The Futures Past of the Postcolonial Present

Title page of C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Dial Press, 1938. Courtesy of The Public Archive.

1

I first encountered the work of Reinhart Koselleck in the course of thinking and writing my book, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment, at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s.1 I am not sure how exactly it was brought to my notice. It may well have been through Hayden White, with whose work I was already familiar as a consequence of my attraction to the critique of historical representation that was part of the discursive turn.2 White was important for bringing Koselleck’s work to an English-speaking scholarly world.3 Conscripts of Modernity would not only seek to think with Koselleck’s work but to place it in conversation with other critics of historical discourse I was then animated by, including, besides White, R. G. Collingwood, Quentin Skinner, and Bernard Yack.

However, when I read the essays translated and brought together in Futures Past and, subsequently, The Practice of Conceptual History, I had an only vague notion of the post-war German historiographical field into which Koselleck was intervening, and what the stakes of these interventions were. I knew next to nothing about his family and social milieux or the teachers and mentors who informed his orientation and craft as an historian. But now that I have read Niklas Olsen’s wonderfully instructive History in the Plural, I have become aware of the long and complicated arc of Koselleck’s life and work: his personal origins in a specific fragment of the intellectually cultivated and modernizing German middle class; his brutal experience of the Second World War; his pronounced sense of belonging to a particular intellectual generation (in relation to the War and to National Socialism especially); and the varied intellectual-philosophical influences that marked him, including those of Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and perhaps most of all, Carl Schmitt.4 I have acquired a deeper appreciation, too, for Koselleck’s intellectual temperament, disposition – his habitus, Olsen would say – especially his almost congenital mistrust for reductive modes of historical comprehension as well as varieties of abstract utopianism. What one comes away from Olsen’s book with is a vivid sense of a restless and convivial intellectual imagination whose project was never simply to produce fresh research on well-known topics, but to continually interrogate the conceptual genres and conventions in which our received histories have been cast in order to make it possible for us to release ourselves from their grip. The Koselleck that Olsen shows us was not only a fertile theorist of the making of the modern world and its distinctive conceptual orders (including a tantalizingly brief interest in British Atlantic history), not only a theorist of the changing discursive organizations of political time, but also (and as a consequence) a critic of the hegemonic ideologies of history.

2

In the 1990s, I began to feel more and more disenchanted with one such ideology of history, namely, that embodied in the Anglophone Caribbean political histories with which I had grown up and that were, very profoundly, my intellectual-existential inheritance. These were, to begin with, analytical stories structured by a norm of modern and modernizing categories of individual, social, economic, political, and cultural life, and propelled by a normative rhythm and vector of progressive time. They were also, politically, anticolonial, inasmuch as they aimed explicitly (and embodied implicitly) a critique of the colonial – and most poignantly slave colonial – past, and vindicated the individual and collective struggle for nation-state sovereignty. And some of them, moreover, were revolutionary, in a Marxist or socialist sense, inasmuch as their program of political and economic overcoming was directed by a critique not only of the colonial order but also of capitalism. In short, Anglophone Caribbean history was built around variously thematized stories of the making of modern freedom. And, needless to say, C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938, has for generations been the great instantiation of the radical wing of this intellectual tradition.5 Modelled to a degree on Jules Michelet’s history of the French Revolution and Leon Trotsky’s of the Russian Revolution, James’s story is meant to be a heroic narrative of revolutionary overcoming,6 from Slavery-to-Freedom.

However, this modern/modernizing paradigm of Anglophone Caribbean history-writing was brought into crisis in the 1980s – with the political murder of Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian and revolutionary (June 1980); the downfall of the Michael Manley socialist experiment in Jamaica (October 1980); and, the coup de grâce, the implosion of the Grenada Revolution and the U.S. military invasion that followed shortly after (October 1983). These regional Caribbean events, in the wider global context of the collapse of the Communist project, on the one hand, and the overwhelming surge of liberalization and structural adjustment (neoliberalism), on the other, effectively brought to a close a whole era of thinking about, and acting for, radical social, political, and economic transformation. Both the radical anticolonial and Third World socialist projects collapsed – and collapsed, it seemed to me, not in a superficial but in a deeply profound way, such that there was no way of simply reigniting the old process and following once again the same old pathways.

At the same time, in this period, as part of initiating the Caribbean journal, Small Axe (an attempt to come to terms with the new context of Caribbean studies), I started a series of long biographical interviews with some of the major Anglophone Caribbean intellectuals of the overlapping anticolonial generations – people born in the late 1920s and early 1930s (Lloyd Best, Stuart Hall, George Lamming, Sylvia Wynter, Rex Nettleford), and people born in the 1940s (Robert Hill, Rupert Lewis, Andaiye, Orlando Patterson). At first, I was unsure what I was doing beyond inquiring into the biographical context of interesting lives that had impacted mine. But gradually, uncertainly, out of the recursive dialogical flow of these conversations, it emerged that at least part of what I was exploring was a kind of temporal-generational discontinuity or disjuncture of inheritances. Although I thought of myself (born in Jamaica in 1958, on the eve of political independence in 1962) as broadly sharing the anticolonial and left political commitments of my interlocutors, in a curious way there was an evident misalignment between our temporal perspectives or vantage points that was not reducible to class or gender. Neither the past nor the present (nor the connections between them) appeared to me exactly as it appeared to them. While we inhabited the same present, and thus were, so to speak, co-temporaries, we were effectively not contemporaries. My interlocutors were starting from different “problem-spaces” (as I learned to call them), and therefore the questions they posed about the past in the present, and the answers they derived for the future, were not identical to mine (however much they might have been connected).

3

It was precisely in this context of frustration and exploration that I read the work of Reinhart Koselleck. It is easy to see that it would have appeared to me to answer a conceptual need to de-normalize the conventional relation between past-present-future. And further, it is easy to understand that for me the historical text that called for a critical rereading in the light of Koselleck’s intervention was James’s The Black Jacobins. For The Black Jacobins is not only one of the founding texts of the radical Caribbean intellectual tradition, and is not only a revolutionary history of the only successful slave revolution, but is also a pronouncedly self-reflexive text. To begin with, James was self-consciously navigating the now-commonplace tension between “agency” and “structure” in historical determination. Further, and connectedly, as a novelist and short-story writer, he was acutely aware of the literary character of history writing, and aware that the challenge he faced was how to cast his narrative in such a way as to conjugate the “science” (that is, the analysis of past events) with the “art” (that is, the composition of a dramatic story) of historical reconstruction. But in addition to these (or perhaps, partly because of them), James was also acutely aware of the specificity of the present in which he was writing his history of the Haitian Revolution (a conjuncture at once of revolutionary crisis and incipient decolonization), and that were he writing in some other present he would have written, as he said, a different, if not necessarily a better, book. Therefore, The Black Jacobins seemed to me an eminently ideal text with which and through which to think the critique of the normative historiography of Caribbean history.

Reading James with Koselleck, I was immediately struck by the pertinence of the latter’s framing conception (Gadamerian in inspiration, I would later learn) of a relation between “spaces of experience” and “horizons of expectation.” This conceptual distinction was crucial to Koselleck’s way of denormalizing the conventional temporality that shaped how the imaginary of the past was connected, through the present, to an imaginary of the future. For Koselleck, history and time are not synonymous: histories are composed of times, of course, but time is not reducible to history. By introducing a critical sensibility for the varied modes of the possible organizations of time, Koselleck enabled us to more carefully theorize how a given conjuncture of the present, with its specific historical experiences and conceptual-ideological problematizations of experience, gives rise to a distinctive horizon of conceptual-ideological expectation of what is to come, what is hoped for, and constructs the pasts of the present so as to generate and animate the temporal rhythms and vectors that carry the narrative in complicated ways toward these futurities. The longing (as Bernard Yack would say), and especially the generational longing, for a particular future helps to give shape and contour to how the present imagines the way from the past to the present. Horizons of expectation are not fixed, however longstanding they may be, and however normal they may appear. And it follows, therefore, that the collapse or foreclosure of the prospect of any possible horizon of future will likely induce a crisis7 for the normalized temporality of a conventional or hegemonic historical narrative. When a former future has itself become a part of the past the old dramatic narrative linking past-present-future will become incoherent, implausible, untenable, and the historically-minded critic will need to ask whether the old questions that generated the old narrative pathways to the former answers should continue to have the same purchase as before. In this scenario, as Koselleck formulated it eloquently, the old futures have become “superseded,” they are “futures past.”8

Here, then, was the conceptual predicament I faced in James’s The Black Jacobins. When I first engaged it in the revolutionary 1970s, I read it as pointing me out of the slave colonial past and toward the possibility of a radical postcolonial future that I could look forward to. But rereading it twenty years later, in the late 1990s in the wake of the collapse of the radical Third World and socialist projects, was different altogether – the space of experience had been transformed (by neoliberalism and the discrediting of Marxism), and, consequently, the horizon of expectation was radically altered – indeed, one might say radically diminished. In an endless present, the past now seemed to be all we had. The Romantic teleology of futurity that sustained the vindicationist arc of The Black Jacobins seemed now at odds with the foreclosure of the former revolutionary horizon. And yet, the wonderful genius of that book is that James, being the discerning thinker he was, was constantly revising it in the new contexts of experience in which he found himself. And in the context of the failures of the revolutionary movements of the 1940s and the compromises of decolonization in the 1950s, James began to think through an idea of the tragic and explicitly introduced this theme in revised paragraphs in the last chapter of his great book. This, to my mind, opened up the possibility of bracketing the teleological drive toward a future that was no longer guaranteed by the now-exhausted anticolonial story of the past in the present.


David Scott is the Ruth and William Lubic Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil (1994), Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (1999), Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (2004), Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice (2014), Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity (2017), and Irreparable Evil: New World Slavery in Moral History (2024), and is currently working on a biography of Stuart Hall. He is the editor of the journal Small Axe.


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Cite this blog post
David Scott (2024, March 12). The Futures Past of the Postcolonial Present. Geschichtstheorie am Werk. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w05h

  1. David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. []
  2. Cf. Victor Neumann, “Koselleck’s Theory of History and Its Subversive Potential,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue: KOMPOSITA), 08.1.2023, URL: https://doi.org/10.58079/pczc (22.2.2024). []
  3. White’s review of the 1985 English translation of Koselleck’s Futures Past appeared in the flagship journal of the American historical profession. Hayden White, “Review of Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time,” The American Historical Review 92, no. 5 (1987), 1175-76. URL: https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/92.5.1175 (23.01.2024). Also see Hayden White, “Foreword,” in Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, translated from German by Todd Samuel Presner and others. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, ix-xiv. []
  4. See Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural. An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck. New York: Berghahn, 2014. []
  5. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Secker & Warburg, 1938. []
  6. Cf. Disha Karnad Jani, “Revolution,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue: KOMPOSITA), 26.9.2023, URL: https://doi.org/10.58079/pczj (22.2.2024). []
  7. Cf. Gennaro Imbriano, “Crisis-Time,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue: KOMPOSITA) 7.2.2023, URL: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcyc (11.3.2024). []
  8. “Special attention is therefore devoted to a given present and its condition as a superseded former future.” Koselleck, “Author’s Preface,” in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, translated from German by Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, 1-5, 3. []

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