Gikandi–Chapter Four: Taste and the Taint of Slavery

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?

8 responses to “Gikandi–Chapter Four: Taste and the Taint of Slavery

  1. dorothycouchman

    I’ll bite: One of the advantages of thinking of slavery as “almost like a marriage” is that, like Hegel, it emphasizes the two-ness of the master-slave relationship. But at the same time, I’m hesitant about this particular comparison. Patriarchal marriage had at least a veneer of consent over its tyranny, even if that consent was only between a husband and his wife’s father. Unlike a woman getting married, when a slave was sold to a new owner, no one had to give consent on the slave’s behalf (even if that consent was symbolic and objectifying anyway). Still, Locke and later William Blackstone both seem to have felt the appeal of trying to make slavery an unbreakable contractual relationship–kind of like a marriage?–between master and slave: Locke says that people who were born free but became slaves have always-already consented to their enslavement, out of gratitude at not having been killed; Blackstone imagines that slaves are able to enter into an implicit contract with their owners for unending service. But I’m not sure that many people were convinced, since slaves’ status as persons before the law (instead of as things) was shaky, at best.

  2. Thanks Dorothy. I always find the way Locke reveals his affinity for Hobbes to be so intriguing and underscrutinized. The paraphrase you offer here is just such a moment and it does do precisely what I suspect the 18thc construction of slavery is generally designed to do–namely, an end-run around the question of tyranny, making it more rather than less like marriage, as you suggest. I’d want to think here a little more about the question of consent which seems to vex the symmetry between these two practices. On the one hand, you’re right, no one had to consult the slave about whether he/she wanted to be sold. But the buyer did have to consult the present owner who had to consent to a sale before a transaction could take place. While women could not be forced to marry in the way slaves could be forced to be sold, they often could not marry without the consent of a male relative–father, brother, uncle. It’s not seamless to be sure, but certainly suggestive.
    I guess when I was talking about coverture, I was thinking through Fran Dolan’s arguments in Marriage and Violence and her investigation of the “one-body” theory of marriage which renders married women invisible at law because the body in the marriage belongs to the husband. That argument seems really useful talking about the episode from the Narrative of Frederick Douglass when the young Douglass witnesses his aunt’s brutal and libidinized discipline. Gikandi talks about this in chapter 4 as well. I seems significant to me that this brutalization takes place in the kitchen. The rest of the house, presumably where the culture of taste is on display, masks/hides the exercise of authoritarian power and amplifies its effect.

  3. I’m always a little simple-minded about these things, I’m afraid, but I figured it was done in the kitchen because that’s a domestic work space, and disciplining a slave is domestic work. There’s also blood to clean up, preferably from work surfaces rather than fine upholstery.

    I also read the quoted passage three times and couldn’t find a trace of sex, libido, pleasure of any kind in it. The flesh is treated optimally for the infliction of pain. Anger is there, frustration, sweaty effort even, and of course her agony, which is directly the point. I understand that pain can be libidinal n itself, but surely we’re not just assuming it always is. What am I missing?

  4. I guess there are several responses to your question. First, Gikandi also reads it as libidinal and second I agree with him. The display of Hester’s body invites such a reading because it exceeds matters of practicality. If his intention is to punish her and the domestic space serves the interests of practicality rather than something else, then why not just cut her laces/seams at the back? Surely that would save on fabric and the cost of reclothing her. Why strip her so violently and hang her from the rafter so that her front and back are exposed? So I don’t think the libidinal content is assumed, I think it’s integral. I guess I would also add that while I agree the “flesh is treated optimally” it is so treated for the application of power and only subsequently for the “infliction of pain.”

  5. Dorothy Couchman

    Melissa, I like how you’ve drawn attention to the separation between the kitchen and the “rest of the house, presumably where the culture of taste is on display,” and how this separation “masks/hides the exercise of authoritarian power and amplifies its effect.” The lines you’re drawing between the overt exercise of violence in the kitchen and covert authoritarian power of the rest of the house seem to be even further emphasized by the fact that kitchens were often set apart from the structure of the house (to cut down on the risk of fire, and also keep the house from getting overheated from cooking in the summer). But they’re still connected, of course, by enslaved servants carrying back and forth hot water, food, dishes to be washed, etc. Literally, this “culture of taste” gets cooked in the kitchen, and then is consumed/displayed in the main house. So the kitchen seems a particularly happy metaphor for the tension between taste and slavery that Gikandi has got us all talking about.

  6. Yikes! Well if you and Gikandi BOTH agree…. ;-)

    OK, point by point, there is no violent stripping in the quoted passage. If there had been, it would have been consistent with the disciplinary complex of power, terror, and pain. He stripped her front and back because that’s how you get the skin exposed to the lash, and incidentally save wear and tear on the clothing. He hung her up to incapacitate her, prevent her from protecting herself, and no doubt to reinforce the disciplinary dimensions of power and terror. I gather we agree about all that; the question is whether the scenario supports readings of surplus libidity, so to speak, and symbolic / strategic concealment.

    Unless dominating violence is inherently libidinal (a Brownmiller / Dworkin kind of argument) or exposed female torsos likewise, there’s just nothing here to suggest this guy was getting kicks from the exercise. It’s equally plausible he would have preferred to have been obeyed and skip the fuss; in his ferocity we might read the hope of conveying the lesson once and for all. Of course I am just going here on the evidence supplied.

    The kitchen was a place of ‘concealment’ for all sorts of tasteful preparations, as you note. No doubt the whipping hook normally hung meat in preparation for cooking; even today we keep our butchery separate from our consumption. It was a poor house indeed where the chicken was gutted in front of the guests, or the turnips washed for that matter. Is this concealment? Were the horses concealed in the stables? Were the wardrobes and closets covert zones? Sure, but only in the most mundane sense. These were the routine, banal even, backstages of a distinguished status, fields of action distanced in no more remarkable way than that first accomplishment of class, the privy.

    Therefore, I see no tension between taste and slavery here (yet), any more than I see tension between washing the dishes and mowing the lawn. They’re two separate activities I do in two separate places, from time to time. I’m prepared to believe, in fact deeply disposed to believe, that what to me with my situated sensibilities seems like the extraordinary viciousness of slavery needs an extraordinary explanation, but if the evidence for that keeps being this badly trumped up I’m forced to consider the possibility that to these people, that level of violence was something quite familiar and routine, in need of no special material or emotional arrangements.

  7. Dave Mazella

    Carl, I don’t know if we need to debate this any further, but this chapter alone has a number of episodes or images of sexualized violence against slaves that seem eminently describable as “libidinal”: there’s the series of Blake/Stedman images of tortured slaves culminating in the “Flagellation of a female Samboe Slave” [4.14]; the “Virginian Luxuries” painting [4.4] makes the connection between the white master kissing/beating a female slave absolutely explicit. This connection is certainly made in the narratives of Stedman or Mary Prince, in addition to the well-known passages of Thistlewood, Douglass, Jacobs and many others about the prevalence of rape on those plantations. So it’s there in the primary sources as well as the secondary ones. The relative absence of the sensationalism we find, for example in Stedman’s or Thistlewood’s accounts seems pretty clearly related to Douglass’s desire to deny the white portion of his audience the “pleasures” of the spectacle of black (sexual) subjugation, as Gikandi discusses 197-200.