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?