Symposium Introduction

Jared Hickman’s beautiful and provocative book, Black Prometheus: Race and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery, offers us a racialized reconceptualization of modernity. Using the celebrated myth of Prometheus—who “represents Man’s Freedom in the Modern Age” (2)—Hickman tells the story of modernity as one about oppression and liberation. The book will attract, no doubt, scholars of English literature and of African American studies, but also anyone with interest in religion and in colonialism.

Hickman is interested in how the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus “has come to serve as something like a myth of modernity itself” (2). He challenges the equation of modernity with secularization and, instead, sets modernity against the background of European imperialism and racial domination. The Promethean myth has racialist potentiality, Hickman explains, because of its geographic association both with Africa and the Caucasus, its “iconization of the heroic suffering of the captive body,” and its historical function as a “political theology of the absolute” (4). The book’s argument unfolds through readings of works by a wide array of thinkers and authors, including Percy and Mary Shelley, Karl Marx, and Frederick Douglass, revealing the revival and reinvention of Prometheus as a modern, racialized figure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

We invited scholars of English literature, religion, and African American studies to engage with Black Prometheus from their various disciplinary standpoints and come into dialogue with its author. They refer to the book as “impressively researched,” “astonishingly ambitious,” “Herculean,” “transformative,” and “magisterial.” They offer serious engagement with different aspects of Hickman’s argument, and the latter offers his replies to their challenges. The result is an invigorating, multifaceted symposium on literature, theology, and race.

Prometheus as a myth of modernity had been traditionally understood as a figure of European enlightenment and of the industrial revolution. Hickman offers, instead, the European “discovery” of the “new world” in 1492 as the condition of possibility for a redefined Prometheus—Black Prometheus—to emerge in a globalized world. Associating Prometheus with Contact and with European imperialism allows Hickman to racialize Prometheus (and modernity itself) as well as to detach Prometheus (and modernity) from the secular. Hickman’s project is postsecular in that it aims to deprivilege the secular as a predominant feature of the past five hundred years, asking to understand modernity anew, as a process of globalization rather than secularization.

In the symposium we present here, both Emily Ogden (English, UVA) and Sylvester Johnson (religion, Virginia Tech) raise questions pertaining to Hickman’s choice of 1492 as his point of departure. Britt Rusert (Afro-American studies, UMass–Amherst) brings up the potential contribution of sexual difference as an additional lens of analysis of the Promethean myth. Colin Jager (English, Rutgers) reads several moments in the book as “more secular than postsecular.” Hickman responds to these and other points and engages in a fascinating dialogue with his commentators. We are delighted to present these conversations to our readers.

Prometheus offers us an understanding of liberation as rebellion against the gods. “The novel development of Romantic Prometheanism is that the liberation of Prometheus is linked, for the first time, with the possibility of ‘the dethronement of Zeus’” (74). While pre-Romantic Prometheus (that of Hesiod, Aeschylus, Marlowe and Shakespeare) was saved through submission, the Romantic Prometheus was saved through revolt. Hickman argues that this Romantic triumph of Prometheus at Zeus’s expense comprised two mutually exclusive versions: the first is White Prometheus, who interprets his victory as evidence of divinization, achieving absolute freedom. The second is Black Prometheus, who,

in enduring and resisting the absolute freedom the first, white Prometheus asserts, finds himself apocalyptically imagining and working toward a freedom that is not yet forthcoming in the cosmic status quo, a freedom defined by the negation of absolute freedom, the refusal of what I will call the master logic of the master. (75)

This is how Prometheus becomes “revolutionary” and “unshackled” (76). Hickman reads works of Romantic Prometheanism (such as those by Voltaire and Blake) as responses to the problem of racial slavery in this period. Hickman “abstract[s] from the Prometheus myth’s modern reinvention a set of larger political-theological questions regarding racial slavery.” He aims to “extrapolate from the Promethean struggle of African and Caucasian Prometheuses outlined in the preceding chapters a broader dilemma and dynamic—namely, that slave rebellion constituted a genuine threat to nothing less than the cosmic status quo presided over by the Euro-Christian man-god and that threat occasioned repression, not only on a physical but a metaphysical plane” (303). He offers a theopolitical analysis of five works of fiction about rebellious slaves (by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Victor Hugo, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda y Arteaga, Frederick Douglass, and Herman Melville) and argues that the fictions of rebellion become rebellious fictions. In a way, they become myths themselves.

The events on the US-Mexican border in the past few weeks remind me that we need Prometheus. Indeed, we need Black Prometheus. Hickman’s book is all too relevant today, when we need to respond to the use of biblical text as a justification and violent assertion of state sovereignty against a racialized immigrant community in our globalized world. These events echo another US administration’s violent separation of children from their parents in order to “kill the Indian and save the man” by sending American Indian children to Christian boarding schools. In this way, they reinforce Hickman’s point in making 1492 central to his argument in Black Prometheus.

Colin Jager


The End of Dialectics?

I admire this book a great deal. Black Prometheus is a long, impressively researched, and astonishingly ambitious study of anti-slavery in the Atlantic world. Anchored in the first half of the nineteenth century but ranging well beyond it, the book participates in the now widespread trend in American studies to think beyond the borders of the nation. It extends that work insofar as Hickman insists that we have to learn to think “cosmically” (both about the cosmos and from the perspective of the cosmos—in other words, taking in the whole planet) in order to grasp both the internal nuances and the outward spread of anti-slavery discourse. And this is for a very simple and elegant reason: that the main players in this discourse were themselves thinking cosmically, in that they consistently routed their imaginations of anti-slavery resistance through the contours of the Prometheus myth. In Hickman’s recasting of the nineteenth century, Prometheus shows up practically everywhere, and once you have read a bit of the book, it is hard to disagree. Prometheanism appears to have been hiding in plain sight all along.

If “race” and “radicalism” are two corners of Hickman’s analysis, the third is “religion,” or, as the case may be, the so-called “post-secular turn” within the theoretical humanities. I think Hickman is right to insist that the question of modernity is one of immanentization rather than secularization. This is already implicit in the language of “cosmos” and “globe” that Hickman substitutes for the more familiar “natural” and “supernatural.” What happens, he wants to know, when the gods come down to earth—and, conversely, when humans become like gods (specifically, like Prometheus)? Hickman is persuasive when he insists that we need to rethink our sense of what radicalism is—especially in the case of anti-slavery and anti-racist movements. The prevailing materialist bias, manifested in the Marxist or quasi-Marxist presuppositions of American studies and indeed, literary studies more generally, simply cannot account, conceptually, for the idealism of anti-slavery movements themselves, an idealism often couched in religious (though not necessarily Christian) terms. This is a historical point (religion hasn’t gone away) but it is also a methodological one: we have yet to grapple with the demise of the secularization thesis.

At the heart of the book is this question: given the redemptive overtones of almost all nineteenth-century abolitionist discourse, how does anti-slavery writing and agitation access the power of the theological/mythic without falling prey either to its own self-aggrandizement or to the fact that official theology is beholden to a Euro-American concept of the Absolute that inevitably reinscribes, sometimes against its own best intentions, white supremacy? Hegel’s dialectic is in some ways the ground zero of this problem, and Hickman’s reading in chapter 3 of Marx and (especially) Douglass as working within and then out of the shadow of Hegel is eye-opening. But the basic answer to Hickman’s question is: “invent a Black Prometheus.” In other words, if the white Prometheus is a freedom-fighter who must eventually learn to submit to some higher authority, thus becoming a figure for the patient slave awaiting liberation from above, the black Prometheus becomes (or might become) a figure for revolutionary and/or heretical action predicated on a denial of the (officially Christian) discourse of Absolute, channeling a liberation from below.

Here I want to pause in order to flag two points for further consideration. First, it is central to Hickman’s point that these figures are not reconcilable, no matter how sophisticated the dialectic. Second, and related, is the methodological determinism in this argument. The two points are related. Converting to the master’s discourse is never going to be anything other than counterrevolutionary for Hickman. But this not only belies the testimonies of various converts through the years; it also misreads the messiness and syncretism inherent in any act of conversion (including conversions away from religion itself). It winds up treating “religion” monolithically, even structurally, rather than as the internally divided, contestable, worldly thing that it is. In this, Hickman’s approach mirrors the kind of resolutely “secular” method that one encounters for example in Edward Said’s canonical essay “Secular Criticism.” On this score, I think, Hickman is more secular than post-secular.

I suppose Hickman might reply that the hesitation I’ve just registered is evidence of exactly the kind of nervousness surrounding the figure of the black Prometheus that he’s trying to diagnose. And it’s a fair point. What I appreciate most about this book, after all, is Hickman’s insistence that Prometheus haunts us all, a sign of the structural inequalities of modernity itself. His modernity starts in 1492, when the globe opens up in a new way and the vertical relation human-God is replaced by the horizontal one human-human, with all the racial distinctions and awareness such contact entails and all the corresponding attempts to reinscribe that immanence back into the discourse of a theological Absolute. We humans have, Hickman seems to imply, a reflex tendency to theologize; in the post-contact world, that means we tend to theologize things like race, culture, democracy, and nation; this leads almost always to baneful effects. This is also what makes the articulation of a black Prometheus possible, and necessary. But I think that I can agree with all of this and still hold out for a more nuanced description of how people actually interact with their religious and spiritual traditions: taking the things that work, discarding those that don’t, modifying others to fit new circumstances and contexts—and finding inspiration, sometimes, in the most unlikely places. Black liberation theology would be one obvious example.

Immanentization, then, may not be a post-secular move so much as recovering an older, pre-modern form of Christianity which at least in certain manifestations was comfortable both with Christ’s humanity and with human (potential) divinity. One way to read the harrowing of hell episode in the Gospels is that hell is now empty: that Christ’s embrace of humanity and subsequent death means that we are all, now, saved—that is to say, made divine, “made like unto a son of god,” as the writer of Hebrews says in a rather strange passage. One could turn to certain church fathers—Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa—and find there a celebration of abundant human life and of something like a universalist “becoming divine” that may be surprising from a dominant Augustinian perspective. That this became a minority tradition is precisely my point: various radical and surprising possibilities opened up here tend to get shut down by a church concerned with order and hierarchy and self-preservation. But they remain, nevertheless, vibrant parts of a tradition and of its texts; in other words, within a more orthodox tradition than Hickman seems to realize, we can find a thinking-through of the very issues of immanentization and divination that so concern him. We don’t have to go to a heretical tradition like Gnosticism in order to find such discussions. Indeed, in my view, Hickman has a somewhat too sanguine view of heresy as always and everywhere revolutionary.

I’d like to turn now to Hickman’s account of Percy and Mary Shelley in chapter 5. Black Prometheus makes possible a new reading of major texts by both authors (Mary’s Frankenstein [1818] and Percy’s Prometheus Unbound [1820]) that shifts their interpretation out of the European, French Revolutionary context where it has lain largely undisturbed for the past forty years. Both works suddenly emerge as global texts in Hickman’s sense, their utopian aspirations now conditioned not merely by events in France but by those in Haiti and elsewhere. This is marvelous.

William Blake claims that “opposition is true friendship,” however, and in the spirit of such friendship, I note again my sense that Hickman moves too quickly to equate his favored position with a kind of anti-Christian radicalism, missing the dialectical point that it is the very attempt to leave Christianity too quickly, manifested in the leveling of creator and created in the name of immanence, that secures the very kind of stubborn and static oppositionalism that both of the Shelleys are diagnosing in their texts. Another way to put this would be to say that Hickman endorses Prometheus’s belief at the beginning of Prometheus Unbound that reconciliation is by definition capitulation; this means that his readings of the Shelleys tends to fetishize structural opposition. In the case of Frankenstein, this commits him to the unlikely claim that Victor and his Creature are somehow, through it all, meant to be understood as equally at fault: “This equivalence, I am arguing . . . obscures the positional difference and, indeed, the structural inequality of Victor and the creature and thereby undermines any moral rational for just rebellion against the status quo” (241). It is difficult for me to grasp how an attentive reading of a novel so insistent on confronting its readers both with Victor’s narcissism and with his casual assumption of privilege can reach such a conclusion, but perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point. (Hickman admits [245] that this may all be a readerly trap—something he’s willing to grant to Melville but not, it seems, to Shelley.)

The case of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is more complicated. So much of what Hickman does with this text is stunning, not least the firm situating of its action in the Caucuses, and thus within the history of racial thinking that location entails. Once again, though, the conclusion is uncompromising: because the poem ultimately endorses “a Christian ethics of passivity” (one wonders, by the by, about that phrase, as opposed to the more familiar “passive resistance,” which of course has a somewhat different resonance, was explicitly theorized by Shelley in “The Mask of Anarchy,” and, from there, passed down to Gandhi and to MLK), it “defuses the threat” of the black Prometheus and “theoretically speaking, precludes Afro-Atlantic slave rebellion, particularly violent rebellion, as a world-historical force” (222).

Blake’s poem America (1793), which Hickman discusses briefly (105), opens with the obviously Prometheus-like Orc chained to a rock. This Prometheus frees himself, but only in order to immediately join his revolutionary energy to that of a nameless young woman who in Blake’s allegory represents Native America. She says to him: “I know thee, and have found thee, & will not let thee go: / Thou art the image of God who dwells in the darkness of Africa” (Plate 2). Blake’s point is clear: slave rebellion is bound together not just with the American Revolution (his putative topic in this poem) but also with anti-colonial rebellions throughout the Atlantic world: “I see a Serpent in Canada . . .  / In Mexico an Eagle, and a Lion in Peru,” the woman says (Plate 2). The companion poem Europe, published the following year, makes it quite clear that slave rebellion is indeed a “world-historical force”: “Albions Angel smitten with his own plagues fled with his bands / The cloud bears hard on Albions shore” (Plate 9a). But Blake is also clear that the cycles of rebellion that he came to call the “Orc cycle” were also self-defeating; Orc becomes Urizen, in his myth, because pure rebellion brings no new form into the world—just as the Revolution reproduced the violence it abhorred.

Thus, for someone trained, as I was, to think about British Romanticism as an extended creative wrestling with the legacies of the French Revolution, Hickman’s argument can have a somewhat disorienting effect. Many of the strongest productions of romanticism (among which I would count Blake’s prophesies, as well as Frankenstein and Prometheus Unbound) take upon themselves the task of coming to terms with a revolution that had begun with such promise and degenerated into such bloody chaos and then, war and imperialism. Their general diagnosis is that the spirit of revolution itself becomes structural, a mutually-supporting oppositionalism whose effects are visited less on the Promethean combatants than on the ordinary people trying to make their way in the world; heroic battles, in other words, cause a lot of collateral damage. That is why Percy Shelley depicts the world of Prometheus Unbound as frozen, why Mary Shelley ends Frankenstein in the polar regions, and why Blake turns from the revolutionary dualism of the Orc cycle to the more complicated three-part dynamic of Milton (1804), where Satan appears not as a Promethean fighter but as what Blake calls the “reasoning negative” or what Hickman would call the “bad dialectic” that resolves all things in favor of the master. (Satan is associated with a self-justifying “pity” that we can read as the equivalent of abolitionist sentiment.) Satan must be destroyed, Blake writes, so that the “True Contraries” can be redeemed, their antagonistic relation allowed to flourish and develop. For—and here is the point—these contraries inhabit, finally, the same world, and they must find a way to live together, even in friction and disagreement.

I am laying out these points as strongly as I can in part because the stakes seem to me quite high. If Hickman is right, then what I have long regarded as the great political and ethical insight of British romantic literature—the recognition, variously articulated, that in order to prevent its hardening into rigid oppositionalism, revolution must be dialectical, must propose a way forward that is at the end of the day inclusive—this very notion, with its redemptive overtones, delegitimizes the necessary violence of slave rebellion and blocks our theoretical access to the other revolutions that are happening in this period, making them into “unthinkable revolutions,” to use Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s description of the Haitian Revolution. Here is where I wish Hickman had worked with Blake more systematically, since of all the major British writers of the period he is probably most attuned to the varied discourses of revolution and violence that are afoot during this time. But I also think that texts like Prometheus Unbound, especially in its use of Asia in book 2 as the female figure who breaks open the sweaty masculine battle of Jupiter and Prometheus, might have pushed Hickman toward a slightly different and, perhaps, less binary construal of the political terrain.

  • Jared Hickman

    Jared Hickman


    No, a New Beginning for Dialectics

    I am most grateful for Colin Jager’s serious and strenuous engagement with Black Prometheus and have responded in kind. He pays me the scholar’s ultimate compliment: posing his skeptical questions as “strongly” as possible in generous acknowledgment of the weight of my argument. Chief among them is the one stated in his title: “the end of dialectics?” This question is useful because it offers me a chance to clarify some key points and also because it reveals some of the entrenched biases Black Prometheus seeks to challenge.

    My first response to the question, I must admit, is puzzlement, as chapter 3 emphatically affirms “the reality of dialectical effects and the value of dialectical thinking” (121). Here I was, ready to be challenged for the book’s overweening commitments to dialectics and overreaching gestures toward totality—as Britt Rusert does in her review—and I find myself being accused of being insufficiently dialectical! I suspect the confusion arises, first and foremost, from the fact that chapter 3 offers a strong critique of Hegel and Marx’s dialectics by way of the work of Frederick Douglass. But my point is that Douglass is being dialectical rather than nondialectical in opposing the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic. By fleshing out and giving oppositional force to that which the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic precludes and even defines itself against—an Africanist worldmaking embodied in the fetish—Douglass, I argue, doesn’t repudiate dialectics in toto but rather enacts and models a better dialectic, what I name a dialectic of global (rather than universal) history. No doubt George Ciciarello-Maher’s sharp recent book, Decolonizing Dialectics, would have helped me better articulate my position. There he cogently outlines a dialectical tradition (perhaps beginning with Douglass, no less, he suggests in his epilogue) whose grist is the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic itself and whose yield, one might say, is a properly dialectical dialectic—which is to say, a more capacious and relentless dialectic that doesn’t foreclose or foreshorten processes of struggle and transformation by overdetermining certain developments within the unfolding of historical materiality. This is a dialectic ever open to revising its own formulations in light of the dynamic, contingent curves and swerves of history and the new forms of understanding these enable. Far from pronouncing “an end to dialectics,” then, Black Prometheus openly attempts a renewal of dialectics. More strongly put, it recovers and advocates a version of dialectics as an immanent form of critique in a global modernity characterized by an experience of planetary finitude. In a world riveted and riven by the moral and logistical problem of the distribution of limited resources and all derivative forms of capital—financial, cultural, and spiritual—across humanized space (and all in view of a possible abbreviation of human time as a result of that distribution scheme), dialectics, in both their clear-eyed foregrounding of contradiction and persistent expectations of transformation, are arguably indispensable. What Hegel, contra Kant and his cosmopolitan ideal of perpetual peace, grasped in his attempt to update philosophy to this situation, was, as Pheng Cheah has recently put it, “the reality of violence in history.” Or, to quote Douglass’s variation, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” There is no evading “struggle,” in its unruliness and uncouthness, on the road to “progress,” whatever we may take that to mean. The drift of Black Prometheus is indeed that any meaningful “progress” we might want to make in our global modernity will in part run through the Africanist antithesis of the historical form I take pains to specify as “Euro-Christianity” (or, after black theologian William R. Jones, “Whiteanity”), the form under which Hegel envisioned a triumphant end of history.

    Such “rigid oppositionalism” makes Jager uncomfortable, and this is telling—not least because such opposition is arguably the very engine of dialectical transformation. Indeed, he correctly predicts my response (a “fair” one, he openhandedly grants) that such discomfort represents “exactly the kind of nervousness surrounding the figure of the black Prometheus that [I’m] trying to diagnose.” Jager’s discomfort first expresses itself as an empirical complaint that is easily answered. He highlights the demonstrable fact of Afro-Atlantic “conversion” to Christianity and the role of Christian radicalism in abolitionist and antiracist struggles and suggests my account lacks “nuance” by not sufficiently addressing the “messiness and syncretism” attendant upon this reality. I concede that Black Prometheus emphasizes, even privileges, what I distinguish as heretical rather than orthodox antislavery (a move defensible on historiographical and political grounds, I think), but it also has much to say about the latter. Most pertinently, it argues that Afro-Atlantic Christianities in particular might be conceptualized, following Paul Radin, as much as conversions of the Christian God to Africans as conversions of Africans to the Christian God (407–8n36). In the context of global modernity, “Christianity” was arguably being converted by Afro-Atlantic Christian reformers into something other than its apparent self (some might say into its “true” self). What has to be appreciated, then, is the oppositional force and transformative effect of Afro-Atlantic Christianities on “Christianity” itself, even to the point of definitional crisis (a crisis underscored, it has to be said, by the white evangelical vote in the most recent US presidential election). As the black abolitionist Samuel Ringgold Ward put it, slavery was “an issue neither beginning nor ending with the rights and the liberties . . . of the poor Negro; but an issue involving the honour of Christ, the purity of the Church, the character of God, and the nature of our religion—of Christianity. . . . What sort of Christ is he who, while professing to die for the race, authorizes the exclusion of the coloured portion thereof . . . from the commonest benefits of salvation? Even such is the Christ of American pro-slavery religion.” Hence, I might reverse the charge of treating “‘religion’ [read ‘Christianity’] monolithically” and stand by my overt claim (83) that black Prometheanism includes rather than precludes orthodox antislavery insofar as the latter opens theodicy, making possible submission to the Christian God on the condition of his providential demonstration of love for Afro-Atlantic people. One of the possible upshots of black Prometheanism—to address Jager’s patent concern—is the renovation, even redemption, of “Christianity” through something like black liberation theology, which Jager mentions.

    But the ultimate key to understanding Jager’s discomfort lies in his own description—as a leading British Romanticist and also foremost theorist and practitioner of the postsecular turn—of what the dialectic means for him. Jager’s dialectic—following a certain reading of Shelley and the British Romantics—is “at the end of the day inclusive” and “redemptive”; furthermore, the arrival at such redemptive inclusion is predicated on an eschewal of revolutionary agitation that is, in his final sentence, dubiously gendered as feminine (a point I will address fully in my response to Rusert). At work here is, I think, a familiar liberalization of the dialectic that, in a way, returns it to its roots as “a practical protocol for philosophical debate” (7). In this scheme, the dialectic becomes, at worst, a suspect version of “both-siderism” and, at best, an especially robust form of civility—of “find[ing] a way to live together, even in friction and disagreement,” a public sphere ample enough to accommodate deep antagonism without dissolving. This latter is nothing to sniff at, I hasten to emphasize, and I of course share Jager’s humane concerns about the direct and “collateral damage” attending revolution. But the whole problem, as Jager himself registers, is the “structural inequalities” built into the “way [we] live together,” the redress of which would involve material changes that in fact invalidate or at least radically make over certain ways of thinking and being. And it is unclear if such changes can be seriously considered, let alone successfully implemented, without the very oppositionalism Jager would defuse. Again, let me be transparent: one should work, heart and soul, for what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the repentance of the tyrant” in order to preempt the need for “the insurrection of the oppressed.” But there are two undeniable catches: one, provoking such “repentance” will no doubt involve forms of defiance that will indeed seem crudely “binary” or “oppositional” in their candid challenge of the status quo; two, the brutal, entirely unromantic fact is that a proper “repentance of the tyrant” often is not forthcoming, and “insurrection of the oppressed” proves to be necessary for a radical redirection of “the way we live together.” Jager’s dialectic gets the cart ahead of the horse: the longing for synthesis in the form of redemptive inclusion ends up obscuring the generative agency of the antithesis that makes genuine synthesis possible. The antithesis is misunderstood as preventing rather than enabling synthesis. In more concrete terms, the insurrection of the oppressed is deemed, at best, just as bad as and, at worst, even worse than the unrepented tyranny. This misunderstanding is especially mystifying given that a central point of the book is that the thing black Prometheanism opposes—the focal point of its antithesis—is precisely an absolutism that would consolidate power in a single figure or moment (one of the British Romantics’ worries about French revolutionaries); that is, black Prometheanism might be seen as greasing the skids to synthesis. But in Jager’s dialectic, not only is the antithesis disproportionately delegitimized, the thesis seems to be tacitly reinscribed—one might even say synthesis comes to consist in the rehabilitation of the thesis after its pummeling by the “bad” antithesis. The ground of inclusion reverts to that of the thesis, spared the full force of the antithesis. To my mind, such a procedure more obviously invites the interrogative: “an end to dialectics?”

    This reinscription of the thesis manifests in Jager’s own dogged reinscription of the Euro-Christian dialectic Black Prometheus does indeed dialectically contradict—despite his evident understanding and appreciation of the force of the book’s argument, even to the point of repeatedly beating me to the punch by accurately anticipating and crediting my counterarguments. He plainly worries about maintaining a certain cachet for Blake and the Shelleys and, above all, Christianity. One especially revealing moment in this regard may be when Jager—on the basis of the book’s unstinting critique of Euro-Christianity—calls me “more secular than post-secular.” Exposed here, I think, is the frequent conflation of the “postsecular” with the “pro-religious,” more specifically the (re)valorization of what Tomoko Masuzawa has historicized as so-called “world religions.” My pointed particularization of Christianity in its dominant historical form in global modernity as “Euro-Christianity” is received as “secular” rather than “postsecular”—even though, as I hope I’ve shown, the book’s account of “Christianity” is more precise than Jager suggests and, more than that, the book openly commits itself to a project of “theo-geopolitical economy” (52) and goes so far as to admit its flirtation with mythic discourse (17–18). The promise of the postsecular, Black Prometheus hopes to show, may ultimately lie not in the spirited and sophisticated defense of “religion” (itself a term of art developed by secular states, as Talal Asad and Jager himself have taught us and thus a term that, contra Jager, is in fact deliberately not a “corner of [my] analysis”), let alone a particular “religion” (e.g., an implicit if not explicit neo-Hegelian affirmation of Euro-Christian civilization as a culminating world-historical force). Rather, the promise of the postsecular may lie, dare I say without too much embarrassment, in generating narratives that might motivate and equip us—on a level that might provisionally be called “spiritual”—for the salvation of the world as such, the world that has, for the moment, revealed itself to us, in its immanence and coherence, as a legitimate object of ultimate concern.

Britt Rusert


From Black Prometheus to the Sable Venus

The light of his own life seemed suddenly eclipsed with the passing of the lovely vision of Venus.

–Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902–3)[/EPI]

In Black Prometheus: Race and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery, Jared Hickman puts himself up to a task that I can only think to describe as Herculean: taking on nothing less than the secularization of/as modernity thesis, Hickman turns to modern iterations of the Prometheus myth to show how forms of theological thinking persist and take on new meaning within a “new cosmic framework of global immanence” (12) produced by the geopolitical and philosophical rupture of European imperialism and racial enslavement in the Americas. Refusing and perhaps also fearing what it would mean to accept the brutal disenchantment of the world that secularist scholarship portends and on occasion, embraces, Hickman insists “global modernity demands mythic imagination” (17). In this way, the book tracks the usually Romantic and always racialized Prometheus myth across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but also explicitly participates in the myth-thinking that Hickman says has been central to intellectual and literary history’s reckoning with the “difference” that clashed into the world in 1492. Hickman calls this form of thought metacosmography: “the mapping and shaping of what has become our specific terrain of the universal, the planet we all inhabit, with its ever-densifying history” (18). Despite Hickman’s commitments to present-day concerns (one gets the sense that for the author, thinking with divinized humans and humanized divines may be the only way to get out of the multiplying horrors of the Anthropocene), there is still something that feels distinctly non-modern, even Scholastic, about this book: it is an impressively large tome in scope and size, it is refreshingly earnest, extremely learned, and it often makes dazzling intellectual leaps in order to tell a big story across disparate periods and places. These qualities contribute to the great success of the book, but also to one weakness: it is itself epic, it aims to “contain multitudes,” it uses the modern Promethean myth to capture an entire field of “metacosmography” that defines the (meta)critical theory of globality. But in taking on such a large task, it sometimes obscures alternative gods, myths, and theisms even when they fall within the purview of Prometheanism. Black Prometheus reaches for the stars, and in taking that risk, it can’t be blamed for occasionally running aground. In fact, I love these moments in Hickman’s study: when readers get glimpses not of the titan romanticized in the ethereal terrain of the heavens or atop the mountaintop of Caucasus, but of New World subjects who were theorizing myths and theologies from the ground itself, those looking up at the stars “down on the muck” (Zora Neale Hurston) or from the hold of the slave ship (Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, Christina Sharpe). Black Prometheus is an exhilaratingly generative book, and in what follows, I want to take up the author’s invitation to think with and alongside modern Prometheanism. While reading, I found that my own “theological thinking”—to borrow Corey D. B. Walker’s phrase cited by Hickman—kept turning me away from Prometheus and toward Venus, another mythic figure who is absolutely central for any consideration of the re-sacralization of the gods—and goddesses—in “our” racialized, global modernity.

Central for Hickman’s argument is the idea that 1492 represents a seismic shift in both world history and in the intellectual history of that world. For Hickman, 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, “constitutes a genuine rupture of space-time” and “we are still fundamentally living in the world initially brought into being by that encounter of radically unforeseen peoples and places” (33). In this account, New World encounter produces a “radical heterogeneity that should be understood as nothing less than a clash of cosmos previously closed to each other” (39). By the 1600s, Hickman argues that both “metaphysical totality” and “geocultural entirety” are thoroughly mediated by theories of race. He thus wants to make racial slavery and racialization itself central for how we understand the political-theological landscape of global modernity. In so doing, he trades “secularity for globality as the background condition of modern life” (34).

From the perspective of the history of ideas, colonialism and enslavement may have represented a single rupture of earth-shattering proportions that reshaped an idea of the earth into an immanent and unitary planet for the first time in (European) history, but that history was experienced unevenly and more brutally for enslaved and colonized peoples. Walter Johnson has written about the “First Passage” of African captives from various locations within the continent to the slave coast, a journey of horror and disorientation that had already occurred before the terrors of the Middle Passage. Further complicating a unitary “space-time” in racial modernity, in Saltwater Slavery Stephanie Smallwood writes about the perceived and existential non-directionality of the Middle Passage for people packed into the hold with no idea where they were headed, or if they would survive. She writes about the traumatic imprint of the slave ship for captives in the Caribbean who would see the slave ships return to the shore every spring and summer. Each arriving ship—and its captive subjects—renewed the memory and the trauma of the forced journey to the Americas. Finally, it is worth remembering that the first “rupture” of the slave trade had to be reproduced in each generation: through the humiliations of punishment and torture, the erasure of names, the forced separation of biological and chosen kin through the domestic slave trade.

Christina Sharpe’s recent In the Wake: On Blackness and Being argues that contemporary black life continues to be lived “in the wake” of the world that slavery made. The point here is that for peoples of African descent, as for American Indigenous people, 1492 comes crashing to shore, again and again. It might be argued that Hickman’s interest is in the broader political-theological and ontological ramifications of colonial conquest, not in the empirical experiences of a post-1492 world. But enslaved and colonized people have long thought and theorized in the midst of and from the position of their subjugation. And that position offers a different (escape) route into thought and theory.

What if 1492 was a fold rather than a rupture? To attempt to return to the beginning of modernity is to find not a complete rupture or a break, but difference itself (a difference at the origin that may be, as I suggest below, the difference introduced by sexual difference itself): “What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity” (Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” 79). Black Prometheus foregrounds the centrality of racial enslavement to the entire terrain of the modern political-theological, but what of the transformation of sex and gender that accompanied modern forms of racialization? Hortense Spiller’s analysis of the “degendering” produced by and through the Middle Passage suggests that the slave trade also produced a new sex/gender system. I will leave the theological implications of this to others, but it seems key here to emphasize that sexual difference cannot be detached from racial difference or from the “absolutism of the subject” (Hickman, 3) in modernity. I am reminded of Luce Irigaray’s argument that sexual difference cuts the absolute itself: “the absolute is never singular or indeed complete because it is two” (Alison Martin, Luce Irigaray and the Question of the Divine, 130).

This mutually gendered and racialized system has been obscured by philosophers, ethnologists, and other thinkers of global modernity who absent the feminine from the scene of race’s reproduction, just as Promethean narratives reproduce and redouble myths about a world in which men reproduce—and resist—without women and femmes. While reading Hickman’s book, I kept returning to the (absented) mother in mythic and meta-mythic thought. I thought about Frederick Douglass’s mother, from whom Douglass was separated as a child and about whom he retained only fleeting and fragmented memories. In My Bondage and My Freedom, a text from which Hickman beautifully excavates Douglass’s self-stylization as a Promethean figure, Douglass notes that “there is, in ‘Prichard’s Natural History of Man,’ the head of a figure—on page 157—the features of which so resemble those of my mother, that I often recur to it with something of the feeling which I suppose others experience when looking upon the pictures of dear departed ones.” Somewhat bafflingly, the image that reminds Douglass of his mother—and upon which Douglass looks lovingly—is an illustration of a statue of Ramses II, the great king of ancient Egypt. In his introduction to My Bondage and My Freedom, James McCune Smith interprets this moment as one in which Douglass challenges polygenesis’s attempt to prove the European, and non-miscegenated, ancestry of the ancient Egyptians. The resemblance of Ramses to Douglass’s mother thus gestures toward the king’s African ancestry. But Douglass’s sentimental identification of his mother with an illustration of a masculine bust in white marble found in the pages of a natural history text further points to the subsuming of the mother, and the feminine more generally, under modern theories of racialization that play out in Promethean myths and natural philosophy alike.

In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Prometheus’s mother is Themis and associated with Gaia, and I wonder if this maternal inheritance, from “Mother Earth,” might ultimately offer us a different way into immanent critique. Following Hurston’s articulation of a form of thought and a form of life produced “down in the Everglades there, down on the muck” (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 10), I am thinking about a kind of critique that values more tentative and even fragmented knowledges, forms of thinking that figure things out along the way, rather than from the hindsight of postmodernity or from the lofty perspective of intellectual history, which can only make sense of things from a safe position in the future, after the storm has passed. Hickman finds “science” limiting as a tool for both thinking and social transformation, but science should not be conflated with a crude and disenchanted empiricism, or with a non-robust form of imagination. For example, Hickman critiques Sylvia Wynter for championing science’s emancipatory potential and for buying into the “secularization” of modernity thesis that “implies religion’s displacement by science” (37). These are basically the same grounds upon which he critiques my own thinking in Fugitive Science. He argues that fugitive science reasserts a “religious-secular binary” that texts like Blake avoid through a “heretical cosmography.” In many ways, I am interested in doing with science what Hickman wants to do with political theology, though he replaces my “fugitive science” with a “metacosmography” that can “resonate both as a scientific and religiocultural enterprise.” For what it’s worth, this is exactly how I understand Wynter’s own use of science, from Darwinian evolution to cognitive science and cybernetics: as a thinking alongside the “new science” of different periods to narrate a bold mythos for humankind. For Wynter, science affords an opportunity to reflect broadly and even theologically on the human, not to naively embrace “science” or “biodicy” as the savior of humanity. This is to say that science can be—and has been—a rich site of myth-making too.

Finally, I wonder if black Prometheus’s mother might be the sable Venus herself, the devalued but always crucial and animating black feminine, the flesh and “zero degree of social conceptualization” (Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 67) upon which the modern world is built. From John Gabriel Stedman’s account of “his” beloved Joanna in eighteenth-century colonial Surinam to the many visual and textual representations of Sarah Baartman herself, the sable Venus has been mythologized in the colonial archive to justify her exploitation and debasement. But she has also been reclaimed, revalued and re-sacralized across a long history of black feminist art, literature, and theory, from Pauline Hopkins’s serial novel, Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902–3), through to a rich genealogy of more contemporary works (Elizabeth Alexander, Suzan-Lori Parks, Renee Cox, Saidiya Hartman, Robin Lewis Coste, and on and on). The sable Venus is at least as important as the black Prometheus, and from the perspective of contemporary black art and theory, she may be even more so. Just as Venus haunts Reuel Briggs in his study at the beginning of Hopkins’s Of One Blood, she may shadow the figure of Prometheus in ways that are instructive for understanding adjacent and alternative models of cosmic thought and rebellion in the modern world. Early on, Hickman cites Lewis Gordon’s argument that black critical theory is “theory split from itself. It is the dark side of theory, which, in the end, is none other than theory itself, understood as self-reflective, outside itself” (quoted in Hickman, 16). But, following Moten, blackness is already “cut” by the feminine, by the sound and materiality of Aunt Hester’s scream that inaugurates Douglass’s Promethean self-narrativization. In this way, critical theory is always split by the black feminine itself.

  • Jared Hickman

    Jared Hickman


    Against Brotality and Brometheanism

    I am happy to accede to Britt Rusert’s criticisms of Black Prometheus as a book whose admittedly monomaniacal framing necessarily results in certain failures of attention and observation. However, some of Rusert’s initial criticisms of the book’s style, rhetoric, and method are overtly anticipated by the book itself. For instance, her repeated characterization of Black Prometheus as a “history of ideas” and “intellectual history” even though I lay out a theoretical case, integral to the book’s modus operandi, for refusing such a categorization (17–18). Or the statement—as though a corrective counterargument—that the history of globalization “was experienced unevenly and more brutally for enslaved and colonized peoples” even though that qualification is present in the book in strikingly similar language (38–39). And she celebrates “moments” in the book, as though they were ephemeral, “when readers get glimpses not of the titan romanticized in the ethereal terrain of the heavens or atop the mountaintop of Caucasus, but of New World subjects who were theorizing myths and theologies from the ground itself, those looking up at the stars ‘down on the muck.’” But the whole theoretical and rhetorical thrust of the book is to disallow this distinction—Hegel and the African American narrators of the King Buzzard tales alike are metacosmographers “down on the muck,” the gods and goddesses right alongside them. Black Prometheus attempts precisely to render “the broader political-theological and ontological ramifications of colonial conquest” in terms of “the empirical experiences of a post-1492 world,” to comprehend a wide range of “real-world” pronouncements and performances as maneuvers in the real-time of the global metacosm.

    Whence the disconnect, then? It may be that I have simply failed to achieve—to Rusert’s satisfaction—my stated ends (more on that in a moment). But it seems important to register that Black Prometheus explicitly sets out to do some of the things Rusert suggests certain of its methodological and formal commitments would prevent it from doing. This force-fitting of Black Prometheus into molds it openly attempts (albeit perhaps fails) to break is, in the end, instructively symptomatic of a recognizable malaise in humanistic inquiry over the last several decades. At the heart of Rusert’s critique is a familiar opposition between totality and the “fragment” that is gendered—we might even recast these as “brotality” and—to indulge in a bit of bad Derridean wordplay—f(r)e(g)mme(nt).” As I discuss in the book, this state of affairs can be traced to the post-1968 rejection of Hegelian-Marxist totality as imperialist not only in content but form (120–21). One vital strand of this critique was of course feminism (for instance, Luce Irigaray, who makes an appearance in Rusert’s commentary), which pointed up the structural ignorance of issues of gender and sexuality in the Western Marxist intellectual project. In this particular interplay, totality was understandably experienced as “brotality” and feminism found a raison d’etre in lingering over the “f(r)e(g)mme(nts)” systematically excluded from that totality. Now Black Prometheus is openly committed to rehabilitating and redefining totality as a conceptual (and ontological) frame of reference. In the simplest terms, following Edouard Glissant, Sylvia Wynter, and others, it aspires toward a totality worthy of the name; instead of rejecting totality tout court, it urges: make ever truer totalities (128–30). Hence, the more formidable and important challenge lurking behind Rusert’s initial criticisms of my book’s style, rhetoric, and method becomes clear when she turns to the sable Venus as an alternative to black Prometheus: To what extent, I hear her asking, does Black Prometheus’s evident commitment to totality necessarily tend toward “brotality,” thus reinforcing the notion that totality is irredeemable as far as certain political projects are concerned? To what extent is black Prometheanism akin to what Alexander Galloway has recently called “Brometheanism”? Or might the book harbor an at least latent—perhaps too latent (properly feeling the sting of Rusert’s critique)—conception of totality that lends itself to feminist intervention?

    I want to return Rusert’s favor of “thinking with and alongside” black Prometheanism by eagerly seconding her nomination of the sable Venus as black Prometheus’s mother and seizing the opportunity to draw out further the book’s engagements with questions of gender and sexuality. The first thing to do (as we all wish modern public figures would) is to unequivocally disavow “brotality” and “Brometheanism.” Rusert’s charitably posed feminist interrogations are well-taken. I feel their chastening force, and what follows is not offered as a defense but in correspondently constructive dialogue with her keen questions and problematizations.

    Modern Prometheanism, as I catalogue it, does not at all default to Brometheanism in this basic sense: male and female cultural producers seem equally drawn to the figure and deft at putting the titan to cultural work in global modernity. Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Lloyd, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others, appear as skilled practitioners of modern Prometheanism. More pertinent, perhaps, is the book’s showcasing of several female black Prometheuses: Voltaire’s Pandora (more on her in a moment), the slave mother sheltering her child from the national eagle in the 1844 American Anti-Slavery Almanac, Percy Shelley’s witch of Atlas, and Stowe’s Milly. One gist of Rusert (and also Jager’s) querying of the book’s gender politics is that certain of these qualities embodied in the black Prometheus—specifically a physical defiance implicit in breaking one’s own bonds—may seem decidedly masculinist (Douglass’s tangle with Covey being a touchstone here). But, to my mind, as I state in the book (87–88), this is too easy a gendering of resistance that simply does not tally with “the empirical experiences” of enslaved and fugitive people. Enslaved and fugitive men did not have a monopoly on such physical defiance—I mention Susan Dublin Brace but witness also Mary Prince or Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére and other female Haitian revolutionaries. If these are deemed outliers, one might note the Prometheus myth offers a multidimensional representation of physical defiance: there is not just the rattling and rending of chains but the brave endurance of physical suffering without allowing it to break you mentally. Even more important to remember, the physical risks Prometheus takes to steal fire and the physical punishments he suffers as a result are undertaken not in order to aggrandize himself—just flexing in the mirror—but to care for others: Prometheus’s strenuous daring is a sacrificial act on behalf of the human community, which, furthermore, is sometimes imagined as his own creative progeny. Insofar as one admits certain performative conventions of gender, this quality might be characterized as feminine, even maternal. Indeed, one might see this as literalized in the American Anti-Slavery Almanac image of the slave mother throwing her own body between her child and the predatory eagle of the US state (speaking of physical defiance). But recall also that even Douglass’s muscle-bound “heroic slave,” Madison Washington, after his Promethean cameo against a forest fire, returns to the plantation to rescue his wife and is reenslaved. The abiding tendency of black Prometheanism is toward tireless nurture; it is not a simple trajectory ending in a badass selfie. This is to say that, right alongside Rusert’s sable Venus, black Prometheus may already be a mother goddess as well. Perhaps this is why the figure proved so attractive to female as well as male cultural producers and so susceptible to female incarnations.

    All of this, I accept, could and perhaps should have been more foregrounded in Black Prometheus. In the perhaps foolhardy aspiration toward ever truer totalities, let me make a final amendment to my reading of Voltaire’s Pandora. Chronologically speaking, Voltaire’s Pandora is the prototype for black Prometheus. It is in Voltaire’s 1740 play, I argue, that the two distinctly modern Prometheuses emerge—a Prometheus who assumes the throne from which Zeus has unprecedentedly been deposed, casting himself as a rightful master—embodied by Voltaire in the character Prometheus; and a Prometheus who rebels against all such mastery—embodied in the character Pandora. In the book, I quickly move on to map these characters onto the famous encounter Voltaire stages between Candide and the mutilated Surinam slave, which leads to my ultimate distillation of a white and a black Prometheus, respectively. But perhaps I was a bit too hasty in doing so, failing to linger over the fact that the initial difference that marks these two Prometheuses is one of gender rather than race. I am happy, then, to embrace Rusert’s final point (nodding to Fred Moten) that “blackness is already ‘cut’ by the feminine.” Just to play out the implications: white Prometheanism is first Brometheanism—that is, “Promethean Man” as cocksure “rational orderer and center of reality,” to quote a recent piece by Stephanie Wakefield; and black Prometheanism is, at its core, the antithesis of that Brometheanism, a “Prometheanism 2.0”—to return to Wakefield—that, by accentuating the myth’s elements of communal responsibility and creative potentiality, points toward “the possibility of another future” in which our planet might indeed be heralded as something like a “mother earth” (as Rusert puts it) inspiring responsive acts of universal care.

    Our global metacosm is indeed a “mutually gendered and racialized system,” and my book’s grounding notion of metacosmography can—happily—be readily tweaked, I think, to denote a common problematic: making sense of the social reproduction—that concept so brilliantly worked over by feminist Marxists like Silvia Federici and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon—of peoples in theo-geopolitical space, a slight reformulation that more directly connects the dots between race, gender, sexuality, and class. In Black Prometheus, “race” functions as a shorthand for the cosmographical inquiries arising out of the historical generation, degeneration, and regeneration—the mortalization and immortalization—of lives newly mappable in the finitude of global space-time; as such, it was intended to comport with feminist and even posthumanist concerns. “Race” is the privileged term in my analysis because of its concurrence with a modernity I date to 1492, whereas questions of gender and sexuality preexist the emergent sense of global immanence and coherence for which “race,” as I understand it, is the built-in (meta)physics. But now, prompted by Rusert, I might say with greater precision that “race” engenders modernity—which is to say “race” instigates modernity in part by “modernizing” gender and sexuality as problems of the social reproduction of kinds of persons within the literally immanent frame of a planet whose increasingly pressing question is: who, if anyone, is to escape extinction? I can only hope Black Prometheus will prove “exhilaratingly generative” enough to more scholars like Rusert that they will be prompted to further test and improve upon the framework I’ve provided.

Emily Ogden


Other People’s Gods, Before and After Contact

One of the many impressive qualities of Jared Hickman’s Black Prometheus is the variability of its focal length: Hickman ranges from arguments of Blumenbergian scope to close readings of literary texts. My question puts a wide-angle shot alongside a close-up: I’d like to understand how Hickman’s account of modernity, which places the religious component of colonial contact at the center, relates to the reading of US chattel slavery and its “demigod” masters that he offers through Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). To put it another way, how does a theory of modernity that has its roots in the moment of contact handle the later period?

Hickman’s introduction and first chapter give us a striking account of secularization interruptus. As Hickman puts it, “The process of secularization that [Hans] Blumenberg describes was headed off and set on a different course by an eschatological event: the ‘discovery of the Indies’” (11). The key consequence of this event is “a new awareness of the relativity of all mythic narratives prompted by the enclosure of radically unforeseen human diversity in the finite space of the globe—myth now operates in an echo chamber of the human without a transcendent ‘outside’ that can be taken for granted” (12). The term Hickman uses for this new awareness is “universal euhemerization”: for all involved in the moment of colonial contact, the gods take shape as “the relics of a historical process of the divinization of culture heroes or momentous events” (24), and not as transcendent beings. This is most true for other people’s gods, and least true for one’s own. As Hickman notes (45–46), the fourth-century BCE philosopher Euhemerus, from whose name the term is derived, used the contingency of other people’s gods to highlight the eternal validity of his divinities. Hickman himself sees a “dialectic” between these two impulses: one, relativizing all gods as immanent; the other, relativizing others’ gods in order to “sacralize” one’s own (46). Modernity, then, is characterized not by the struggle between transcendent gods and immanent humans, but by the struggle of immanent god/human groups, with each ethnos pitted against every other; the prize of the “victors” (47) is that they can elevate their own gods back into eternity.

This account works most seamlessly when two cultures, complete with their institutions, encounter each other: at the moment of first contact, that is, or at least not so long after that one cultural system has been destroyed. Hickman describes, for example, how resistance to Spanish invasion could take the form of rendering the Spaniards’ gods mortal: Bartolomé de las Casas tells the story of Hatuey, who, inferring that the Spaniards’ god was gold, collected as much of it as he could in a basket and drowned the “god” in a river (65).

What about later in the epoch of Atlantic modernity: by the time that Douglass publishes My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, to what degree are the conditions of the 1492 euhemerization still in place? Encounter between two equally well-institutionalized gods or sets of gods? No. Born into slavery, Douglass does not have the kind of access to an Indigenous tradition that Hatuey did. Ironization—the rendering contingent—of others’ religions for rhetorical purposes, as performed by Hatuey? Yes, and emphatically so.

What comes out clearly in the context of established Atlantic slavery is that even in a situation where the shock of two religious systems encountering one another is not particularly resounding, it may be useful to affect that shock in rhetorical battle, as when slavery apologists amp up the superstition of the enslaved in order to justify keeping them in bondage. Douglass, too, offers an ironized encounter, rather than a shocking one, between human and divine. Hickman quotes Douglass’s account of being made to feel, as a child, that his master was a god: Douglass had “a sense of my entire dependence on the will of somebody I had never seen . . . I was soon to be selected as a meet offering to the fearful and inexorable demigod” (quoted in Hickman, 148). Douglass ironizes his “own” childhood religion as a textbook case of primitive idolatry, complete with human sacrifice, devotion to the clay-footed master, and a cringing, unmanly mode of worship. His god was contingent, historical, earthly. Yet the point is of course that he was educated in his worship by the slave system. Douglass’s error is its shame. “His” god is actually the one invented, in a cynical incitement to idolatrous worship, by the enslavers.

Hickman’s chosen passage from Douglass emphasizes an important facet in the concept of euhemerization that he offers us: its status not just as an event, but as a field of rhetorical moves. Hatuey, too, is a master rhetorician; the Douglass example simply brings out the fact that the conditions of contact are not necessary for the rhetoric of making others’ gods contingent to come into play. In fact, enthusiastic as I am about the idea of euhemerization as a rhetorical strategy, I confess to some skepticism about euhemerization as an event, at least if we are meant to understand that the existence of competing cosmic frames came as a shock to Europeans. Is it really the case that “the mythic sense of cosmic multiplicity and contingency . . . had long been suppressed by Hellenic philosophy and Christian dogma” (12), only to resurge in 1492?

Hickman contends that the cultures of the new world were better prepared than European Christians were to see gods in “immanent” terms, “as linked with and even understood to have arisen as/in particular people or places” (64). But Hickman’s account of the new world’s approach to religion sounds a lot like Dale Martin’s account of the Roman empire’s approach to the same, in Inventing Superstition (2004). Martin argues that the Roman concept of superstitio indexed, inseparably, religious difference and political threat: a different set of gods translated to a different people, and thus a political rivalry with the Romans themselves (Martin, Inventing Superstition, 130–39; see also his discussion of the common-sensical linking of religion and ethnos in the ancient world, 216). You could say that by the fifteenth century Christianity had changed all this, and that the earlier moment of relativization had been forgotten. But you’d still have to consider the argument that Europe was not yet Christianized at the time of the Reformation, in the minds of church reformers both Catholic and Protestant. Such reformers were busy discovering—and rooting out—the popular worship of false gods in Europe both before and after they confronted the primitive worship of false gods in the Americas (Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons [1997]; Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe [2000]; Jean Delumeau, Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire [1977]).

I’m suggesting that the ironic framing of others’ gods, as practiced by Hatuey and Douglass, was a familiar exercise for Euro-Christians, too, one that they continued across the moment of contact. Thus, the difficulty may be the opposite of what it at first appeared to me to be: it is not extending euhemerization past the moment of contact that poses a problem; the problem is instead with connecting euhemerization too strictly to the shock of contact. If there is an amendment here, it’s a friendly amendment, meant to emphasize the wide applicability of what Hickman brings to our attention. Euhemerization as rhetorical strategy doesn’t require the actual shock of the new, but only the strategic decision to deploy arguments about the contingency of others’ gods in service of some end. Hickman shows us a modernity that weaponizes religious controversy (something the pre-modern period did, too). This weaponization is possible, I think, not because the very existence of competing cosmic views was new to Euro-Christians, but because it was familiar to them and to their interlocutors both. Others’ gods, already a familiar administrative problem in Europe, could readily become the battlefield in the Americas, too.

  • Jared Hickman

    Jared Hickman


    Critical Theory; or, Choose-Your-Own-Modernity

    In her characteristically lucid and gracious response, Emily Ogden poses a question that anybody who dares tangle with the notion of “modernity” must expect: are the phenomena alleged to be distinctly “modern” indeed qualitatively different from phenomena preceding the historical rupture that is being posited? Specifically, Ogden targets euhemerization—the humanization of “other people’s gods”—as a transhistorical “rhetorical strategy” whose deployment and effects are perhaps not self-evidently different in what I distinguish as “global modernity.” Before expounding as to why I think there is a plausible, palpable difference, a few caveats are in order. First, all periodizations are of course artifices, something I attempt to signal in Black Prometheus through unambiguous qualification: “heuristically speaking”; “my opening proposition”; “experimenting with globality as a metanarrative principle.” In other words, I have no illusions that periodizations are more than forms of modeling whose value is down to their explanatory power and existential utility. Black Prometheus goes even farther, one might say, by admitting its own potential participation in mythic storytelling of a certain kind—that is, rather than project a disinterestedness ostensibly in the service of producing objective knowledge, the book confesses its interest in delineating space and time in ways that facilitate the achievement of certain ends. In so doing, I suppose I am offering a postsecular twist on Max Horkheimer’s famous distinction between “traditional” and “critical” theory, i.e., theory content to describe the world versus theory committed (however quixotically) to changing (however narrowly) the world. More to the point, one might note that the “critique” in “critical theory” is generated in large part—for better and worse—precisely by the specification of a “modernity,” a discernible “now” whose peculiar shape can be historically traced in order better to reshape the present and future. Critical theory is thus built to produce historical difference—between a now and, on the one hand, a then and, on the other, a future yet to come. One might stretch this toward a corollary: stubborn resistance to the notion of historical difference tends, in various ways, toward conservatism—at its outermost extent, to vague theories of human nature that see nothing but fatalistic repetition in history and thus ultimately trivialize and neutralize political striving. In sum, my investment in “modernity” is to a large extent the provisional, tactical one characteristic of critical theory as I understand it: you try to provide an account of the status quo that will best facilitate its radical transformation.

    To be clear, I am here further copping to my book’s undeniable commitments and not charging Ogden with stubborn resistance to the notion of historical difference. She raises valid methodological questions about the modernity-talk arguably integral to critical theory and reasonable doubts about the specific historical differences I float in Black Prometheus. A major liability of critical theory is indeed the misrepresentation of the past under the imperative to diagnose the present and realize a better future. More specifically, as medievalists tire of pointing out, the reduction of premodernity to mere foil (or straw person) for the modernity under construction. Indeed, much of Black Prometheus is taken up with critiquing dominant strains of critical theory for precisely such headiness and heedlessness—say, for dismissing the cultural contributions of non-Euro-Christians or downplaying the history of racialized slavery. The production of historical difference can be an all-too-easy—and, for that, all-the-more dangerous—game to play, so it is only conscientious to greet this production line with skepticism. That said, the production of historical difference—if Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hayden White, and so many others are to be believed—is arguably inescapable when it comes to humanistic inquiry and, more than that, essential to whatever it might have to offer, as Jesse Rosenthal has recently laid out. So, in response to Ogden’s responsible and rigorous queries, let me try to make my point about global modernity as inaugurating a condition of universal euhemerization better stick.

    Black Prometheus makes no secret of the fact that euhemerization precedes 1492 (45–46). But rather than treat these earlier instances as mere iterations of a single “rhetorical strategy,” it attempts to string these into a dynamic narrative of Euro-Christian self-understanding and non-Euro-Christian response to Euro-Christians’ attempted realization of that self-understanding within a particular historical epoch. Whereas Ogden formally delimits euhemerization as “a field of rhetorical moves” synchronically navigated by functionaries of ancient Roman emperors and early-modern Christian kings alike, I attempt to historically trace a particular sequence of rhetorical moves, each of which diachronically changes the phenomenological “field” in which such moves can be made. The question is precisely how the euhemerization attendant upon 1492 is related to a previous history of euhemerization. Euhemerization, as its provenance suggests, originates in classical antiquity as a way of disciplining polytheism in its medium of mythic narrative. One form that took in the Roman imperial period, as Ogden suggests in her mention of Dale Martin’s work, was the euhemerization of new imperial subjects’ local gods and the imposition of the gods of the imperial center, including the divinized emperor himself. However, a crucial difference between this arrangement and what happens after 1492 lies in the prevailing polytheism of this entire sphere, which more typically proceeded by augmenting rather than diminishing pantheons: provincials’ continued worship of their local gods was permitted if properly supplemented with the worship of metropolitan gods (and the political obedience this implied) and, perhaps even more suggestively, certain provincial gods, such as Persia’s Mithras, made their way to the metropole. In these ancient polytheistic cultures, the bidirectionality of euhemerization is ever in view—even as some gods are humanized, other humans and gods are divinized. With the political ascendancy of Christianity in Rome, a pointedly monotheistic euhemerization of this entire sphere occurred: a “pagan” past was invented and all its gods downgraded in relation to the Man-God Jesus. The subsequent history of Christianization, including the “reform” of Christianity where it was nominally established, can be cast as a history of this maximal euhemerization (and minimal divinization)—whether the Protestant rejection of the Catholic cult of the saints, the extirpation or sublimation of residual paganism in both Catholic and Protestant Europe, or the Euro-Christian assault on new and unforeseen forms of paganism in the Americas and beyond.

    My claim is that this last arena afforded both unparalleled promise and peril to this ongoing Christian project of maximal euhemerization. On the one hand, it held out the real possibility of neatly applying a single transcendental frame to a single immanent frame. The spatially and temporally fortunate manner by which the globe was revealed—by way of continents with which Europe shared a shore at a moment when Euro-Christian kingdoms, most obviously in Iberia, had beneficially disengaged from powerful Islamic empires—seemed, for many, to augur an unprecedented triumph for Christendom. On the other hand, the very revelation of that globe, in contradiction of Christian cosmographies, threatened to utterly relativize European Christianity and undermine it as a ready transcendental frame. Hence, it is not that Euro-Christians had no experience with “competing cosmic frames” and therefore not engaged in euhemerization—of course they had. What I am saying is that 1492 triggered a bipolar disorder in Euro-Christianity—both indulgence of the wildest fantasy of millenarian consummation by becoming-God, first and foremost by commandeering newly available cosmic space, and entertainment of the bleak outlook that Euro-Christianity was but one lifeway issuing from its corner of the world, a point eloquently argued by many non-Euro-Christians and eventually conceded by some European philosophes under the avalanche of data from global cultural encounters.

    The space-time with which Black Prometheus is principally concerned—the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americas—was definitively shaped by the manifestations of this disorder. That disorder manifested differently according to context, as I suggest (47, 53–54)—eschatological mania could be inflamed where Euro-Christian dominance seemed secure, but existential nausea rose up (and with it anxious overcompensation—a vicious cycle) wherever that security was challenged. Histories of Native and African American resistance have taught us such security was typically, on some level, precarious in this period, and so the gap Ogden opens up between Hatuey near the moment of first contact and Douglass in a slave society centuries later is perhaps not as wide as she implies. What Hatuey and Douglass jointly oppose is a historically particular Euro-Christian bid for eschatological fulfillment, the specific form of which was the divinization of Euro-Christian historical actors as the immanent saviors of the world. Hence, Black Prometheus is not hung up on 1492 as “event,” per se, but as a precondition of a new condition of possibility. I am saying both that this Euro-Christian experiment in divinization only makes sense as the culmination of “a series of immanentizations in Christian theology” and thus is profoundly continuous with the premodern past (63–64); and that this experiment was finally induced by perhaps as objectively solid a historical discontinuity as one could hope for—the sustained interaction between whole continents of people previously unaccounted for by each other, the massive demographic and ecological impact of which registers in the geologic record. However, to return whence I began. In the end, my argument—regardless of the “objectivity” of any historical rupture—is this: in view of the particular problems that plague us in 2017, it would be well for an unabashedly critical theory to imbue the racialized cosmos made possible by 1492 with the subjective significance, as it were, of the point of departure for our “now” and thus the key to making our way to any better world to come.

Sylvester Johnson


Freedom and Black Heresy under European Modernity

A Response to Jared Hickman’s Black Prometheus

Jared Hickman has written a transformative, magisterial study of religion, race, and the colonial world order. He grounds his work by accounting for modernity, whose structures began to emerge with European empires of the fifteenth century. He then poses an underlying question that might be summarized as follows: Given that modernity was a racial formation of secular and theological structures asserting Europeans as the apotheosized, outer-limit of the free subject (as the racial iteration of the Hegelian Absolute), how does one assess the complex histories of Black freedom that continually interrupted White domination? The answer, Hickman demonstrates, lies with understanding how Black rebellion—the anticolonial resistance of Black men and women who were enslaved, preeminently—became a heresy within the frame of Euro-Christian imperialism.

Hickman elucidates this theological, heretical understanding of Black freedom in the age of Atlantic slavery by interpreting the genealogical history of the myth of Prometheus in two dimensions. First, he renders its architecture of themes and rationality—as mytheme—that adumbrates classic tensions of human finitude and aspirations as these have become sedimented among the social conflicts of various populations since ancient times. Second, he focuses on the specific modern Atlantic history of numerous authors deploying the Prometheus myth as an elaborate grammar for rendering White and Black racial subjectivities. Hickman’s treatment of this Promethean theme, moreover, is itself a work of accretions—voluminous by any measure (exceeding 500 pages) and effecting a complex meditation on at least two governing problems: (1) how should scholars account for modernity and (2) what was the racial nature of freedom during the age of racial slavery? As he carefully weaves a rejoinder to these two, Hickman also addresses an array of subordinate but nonetheless substantial theoretical quandaries that have congress under the heuristic aegis of an overarching effort: to render visible the racial and colonial systems of what Western scholars have long called modernity. Among these other quandaries are interpretations of major figures of Black freedom such and Frederick Douglass and European philosophers of race and history such as Georg Hegel. Hickman characterizes modernity as a veritable rupture and decisive departure from the previous historical period (42 et passim). As Hickman demonstrates, many authors have regarded modernity as essentially characterized by intellection (the Enlightenment) or the ascent of popular sovereignty (political liberalism) or even vanquishing religion to the social hinterlands of the private sphere (the now-discredited secularization thesis). It is race and colonialism, however, that constitute modernity.

His larger argument about heretical Black freedom is especially compelling when he juxtaposes the Haitian and US American declarations of independence and, by extension, their rationalities of rebellion. He notes that Thomas Jefferson’s drafts of the White settler declaration moved from lamenting the failure of the British empire to serve as good stewards of the colonies (so the Anglo-American rebellion is a sort of tragic outcome of a yet greater tragedy) to embracing rebellion as an autonomous expression worthy in its own right yet still under the authority of an absolute “Creator” who has endowed natural rights. Jeffersonian freedom operates thus not so much under the sign of autonomy as under that of heteronomy—“the laws of nature and of nature’s God” as he quotes Jefferson. Hickman finds that the Haitian declaration, by contrast, is “openly, joyously heretical” as it articulates independence by gesturing to what Hickman admiringly calls the “heathenish ancestor-worship” signaled by the spirits of deceased Haitians who demand appeasement through war against White gods and White slavery.

Hickman’s volume devotes far greater attention over multiple chapters to the literary output of writers such as Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville. Yet, his reading of Haitian politics is arguably the most forceful and crystallized demonstration that heretical cosmography is the governing element of Black racial subjectivity. As the “heathen” spirits invoked by the Haitian declaration of independence indicate, the “Absolute” that Hegel idealized neither contains nor governs the grammar and imaginary of Blacks in the Atlantic world who defied White supremacism. Although numerous Black rebels invested considerably in the logic of White Christian apotheosis—e.g., the White god permits Africans to be enslaved so they can encounter Christian salvation—many other Black rebels certainly refused to limit themselves to worshipping the White god insofar as they rejected its grand theodicy of Black patience and longsuffering in the face of Euro-Christian terror. This, Hickman tells us, means that we must understand such formations of Black rebellion constitute a different genealogy, one of “heretical antislavery” (256). Hickman thus challenges readers to consider that “the Haitian revolution represents Africa’s definitionally immanent revolt against the Euro-Christian Absolute and so opens the history of human autonomy in global modernity” (258).

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Hickman’s intervention as he argues that Black freedom is a racial and theological heresy. Indeed, the very means by which he demonstrates Black rebellion as a theological formation is a complex and astounding insight—this is no facile interpretation of theology. Scholars are accustomed to locating theology within the bounds of churches, missionary tracts, sermons, and the like. But as the book unfolds, readers begin to appreciate that European modernity emerged as Whites encountered and subsequently divided the world’s human populations into various inferior races. This was enabled through the apotheosis of the White race as the embodiment of a cosmic, racial Absolute. As a consequence, the Black Prometheus (or Black rebellion against White slavery, alternatively), emerged as unthinkable, as an inherent contradiction.

If there is any doubt about the explicative significance of this intervention, consider what rationalities and racial practices have rendered armed Black militancy against White people as illegitimate (the Mau Mau rebellion) within the context of Western politics, whereas violent White men continue to enjoy public valorization when they take up arms to fight for their freedom. This includes those such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who pillaged, sexually assaulted, and brutalized Black women, men, and children. Why are these men so honored in the West? And why does the West not honor Nat Turner, Queen Nanny, or Huey Newton? Anyone who imagines that the answer to this question is not rooted in apotheosis (divinizing Whiteness), demonization (rendering Black rebellion and Black people themselves as evil and reprehensible), ritual (killing Black bodies with impunity), and theological structures should hasten and read Hickman.

This demonstration accomplishes something else as an inevitable consequence. Hickman has produced a stunning and probing assessment of secularism that forcefully displays its racial constitution by foregrounding colonialism and slavery. By peeling away the layers of empire, slavery, rebellion, and apotheosis that inhere to secular formations of the Atlantic world, Hickman has blazed a clear trail for others who might wish to engage with modernity’s constitution.

As one reads Hickman’s volume, one is easily amazed by both the breadth of his learning (his scholarship is truly unrestrained by disciplinary boundaries) and the interlocutionary generosity of his prose—his pages are profusely populated with the names of scholars whose work has enabled his own. Given a work of such unassailable brilliance, it is fair to say that those who might desire most to disagree with his conclusions, should they wish to be seriously regarded, will have their work cut out for them. This is not to say that all his claims and methodological choices are beyond the terrain of legitimate debate. In fact, most of his argumentation presumes the legitimacy of investing in the exceptionalism of the historical period that he and most scholars have termed “modernity.” This is something that raises deep problems. Authors such as Kathleen Biddick, Charles Long, and Geraldine Heng, for instance, have written compelling critiques of the near-ubiquitous tendency of Western scholars to assert a fundamental, temporal divide of historical time into modern and pre-modern periods. Biddick explains how European Christians developed an ideology of White racial modernity by stereotyping Jews as people whose racial nature prevented them from inhabiting the Christian present; they supposedly belonged to a past era. This Christian ideology, not coincidentally, easily aligned with anti-Jewish pogroms and fantasies of extermination. Biddick thus terms this “identitarian time,” as it structures a Christian identity into an ideology of temporality—modernity is the time that belongs to Western Christians. In a related but more race-critical fashion, Heng has noted that asserting the uniqueness of modernity requires one to simply ignore state practices of racialization that occur at least as early as the 1200s within the context of the Crusades. Whereas Biddick ignores Muslim-Christian relations, Heng is more encompassing and recognizes how both Muslims and Jews became targets for Christians who claimed that Christian princes could brook no confidence in the Muslims and Jews they governed, as these non-Christians were treated as secret enemies who were simply plotting to commit treason to Christian rulers.1

On this score, one can begin to consider how Hickman’s reference to 1492 is forced to bear what might be an inordinate and imprecise burden as the singular point for dividing the historical time of human existence into something so fundamental as pre-modern and modern. This is true despite the fact that Hickman clearly employs 1492 as a shorthand for the rise of Europe’s trans-oceanic empires. Consider that the Mongol empire, which peaked in the 1300s, was the largest land-based empire in human history—larger than any of Europe’s. Is it not at least debatable that those who experienced Mongolian conquest and the changes it wrought felt that they were experiencing cataclysmic events unprecedented and discontinuous with previous ones? Were not the most pressing political conflicts of Mongolian colonialism concerned with metacosmographic issues—how to handle outsiders (“new” peoples) and their foreign religions and practices? Even a cursory reading of the travel writings by Muhammad Ibn Battuta (1304–1368), moreover, should disrupt doubts over the cataclysmic impact of polycultural encounters among peoples predating those of the Spanish, Portuguese, and British empires. We should keep in mind, by the way, that Christopher Columbus believed he had traveled to India and not to what we think of today as the Americas. As far as he and his co-mercenaries were concerned, they had found an all-sea route to South Asia, thereby skirting Muslim control of the Mediterranean Sea routes. Thus, all the talk of the “Indies” in the Atlantic realms. There is a reason, furthermore, that eyewitness accounts of monstrous races is always empire-talk—it goes back at least as far as ancient Greek imperialism; those who lived unconquered beyond the boundaries of Greece’s empire were dehumanized as monsters and cannibals.

Beyond this, and perhaps related to it, is the ease and completeness with which deploying a temporality of modernity seems to require scholars to elide seemingly modern practices of world-making that emerged among Muslims and their Islamicate polities before the so-called modern period and by which Muslims eventually influenced the Christian peoples they subjugated throughout the European cape of Asia (as well as in South Asia and North Africa). As Charles Long has argued, Europeans developed an ideology of modernity as a racial narrative about themselves, structuring White Europeans as racial subjects who uniquely delivered newness (modernity) to all other peoples throughout the world.2 Although not a settled issue, it is at least imperative to consider the relationship between Europeans inventing the notion of modernity and the White racial project of sanitizing European history of its Islamic genealogies. Consider, as just one example, that European philosophy emerged through Muslim philosophy (it literally began as Western European Christians read and emulated Muslim philosophy). Despite this historical fact, contemporary Western philosophers now claim their intellectual heritage derives directly from the Greeks (read as White Europeans), and they permit nary a whisper of Muslims, except perhaps to say Muslims reminded them of their Greek philosophical heritage.

To his great credit, however, Hickman devotes an entire chapter to Muslim struggles for freedom in the Caucasus region—he focuses on Imam Shamil’s resistance to Russian imperialism in the Caucasus region. His analysis demonstrates how Islamic practices of freedom paralleled those envisioned by Europeans as emblematic of Promethean virtue against tyranny. Shamil was lauded by European authors as a type of Caucasian Prometheus. As the author explains, the result was a complicated strain of assertions about Islam and Western European prowess that at times lauded Shamil and at other times desperately fashioned a semblance of difference between Christianity and Islam. This even inspired a perpetual angst that Islam was Christianity’s fierce other, a sort of doppelgänger that haunted the imagination of White racial supremacy.

None of these complications of modernity, however, upset the accomplishment of Hickman’s Black Prometheus. Rather hopefully, they should point to the further generative work that might emerge as scholars of secularism, religion, and race begin to grapple with this watershed text. Hickman has gone further than any other scholar to blaze a trail for scholarship on the racial and colonial structures of modernity by examining the colonial genealogy of freedom. This book will command the attention of scholars for many years to come and will easily inspire subsequent scholarship that may continue the important work of excavating the colonial wreckage of racial freedom, theology, and empire.

  1. Kathleen Biddick, The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). Charles H. Long, “Bodies in Time and the Healing of Spaces: Religion, Temporalities, and Health,” in Faith, Health, and Healing in African American Life, ed. Stephanie Y. Mitchem and Emilie M. Townes (New York: Praeger, 2008). Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 8.5 (2011) 315–31.

  2. Long, “Bodies in Time and the Healing of Spaces.”

  • Jared Hickman

    Jared Hickman


    Cooperative Theses: The Grammaticalization of Theology, Why White Evangelicals Overwhelmingly Supported Trump, &c.

    I am wildly heartened and, more than that, deeply honored by Sylvester Johnson’s enthusiastic response to Black Prometheus, because his 2004 book, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God, very much seeded my own. That one of our most eminent scholars of black religion “gets” the book means a great deal to me. Johnson’s reading of my work is exemplary and, indeed, revelatory even to its author. He encapsulates in ways I (and perhaps patient readers of an admittedly long book) wish I’d been able to myself: the Prometheus myth is “an elaborate grammar for rendering White and Black racial subjectivities,” for one. That neat characterization is linked, in my mind, to his appreciation of the book’s working notion of “theology,” which, Johnson notes, we are “accustomed to locating . . . within the boundaries of churches, missionary tracts, sermons, and the like,” but which Black Prometheus discerns in what might otherwise be delineated as the domain of something like “racial politics.” For instance, in the Haitian Revolution, which Johnson astutely pinpoints as one of the book’s centers of gravity, one into whose orbit I wish my own training had better equipped me to enter (I suspect there are plenty of Promethean allusions to hunt down in the revolution’s archive and can only hope that someone more qualified will take up that task).

    Johnson’s keen observations might goad me to posit that what happens to “theology”—in the simplest denotation, god-talk—in modernity is not marginalization or privatization (variants of the secularization thesis) but grammaticalization. The gods diffuse from defiantly solid proper nouns into the anonymous markers that glue all discourse together, thus becoming both less overwhelmingly present and—perhaps in part for that—even more pervasively operative. One thing I may be doing with the Prometheus myth, Johnson brings into view, is offering a case study of this grammaticalization of theology—the repurposing of a specific deity as a flexible means for facilitating the mutual constitution of subjects and objects that establishes a field of relation. A field of relation not only naturalized at the level of grammar but, I argue in Black Prometheus, literalized in a new experience of finite global space-time. Hence, a local fire demon from ancient Athens becomes in global modernity something like a genitive inflection of Africa in contradistinction to the Caucasus (or vice versa). Although no longer the overt object of a cultic practice, Prometheus nonetheless enables the tacit divinization of particular peoples and places, the consequence of which is nothing less than the disparate apportionment of meaning, value, and life itself. I can only thank Johnson for so trenchantly reading my book back to me in ways that seem, to me at least, so fruitful.

    This is not to say that Johnson doesn’t, in due diligence, propound some “complications” of the arguments of the book, although he magnanimously asserts these do not “upset” its “accomplishment.” The main point of contention is the book’s “deploy[ment] [of] a temporality of modernity,” specifically around the fateful date of 1492. I address this matter at length in my response to Ogden but will dilate on it a bit more here. The book’s substantive engagements with, among other things, ancient euhemerism in both its classical and Christian versions, Gnosticism, and medieval Christendom’s battle with Islamic empires (more on that in a moment) speak for themselves, I hope, indicating that whatever account of modernity is on offer is not a simplistic one. In my colloquy with Ogden, I attempt to underline the book’s both/and approach. In my mind, it is entirely possible, and indeed arguably the whole business of historicism, to highlight certain historical contingencies as transformative in their effects—that is, as irreversibly changing preexisting forms without utterly dissolving them. Hence, my interest in Hans Blumenberg’s metahistorical principle of “reoccupation”—the notion that cultures proceed by injecting new content into the “answer positions” vacated by certain historical developments—a principle I purport to apply even more stringently than Blumenberg himself (2–3, 382n7). Indeed, one of the polemics of Black Prometheus is that in his efforts to grant “legitimacy” to “the modern age”—that is, to regard it as a discrete epoch—Blumenberg lets up right when he should hunker down, espying in early modern European philosophy a “liberatory scrapping” of “the Gnostic scale of positions” rather than “another historical sliding, another reoccupation” in which “Christendom reoccupies the transcendent sphere of salvation, and the many non-Christian polytheistic cultures being incorporated in the new European empires move into the position of the botch-job of the created world” (60). In my mind, then, one of the main reasons for nominating 1492 as the most temporally remote, absolute precondition of our now—that is, the first condition without which our now, in its fullness, cannot be imagined—is to reveal the deep historicity of “modernity,” establishing greater continuity with a more obviously “religious” past and thus undermining facile secularization narratives. This, however, does not preclude regarding 1492 as the massively transformative event it obviously was. We can have it both ways by conceiving this moment precisely as provoking (from a Euro-Christian standpoint, at least) a decisive reoccupation of a problematic bequeathed by ancient Gnosticism.

    Consequently, I don’t perceive the evidence Johnson mobilizes from Biddick, Heng, Long, and others as incompatible with my argument at all. Although I don’t cite their particular work, I approvingly nod to scholarship of a similar bent, for example Denise Buell’s discussion of how early Christians conceived of themselves as a “people” in proto-racial terms (397n56, 426n144). However, I will insist on proto-racial, because it is indeed my argument that “race” is best theoretically and historically restricted to a specific phenomenality of global immanence and coherence. As I state in the book, I am of course not claiming that there are no large-scale translocal interactions before 1492 (such as the Mongol empire Johnson invokes) and that these didn’t spark profound crises of faith and identity (39). But, along with Susan Buck-Morss, Jonathan Z. Smith, and others, I am maintaining that these “dynamics of cultural encounter” were “radicalized” as it became theoretically and practically possible to plot heretofore literally alien peoples in a single, encompassing space-time and that “race” is best reserved as the name for this historically particular metaphysical project (39). There is a difference, I want to say, of degree if not of kind, between how relation is lived and conceptualized in an enclosingly global as opposed to a subglobal frame that, however extensive, still has otherworldly edges. A certain promise of totality or, preparatory to that, an unimaginable scaling-upward (and, simultaneously, downward) charges relation with new significance (394n25).

    Johnson again proves an exemplary reader in drawing out the best evidence of the book’s investment in 1492 as a pivot between past and future. He rightly notes that one of the shortcomings of modernity studies has been the elision of “seemingly modern practices of world-making that emerged among Muslim and their Islamicate polities before the so-called modern period and by which Muslims eventually influenced the Christian peoples they subjugated.” (It is no coincidence that some of the most devastating critics of the secularization narrative that underpins modernity-talk, such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, come from Muslim backgrounds.) Johnson “credit[s]” Black Prometheus for not being plagued by this particular deficiency, as it devotes an entire chapter to “Islamic practices of freedom” as they come up for discussion around the person of “the Caucasian Prometheus Euro-Christian metacosmographers were conditioned to seek”—the nineteenth-century Sufi jihadist Imam Shamil (269). In that chapter, I arrive at perhaps my fullest specification of the meaning of 1492 and the Euro-Christian eschatological fantasy it stoked (see esp. 263–69, 286–93). I might here parse it thusly: the European discovery of the Americas in 1492 provided a stage for a Euro-Christian fantasy of becoming-god; but the staging of that fantasy, with such conviction, owed a great deal to the fact that any such fantasy had been previously frustrated and perhaps even seemingly preempted by Arabo-Islam’s imperial realization. Hence, the significance of 1492 is also that it marked the Euro-Christian expulsion of their Abrahamic siblings (Muslims and Jews) from southern Spain after centuries of convivencia under Islamic rule. In sum, Euro-Christians, in their pursuit of an alternative route to the Indies precisely in order to evade Muslim imperial control, stumbled onto an alternative Indies that suddenly opened up a future far more glorious than that of canny accommodation of their younger but larger-than-life Abrahamic sibling, indeed, a chance to show that sibling who, after all, was boss. And what was to be the ultimate expression of that superiority, the evidence that the eschaton was, in the end, Euro-Christian? The enslavement of the same sub-Saharan African peoples Arab Muslims had targeted for centuries on a scale and in a manner that made Euro-Christians the indisputable gods of this world. I suppose, in final answer to Johnson’s “complications,” that I would concede that if (God forbid) I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t confine these insights so tightly to a single chapter, instead allowing them to circulate more fully in the introduction and first chapter where the book’s entire framework is elaborated.

    Let me accept one final invitation to dialogue from Johnson. Referring to the “explicative significance of [my] intervention” in Black Prometheus, Johnson asks:

    Why [do] violent White men continue to enjoy public valorization when they take up arms to fight for their freedom[?] This includes those such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who pillaged, sexually assaulted, and brutalized Black women, men, and children. Why are these men so honored in the West? And why does the West not honor Nat Turner, Queen Nanny, or Huey Newton? Anyone who imagines that the answer to this question is not rooted in apotheosis (divinizing Whiteness), demonization (rendering Black rebellion and Black people themselves as evil and reprehensible), ritual (killing Black bodies with impunity), and theological structures should hasten and read Hickman.

    The final phase of this book’s completion was bookended by the spring 2015 uprising in Baltimore (in my zip code), which further galvanized the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the emergence of Donald J. Trump as the Republican candidate for US president, which overwhelmingly exposed the white supremacist substrate of the country. When Trump was subsequently elected just a couple weeks after my book’s release date, much to the surprise and despair of many, it was in no small part owing to the 80 percent of self-identified white evangelical Christians who voted for him. As much as I rue it, Trump(ism) almost seems engineered to exemplify some of the arguments of Black Prometheus. The impassioned rallying of so many white Christians around a candidate who made, on the one hand, the most minimal and least convincing show of personal religiosity and, on the other, the most egregious and aggressive public articulations of racism in the recent history of US presidential politics reveals the extent to which Christianity remains a racial identity, a deeply felt right to rule the world that—providentially, they would say—fell into Euro-Christian hands in 1492. To the “alt-right,” it is clear that it is a cosmic war that is underway, and the left would do well to recognize the kind of fight we’re in. That may mean accentuating and cultivating what Vincent Lloyd has recently called “the new ‘sacred politics’” on display in movements like #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock. It may mean really taking in the so-called Afro-pessimist insight, given popular gloss by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that white supremacy runs so deep and broad as to have become ontological—but only insofar as this spurs us to take on the cosmic status quo, à la Prometheus, devising the new tactics necessary for honorably winning the contest at hand.