Conscripts of Modernity

The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment

Conscripts of Modernity

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: Published: December 2004

Author: David Scott

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Caribbean Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

At this stalled and disillusioned juncture in postcolonial history—when many anticolonial utopias have withered into a morass of exhaustion, corruption, and authoritarianism—David Scott argues the need to reconceptualize the past in order to reimagine a more usable future. He describes how, prior to independence, anticolonialists narrated the transition from colonialism to postcolonialism as romance—as a story of overcoming and vindication, of salvation and redemption. Scott contends that postcolonial scholarship assumes the same trajectory, and that this imposes conceptual limitations. He suggests that tragedy may be a more useful narrative frame than romance. In tragedy, the future does not appear as an uninterrupted movement forward, but instead as a slow and sometimes reversible series of ups and downs.

Scott explores the political and epistemological implications of how the past is conceived in relation to the present and future through a reconsideration of C. L. R. James’s masterpiece of anticolonial history, The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938. In that book, James told the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the making of the Haitian Revolution as one of romantic vindication. In the second edition, published in the United States in 1963, James inserted new material suggesting that that story might usefully be told as tragedy. Scott uses James’s recasting of The Black Jacobins to compare the relative yields of romance and tragedy. In an epilogue, he juxtaposes James’s thinking about tragedy, history, and revolution with Hannah Arendt’s in On Revolution. He contrasts their uses of tragedy as a means of situating the past in relation to the present in order to derive a politics for a possible future.


"For some time now, David Scott has been puzzling about where critical inquiry goes next. . . . In a radical expansion of [his] argument, his new book, Conscripts of Modernity proposes not that we give better answers to the old questions, but that the questions themselves are no longer relevant--because they belong to a different 'problem space' and need to be radically refashioned." — Stuart Hall, BOMB

Conscripts of Modernity is an important contribution to world knowledge. . . . And it should do much to displace the easy assumptions about temporality and power apparently so much a part of the academy’s horizon of possibility today.” — John F. Collins, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“I derived immense pleasure from reading this book, a book that offers a challenging, insightful set of questions to postcolonial theory and to scholars of C. L. R. James.” — Sophie McCall , Topia

“Scott’s strikingly original argument about the need for a tragic mode of criticism in the postcolonial present is developed through a stunning critical reading of the foundational text in Atlantic studies. This is C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins.” — David Lambert, Cultural Geographies

“The lessons of the book are pertinent to anthropological writing as much as historical writing. . . . Although its focus on theory and history may be disconcerting to the general anthropological audience, Scott moves through his argument slowly, and the book’s novel and powerful theoretical approach make it well worth the effort. It is a significant achievement that contributes to the development of new analytical models fit for a postcolonial world.” — Emma Kowal, Oceania

"[R]eaders… will find it a provocative and insightful challenge for postcolonial studies of the Caribbean and other world regions…. Conscripts of Modernity marks a significant step forward in the project of exploring critical histories of the postcolonial present in the Caribbean and around the globe." — Jacob Campbell , Transforming Anthropology

"This book is fascinating, and I recommend it highly. . . . Tremendously thought-provoking and relevant." — Danny Postel, Open Democracy

"This is a well-argued, rich book raising pertinent questions about the writing of history. . . . Historians interested in the postcolonial era should take note of this important study." — Rosemarijn Hoeft , American Historical Review

Conscripts of Modernity is a highly original and lucidly argued text, a major advance in David Scott’s effort to elaborate a new form of postcolonial criticism in the wake of the collapse of the emancipatory hopes embodied in the anticolonialist moment. Scott’s position will be found controversial by some. But it will not and cannot be ignored.” — Stuart Hall, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, The Open University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

David Scott is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality and Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil. He is editor of the journal Small Axe.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Prologue 1

1. Futures Past 23

2. Romanticism and the Longing for Anticolonial Revolution 58

3. Conscripts of Modernity 98

4. Toussaint's Tragic Dilemma 132

5. The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment 170

Epilogue 209

Notes 223

Acknowledgments 271

Index 273
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3444-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3433-0
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