Trafficking in possibilities: the new abolitionism’s subjunctive ways of knowing
Lecture by Samuel Martinez (University of Connecticut)
Samuel Martinez (University of Connecticut) discusses the intersection of two conflicting epistemo-political trends: rapid growth in awareness of modern slavery has not been matched by advances in what is known about the problem.
How can belief in slavery’s widespread presence only grow while evidence of its existence seem scarce? The answers, says Martínez, lay more in believers’ hearts than in their minds, in intuition not rationality, and explicable through literary and visual cultural analysis better than through social scientific standards of evidence.
In his presentation, textual and visual analysis of books, videos and Websites produced by the 'new abolitionism'—the activism of nonprofit groups combating all manifestations of modern day slavery, including human trafficking—will be backed up with the context-aware questions of deconstructionism and Black philosophy—Who is talking? About whom? And to whom?
In contrast with the 'seeing-is-believing'culture of human rights, today’s antitrafficking and antislavery seem paradoxically to beg that not seeing can also be believing. Photographs and videos published by antislavery and antitrafficking campaigners do not supply positive evidence of rights infringements so often as conjure the shadows in which modern slavery is said to exist. And not just visually but textually, new abolitionist reporting foregrounds uncertainty, as when investigators report being persistently frustrated in the hunt for today’s slaves.
This embrace of uncertainty is understandable when seen against the representational challenge faced by new abolitionist reporters, who must on the one hand affirm that slavery is real while on the other reconciling its audiences with the scarcity of its evidence. Through 'subjunctivizing' compositional and visual techniques—of narrative non-resolution and spectralization—new abolitionist reporters have sewn doubt into the expository fabric of their reports, making a teasing uncertainty part of the art that keeps the reader reading and the spectator viewing.
About the lecturer
Samuel Martínez is a Cuban-born ethnologist. In 2016, he was awarded the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) President’s Award for outstanding service to the Association. He has served as Program Chair for the 2016 AAA Annual Meeting and also served as Chair (2003-04) of the AAA’s Committee for Human Rights. His main area of research expertise is the migrant and minority rights mobilizations of undocumented Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. He is also editor of a contributory volume, International Migration and Human Rights (U California Press, 2009) and co-editor of three journal special issues.
In his current research and writing, he brings critical scrutiny to the writings of northern human rights monitors, journalists and social scientists about Haitian-ancestry people in the Dominican Republic. He is also writing a book on the discourse and visual culture of antislavery in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And with support from the Public Discourse Project of the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, Martínez is organizing a conference and contributory volume examining the schismatic tendency of today’s anti-trafficking/antislavery discourse.
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