Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Kingdom of This World

In The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier details a story of the time spanning from Haiti’s liberation from French colonial rule through the eventual overthrowing of the black regime. The black king was able to initially achieve his throne by identifying himself with the French or European culture rather than his own, while the Haitians were able to survive its first century by replicating French European culture. Just as the white French slave owners were able to achieve financial success and security at the expense of black Haitians, the black kingdom under the rule of black Haitian King Henri-Christophe is only able to find success using the same system of labor he was meant to replace, slavery. It is only after this imitation is unaccepted and fails that the black king is able to embrace his African roots.

In Carpentier’s literary work, the European rule and Henri-Christophe’s inadvertent attempt to validate his power by identifying with the French illustrates the concept of the perceived difference between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, by presenting clear examples of the notion of spontaneous consent, and the apparatus of state coercive power. According to Gramsci, “When one distinguishes between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, one is referring in reality only to the immediate social function of the professional category of the intellectuals…” (p.2, Gramsci) In this case, the perceived intellectuals appear as the Europeans, or more specifically the European ideal, while the non-intellectuals are represented by those enslaved.

Gramsci states “The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” (p. 4, Gramsci) In The Kingdom of This World, the masses, in this case those enslaved, ‘agree’ to slavery as the main method of labor, or production. Though the initial European rule is eventually overthrown and replaced by the rule of the black king, Henri-Christophe, the same means of labor is reinstituted. Thus, the masses after overthrowing the European rule, once again consent to the same system of labor set in place to exploit them. In turn, by choosing the ideals and the behaviors of the Europeans in both his palace décor and labor of choice, Henri-Christophe unconsciously solidifies the idea of ‘historical prestige’ belonging to the intellectual Europeans. The black king is able to achieve his throne by identifying himself with the intellectual Europeans rather than his own, non-intellectual black Haitians. Even the decoration of King Henri-Christophe’s palace, Sans Souci, oozes with Europeanism in its designs and décor. “…The statues of naked white women soaking up the sun on their scrolled pedestals among the sculptured boxwood hedging the flowerbeds…” (pg 122, Carpentier)

In conjunction with the spontaneous consent of those enslaved, state coercive power is also used as a means to “enforce discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively” (p. 4, Gramsci) During the occasions when spontaneous consent is ineffective or has failed, the use of ‘legal’ discipline, represented in Carpentier’s work as physical repercussions, is employed to command consent. “The colonists… had been careful not to kill their slaves, for dead slaves were money out of their pockets. Whereas here the death of a slave was no drain on the public funds.” (pg 123, Carpentier) The state’s enforcement motivates those who may spark revolt to fear the repercussions, and as a result squelching any possibility to overthrow the social structure.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. You're probably going to find you wish you'd waited to deal with this work in our post-colonial section, which deals with exactly the issues you're raising here, but you're already making the very nice connection between the though of gramsci and those who have thought about spontaneous consent in colonial situations.