Persons, Things, Person-Things

CSSH has a longstanding tradition of juxtaposing essays for comparative effect. Our readers enjoy this ritual, but we often wonder what our authors think of it. Under the Rubric gives CSSH authors a chance to respond directly to each other’s work, drawing additional insight and inspiration from their arguments.


MISCHA SUTER, Debt and Its Attachments: Collateral as an Object of Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Liberalism

CEYDA KARAMURSEL, Transplanted Slavery, Contested Freedom, and Vernacularization of Rights in the Reform Era Ottoman Empire

Maintaining a clear ontological demarcation between persons and things is arduous work, as Latour and others remind us. It requires classification work, purification work, boundary work, language work, social work, and more. Even so, certain historical contexts and situations have rendered the clear line fuzzy, and persons and things remained thoroughly entangled. Two such contexts are explored here: slavery in the Ottoman Empire, and the collateralization of debt in Switzerland, both in the second half of the nineteenth century, some 1,200 miles apart. Both could entail the reckoning of bodies as property.

Ceyda Karamursel’s work explores how slaves served to link notions of person, thing, and property, and to bridge gaps generated by “transplanted legalities” when Caucasus slave-holders were exiled to the Ottoman state in the 1870s. Despite the ban on African slaves in the Ottoman Empire since 1857, frictions between clashing legal systems—sharia law, Ottoman civil law, and Caucasus customary law—saw what Karamursel calls an “overabundance” of jurisprudence that sometimes led to legal silence rather than cacophony, often benefitting slave-holders. Yet the same period witnessed the registering of complex freedom suits brought by enslaved refugees, who built their claims across the legal divides and the regionally contested notions of family, inheritance, whiteness, and possibilities of self-purchase, each of which factored into a given suit’s success. Through the cases of Caucasian exiles and their slaves in the post-abolition Ottoman Empire, Karamursel shows how legal systems are vernacularized, especially in contexts of competing legal fictions and the attempt to regulate bodies displaced, but still inhabited by multiple jurisdictions.

“Debt and Its Attachments: Collateral as an Object of Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Liberalism,” the essay by Mischa Suter, inquires after social relations of obligation as these become objectified in things. Certain collateralized objects come to stand in as guarantees of a relationship, while other things become legally “unattachable.” This uneven mapping of things and persons produces systems of commensuration and ever-shifting profiles of “credit-worthy persons.” Suter argues that late nineteenth-century Switzerland serves as a revealing laboratory of liberalism and its limits. In rare cases, even persons were collateralized, bodily imprisoned as a guarantee for the repayment of debt. Intriguingly, that practice of the monetization of the human body—a “barbarism within liberalism”—was legally barred during the same period that slavery was ended in the last of its Atlantic as well as Ottoman instantiations.

CSSH: Your respective articles examine the legal and social processes through which persons become debtors and how debtors become enslaved to other persons or institutions in two very different places during roughly the same time period. Through your research, both of you complicate common assumptions about the relationships between personhood, property, and the monetization of the human body. Having read each other’s arguments, what parallels or differences do you notice? What, if any, new perspectives does this reading offer you on your own research?

SUTER: What strikes me as a parallel in the two papers—methodologically, with respect to the researchers’ perspective and awareness, but also in terms of their empirical findings—is how legal arrangements in themselves bear inconsistencies and thus contradictory effects. Ceyda has this wonderful phrasing that “the law generated as much silence as it did discussion,” and I think this applies very much to the situation of Swiss debt law as well (I speak of “blind spots” of liberalism in an attempt to capture something quite similar).

Another, related parallel concerns the essentially gradated forms of property, ownership, and personhood. Obviously, the differences between Ottoman slavery and Swiss debt collection are vast. But once we take law as a set of practices (rather than solely as a set of rules), in both cases we encounter fine-grained differentials in status and sovereignty, and we see how historical actors negotiated these differentials, trying to make use of them and to work them to their advantage.

One obvious difference between the two papers, I suppose, is empire. I try to make a case for seeing nineteenth-century Switzerland as a very diverse place with much legal pluralism. However, as this diversity was bound to a nation-state, in no way did the particular kinds of inequalities, connectedness, and distances characteristic of an imperial formation emerge. This is not to say that Switzerland was not involved in projects of colonialism and imperialism, but with regards to its subjects/citizens, the Swiss state seemed to employ different strategies than an imperial formation.

In a paper I thoroughly enjoyed reading in its entirety, one point fascinated me in particular, and that is how the manumission of slaves became voluntary for the slave-owners (p. 706 ff.). In a certain way, one could read this process as an expansion of liberal concepts of property, for it seems that the principle of free disposition is accentuated here. In a sense it points to the contradictory effects of a property regime in which social relations were hardened vis–à-vis slaves or debtors in order to safeguard certain other principles of freedom, such as the right to freely dispose of one’s property. This complicates ideas on the development of capitalism, a script that still follows a “liberal creed” (Karl Polanyi) of progress.

KARAMURSEL: Both articles deal with everyday workings as well as internal inconsistencies—impasses, if you will—of liberalism; liberalism not as a set of ideas and ideals presumed to neatly inform and shape governmental practices, but one that brings about a variety of “irreconcilable irritations,” as Mischa puts it. Both articles underline liberalism’s essential links to the rule of law, as well as the indispensability of arriving at distinct and separate definitions for persons and things. It appears to me that the two articles grasp the same problem from two different, yet equally paradoxical, ends: one deals with alienable persons and the other with inalienable things—that contour the limits of the collateral, for instance, as Mischa tackles brilliantly in his article. To be sure, “gradated forms of property, ownership, and personhood” that Mischa mentions above are not distinctly nineteenth-century phenomena, but this gradation’s encounter (and occasionally, collision) with liberalism is. The articles parallel each other in tracing these encounters/collisions and the ways in which they are translated into legal or extralegal (that is, any other type of contractual arrangements made outside the state’s legal realm) practices.

What seems so fascinating to me also are the points at which the two articles converge or intersect. This becomes especially visible when the debtors’ bodies become the very target of collateralization (though not without ample controversy). Debates around imprisonment are especially relevant here. Following up on an observation by Gustav Peebles, the imprisonment of the debtor was objected to on the grounds that monetization of the body was an “internal barbarism in liberal economic life, thereby claiming for a further conceptual separation of subject and object” (p. 732). Though not quite worded as such, and needless to say a product of a whole different set of circumstances, at the core of the Ottoman officials’ and slaves’ claims to “freedom” lay this effort to delineate the person in the “thing” of the slave. The intersection happens at the reversal of this effort, that is, when imprisonment becomes a coercive measure directed particularly at the working class or overall destitute debtors (p. 733). Not only do debt and slavery have a long, intrinsic relationship with each other, but perpetual indebtedness is also one of the most definitive characteristics of post-emancipation societies.

All in all, and to second Mischa’s comment, what both articles essentially do in their respective ways is to complicate “ideas on the development of capitalism” (even when the issue at hand is economically marginal, as in the case of Ottoman slavery) by upsetting the presumed categorical neatness of liberalism.

CSSH: The perspectives that you offer on each other’s work and the connections you identify between property, personhood, liberalism, and law in nineteenth-century Switzerland and the Ottoman Empire are fascinating and offer a new layer of analysis. This is exactly the kind of conversation CSSH hopes to promote under its rubrics and beyond. We hope your exchange will inspire our readers to reflect on the connections they see between your work and their own, and to look for new connections in perhaps unexpected places. Do you have any parting words of advice for our readers, or suggestions for other work that you’d like them to consider as they engage with your essays?

SUTER: The juxtaposition of Ottoman enslavement and liberal debt enforcement allows for a cross-reading that I find inspiring. This comparison enables new heuristics and, potentially, contributes to a practice of theorization. It broadens our horizons, not only in terms of learning for the sake of knowledge acquisition, but also in terms of developing questions: to learn something unexpected in order to ask new questions. Of course, I’m not suggesting that these two particular essays achieve that kind of surprise for every reader (though they did for me), but as a student of historical archives I experience a sense of excitement by way of such de-familiarization and recognition. That thrill links the heuristic perspective of the researcher to transformative politics. For example, the work of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern anticipated from a radical feminist perspective much of what is currently debated as “relational ontologies.”

KARAMURSEL: Thinking along the lines of Mischa’s paper, and also more specifically, the interplay between our two articles (which might ordinarily be considered an unlikely match) is both inspiring and affirming for what they, in combination, highlight: (1) the nineteenth-century world, like that of today, was not tidily divided into liberal and illiberal polities; and (2) liberalism itself was flawed and contradictory. From the perspective of my own work, for instance, this helps do away with the tinge of exoticism ascribed to the practice and the legacies of slavery in the Ottoman Empire and effectively connects slavery to its larger context. Last but not least, I concur with Mischa’s note on the heuristic function of the interaction between our two articles and I, too, am excited about the questions that take shape around the surprises it brings forth.