I'm a Slave for You

Spring 2016-2017


Chris Taylor

This course will trace the philosophical, juridical, and literary itinerary of modernity’s impossible subject: the person who enslaves himself. From Grotius to Vitoria through Hobbes and Locke up to Mill and beyond, the one thing that modernity’s self-possessive subject cannot will to alienate, sell, or give away is himself. From this perspective, slavery can only be a relation of domination or as a vanishing moment before the enslaved contracts into servitude. In the process of installing this perspective, philosophical modernity foreclosed myriad philosophical and legal traditions of self-enslavement at the precise moment that slavery itself was generalized as the Atlantic world’s foundational mode of political and social relation. This course will explore how this philosophical bracketing of the problem of auto-enslavement enabled Atlantic modernity to bracket slavery itself as an exceptional, pathological condition; we will then explore how the philosophical coding of humans as free by anthropological default affected the social, legal, and political life of the actually enslaved. The first part of this course will track the impossibilization of auto-enslavement in early modern and Enlightenment philosophical texts on international law, political theory, Biblical hermeneutics, and abolitionism. In the second part of this course, we will examine black and white improvisations with the figure of the self-enslaving subject, reading slave narratives, legal texts and cases occasioned by the late legalization of self-enslavement in five antebellum U.S. states, the pro-slavery genre of anti-sentimental literature known as the “anti-Tom,” and more. (18th/19th)