Week 1: Saidiya Hartman’s Critical Fabulation

Though I initially dismissed the spectral presence of “speculation” in Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts (believing I was under the influence of my own recent engagements with speculative fiction, the speculative turn, the speculative solution to the problem of correlationalism), she explicitly names it towards the end of her piece:

Is it possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive? By advancing a series of speculative arguments and exploiting the capacities of the subjunctive (a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities), in fashioning a narrative, which is based upon archival research, and by that I mean a critical reading of the archive that mimes the figurative dimensions of history, I intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling (emphasis mine, 11).

What Hartman seems to suggest here is the potential for a type of historical speculation or “critical fabulation” as she calls it — the assertion that in speculating about the inaccessible, silenced voices of the past, one might be able to “tell an impossible story” while simultaneously amplifying the “impossibility of its telling” (11). The implications of this act are not merely confined to “counter-histories” but also a “history of the present… the incomplete project of freedom… [which is] a condition defined by the vulnerability to premature death and to gratuitous acts of violence” (4). Before fully exploring Hartman’s account of the latter, I’d like to work through her own engagement with this type of historical labour, as it has helped flesh out my own uncertainties about what it means to “retell” or “rewrite” the past. The recurrence of the words “impossible” and “impossibility” is difficult to ignore (both feature in this piece upwards of 20 times) and refer to the seeming futility of locating a voice for those “two girls” in the “archive of slavery.” It is simultaneously an act (a search? a voyage?) described as a “refashioning of disfigured lives… [a redressal of] the violence” (2); a “recuperation” and “conjuring” — a “resurrection” (3); a “compensation” and “reparation” (4). Its intent is not however “to give voice to the slave” in the face of the silent archive but to demonstrate “Narrative restraint, the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure… the imperative to respect black noise—the shrieks, the moans, the non-sense, and the opacity, which are always in excess of legibility” (12).

The first four pages of Hartman’s essay are filled with questions about the nature of her project, its value, its potential, its price. She offers up her own initial skepticism of a type of “speculative history” — “I feared what I might invent, and it would have been a romance” (8). Wary of the way in which the grotesqueries and acts of violence perpetrated on the bodies and minds of slaves were coopted by the language of spectacle (and how closely enmeshed spectacle and speculation are both practically and etymologically), Hartman in her fist discussion of “Venus” (Lose Your Mother) resists this impulse. But this resolves itself in her decision to engage in “fabulation” in “Venus in Two Acts:”

If I could have conjured up more than a name in an indictment, if I could have imagined Venus speaking in her own voice, if I could have detailed the small memories banished from the ledger, then it might have been possible for me to represent the friendship that could have blossomed between two frightened and lonely girls. Shipmates. Then Venus could have beheld her dying friend, whispered comfort in her ear, rocked her with promises, soothed her with “soon, soon” and wished for her a good return” (emphasis mine, 8).

Characteristic here are the “ifs” of the subjunctive tense, a narrative “fashioned,” a “critical reading” of that archive which had silenced Venus in the first place but also “mimetic” — intended to tell that which is “impossible” but never to deny the “impossibility” of its telling. Whereas before Hartman “chose not to tell a story about Venus because to do so would have trespassed the boundaries of the archive,” “Venus in Two Acts” seems to be her reckoning with those boundaries, an acknowledgement that the archive is just as much a fiction, constituted by “the rumors, scandals, lies, invented evidence, fabricated confessions, volatile facts, impossible metaphors, chance events, and fantasies… [that] determine what can be said about the past” (9).

This drew to mind Pierre Cassou-Nogues’s seminar on how speculative fiction or thought might be the solution to the inaccessibility of the “past.” For those of you who weren’t at the talk, I’ll try to focus on those elements of it that pertain to what I’m discussing in this blog post. Cassou-Nogues suggested that it is through “speculative narratives” that we might be able to answer what Quentin Meillassoux refers to as “ancestral questions” — those “histories” and “bodies” that predate human existence. Meillassoux suggests that because humanity had no experience with those “ancestral” events, it is impossible to truly “speak” about their existence; Cassou-Nouges responds that through a “speculative” act, those bodies might somehow be reclaimed. How this pertains to Hartman might seem tangential (and more than likely is), but I see “Venus in Two Acts” as a localization of this theory in the thread of a human narrative: those “histories” and “bodies” that predate this “modern moment” — “ancestral” in their inaccessibility, in their silence — are opened, retold, reimagined, rewritten, and resurrected within Hartman’s “critical fabulation.” How this might all relate to the original prompt might not necessarily be clear but implicit in a discussion of “speculative narratives” is the “speculative fiction” genre, which includes (as you might imagine) works of science fiction, fantasy, dystopia — narratives that “speculate” about the future of the human race and often seek to induce dread or caution, to catalyze change.

Hartman argues, and I am inclined to agree with her, that this potential for “change” is possible not only in speculations about the future but a speculative engagement with the past. “Counter-histories” and the “history of the present” are “inseparable” as they both touch on an “incomplete project of freedom” (4). Further to this, she believes that “a history of the present strives to illuminate the intimacy of our experience with the lives of the dead, to write our now as it is interrupted by this past, and to imagine a free state, not as the time before captivity or slavery, but rather as the anticipated future of this writing” (emphasis mine, 4). I have attempted to unpack this phrase as best I can, and I hold that there is are higher stakes than the mere claim that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The present is “interrupted” by the past — and is it this “interruption” that permits her to “imagine a free state… as the anticipated future of this writing.” At play here is not merely past and present but futurity: “this history has engendered me,” she writes and as a result, “the kinds of stories I have fashioned… bridge the past and the present” (4). She seeks to “dramatize the production of nothing” or rather throw into sharp relief the absence of narrative. That absence defines her, defines the “history of the present” that is currently being written, and in turn the history of “an alternative future” yet to occur (4, 14). “If this story of Venus,” Hartman’s name for her own “critical fabulation,” “has any value at all it is in illuminating the way in which our age is tethered to her” (13).

As to what all this means for our own archival practice in this class, I’m not completely certain. How can I give voice to a community to which I do not belong? How could I dramatize its history? How could I possibly ever “retell” its narrative? If anything, I hope the work we do would involve simply locating some narratives that have been long excluded from “the Archive.” While the SCL is in fact an “archive,” yes, does it somehow stand outside the institutional “Archive” to which Hartman makes reference throughout? If so, and in many many ways I believe it does, making those narratives more visible or audible or accessible might allow them to either “speak for themselves” or help the community to discover and use those narratives to their benefit. Youssef has consistently maintained that the work we do on the material from the SCL must and will somehow inform the community as it stands today. Though I am personally wary of “speculating” myself, the opportunity for others with a more deeply-rooted, intimate connection to this material might potentially (hopefully!) benefit.

One comment on “Week 1: Saidiya Hartman’s Critical Fabulation
  1. . Sarah, I also grappled with Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation and counter-histories as the intersection of the “lives of the dead” and the “a history of the present,” and particularly with the notion that the present is “interrupted” by the past (4). The connection you seem to be highlighting is that this encounter, particularly with Venus, can be both disruptive and productive, stirring in Hartman and perhaps in her audience an evocation of the subjunctive “what-if” of an imagined free state, a future society beyond the violence done by oppressive practices and policy. On my first pass, I didn’t know what do with her use of the verb “interrupted,” but on this read, I think it’s key to her whole endeavor, perhaps a driving force. If the infinitesimal record of this forgotten Venus did not interrupt her present condition, Hartman (and her readers) would be deprived of an important self-examination, a reckoning with the past which has been silenced, suppressed, rendered as nothing, and whose legacy continues today but is rarely examined. Hartman’s day-to-day experience is interrupted by the production of this history, and so her critical fabula seeks to illuminate “the way in which our age is tethered to her” and allow this examination to occur (13).
    . I share your reservations about us as outsiders dramatizing this suppressed history or “voicing” narratives of Watts residents. During our class at SCL last week, I was struck by Anthony and Kevin’s first person accounts of life in Watts in 2016 and afterwards began to think about the ways in which their experiences are “tethered to” Venus. To an outsider with no first-hand experience of the damage an indifferent bureaucracy inflicts on communities like theirs, their stories were arresting, and they had the effect of interrupting certain moral narratives imposed on their community about its sins and indiscretions (some of which I must admit I’ve thoughtlessly ingested and accepted over the years). I feel that if we fail to uncover any substantial first person accounts of Watts ‘65 (I thought Melanie and Dermot had mentioned that much of the surviving records of the events consisted of police reports), it might be more powerful, and our presence will certainly be less intrusive, if we find a way in which to just present the connections, the legacy borne out across fifty plus years, between modern-day accounts from Watts citizens typically silenced and the ‘slow violence’ of bureaucratic indifference that contributed to the tension leading up to Watts ‘65. In this example, the act of ‘critical fabulation’ comes in a much more indirect way; we would be using current first-person accounts and 1965 archival records from the dominant forces to ‘triangulate’ a sort of indirect critical fabulation of what first-person accounts in 1965 might’ve looked like. In this way, we would be using the contemporary accounts to draw attention to the ways archival materials such as police reports in effect silenced these voices in 1965, contributing to the “production of nothing” in the archive, and how this suppression contributed to the prevalence of the same problems today.

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