Slavery and Social Death: From the Plantation to the 21st Century
What does it mean to experience social death? And how has this experience impacted the legacies of slavery in the 21st century? Beyond legal categories of ownership and personal status and structures of economic exploitation, how did personal power and authority operate in that “peculiar institution”? What were, and perhaps continue to be, the cultural and symbolic instruments of human bondage? First elaborated by sociologist Orlando Patterson, the concept of social death captures the radical alienation of an enslaved individual from their ancestors, descendants, and living family, and thus a near complete foreclosure on communal attachments and social memories that are not absolutely mediated by the “master.” How does this “secular excommunication,” accompanied by a “chronic, inalienable dishonor,” underwrite the absolute dependency and ultimate disposability of the enslaved person? Particularly in the United States, this violent ejection from history, this “natal alienation” came to rest on religious, racial, and ethnic difference—even if it wasn’t necessarily expressed in those terms. Amid the rise of the Movement for Black Lives and the frequent, mainstream backlash against critical race theory, how might an examination of the cultural and symbolic dimension of slavery (i.e., social death), its institutionalization, and the contradictions that it generates, help us grapple with, and possibly overcome, slavery’s long ramifications into the present?
In this course, we will ask: what makes slavery a distinctive relation of domination, and what might account for its fundamental place in human communities throughout time and across cultures? What are the consequences of social death and isolation from one’s heritage? And how does this concept account for, if at all, the dual existence of the enslaved, who, after all, is both object and subject? We’ll examine the internal structure of slavery as a “social fact,” slavery as an institutional process, and the dialectics of slavery—the tensions in the relationships between the enslaved and the master. Patterson’s groundbreaking book Slavery and Social Death will provide a grounding text, which we’ll read alongside work by Saidiya Hartman, Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, Jennifer L. Morgan, Claude Meillassoux, Ruth W. Gilmore, Paul Gilroy, Cedric Robinson, Eric Williams, C.L.R. James, Michael Ralph, Charles Tilly, and others. We will also look further afield, into the influence of Patterson’s work on contemporary Black studies, on Afropessimism and abolitionism. How is social death identified and experienced today, and at what cost?
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 07 — March 28, 2023