Like a Riot: The Politics of Forgetfulness, Relearning the South, and the Island of Dr. Moreau

The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.
—Audre Lorde1

The mechanism of forgetfulness has ramifications far beyond the importance it has played in psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud notes that forgetfulness is not “left to psychic arbitrariness, but that it follows lawful and rational paths.” Forgetting, he writes, moreover, has “proved to be founded on a motive of displeasure.” Considering the infamous “return of the repressed,” Freud provides evidence of the capacity of the repressed to express itself.2 If we apply this theory to the fabrication of forgetfulness in imperialism and capitalism, colonial and capitalist crimes certainly represent a source of unpleasant memories that explain the fabrication of forgetfulness by empire the world over. But forgetfulness is not just a psychological mechanism; it is the result of economic and political choices. In its logic, there is no need to do away with inequalities and precariousness. They are, in fact, structural to neoliberal logic. What is important in this system is to negotiate and renegotiate the threshold of “bearable” precariousness, to avoid revolts and insurrections by shifting the blame onto individuals (if their lives are precarious, it’s because they are lazy), by systematic displacement and dispossession.

On a global scale, following the mapping and remapping of what matters—and what does not—means following the routes of racial capitalism, the transformation of land into spaces for the working of capital. Consider those glass towers all over the globe that constitute safe deposit boxes for the wealthy, the privatization of the commons. See how it leads to a competition between territories: better to be on the map of what matters, one reasons, than to be forgotten, even if that means the destruction of environment, of community, of life. Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the condition of The Wretched of the Earth3 can be understood as the “forgetfulness of damnation,”4 the process whereby a state of amnesia has led to murder, destruction, and the epistemic will to power—with a European good conscience. For Fanon, any opposition to Western modernity and its racism must address this amnesia and the invisibility of the damned; he wanted to bring into view what had remained invisible for centuries. Following Fanon, decolonial thinkers have spoken of the “forgetfulness of coloniality”5 in both Western philosophy and contemporary social theory. A counterstrategy has been to excavate forgotten maps, imagining new ones or valorizing those that have been marginalized.

But historical and political cartographies mix with personal cartographies, building a multi-dimensional space of memories. Where and how I grew up gave me a cartography of global resistance to power, colonialism, and imperialism. From the Greek χάρτης, or “map,” and γράφειν, “write,” cartography is, of course, the art and science of drawing maps. My first geography of resistance was drawn by the Réunion Island anticolonial movement. It was from this small island in the Indian Ocean that I read the world. To the local cartography of cultural and political resistance, I added the millenary world of exchanges between Africa and Asia; the world of solidarity routes among anti-imperialist movements of the various Souths; the Southern world of music, literature, and images. Europe was geographically and culturally on the periphery.

Map of Réunion Island with border drawings, including portraits of Évariste de Parny and Antoine Bertin, steel engraving with colored borders by A. Piat (1854)

It was a solid cartography. I knew its contours, I could name its leaders, its movements, its authors. On my teenage bedroom walls there were no posters of bands but rather of the Black Panther Party, of the Vietnam National Front of Liberation, of the Cuban Revolution. On this small island, where the French State deployed from the 1960s until the 1980s a politics of repression mixed with false promises of assimilation—using censorship, mass incarceration of anticolonialists, armed police against peasants and workers, and mandated cultural norms that denied vernacular practices and expression—the South was the promise of other things to come. It was the world of the wretched of the earth, of those who “invented neither powder nor compass / those who explored neither the sea nor the sky / but those without whom the earth would never be the earth,”6 as Aimé Césaire wrote. It was a map of third-world feminism, of national liberation movements, of the promise of Bandung.

I was sustained by this cartography. I knew where the South was and what it was about. There was comfort in it. It helped me counter the French colonial cartography that was taught at school and imposed in the media. This Southern map gave me dreams, the capacity to imagine change, a world greater than the narrow postcolonial French world. It also gave me a vocabulary, a language of feminism, antiracism, anti-imperialism, and anticapitalism. Feminism was not yet simply about equality but about fighting the patriarchal and capitalist system; development was not about increased dependency on Western technology and the banking system, but about respecting vernacular knowledge and inventing disparate ways of living in the world and with the world. It supported a process of unlearning and learning: unlearning Eurocentric education, learning the vernacular, the intangible. Our house in Réunion was instructive in this process, being filled with books from across the world, the result of the failure of one of my mother’s enterprises, a bookstore of world literature. But her loss was our gain. All the books she had bought came home, and thus we had novels from South America, Russia, Africa, and Europe at our disposal. My Communist and feminist parents made sure we grew up listening to popular songs, speaking Creole, witnessing popular rituals, discussing the anti-apartheid struggle, the Vietnam War, the wars of liberation in Algeria, Mozambique, and Angola. At the dinner table, we could listen to Malagasy, Mauritians, and other anticolonial activists debating their South.

Because of the state brutality I witnessed as a child on Réunion Island—the denial of basic rights, people being beaten to death, my parents harassed and jailed—early on I became interested in the fabrication by the powerful of people who do not matter, as well as by the process of fabricating consent to that fact, this silent conformity to hegemonic norms. And yet I was equally impressed by the capacity to build resistance, to laugh at power, to find ways of imagining alternatives. The singular history of Réunion Island added to the geography of the South a space of imagination and emancipation. True, the island was intimately connected to the history of French colonialism. There was no native population when Réunion became a French colony in the seventeenth century, and yet, because it was in the Indian Ocean, it was inscribed in a complex temporality and spatiality of routes of exchanges and encounters in which Europe was a late actor, and then just one among others.

From Réunion, a series of intertwined geographies emerged: an Africa-Asia axis independent of Europe; the geography of an eighteenth-century shift when slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean gave European powers economic hegemony, all thanks to the silver extracted in colonial mines and to the production by slaves of coffee, sugar, and cotton, which overcame Asian production. On the island, slavery and post-slavery colonialism inscribed Réunion in a regional and global history, on which colonial power imposed a long silence or forgetfulness. Though I never learned this history at school, at home I was told stories of the maroons who had established communities in the Réunion mountains in the eighteenth century, defying the rules and laws of enslavement. Punishment against marooning was brutal and public; the maroons had to bear on their face and bodies the punition of their transgression. The infamous Code noir listed the punishments: authorities punished the first attempt of marooning by branding the person’s face with the fleur de lys or cutting an ear; the second by cutting the hollow of the knee; the third by death. When communities of maroons were discovered, women and men were publicly tortured and massacred. In Réunion, the French colonial power armed troops to hunt maroons. The war waged against these communities lasted almost a hundred years, eliminating them by the end of the eighteenth century. Yet the spirit of the maroons was stronger than the erasure of their history by colonial power. They had traced a geography of resistance by giving Malagasy names to mountains and rivers, and these names survived the attempted erasure of their world. They divided the island into two worlds, making visible the border between the world of servitude and bonded labor and the world of freedom and sovereignty. And this border was both oral and textual, as the coast was writ with a litany of Christian names: Saint-Denis, Saint-Pierre, Sainte-Marie, Saint-Leu, Sainte-Suzanne, Saint-Louis, Saint-Benoît, Saint-Joseph. In the interior, meanwhile, Malagasy names were spoken, either the names of maroon leaders like Cimendef, Dimitile, and Anchaing, or of mountains including Cilaos and Salazie.

Black Panther Party poster by Emory Douglas, supplement to The Black Panther, February 27, 1971

The cartography drawn from Réunion evoked a time and space that was not European but of the Indian Ocean, a millenary site of exchanges and encounters between the Muslim world and other worlds, a maritime cultural space with its multiple geographies and multidirectional memories,7 its cartography of servitude and resistance. Yet I had not finished high school when I decided to leave the island. Finding Réunion’s patriarchal conformism too stifling, I decided to go to Algeria for my last year in high school, a country that had mobilized my childhood imagination. In Réunion, colonial power had sought to censor opposition to the war against the Algerian people. But my uncle had been an attorney for Algerian nationalists and a founding member of a group of lawyers who challenged the legitimacy of French tribunals to try Algerians; he had defended and later married Djamila Bouhired, a heroine of the Battle of Algiers. Thus I arrived in a country I had long idealized, and my experience there enriched my multidimensional cartography. Algiers was still the capital of the third world: it was home to members of the Black Panther Party, of the liberation movement of Angola and Mozambique, of the ANC, and of political refugees from the military dictatorship of Brazil. The Cinémathèque of Algiers, first under the direction of Ahmed Hocine and then of Boudjemaâ Karèche, was still the legendary site for third-world cinema. There I perfected my cinematography, which had started in Réunion, where my mother took me to the only existing ciné-club on the island. Yet there were already fissures in my idealized South. Patriarchy in Algeria was strong. The postcolonial regime repressed minority rights, adopted the model of export industry, and was led by army generals. The lesson? The South should not be idealized; it was a reality and reality is always full of contradictions.

If in Réunion the world had seemed cut in two, in Algeria I began to see what Fanon had analyzed in his work on national bourgeoisies. Here was the limitless greed of which he had written, the unleashed consumerism and contempt for the vernacular, the endless search for profit. Algeria was rushing to imitate Western rules of consumption and exhibition of wealth; soon they would find arrangements with racial capitalism. The West remained hegemonic: U.S. imperialism dominated the world, the American army was still playing the international gendarme, its soft power dictating tastes, its companies among the most powerful. While the World Bank and the IMF were unleashing the violence of structural-adjustment programs upon the South, the West supported military dictatorships while developing its ideology of “humanitarian intervention.” By the 1990s, the Western imperial project went hand in hand with unleashed consumerism. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was a global phenomenon. Identities that had been spontaneously associated with counterhegemonic practices—feminists, the colonized, gays, et cetera—could now be easily transformed into commodities. Borrowing from the emancipatory discourse of the 1970s, consumerism and new technologies promised individual emancipation, a limitless extension of the self, free from all social, cultural, and religious constraints. Emancipation was no longer exclusively collective. You could emancipate yourself without the fear of prison, torture, exile, death. It was seductive and it found an echo all over the world.8 Where was the South now?

To find my South again as the site of decolonial politics, I was required to think about the extent to which freedom had become more important than equality; about new forms of exploitation and colonization coexisting with old forms; about the fabrication of precariousness and disposability; about new politics of dispossession and privatization; and about science, technology, and what some scientists call the “Anthropocene.” Averse to utopias and their false consciousness, and after an era of genocide and global warfare, the West proposed a choice between postmodern gloom and phony happiness. The intensity once situated in revolutions moved to sex. Capitalism was able to endlessly multiply differentiation. Further, though white males still dominated the international institutions and multinationals, their logic of accumulation of wealth based on dispossession and depletion of resources was contaminating all regimes. True, a new multipolarity of power was threatening Western domination, and new formations were emerging, but the model of development that had been shown to be unsustainable had become global. Without falling into catastrophism, the new challenges were real.

In the South, a reflection on political defeat was needed, the lesson being that struggle is long and difficult and that enemies cannot be underestimated (or overestimated). The proliferation of protective walls, the militarization of borders, and the criminalization of migrants went along with the ethos of mobility. All these mutations transformed the cartography of the South as a coordinated site of resistance. If difference as difference could no longer by itself constitute the terrain upon which emancipation was imagined, what kind of memories, histories, and cartographies would disrupt the capitalist logic of coding/decoding and differing? What to do with what Melinda Cooper calls “life as surplus”? As she has written, “Where industrial production depends on finite reserves available on planet earth, life, like contemporary debt production, needs to be understood as a process of continuous autopoiesis, a self-engendering of life from life, without conceivable beginning or end.9 Life could now be produced in the labs. Science, technology, militarism, and capitalism had created a powerful nexus to reshape the techniques of discipline and punishment. Had the South as a promise of another world disappeared, defeated by racial capitalism and the pursuit of power? Where was it now located?

I have still a South. I look for its emergence in the resistance to the constant process of territorialization and deterritorialization operated by racial capital. I observe and analyze the sites produced by the process of “southification,” fabricating new racialized territories where the lives that do not matter are dumped, the toxic waste and chemicals, all the refuse of global capitalism. The “there is no alternative” doctrine, as Margaret Thatcher so famously pronounced, with its clearly translated capitalist logic, works as well with There is a future for a few and no future for the many. Europe was built upon the Promethean ideal that affirms the limitless power of “Man” to master the world, all living things, and technology. It is an ideology of progress and individual emancipation resting on the dualism of spirit/matter.10 In this logic, the world is offered to exploration and exploitation, and the individual is indebted neither to its social nor its natural environment. The Promethean ideal as a masculinistic ideology of forgetfulness is intimately connected with the current search to free the individual of all constraints, human and natural.

The racialized politics of dispossession, displacement, and discrimination; the fabrication of disposable peoples and forgotten territories; the exploitation of resources, of female reproductive labor; masculinity itself: all constitute the nexus through which “southification” is produced. During colonial times, mountains were displaced, rivers rerouted, forests destroyed, and plants, animals, and humans moved around. Postcolonial ideology of development followed the same logic: nothing would stop human desire to shape its environment and remake it in its own image. Today, the stem-cell industry, biotechnology, patenting seeds (the politics of research and distribution of Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta),11 and the control of biodiversity show that the politics of dispossession continue to fuel racial capitalism. “And the original appropriation—the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life—yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth,” as Engels wrote. The “monopolization of the Earth by a few12 is now reaching incredible proportions. By 2020, a mere 250,000 individuals will control $40 trillion of global assets. But before looking at how the new politics of dispossession are being countered, I want to look at past connections among a global, mobile, gendered, and racialized workforce, of technologies of control. And for this, I go back to Réunion Island.

Cinémathèque Algérienne poster, Algiers (1960s)


In June 1970, a doctor was called to the bedside of a seventeen-year-old woman in a small, poor village of Réunion Island. She was bleeding profusely, the result of a botched abortion. For more than a year, the newspapers of the local Communist Party and of the Catholic Church had reported rumors about a clinic owned by a powerful white man where thousands of illegal abortions were supposedly performed. The reported rumors were met with official silence. This time, though, since the doctor had called the police, an inquiry was ordered. The police learned that every year since 1966, in a clinic owned by a Dr. Moreau, 6,000 to 8,000 women had been given abortions without their consent. They entered Dr. Moreau’s clinic three to seven months pregnant; they left after their abortions commenced, many also sterilized. They were sent to the clinic by colonial government institutions in charge of birth control and prenatal care. In France, meanwhile, at exactly the same time, abortion and contraception remained illegal and criminalized; doctors who performed abortions, as well as the women who aborted, could receive long prison terms.

Moreau, who was born a blanc sale, had become a member of the local white elite thanks to his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy owner of a dozen sugarcane factories on the island. Soon he would himself preside over many of the island’s stores, resorts, and clinics, and he became an active member of the local anticommunist and pro-colonial parties. In 1952, Moreau was elected mayor of the same city in which he operated his clinic, with 98 percent of the vote. He was a supporter of Michel Debré, a former prime minister of the Fifth Republic fiercely opposed to Algerian independence and women’s rights, who had come to Réunion Island to “save” the island from communism and decolonization. The postcolonial powers did not want to indict Moreau. He was a powerful white businessman, a pillar of the local conservative party. In August, the police made two arrests: a doctor of Moroccan origin (and there was a constant reminder in the media of his origins) and a nurse descended from Indian indentured workers. Both were sent to prison and forbidden to exercise their trade. Moreau himself was never investigated, and his political career continued unblemished. At the end of 1970 he was unanimously elected to the island’s general council, where he remained as vice president for twenty-three years. The victims of Dr. Moreau received no reparations.

I cannot help but invoke H. G. Wells’s 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau.13 In the book, the fictional Doctor Moreau has fled England under the suspicion of his nonethical use of dissection. He has found refuge on an isolated tropical island where, with the help of two other white men, he performs cruel and painful surgical procedures on the “Beast People,” a half-animal, half-human species he has created and whose description echoes descriptions of colonized nonwhite peoples: intellectually inferior, obeying only the whip, speaking gibberish. Wells’s novel was a metaphor for colonialism, imperialism, and racism published in a year full of important events in the history of racial imperialism. Among them, consider the defeat of the Ashanti Kingdom in West Africa by British troops, the first Italo-Ethiopian war, and the “separate but equal” decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in the United States, which upheld the constitutionality of institutional racial segregation in the American South.

In Wells’s novel, Moreau’s victims call his laboratory the “house of pain.” In their prayer, the Beast People repeat endlessly a series of sentences that end with the refrain, “Are we not Men?” “Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?” Their recitation has echoes of the abolitionist maxim: “Am I not a Man and your Brother?” The politics of forgetfulness also play a pivotal role in the novel. The book’s narrator, Edward Prendick, who is shipwrecked on the island and exposes Doctor Moreau’s violence there, finally escapes to England and tells the story of what he has seen. His narrative is met with accusations of madness, so he eventually pretends to have amnesia. Nevertheless, the real Dr. Moreau had more luck than the fictitious one, who was finally killed by his creatures. It appears that justice in real postcolonial society was more difficult to obtain than in nineteenth-century fiction.

In addition to the thousands of pregnancies aborted without the mothers’ consent in Réunion, other polices were developed in French overseas territories to control the birth rate. In 1962, a law authorized the use of contraceptives in overseas departments with special regulations: free distribution of contraceptives included IUDs imposed on teenagers without parental consent, and Depo-Provera was also largely used. Meanwhile, offices of birth control opened everywhere. The story of French state policies of abortion and contraception in its overseas colonial territories is a corrective to the French feminist history of abortion and contraception that goes thus: a courageous struggle of French feminists against patriarchy and misogyny. Let us recall some of this latter struggle’s landmarks. A year after Réunion’s abortion-clinic scandal, on April 5, 1971, the “Manifesto of the 343” (also known as the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts”) was published in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. In it, 343 French women declared publicly that they had had an abortion, signing a text written by Simone de Beauvoir. In October and November of 1972, the “Bobigny affair” became a landmark case for the right to an abortion. A minor who had been raped and had aborted was on trial with her mother. Feminist demonstrations were held in France, testimonies were published, abortions were performed in public defying the law. This led to the law, enacted in January 1975, that decriminalized abortion in France. In this story, the situation of poor and nonwhite women in overseas French territories was ignored; it did not fit the dominant narrative of exclusion and patriarchy. The struggles of feminist movements in the colonies were also ignored; they too did not fit the narrative of white European women’s emancipation. Neither the logic of exclusion nor patriarchy could fully explain the kind of social subjection operated by the French state on impoverished and nonwhite women, who were made an object of public policy.

But the politics of birth control must be understood by crossing the local with the national, the local with the global. On the local level one found a racialized politics of contraception contemporary with a new division of labor and a new politics of migration. On the national level, home birth and large families were encouraged, while simultaneously contraception and abortion were encouraged in overseas territories. Nonwhite children were not desired. On the global level, one encountered politics that, in the second half of the twentieth century, saw international institutions pay close attention to female fertility in developing countries, where it became (and remains) the most studied aspect of women’s lives. The link made between poverty and birth rate was central to national and global policies that did not address the woman’s right to exercise control over her sexuality but rather sought to enforce the power of the state or international institutions to impose programs of birth control.

Behind this history stands another forgotten site: female reproductive work in racial capitalism. Historians have told us that among the 15 million Africans shipped into slavery in the Americas, the Caribbean, and the European colonies of the Indian Ocean, nearly five million were women. If in the United States plantation owners chose to organize an internal trade and the social reproduction of the workforce after abolition, this was not the case in all colonies. Most plantation owners counted on the constant arrival of slaves to compensate for the high mortality rate on their land (the rate of survival among slaves was initially eight to ten years). In other words, there was a need for a constant supply of African bodies. For the supply to be guaranteed, slave traders had to steal African boys and girls from their mothers. Though female reproductive work was not directly organized by a state, the burden of reproducing a mobile, gendered, and racialized workforce fell on African women, in Africa. The source of “production” of a bonded workforce was there. Yet the African women who bore and nurtured the more than 15 million Africans (and this number represents the number of those who arrived—it does not take into account those who died en route) are totally forgotten. Forgotten because despite the long struggle of feminists to have women’s reproductive work recognized, this history is either ignored or commodified.14

If the law of slavery recognized the role of the enslaved woman in producing future slaves, yet fully denied her rights as mother, slave trade was pure predatory politics. During the rise of racial capitalism, the most important part of the social reproduction of a racialized and gendered workforce was located in Africa, and the legitimate focus on the situation of enslaved mothers on the plantation has obscured that predation. As Karl Marx wrote, “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signal[ed] the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.15

The unacknowledged “delegation” of the social reproduction of a bonded workforce division on non-European women did not end with abolition, however. Following the end of slavery in European colonies in the mid-nineteenth century, European powers organized a massive displacement of Indians, Chinese, Southeast Asians, Malagasy, and Africans across the world to work in its mines, railways, and plantations. Nearly 30 million Indians and 50 million Chinese were moved from one colony to another, a vast south-south movement of racialized bodies. The ratio was again two-thirds men and one-third women. Women were often shared as “wives” by four or five indentured men, though their working conditions were as harsh. In the meantime, 60 million Europeans left their continent fleeing famine, pogroms, and poverty, leading to the creation of “countries of white and free men” in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and Argentina. They settled in countries whose native populations had been decimated and dispossessed. Europeans used the notion of terra nullius to justify the appropriation of lands; the systematic politics of land dispossession were inseparable from the denial of rights and the reconfiguration of masculinity and femininity in these territories.

The historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have shown evidence of how during this time Western states, in spite of their divergent interests, found common ground in the racialization of the workforce throughout the world, and in a new reordering of the globe between consumers and producers, fit and unfit peoples.16 Moving a racialized workforce across continents with the aim of preserving and enhancing European economic interests and its need for new resources and goods followed the steps of the slave trade: conventions between European powers, use of the national maritime industry, gendering and racializing sexualities and work. Further, transport conditions, as well as living and working conditions, were barely different from those of colonial slavery.17 In the meantime, however, Western workers in France, the U.S., and England were winning important labor victories. The importation of indentured peoples in European colonies changed forever the cartography of trade, labor, and race. While the enslaved had to fight against the silence imposed by the West and to find their own voice, the mother of the captive had no voice. In the Western tradition, the enslaved was heard only if she or he spoke through the vocabulary of Western human rights. The freedom and dignity of the enslaved remained framed by the vocabulary of pity. The voice of the enslaved could not be angry or loud, full of insults and shouts. But the sorrow and rage of the slave’s mother was even more silenced. We still need to unearth her muted voice, because her mourning sounds what is at the heart of predatory economy, the will to power.

But if “colonial societies work[ed] through race,” so did the metropole.18 Following decolonization and the return of the colonizers to the metropolis, the discourse of racial whiteness was brought back to European countries. It became clear that memories of colonial history “do not simply vanish from social landscape, but appear—unasked—at unexpected moments. They can be discerned too in other stories, which on the surface might seem to have little to do with the imperial past.19 In the post-WWII reorganization of capital and the international division of labor, however, female reproduction by nonwhite women was no longer needed. Third-world women’s fertility was said to be responsible for poverty, an obstacle to development and modernization. It became a source of concern, a threat to global well-being, debated in World Population Congresses where, in the early 1950s, the United States was able to impose its views that third-world women were having too many children, which was a threat to world security, a potential menace of revolts and insurrection.20 The West would save women of color for a millenary servitude; the wombs of African, Indian, and Chinese women were no longer needed. And women who had been deported to the colonies were said to have too many children too. They were the cause of their own poverty; they had the wrong kind of families. Consequently, nonwhite women constitute the majority of precarious workers in the world today, and they are the first victims of new forms of colonization. They constitute 55 percent of trafficked people, and they play an increasing role in new medical industries such as stem-cell production, which requires high volumes of human embryos, fetal tissue, and umbilical-cord blood. Thus do poor and nonwhite women’s bodies still constitute a site of exploitation for racial capitalism.


Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front) poster by Jonathan Miles (ca. 1972)

Proposed in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, the term “Anthropocene” describes a turning point in human history. In 2011, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science argued that “the scale and speed of change have become incredible. Humankind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere.21 A majority of scientists agree that we are at a turning point: for the first time in the history of humanity human action is having geological consequences, and there is a negative planetary impact of human activities. There has been debate about when this age started, and it is an important debate. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin have suggested that we take 1610 as the starting date of the Anthropocene. There was a sharp shift, they say, in carbon deposits because of the death of more than 50 million indigenous residents of the Americas in the first century after European contact, the result of genocide, famine, and enslavement. As species were moved around the world, new plants sucked up CO2 from the atmosphere. The long European sixteenth century led to the greatest exchange of humans, diseases, plants, and animals across the globe. Sylvia Wynter has also looked at the conquest of the Americas to mark the beginning of the “Age of Man.” The environmental historian Joachim Radkau, meanwhile, has argued that the slave trade was a turning point in the global history of the environment. All these remarks are important because they connect geological human impact with colonial slavery and imperialism.

The global historian Jason Moore, meanwhile, has argued that the “Anthropocene argument—in its Two Century Model of modernity—is poor history,” and that we must see the modern world-system as a “capitalist world-ecology: a civilization that joins the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the production of nature as an organic whole.22 He has given the name “Capitalocene” to this long historical period that began in the sixteenth century with the colonial expansion of European powers. Thus, the notion of the Anthropocene is problematic because it explains our age as “a succession of social processes that cause environmental consequences. This bias underpins a series of important misrecognitions …, among them the love affair with the Industrial Revolution which has undermined efforts to locate the origins of today’s crises in the epoch-making transformations of capital, power, and nature that began in the ‘long’ sixteenth century. The alternative to the ‘Age of Man’ (the Anthropocene) is the ‘Age of Capital’ (the Capitalocene).23 To the French historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, though, the Anthropocene is also the result of a political defeat, of the victory of a kind of environmental thought that favors a sustainable management of the earth by science, of the Promethean belief that science and technology will save the earth. The thesis of the end of nature as we know it is, in fact, they argue, a thesis about total control over nature.24

The concern for the earth and the future of humanity has become the subject of intense international lobbying and negotiation. Multi-nationals have entered the field, concerned both by the control of as many resources as possible and by the threat to access to water, sugar, or other. Businesses and states are investing large amounts in green research, which Bonneuil and Fressoz understand as another way of avoiding the question at the root of the matter, in its denial of the otherness of nature. But it seems that no term can fully grasp what we are witnessing, nor the plurality of forms of dispossession and displacement. Considering this, Jussi Parikka suggests that we have entered the age of the “Anthrobscene.25 Though smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers once held the promise of ending deforestation, a world less dependent on paper, Parikka argues that the result is quite the opposite: an environmental wasteland where media never die, and a colonization of the self. Racial capitalism has thus entered a new era, in which new sites of forgetfulness are created, new Souths. There are new liquid cemeteries: if the Atlantic is a vast African cemetery of the past, today the Mediterranean, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean are the new cemeteries of disposable and racialized peoples. As structural adjustment programs are now applied to southern Western countries after having brought devastation to countries in South America, Africa, and Asia, a new cartography is emerging, a cartography of forgotten territories where the basic needs of people are neglected, toxic wastes dumped, and chemical plants installed, but also of new counterhegemonic practices.

One old strategy has been to force the state and its powers to recognize the existence of a group, a community, a people. Enslaved, colonized, women, workers, peasants, refugees, and displaced people claim: “Our lives matter! We will not allow you to forget!” This has been essential to the expansion of rights and democratization. The struggle for recognition (or memory) has been about giving an ethical dimension to Western democracy, in its call for the full application of universal rights. It is concerned with the constant reevaluation of what it is to be human, but it is also about the acknowledgment that justice is not applied equally, that the politics of lives that matter means recognizing the structural discriminations and injustice at work and the disparities that each marginalized group faces. But if the movement of decolonization in the 1960s contributed to the fight against the global politics of forgetfulness, postcolonial states have since deployed their own fabrication of forgetfulness. And the adoption of the logic of neoliberalism has accentuated this production. It is not enough, then, to fill the ethical gaps of Western democracy with our memory. Instead, we need to renew the ethics of emancipation itself.

Whatever is produced as nonexistent, Boaventura de Sousa Santos has argued, vanishes as reality. Hence, the need to challenge an “abyssal gap.26 Not only does humanity’s future depend on rejecting the European model at present, but we must rethink the long history of dispossession. In his conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote that we must forget Europe. “If we want humanity to advance a step farther, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries,” he notes.27 Fanon suggests that we articulate a position where forgetfulness would be a starting point of knowledge, thinking, and action. In this, he traced the road from the forgetfulness of damnation to post-European humanism.

The culture of the vanquished is rarely embodied in pure material objects; it is about manual work and intangible culture, about rituals and festivals. The vanquished bequeath words rather than palaces, hope rather than private property, texts and music rather than monuments. However, we are working from a mutilated and mutilating cartography. The notions of palimpsest and of cumulative palimpsests can be useful here to draw a cartography that might show both roots and routes. A palimpsest is, of course, a parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another. In other words, a palimpsest is a multilayered record. The nature of the palimpsest is twofold: it preserves the distinctness of individual texts, while exposing the contamination of one by the other. Therefore, even though the process of layering which creates a palimpsest was born out of the need to erase and destroy previous texts, the re-emergence of those destroyed texts renders a structure that privileges heterogeneity and diversity.

Roland Barthes’s description of the slippery nature of an “ideal textuality” matches that of the palimpsest:

In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable ... the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language.28

Archaeologists have proposed the notion of “cumulative palimpsest” to describe monuments in which “the successive episodes of deposition, or layers of activity, remain superimposed one upon the other without loss of evidence, but are so re-worked and mixed together that it is difficult or impossible to separate them out into their original constituents.29 Instead of providing a narrative of origin or evolution, these palimpsests trace the inscriptions and erasures of different cultures, which in turn compete and struggle with each other. These ideas point to Foucault’s assertion that what genealogy finds “at the beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origins; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.30 Therefore, while on the surface the cumulative archaeological palimpsest tries to present a multitemporal and utopian intermingling of cultures, an attempt at unraveling the palimpsest reveals its violent and disruptive impulses. This multifarious vision projected by the palimpsest, despite being the product of an attempt of erasure, demands a revision of conceptual systems based on the notions of fixity, linearity, center, and hierarchy. It impels us to replace these systems with new foundations that privilege the conceptions of “multi-linearity, nodes, links, and networks.” Too, palimpsests tend to have visual manifestations (think Angkor Wat or Timbuktu).

The notion of the cumulative palimpsest can help develop other strategies of remembrance, where the ghosts are evoked, but the goal is not to fill a gap or to mask a disappearance, but rather to make the absence visible, to show it as a symptom of an economy that requires forgetfulness. This was the strategy I adopted when I organized guided visits in the Louvre for the 2012 Paris Triennial, entitled “The Slave in Le Louvre: An Invisible Humanity.” The visits were not about searching for the representation of enslaved Africans in Western art history. Rather, they were about evidencing the ways in which the goods produced by the slaves in the European colonies—coffee, cotton, tobacco, sugar, tea—had contaminated social and cultural European life to such an extent that they had become integrated in its pictorial representation. It was a way to evoke the ghosts of slavery, their presence/absence. To that end, the collection of the Louvre is framed between two important dates in the history of the antislavery struggle: 1793, date of the first abolition of slavery in a French colony, Saint-Domingue; and 1848, the date of the second and final abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Saint-Domingue was the most important French colony, producing more than half of the sugar consumed in Europe in the late eighteenth century. The August 1791 uprising of its slaves shook the world and launched the Haitian Revolution, the only anticolonial and antislavery revolution of that century. The 1793 decree to abolish slavery in Saint-Domingue was taken in the hope that it would stop the revolution, but it was too late. On November 18, 1803, at the Battle of Vertières, the Haitians finally defeated French expeditionary forces sent by Napoléon. Nearly half a century later, 1848 finally ended slavery, which had been reestablished by Napoléon in May 1802.

Though these dates have no meaning for art historians, they inscribe the history of the Louvre in the long history of the antislavery struggle. The museum is thus a perfect site to explore how the figure of the enslaved was both forgotten and could be remembered. For the “Slave in Le Louvre” project, and with the museum’s curators, I identified the first paintings representing a man smoking a pipe, aristocratic women wearing cotton, and still lifes with sugar bowls or coffee pots. In political life, as in art history, consumption requires the construction of an abyssal gap between the presence and availability of these goods and the conditions of their production. The project creates a space of self-reflection: if consent to an abyssal gap was then fabricated in Europe, what gaps are being fabricated today? What are the mechanisms of the current imperial politics of forgetfulness?

The notion of cumulative palimpsests can help to draw a cartography of the many Souths, reinscribing the routes of solidarity that have accumulated in multilayered levels of signification; instead of foreclosing the present and the future, these palimpsests might allow new futures to be imagined. In the current process of decolonization, memories of itineraries of the enslaved, migrants, and refugees are reactivated against new politics of forgetfulness. Memory here is not the realm of subjective fleeting thought but a source of images, texts, and songs that constitute a counterhegemonic library for present battles. Past defeats are reexamined and analyzed. Patience is remembered as a political strategy. The indomitable wish for freedom and social justice of the ancestors the world over remains the power that fuels the struggle. The politics of lives that matter means imagining a politics with “those without whom the earth would never be the earth.31

OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America), Havanna, Campaign on Angola and International Day of Solidarity with the People and Students of Angola, poster by Morante (1976)

1 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007), p. 98.

2 Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. A. A. Brill (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914). Online:

3 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Penguin Books, 1990).

4 Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “The Topology of Being and the Geopolitics of Knowledge: Modernity, Empire, Coloniality.” Online:

5 Ibid., p. 15.

6 Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), p. 38.

7 Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memories: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

8 On this topic, see, for instance Rosi Braidotti, “The Posthuman Predicament,” in The Scientific Imaginary in Visual Culture, ed. Anneke Smelik (Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2010), pp. 69–89; “Meta(l)flesh,” in The Future of Flesh: Bodily Mutation and Change, ed. Zoe Detsi-Diamanti, Katerina Kitsi-Mitakou, and Effie Yiannopoulou (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 241–261.

9 Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), p. 38.

10 See François Flahault, “Entre émancipation et destruction. Les fondements de l’idéal promethéen,” Communications 78 (2005), pp. 5–49. Online:

11 Online:

12 The expression is from Friedrich Engels, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1844). It is cited by John Bellamy Foster in Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). Online:,+Marx%E2%80%99s+Ecology:+Materialism+and+Nature&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAGoVChMI9Zz-9KaLyQIVQpQPCh1g5ACE#v=onepage&q=John%20Bellamy%20Foster%2C%20Marx%E2%80%99s%20Ecology%3A%20Materialism%20and%20Nature&f=false.

13 H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau, 1896. Online:

14 On the relation between enclosures, the persecution of witches, the repression of women and their knowledge in Europe and the slave trade, see Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004).

15 Karl Marx, “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist,” in Capital, vol. 1, chap. 31, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, 1887. Online: Marx and Engels Internet Archive, 1995/99,

16 Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge to Racial Equality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

17 David Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834–1922 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

18 Bill Schwarz, The White Man’s World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

19 Ibid., p. 54.

20 See the successive resolutions of United Nations Conferences on Populations since 1974 at

21 See “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship,” Royal Swedish Academy of Science, 2011. Online:

22 Online

23 Ibid.

24 Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Événement anthropocène (Paris: Seuil, 2014).

25 Jussi Parikka, The Anthrobscene (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

26 Boaventura de Sousa Santos, João Arriscado Nunes, and Maria Paula Meneses “Opening Up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference,” in Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies, ed. Boaventura de Sousa (London: Verso, 2007), pp. xix–lxii.

27 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 254.

28 Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), p. 5.

29 See Geoff Bailey, “Time Perspectives, Palimpsests and the Archaeology of Time,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (2007), pp. 198–223.

30 Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 79.

31 Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, p. 38.