My work tells a story of modern citizenship, but from the perspective of the edges of empire. We usually think about modern citizenship as beginning with the French Revolution, as bounded by the nation state. We see it as the result of struggles of working classes, of women, seeking inclusion in the polity—and all these struggles take place within the nation. But the two cases I study, England and France, were not nation states but empires at the time.
What does the phrase “decolonizing the canon” look like in your research and in your teaching?
In my research I do two things: one, I make the case for overcoming the separation between metropole and colony, what Julian Go has called “analytic bifurcation.” I argue that it is historically inaccurate to tell the story of rights as bounded by the nation when we are in fact dealing with empires. What we have done is that we have largely written the struggles of the enslaved and the colonized out of our history of political modernity: we analytically separated democratization “over here,” and racialization “over there,” but these two processes are historically linked. The second thing I do is really think from the perspective of the Caribbean, and suggest that “the subaltern lens” tells us something important about Europe, about modern citizenship at large. In my research I try to show how we can get a different perspective of modern processes by taking the subjectivities of the subaltern seriously, not just as lived experience, or as data, but really as starting points for theorizing modernity at large.
With regards to teaching, I would say that it’s not just a question of singling out one theorist and adding them to the curriculum while leaving everything else unchanged. Instead, I like to do two things: one, is to parochialize the writers that write from the metropole by filling in the larger global and colonial context in which they write. The other point to keep in mind is that the anticolonial/postcolonial tradition is actually quite varied. These writers speak to one another; they write in community; they offer diverse perspectives about how to think about colonialism and its impact on the social world, and they differ in how they theorize the relationship to capitalism, colonialism, racial formation, patriarchy, etc., and so my plea would be to honor this diversity in our syllabi.
Are there theorists outside of mainstream sociology whose work’s been particularly important to your project?
Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Sylvia Wynter, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, of course W.E.B. Du Bois, and many others. Now, with the exception of Du Bois, the writers that I tend to think with begin from their positionality in the Caribbean, but they’re not “Caribbean theorists;” they’re really theorists about the modern world! If I had to pick one, I would say that Stuart Hall has perhaps left the biggest impression on how I approach the study of the social world. For example, after he travels from Jamaica to England, he says, “I’ve always been the sugar of the bottom of the English cup of tea.” So, this is not a claim for inclusion, assimilation, anything of that sort; it’s also not a claim to address racial discrimination within an otherwise liberal nation state; it’s a claim that suggests that it is, in fact, the empire, the “mother country,” that has forgotten, or rather that has silenced and erased how the Caribbean has always been part of its formation. We have to take seriously these experiences of colonized subjects as epistemic starting points, as saying something very important about the metropole as well.
What do you feel is the role of social theory in times of political unrest?
Perhaps “political mobilization” is a better word given that “unrest” implies that there are peaceful periods otherwise (and peaceful for whom?). I think social theory helps us make sense of the world; it gives us a perspective through which we understand how events connect to one another, how we think society functions and so on, and in that sense social theory can influence social life-- I, for one, hope that my work proves useful to movements and communities and activists. But, it’s important to note that this is not a one-way directionality: social theory usually does not come out of the study of the lone intellectual, but also arises through movements and people’s agency and experiences. And in fact all social theory emerges from experience, which is important to remember, particularly with theory that comes about in the metropole, which we tend to universalize. Now think, for example, about this term, “decolonization.” It’s a theory, in the sense that it provides a perspective that argues that colonialism has been a central structure in the modern world, and it offers suggestions as to how to struggle against it, but it’s not the brainchild of one individual thinker; it arises through people’s agency: when Haitian revolutionaries stand up and demand their freedom from enslavement, when anti-colonial movements request their right for self-determination, or when protesters this year topple statues and shift the narrative of how this country came to be and who it’s for, these are experiences and practices from which we theorize. I think it makes sense to break down this somewhat artificial boundary between theory and experience or practice, and make sure that the insights from movements actually make it into the classroom.