Gikandi’s Ch 6: “The Ontology of Play”

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 is the Digital Humanities Curator at the American Antiquarian Society.

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10 responses to “Gikandi’s Ch 6: “The Ontology of Play”

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Molly, for your detailed response to G’s 6th chapter. I think seeing the provision-grounds as a place where slaves could negotiate some degree of autonomy and continuity, in an environment where those were really precarious and hard-won, is a useful insight from G. These notions of a negotiated temporality seem equally pertinent in the way we regard slaves’ labor, performance, and memory, too. It also seems important that these notions of memory and “tradition” were sensitive to slaves’ own circumstances, either as African-born or creole.

    The notion of a public sphere in which the enslaved could appear feels paradoxical to me. It seemed strange to me that a book with such extensive theoretical debts would leave a term like this unelaborated, just as Evan wondered about the seeming allusions to Derrida and others that went unexplained (though there are references to D’s notions of “trace” (p. 26). But “public” status is precisely what Sancho, Equiano, Wheatley, and others strove towards, against many obstacles. I suppose it depends on whether we consider some of those collective events and ceremonies found in the chapter as public. It didn’t seem that way to me. Any thoughts, anyone?

  2. deluciajoellen

    I wonder if the term “counter public” might be useful in the context of this chapter?

  3. Dave Mazella

    Read the Weintraub, which was interesting. From my perspective, a lot of the historical critiques of Habermas (Vickery, Calhoun) have explored these issues, too. Michael Warner’s Publics and Counter-publics, with its focus on shifting, virtual collectivities of attention rather than more determinate or sociologically ordered groups, might fall in line with what you’re describing.

    I’m not sure I understand your vocabulary of a “field” analytic, though. It sounds more like anthropology. The Markell sounds like contemporary political philosophy. But I’d be curious about how to describe and analyze these kinds of porously organized groups within groups, and the benefits of such an approach.

    • I ordinarily have Bourdieu in mind for ‘fields’, and he was an anthropologist among other things, but I’ve just been reading Fligstein and McAdam’s A Theory of Fields, which is more conventionally social-sciency (I’m using it to teach sociological theory next term) so that’s more on the front burner. The linked review gets at your question a bit and the book moreso, so it’s worth a look.

      • Dave Mazella

        This to me seems like a much more productive way to go in the analysis of an “institution” like slavery, since the agency part of the equation seems so situational and context-dependent. Though I doubt he makes this kind of connection to this field, I also see links between this approach and the work of Walter Johnson, whose work is getting a roundtable-style review right now at the Junto [follow the link].

      • Wow, that Junto project is a fascinating companion to this one. I love this quote from Johnson: “What if we sought not to measure the extent to which ‘the market’ or ‘capitalism’ had penetrated the culture of cotton, but rather to understand more concretely and specifically the workings of this market . . . at this place at this point of time? What, that is to say, if we set aside prefabricated questions and threadbare tautologies, and simply began with a bale of cotton?”

  4. Thanks for your thoughts here, folks. It seems to me that it might be productive to read what G is saying about the relationship btwn the counterculture of taste (esp in relation to the Akan-style African drum (233-34) and Frederick Douglass’ memories of hearing slave chants (236-37)) and the public sphere alongside Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s piece on the French Horn in John Marrant’s Narrative in the recent collection, Early African American Print Culture (U Penn, 2012). In her piece, Dillon uses such “embodies scenes of performance” to reconceptualize the public sphere (320), suggesting that “…we are able to see the limits of normative accounts of the public sphere subject—a subject who is typically seen as fully formed and endowed with a wholly functioning (and comprehensible) voice prior to his or her entry into the public sphere. The subject, in an Enlightenment tradition, is defined by this capacity for reason and self-expression, thus Habermas tends to presume that all humans will find their place (and voice) within the charmed circle of the public sphere. …let me propose that we reverse [Habermas and Warner’s accounts of the public sphere] and imagine a political subject who is formed not prior to entry into the public sphere but in the moment of assuming substance (or conversely, lapsing into nonsensibility) within the modalities of self-evidence generated by the sensus communis in any given staging or embodiment of the public. On this account, the public sphere would look less like a bounded circle the preexisting subjects to seek enter from the outside than like the formation of particular matter into crystals or molecules moving from soluble disassociation into nucleated, aggregate form. Pursuing this image, we might imagine a public sphere in which the force of meaning radiates outward from a nucleus, instantiating and giving form to a set of meanings (and subjects) that do not formally preexist this assemblage” (326-27). From here, Dillon looks to Latour’s network theory to expand on her reorientation of the public sphere to this more fluid understanding of it as a constitutive force, rather than as an exclusive club. Dillon’s opening up of the term here allows us to see the relationship between performance and the public sphere and the performative and the public sphere, especially in the realm of the aural, as opposed to the traditional focus on access to print technology in relationship to the public sphere. As others have noted, I don’t mean here to be gigging G for not taking on the public sphere directly as he does so much other work here, but for those of us working in and around print culture, perhaps we can make G’s work on the aural in this chapter useful to our expanding notions of print culture and its relationship to the public sphere, via Dillon’s reorientation of the concept?

    • Yeah, this is awesome. I wonder if we can even go all-in on a more fluid / dynamical understanding of these moments of staging /embodiment, which would not assume in an Althussery way that the subject is constituted by the centralized radiation of a nucleus, but rather that the whole field and its participants are dynamically enacted and embodied through specific situations and relations? The agenda here as you allude is to chip off some of the crust of interpretive assumption that makes stuff like self, society, hierarchy, power look like settled entities (which of course is the Latour / ANT agenda) and therefore prefab grounds of critique.