“An Impeachment of the Existing Order of Things”: Revisiting Frederick Douglass’s Philosophy of Reform
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Frederick Douglass’s philosophical imagination always revolved around the question of reform. Accordingly, this essay uses Douglass’s 1883 lecture, “‘It Moves,’ Or The Philosophy of Reform,” as its starting point to show that reform, particularly in his later writings, is, quite literally, the practice to “re-‘form’,” to retreat and form anew the social and cultural order that has been shaped by the experience and the legacy of slavery and white supremacy for centuries. Reform, this essay argues, must thus be understood as a self-reflexive creative struggle, i. e., a process and practice of change that unfolds as it ensues from the very formation it seeks to change. In order to come to terms with the historical specificity and the transhistorical scope of Douglass’s philosophy of reform, the following reflections break down “reform” as such, reciprocally focusing on the “re” as a mode of self-detachment and the “form” as a mode of creative form-giving. Ultimately, the goal of this essay is to show how Douglass treats reform both as a space of crisis and a poetic force field in and through which his thinking and his writing excels. Moreover, the paper offers an outlook on the vitality and the multitudinous appropriations of Douglass’s philosophy in current anti-racist reform movements.
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