For Congreve fans in the DC area, there will be a staged reading of Love for Love on Monday evening. Sorry for the short notice but I only recently found out about it. I have attended these before and they are excellent.
For Congreve fans in the DC area, there will be a staged reading of Love for Love on Monday evening. Sorry for the short notice but I only recently found out about it. I have attended these before and they are excellent.
Chapter 6 continues much of the work Gikandi begins in chapter 5, as he traces how “the possibility of being black in the new world . . . was transformed into a narrative of identity”(195). In so doing, what Gikandi offers in these chapters very much feels like a prehistory of Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk (1903), which serves as a sort of telos for much of the archives Gikandi explores in these chapters. Such a characterization of Gikandi’s work might sound like a criticism, but I don’t mean it as such. Let me explain.
In chapter 5, Gikandi defines what he terms a “mangled semantics,” or “the confusion of the performative and the truth-value of slave cultural activities and utterances” (203). [Side note: To add fodder to Evan Gottlieb’s excellent questions on this chapter , I think it is worth observing that Gikandi cites Austin, not Derrida or Butler on speech act theory and the performative]. In chapter 6, Gikandi defines some of the barriers faced in the expression of this mangled semantic: “how to recognize the impossibility of belonging to a place yet claim one’s presence in it; of how to strive and years for emplacement yet live in a world in which rights and ideals were constantly thwarted” (235). This sounds like a Harlem Renaissance dilemma, and it is no wonder, for it seems to me that what Gikandi is doing in these chapter is tracing the genealogy of a black aesthetic, an aesthetic that we might think, as we listen to scholars of contemporary and twentieth-century African American literature and culture (I’m thinking most recently of Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012)), has its roots in the eighteenth century, but until now, we have not had a single book to point to that covers much of that archive. As others have noted, Gikandi’s work here as a curator of a collection of such evidence indebts us to him. And what does he say about the collection he has assembled in chapter 6?
For one, he foregrounds the problem of memory at the heart of black expression. In slave culture, “memory,” Gikandi tells us, “was best doing its work when it was affective, magical, and ritualistic” (246). Thus, some memories were best publicly or collectively enshrined in dances, and others, such as the houses built in the “African style,” were private. This latter form was ultimately unproductive “because publicness was one of the essential conditions of being a modern subject,” and therefore was abandoned (253). Rituals and performances took precedent over private affect, Gikandi claims. I wonder though, could we possible reframe this as the problem of the archive, of institutionalized memory, rather than of a choice? Again, I ask this question in the spirit of Evan Gottlieb’s second question about the “the ambivalence of the archive” in this chapter. I am also reminded of Gikandi’s eloquent question in chapter 2, “Was the slave a human subject of a disposable body? Was her progress in time and space a journey toward the enhancement of the self or a movement toward its dissolution?” (67). We might push a bit further here and consider what the relationship between “dissolution” and archives of feelings, of affect might look like.
The highlight of chapter 6 for me was Gikandi’s discussion of property, and the central role of the provision grounds, which he reads as “a measure of control over time and space and hence part of the process of moral reorientation” (240). In this section, Gikandi allows us to rethink examples from later in the century of slaves’ claims to property, problematizing our assumptions that formerly enslaved persons had no positive experiences of ownership, either personally or in their communities. Gikandi opens the possibility of recasting slaves’ relationship to property as a form of “temporal leverage.” How might that sensitivity to the temporal help us to think of slaves purchasing their freedom, or of Belinda’s claim to her Isaac Royall’s Massachusetts estate, or of Equiano maintaining his literary property for his Interesting Narrative for the rest of his life?
I appreciated Melissa Mowry’s observation about the productive questioning that Gikandi models, and in that spirit, I would love to hear what others thoughts about his use of the term “public sphere” in chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 6, Gikandi tells us that what he is doing is tracing “how slaves presented themselves in the public sphere” (202), a public sphere that he later identifies as “altered” (206). In these chapters, he traces “the role [scenes of happiness] played as a means of recoding social life for a people excluded from multiple domains of freedom and the aesthetic life that came with it” (202). From this, we might deduce that he is thinking of the “public sphere” as a space of both freedom and expression. Are we to assume that the black “public sphere” also has a political dimension to it for Gikandi? Whose “public sphere” is he referring to? Given this term’s vexed history in the last few decades of eighteenth-century studies, I am puzzled by Gikandi’s unexamined use of it in chapters 5 and 6. We get a cursory explanation of the term in relation to taste in the first chapter (20), but I would like to hear more on how the term means in relation to slave culture.
Molly O’Hagan Hardy currently teaches in the English Department at St. Bonaventure University.
With apologies, in order to keep on schedule, what follows is very much a series of working notes rather than a fully formed “reading” of the chapter. The rest of you have set the bar very high, which I greatly appreciate – but will not try to emulate (mimic?) here!
This chapter engages with a selection of slave culture-related phenomena that Gikandi looks to in order to find evidence of what he calls “a counter-aesthetic” (239): one that would provide black slaves with a “modern identity” (238) different from the abject identity forced upon them by the regime of slavery.The examples Gikandi considers in this chapter are varied and fascinating. In Section One alone, he puts forward for consideration:
Section Two, similarly, focuses on examples of seemingly African-inspired architecture in the structures and dwellings built by slaves (and on at least one occasional, a free black) in the American South (247-53). Sections Three, Four, and Five focuses on paintings, sketches, and records of African-style slave songs, dances, rituals, and festivals (253-279).
Gikandi helpfully sums up his argument in a paragraph worth quoting in full at the top of 280: “My argument in this chapter is that whether they were produced in defiance or imitation of the culture of taste, the works art imagined and implemented by slaves, from buildings to dances to festivals, enabled the enslaved to redefine their relation to time and space, to reconstitute their own bodies and social relationships outside the shadow of their masters, and thus to display bodies that were not mere chattel.”
I note that, necessarily, many of these assertions need to be made in a subjunctive mood: On the African echoes in the architecture of Melrose Plantation in colonial Louisiana, for example, Gikandi mostly relies on evocative questions to situate his reading: “Why, then, would a wealthy woman, the owner of more than eighteenth thousand acres of land and hundreds of slaves . . . want to construct a house that would recall the ontology of African architecture? . . . Did she, then, want a building that stood out in its environment in memoriam to an imagined Africa? Or was the African House intended to be the depository of an unknown and thus frightening ghost?” (251).
To help him make his case(s), Gikandi invokes a host of theorists in the chapter: Benjamin on “the allegory of ruins” (234); Glissant on “a forced poetics . . . [of] Creole cultures” (234-35); de Certeau’s concept of “a tactic” as a method for enacting resistance on territory that is not one’s own (241-24); Taylor’s assertion that “being a person” involves “holding values” (247); Heidegger on habitation (251); Certeau, Harvey, and Soja on “the functional symbolism of the spatial” (252); Gadamer on “the sensuousness of the symbol” (252); Foucault and Debord on the distinction between surveillance and spectacle (263); Fanon on “the lived experience of blackness” (269); Bakhtin on “the festival . . . [as] an extraterritorial space of identity” (269); Gluckman on “rituals of rebellion” (270); E.P. Thompson on consensus and crowds (277-78).
But it may be worth noting the conspicuous absence of two other well-known thinkers: Jacques Derrida is not cited at all, and Friedrich Schiller (whose letters on the aesthetic education of man would seem central to Gikandi’s argument here) is mentioned only once, in passing and disparagingly, back on 122. It might seem uncharitable to fault a book that is so packed with marvelous scholarly sources and examples for what it leaves out: but the near-total absence of these two dead white (if one thinks of Derrida as French and not Jewish-Algerian) male thinkers in particular seems worth remarking on:
I also couldn’t help thinking that Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of anthropotechnics – the way that humans make and remake themselves through repetitive practices (see his recently translated You Must Change Your Life) — would seem to be a useful concept for everything being argued here. But of course Sloterdijk’s whole point (here and in his amazing Spheres trilogy, of which only the first volume has appeared in English) is that all humans have always been engaged in shaping and molding their environments to their needs, and vice versa: and the universality of his claims might threaten as much as support the distinctiveness Gikandi wishes to argue characterizes slave culture, in the moral as well as aesthetic domains.
Finally, I want to add that nothing that I’ve noted here should be taken as a totalizing or final critique of Gikandi’s book, which I very much admire, and from which I feel certain I will continue to learn in the coming months and years: it is the work of a mature scholar and critic at the top of his game, so to speak, and to my mind probably the most compelling and provocative piece of literary historical criticism I’ve read since Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic.
Evan Gottlieb is an Associate Professor of English at Oregon State University. His most recent books are Walter Scott and Contemporary Theory (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Representing Place in British Literature and Culture, 1660-1830: From Local to Global, co-edited with Juliet Shields (Ashgate, 2013).
As Dorothy Couchman points out in her post, the previous chapter moved from “the self-fashioning gestures of male planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake” to “William Blake’s 1793 engravings of slaves being tortured in Suriname.” In Chapter Five “’Popping Sorrow’: Loss and the Transformation of Servitude,” Gikandi focuses on the representations of the slaves as subjects. This chapter serves as a transition into the next chapter’s deeper exploration of “the meaning of the scenes of merrymaking that dominate descriptive accounts of West Indian and American slavery and how they should be read or interpreted” (202). His exploration of the “happy slave” revolves around the performance of sorrow.
For writers creating a new black modernity through their narratives, the former slaves Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Frederick Douglass argued that slaves must recognize the negation defining their existential condition in order to recreate themselves as subjects. These authors work to interpret these scenes play and celebration by teaching their readers to read what seem to be markers of pleasure as melancholic signs of oppression. Douglass, Gikandi reminds us, “detested any suggestion that the experience of slavery would generate any kind of pleasure for the enslaved. . . . as far as he [Douglass] was concerned, slave holidays and performances were part of the master’s cunning, attempts to manipulate affect, rather than provide a vehicle through which the real feelings and sensibilities of slaves could be expressed” (197, 199). Building on but complicating these arguments, Gikandi asks that we interpret both these scenes of merrymaking and the slave narratives critique of them within a larger context of sensibility, aesthetic taste, and cultural memory.
For me, the most striking moments were the complicated relationship between affective performances and the moments when the black bodies depicted become marked by gender. Although not a major focus of the book, the discussion of the female, enslaved bodies of Mary Prince and unnamed mixed-race women illustrate the complicated performance of self required to create a black subjectivity within a slave society.
Chapter Four, “Close Encounters: Taste and the Taint of Slavery” focuses on images of slaves and those who owned them, opening with the self-fashioning gestures of male planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake, and closing with William Blake’s 1793 engravings of slaves being tortured in Suriname. Through these images, Gikandi investigates how the colonial planter class “develop[ed] forms of art that conjured a pure and refined image of self and community and yet were rooted in the totality of plantation life” (166).
Here, I’ll just focus on a section from the middle of the chapter, part 4, where Gikandi describes how “the political economy of slavery made it difficult for a civilized way of life—or a culture of taste—to be simply transplanted to the American colonies” (166). Portraits in North America, he argues, became more realistic, gaining “a sense of character and background” (167), and “acknowledg[ing] colonial difference as the informing condition of the work of art” (168), only when they began to include “the figure of the slave, the subject/object that made the region distinctive from the Europe it worked hard to imitate” (169).
So how did portraits of the American planter class do this? Gikandi zeroes in on one such portrait, which may also be the first American painting with a black person in it: Justus Engelhardt Kühn’s portrait of Henry Darnall III, from about 1710. Darnall is front and center, with one of his slaves (a boy of about his own age) standing behind him.
Images of slave owners with their human property are not unique to the Americas, Gikandi notes, but claims that there is “a subtle difference” between European portraits that include enslaved figures, and the versions from Colonial North America (172). In fact, Gikandi claims, “it is not an exaggeration to say that it was the presence of the slave in the frame that enabled the coming of age of the American portrait” (172). But why “American,” if eighteenth-century Maryland thought of itself as thoroughly British?
Although Gikandi acknowledges that enslaved figures appear in portraits from Europe, too, this is one place I wish he’d have brought his analysis further. Wikipedia offers a collection of such portraits of white aristocrats posed next to black slaves—a number of whom are wearing silver collars, like the enslaved boy in Kühn’s painting. In this context, then, the flip side of Kühn’s having made the economic and social life of the Maryland plantation visible is that he had to use a specifically Continental trope to make it happen. (Compare Kühn’s painting with Antoine Pesne’s portrait of Frederick the Great, also from the same decade.) Kühn portrays Darnall as a child aristocrat in the European imperial tradition first—and the future heir of his family’s land and slaves only by extension. That is, it’s the opening up of American portraiture to influences from across the Atlantic—the German painter who was familiar with continental styles, painting the image of an enslaved African-descended child and his European-descended future owner—that makes the portrait of Darnall more groundedly “American.”
As a whole, Slavery and the Culture of Taste offers a really impressive model for how to put the different scenes of the Anglophone Atlantic in conversation with each other, a project that poses huge rhetorical and conceptual challenges for any author. So the reading of Kühn’s painting for its especial Americanness feels surprising. Fortunately, later parts of the chapter write over this faint whiff of exceptionalism, going on to consider the English artist Eyre Crowe’s 1861 paintings of a Richmond, Virginia slave market, and John Greenwood’s 1750s painting of a Surinam tavern. If the reading of Kühn’s painting itself doesn’t link back to the broader world in which taste and slavery circulated, embedding it with other images from across that world helps fill in the gap.
By the end of the chapter, although Gikandi doesn’t say so explicitly, one payoff is that it’s easy to see Blake’s engravings as likewise giving form to “self and community rooted in the totality of plantation life”—but this time from Blake’s position as a critic of the slave system, not as a reinforcement of the social ambitions of its wealthiest members. By the end of the chapter, “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave” is as much a portrait of the planters’ cruelty and greed as it is a representation of the woman they are torturing.
Dorothy Couchman is a Phd candidate in the English Department at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation examines enslaved characters in eighteenth-century Anglophone novels, drama, and verse.
One of the things I like best about Gikandi’s work is his willingness–a kind of intellectual generosity–to ask fairly open-ended questions, which advance his argument, but also leave that argument available to on-going conversations and new perspectives. It’s in honor of that intellectual disposition that I want to tackle the question of the household, both as an aesthetic construct, and as a political metaphor with a deep and heavily contested history.
In the interest of restoring/excavating slavery’s “aura,” its “historical testimony,” (Benjamin’s explanation of his term), I want to reach back to the middle seventeenth-century and the English civil wars when “slavery” was a constitutive feature of the reigning definition of “tyranny.” In 1646, for instance, the Leveller Richard Overton, attempted to shame the House of Commons by claiming that it betrayed age-old English liberties by tolerating the House of Lords’ negotiations with the recently defeated Charles I. Such tolerance, for Overton was tantamount to telling the English they should be slaves: “Wee desire you to free us of these abuses, and their negative Voices, or else tell us, that it is reasonable wee should be slaves . . . .” (The Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, 1646, 7). Overton clearly is not thinking about the commercial slave trade that became integral to the circulation of goods and wealth in the Atlantic world and about which Gikandi is primarily concerned, though it is perhaps the world to which the Rembrandt painting Two Negroes with which Gikandi opens his book belongs. But this pamphlet and the statements above are part of the sight-line that C.B. Macpherson draws from the middle of the seventeenth-century to the Enlightenment. For Overton, as it is for Locke forty years later, freedom is an inalienable right because “for everyone as he is himself, so he hath a self-propriety” (3). To enslave in the English cultural imaginary of the period, is to separate someone from his property, namely himself. Gikandi’s work is deft and historically attentive in this matter, without a hint of presentism. What is equally striking about the sight-line from the middle seventeenth-century to the Enlightenment is that if slavery was imagined to be the predominant political effect of tyranny, Overton and others viewed art and leisure as it’s indisputable symptom. Though he is somewhat notorious for his idiosyncratic accounts of English history, Overton sees those kings from whom Charles I descends as tyrants, recognizable as such by their “trust unto their Policies and Court Arts, to King-waste, and delusion rather than to Justice and plaine dealing (4). I have to admit “King-waste” is my favorite here. Even if one reads “contrapuntally,” Gikandi, it seems to me, is quite right, slavery is more than the negation of the “culture of taste”. Reading forward from the middle of the seventeenth century, it may well be that the culture of taste is the symptom of the unresolved conflict between tyranny and slavery, a conflict that the American Revolution sought, at one level, to resolve but could not.
This triangulated structure between tyranny, taste, and slavery, where only the relationship between the later two is explicit is what made Gikandi’s fourth chapter so evocative and compelling to me.
Time after time, Gikandi resorts to the family and marriage to help characterize the affective relationships between slaves and slave owners, evoking, of course the primary metaphor that structured political relations prior to the Enlightenment and the advent of the ideology of individualism, suggesting that the slave owner’s family and his house, is a key element in the occlusion of tyranny in the triangulated structure above. On 158, Gikandi quotes a description of Pierce Butler a plantation owner forced to sell some of his slaves in order satisfy his debt (“one of the vices of a gentleman”), he “walked among his people, speaking to them and shaking the hands of his favorite servants.” Gikandi glosses the description thus, “He owned them, and he was about to dispose of them to pay his debts, yet they were part of his ‘family’.” And in the subsequent paragraph, Gikandi writes, “Sometimes in the case of Thomas Jefferson and his personal slave Jupiter Jefferson, this intimacy would almost be like a marriage.” But the case that the patriarchal family and the culture of taste that manifests its authority masks the operations of tyranny is rendered most explicit in Gikandi’s account of William Byrd who says of himself “I must take care to keep all my people to their duty, to set all the springs in motion, and to make every-one draw his equal share to carry the machine forward” (164). I suspect that the patriarchal family’s occlusion of tyranny and its displays of “taste” go a long way to explaining why the brutal punishment of rebellious slave’s seems so invested with libidinous desire. Rebellious slaves were like murdering wives–petty traitors at law, but within the cultural imaginary, “dangerous familiars” to borrow Fran Dolan’s term. It would be interesting to explore how practices of coverture and the “one body” account of marriage intertwine with the “culture of taste” (beyond the “Rape of the Lock” mode) inform and justify slave owning in the period and make what is clearly a tyrannical relationship, somehow “untyrannical” to those who engaged in its multiple practices. This too has to be counted as part of slavery’s “aura.” Any takers?
“Unspeakable Events: Slavery and White Self-Fashioning” is, like the rest of this book, a tour de force. Gikandi opens by contrasting the shattering of Olaudah Equiano’s cosmopolitan dreams with the dazzling cosmopolitanism of David Hume in Paris, contrasted again with Hume’s own shattering of cosmopolitanism in his famous footnote on race. That a man of his time could spout racism is not surprising, Gikandi notes (102).
What is surprising is that an intellectual of Hume’s caliber and humanistic interests, one whose goal was to establish universal moral and aesthetic judgments, and one who considered prejudice injurious to this endeavor, seemed untroubled by his own sense of prejudice.
I’ll admit to being surprised about this myself when I first looked closely at Hume, and Gikandi cites Richard Popkin to the same effect. But Gikandi adds that Hume only seemed untroubled by his contradictory self. There’s no surprise, if we understand that like the other theorists and practitioners of taste, “Hume [was] determined to quarantine cosmopolitan Europe from black dirt” (100).
Similarly, we find the story of Francis Williams’ Cambridge education and accomplished Latin poetry failing to be “transformed by the modes of intellectual reflection one would expect from the best minds of the time” (105-6); instead, processed through the dismissive double-bind of racial prejudice footnoted by Hume and enacted by Jamaican slave-owner Edward Long. And again, what seems to be a surprising dereliction of attention and reflection turns out instead to have been an active, albeit unspeakable, exclusion and repression. In the cloistered universities, coffeehouses, and salons, the makers of the culture of taste were in fact deeply, constitutively troubled by the contradiction of their high sensibilities and the grim violence and shame of slavery.
The argument therefore hinges on shame and its repression. Hume, Long, Jefferson, and William Beckford in just a moment, have to be read contrapuntally to find amidst all of the not at all saying that they were ashamed of slavery, and all of the historical context in which slavery was only just beginning to become shameful, that they were in fact fundamentally ashamed of slavery. And they had to know it too, and be determined about it, and active in every way but speaking about it. I’m going to move to late in the chapter now, to the discussion of Beckford, to a representative instance of this argument.
Beckford was a complex fellow, as Gikandi makes clear. Creole, colonial parvenu, homosexual, art collector, Francophile, failed joiner, and all-around difficult character, for Gikandi the “greatest repressed force” in his life, a force that oppressed him, damaging his sense of self and/in relationship to the culture of taste, was slavery – the origin and dependence of the family fortune on the complex of sugar and slaves. Gikandi acknowledges that there are plenty of marginalizing factors to overdetermine the account, then dives into the evidence. This turns out to be Beckford’s reclusive hoarding of art, on which more in a moment, and letters in which he discusses the fortunes of his fortune. Here’s the first piece of that analysis:
Jamaica could be absent from Beckford’s biography, but this does not mean he was not aware of the extent to which his ability to live the lavish life of an aesthetic subject depended on his slaveholdings. We find acknowledgment of this connection in a letter to Lady Craven in 1790: “One of my new estates in Jamaica brought me home seven thousand pounds last year more than usual. So I am growing rich, and mean to build Towers, and sing hymns to the powers of Heaven on their summits [...]” (137).
That the kind of spoiled, clueless punk emergent from Gikandi’s account and this quotation made the reflective connection between profitable “estates” and the cruel reality of slavery is now meant to be a fact in evidence, despite not being at all a fact in evidence. Why do he and Hume and the rest need so much to have been reflectively ashamed? I don’t know; maybe for the same reason it’s way more upsetting if lots of the Germans killing Jews and sitting at home while Jews were being killed next door didn’t give much thought to Jews, didn’t really much care about them at all? Killed them or let them be killed because at that moment it was more convenient than not?
But now anxiety makes its inevitable appearance, as Beckford is seen “worried about the effects of sugar prices, slave revolts, and legal challenges to his Jamaican holdings on his ability to maintain Fonthill House,” the family manor in the English countryside.
Nevertheless, the language used to express these colonial anxieties was one of denial, avoiding the subject at hand, refusing to recognize the source of the trauma, to be drawn close to it, or even to speak its language. Hiding behind the clichéd language of lawyers and agents, and using citations and indirect discourse, Beckford worked hard to distance himself from the unnamable event that was his legacy (138).
Or, he was pissed off that he wasn’t rich any more but saying so wouldn’t have done his status any good. That is, his thoughts and feelings followed a situated path of least resistance. In an analysis I’d like better, we’d now be looking at what the global economy was doing to ruin the profitability of Jamaican sugar plantations and marginalize the old planter class, creating an anxiety that had lots to do with being royally screwed and maybe little to do with feeling ashamed of slavery; until, of course, slavery became a financial liability and therefore safely a moral one.
“Denial was Beckford’s mode of existence,” Gikandi now feels comfortable asserting. “He was aware,” a fact not in evidence but admittedly probable, “that his success as a collector and man of taste was tied to slavery and sugar, but any direct association with black bondage was injurious to the social standing of a modern subject, especially toward the end of the eighteenth century, when slavery was no longer in vogue.” A more prudent man in such circumstances might well have invested in sweat shops, as in fact many classy folks did – showing no effective carry-over of the shame from that other brutal, humanly-destructive forced labor (or repressing the new shame in turn, perhaps). In any case, we have again the assumption presented as fact backed by speculative depth psychology and manifestly unsupported by anything else about the history or character of this fella that he had made a reflective and strategic connection between his taste, slavery, and shame. Into this epistemological gap now helpfully steps the genre, in the persons of John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, who handwave “that beneath the ‘houses and masterpieces’ of the collectors, ‘there is much to be learned by listening in to the quieter, subversive voices rising out of that “unacceptable” residue lying in culture’s shadow’” (138-9). Later in this hall of mirrors, we find amusement hinting at muses and museums. I would have left this snark out if it wasn’t almost 5am.
Anyhoo this is fine conceptual play, as good as it gets in fact, with an amazing richness of breadth and detail. And unlike the subjects of the book the brute fact that all of the goodies of modernity emerged from a complex that essentially included history’s most systematically vicious slavery is never far enough away to lose sight of. But surely after decades now of this genre experiment in optional readings we’re not finding them persuasive or satisfying any more?