated/literated native languages into print. (See Lepore, NAME OF WAR; and Gray, INDIAN LANGUAGE IN ANGLO-AMERICAN THOUGHT.) I know of no such projects, however, for the indigenous languages of African-born slaves and their colonial-born descendants. This is partly a matter of demography: when conversion projects impinged on people of African descent in north America, they were already speaking English. In the Caribbean, where Africans predominated, their mortality rates were enormous. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the technologies or writing and reading–in a native language or a colonized one–was highly fraught in a slave society, if not explicitly illegal. The structures of the Haitian population made the proxies for print that Jenson teased out all the more fascinating to me. Some comparisons–between West Indies and North America, between English and French West Indies, and between enslaved and (sometimes also enslaved) Native American populations could really be provocative.

  5. g271187 says:

    Thank you for an interesting post Haram! I think that another aspect that seems unique, or at least different from the historiographies on the American and French revolutions, is who writes about the Haitian Revolution. We have not read any work by an Haitian historian in this seminar, nor do I know the name of one (contemporary) Haitian historian. I don’t know how many historians of Haiti are from Haiti but my guess is, very few. No wonder then that the historiography of Haiti is loaded with concepts borrowed from other, typically Western, historiographies. And as for Haitian historians, I wonder if they ask the same questions as their American or French counterparts, especially about language and the public sphere.

    Additionally, the other issue, at the end of the spectrum, is audience. It is not enough to ask who write, but the question is: who writes for whom? It may well be the case that scholars of Haiti do not want to create their own categories, distinct from other historiographies. They want to contribute to a larger discussion about, let’s say, the “Age of Revolution”, and do so with scholars in other fields. In some ways, I feel that almost, if not all, the works we’ve read about the Haitian revolution these past few months, seek to demonstrate that Haiti matters, not least because it was not isolated from France and the United States. But I find it problematic to justify the need for studying Haiti on the ground that Haiti mattered to the American and French leaders and their population at the time.

    So, to what extent are historians trying to make Haiti visible on Western terms? Does the project of un-silencing the Haitian past necessarily involve the use of Western categories, or is there a way to do so, while retaining the unique aspects of Haitian history?

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