Author Archives: Dave Mazella

dh and the “discipline” of english studies; UPDATED

800px-Erm11

[image of Ermenonville, Le temple de la philosophie, courtesy of Parisette and Wikimedia commons]

I spent a few days listening in on the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium conference at UH this weekend, and was impressed by a number of presentations. I won’t try to record everything, but will just blog about a few of the ideas that have stuck with me for the last day or so. (For those seeking a good comprehensive account, try instead keynote speaker Geoffrey Rockwell’s very helpful summary of keynotes and panels here)

For whatever reason, perhaps because of the earlier discussion of the Emory English blow-up, I walked into the conference thinking about English studies, a disciplinary agglomeration that has never had much success organizing itself around any consistent methodology or object of study. If this is indeed our disciplinary home and background, I wondered, why should it feature such persistent, distracting arguments about who belongs inside and who doesn’t?  So I walked into the TXDHC conference wondering whether I myself might belong inside their tent.

I was very pleased to see a presentation from Geoffrey Rockwell (Alberta) on Friday about a collaborative project he is developing (with Stefan Sinclair) called “hermeneutica,” In their introduction they note that hermeuti.ca includes both a printed text on methods of textual analysis and a suite of tools designed to “instantiate” those principles. They envision users looping back and forth from the printed portions to the embedded interactive panels that display their own processes and results; these panels would also allow users to enter their own values so that they could “recapitulate and experiment with” those results, and compare their own with R/S’s results. This creates an interactive feedback loop between the learner and the book/site that a “mere” printed text could not emulate. They also include case histories demonstrating what can be done with such tools, reflective essays on their analyses, and finally “recipes” that are “tutorials on how to do interpretative things with common tools.”

“Hermeneutica,” we learned at the presentation, were “little hermeneutical toys” that we could use to analyze the texts around us. Rockwell pointed out that these kinds of interactive data visualizations were already becoming commonplace on sites like the NY Times and the NYSE.

I’d need to spend far more time with this project to have more to say about its details, but what I appreciated were the following principles I gleaned from the presentation and the online materials contained here:

  • The emphasis is on collaboration, since it is unlikely that any single scholar will have all the skills necessary to do the kind of work necessary to tackle interesting projects with sufficient scope and depth to satisfy the lay audience;
  • The emphasis is also squarely on interpretation and the open-ended generation of insights, as an “art of making things more interesting” along the lines of cooking, embroidery, etc., rather than a utilitarian model of searching or pattern-matching;
  • Drawing on Franco Moretti’s discussion of “models” (e.g., “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” p. 4) Rockwell stressed that textual analysis produced by hermeneutica’s tools operated upon “surrogates“* rather than texts themselves, in just the way that scholars might work on the indices or outlines of books rather than books themselves for certain kinds of research. (Moretti: “once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead”**) At the same time, hermeneuti.ca’s tools were designed to “help you read,” and to “help you get back to the full text”;
  • This stress on the proliferation and discussion of surrogates in the humanities might help explain why preservation and rereading of of older material legacies are always so closely interwoven with the production of new insights; accordingly, in this presentation, Rockwell began with the little-known prehistory of DH in the 1970s and 1980s, in some of the earliest computer-assisted readings of literature like the work of John Smith on James Joyce;
  • Rockwell’s emphasis here was not necessarily on building one’s tools, or all of one’s tools, from scratch, but using and adapting what one could find from ready-made and available tools, which certainly lowers the bar for those, like myself, who would rather adapt existing tools for their own interpretive projects than devote themselves single-mindedly to tool-construction;
  • Finally, by comparing the tools and products of the hermeneutica to the surrogate-like features of 18th-century architectural “follies,” Rockwell stressed their non- or anti-utilitarian character, since they helped to resist or interrupt one’s use or production of texts, in order to draw attention to their theoretical workings;
  • The anti-utilitarian character of the folly-like hermeneutica makes their character as tools paradoxical, since they represent a class of “tools” that work against the purposeful or transparent operations of signification, slowing down or interrupting production to the point where they make their own use more available for conscious manipulation; they make it possible for creators and audiences to move to new, meta-levels when considering the use of a particular element in a composition.

I  believe that it is this conceptually suggestive, exploratory, anti-utilitarian element of the “folly” or hermeneuticon–the tool that acts like something other than a simple tool–that seems especially inviting for folks doing work in English departments.  This kind of exploration, shared I think by each of the interpretive sub-disciplines housed in English departments, distinguishes thinking in the humanities from other disciplinary forms of thinking, and distances our work from the kinds of purposiveness found in other disciplines.

DM

[*UPDATE: GR's discussion of "models" or textual "surrogates" deployed by scholars to interpret an inaccessible "text" reminds me of Frank Ankersmit's observations about the distinction between "historical research (a question of facts)" and "historical writing (a question of interpretation)" ("Six Theses," 2.1). It also seems to me that the most interpretively productive way to regard data visualizations of individual artworks or larger groupings might be as Ankersmit's "metaphors." According to Ankersmit, metaphors help us to organize, understand, and redescribe the past in novel terms that encourage interpretation and debate ("metaphor shows what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else ('John is a pig'), "Theses," 5.1.1).]

[**UPDATE: Bill Benzon (H/T Alan Liu) has posted (here and here) about Moretti's uses of computers and computer-generated networks for literary works.  Benzon observes that while Moretti does not use a computer to create his network diagrams, they are "very much in the spirit . . . of computing." Benzon believes that the point of Moretti's enterprise is the movement from quantification to visualization. Ultimately, this process should produce an "irreducible" visual pattern that can serve as a usefully suggestive model for a literary work or group of works. Benzon writes:

The important point is what happens when you get such diagrams based on a bunch of different texts. You can see, at a glance, that there are different patterns in different texts. While each such diagram represents the reduction of a text to a model, the patterns in themselves are irreducible. They are a primary object of description and analysis.

In my view, Moretti's "irreducible" patterns constitute "primary object[s] of description and analysis” when they fulfill Ankersmit’s definition of “metaphor,” “show[ing ] what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else.”

Moretti himself shows these visual patterns’ defamiliarizing potential when he uses figs. 34 and 35 to reveal the significantly liminal status of Hamlet‘s Horatio as a “good gateway” to the play’s “periphery,” in contrast with the courtly characters tightly clustered around Polonius (“Network” 6).  Here are the figures:

Moretti fig 34

Moretti fig 35

When Moretti is able to transform “Horatio” from a character made of words into a vertex that he is then able to describe as a “gateway,” then the transformation of the model into a new metaphor is complete.

DM

bousquet and moral panic

A few people have forwarded me Marc Bousquet’s latest essay (article behind paywall) about the “moral panic” in literary studies, along with SEK’s follow-up, and I’ve seen surprisingly little push-back from the presumed subjects of the essay, English literature professors. Bousquet’s point is that PhD-granting English departments like his own (Emory) are seeing a widening gap between the hiring of newly-minted PhDs in “traditional fields” vs. “new fields.” (i.e., students trained in historical, period-based fields vs. those in rhet/comp or digital humanities).  As a result, the wounded and defensive professors in traditional fields have engaged in what he calls a “backlash discourse” conjuring up “a ‘moral panic’ in defense of literary studies.”

I think there’s some truth in this description, but I also think that the analysis could be deepened.  From my own experience, in a public research university, and in a pluralist department with a full complement of advanced degrees in sub-fields (literary studies, creative writing, rhet/comp, linguistics, and with a growing interest in digital humanities), it’s taken for granted that we must work together, even if it does make all our lives more complicated. It does make inter-departmental conversation more difficult at times, but perhaps more rewarding, too. (I don’t deny that we all wonder from time to time what it would be like to work in a stand-alone department squarely focused on what we  do). But I think that for all but the most prestigious and super-endowed programs, disciplinary autonomy is off the table.

As I continued to read through Bousquet’s essay, it seemed to me that all but a handful of my friends and colleagues in the academy work in similarly mixed environments.  The remaining ones work in institutions either so prestigious that they could ignore the market forces he describes, or so oblivious (or, more likely, divided) that nothing short of catastrophe could make them change direction. Frankly, by the time Bousquet writes, “the moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production,” I wondered why this essay wasn’t just an email to his colleagues at Emory? In other words, why should the rest of us care? At the same time, I do think that there’s a potentially useful discussion to be extracted from this essentially local argument.

I think in the long term and among a very broad group of working scholar/teachers, there’s a lot of justifiable anxiety about the future of what we might call “traditional” or historically-based literary studies.  This anxiety comes not (just) from the insecurities of superannuated or inactive faculty, but from the increasingly market-driven language used to justify the reorganization of academic departments wholesale in domains like hiring, tenure, enrollments, and so forth.  The once-dominant model of nation- and period-specialization has just weathered serious challenge from the MLA leadership this past winter, and left many eighteenth-century scholars wondering just what role we shall have in that organization as it goes through its own evolution (not that the MLA has demonstrated much love for rhet/comp, either).

So I wonder what sort of role literature and literary studies might have in the undergraduate and graduate curricula of “English studies” twenty years from now.  For example, in a pluralistic department organized without period categories, how would historical research be taught, or the general category of “literature” be usefully sub-divided or segmented?  How would “genre” be studied? And so forth. In my view, a large part of this “anxiety” reflects our awareness that many familiar landmarks in scholarly life are disappearing, with little concrete sense of what’s to replace them.

I have two thoughts about this stand-off between Bousquet and the resistant literature faculty he describes.

First of all, because of the depressingly straitened circumstances outlined by Bousquet many times before, a lot of literature faculty–even the ones trained in the Ivy Leagues–have made heroic or at least incremental efforts to adapt their curricula, teaching, and their research interests to their new surroundings and new students.

In other words, the period-based fields have not in any way stood still in the past few decades. This fact really became clear during the MLA dust-up, when eighteenth-century scholars were forced to argue to scholars from other historical periods against shrinking our division at the annual meeting. Not only were the proposals a self-defeating gesture for an organization purporting to represent the entirety of “literary studies,” they would jettison every trace of the field’s development over the past thirty years.  So I think anyone in Bousquet’s position would be much better off encouraging more, and better, adaptations among literature professors rather than threatening them with “irrelevance.”  I  don’t think high quality collaborations can occur under any other circumstances.

My second point is that it feels odd for Bousquet, of all people, to use the language of the market to justify the de facto institutional changes he wishes to make.  I have long admired How the University Works precisely because it questions the use of the marketplace or its organizational jargon to justify educational decisions that affect people. Anyone who has spent time in higher education knows that the market is not in any way a fair or rational arbiter, nor is it an impersonal historical force, but something that produces certain outcomes because of certain prior decisions and priorities. Assuming that this is the case, the changes taking place now are driven in part by all the forces he’s rightly critiqued elsewhere: permatemping, public disinvestment, corporatization, etc.  The economic-institutional process that elevated rhet/comp to its current position (however resisted by a few outliers) may also hollow out the academic departments that may someday be filled with majorities of rhet/comp teacher/scholars.

So the market has spoken, but why exactly should we follow its dictates here or elsewhere?  From my perspective, it might be better to envision (and enact) a version of “English studies” that is able to draw upon the expertise of all its fields, including the historical study of literature.

DM

 

The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production. – See more at: http://chronicle.com.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/article/The-Moral-Panic-in-Literary/145757/#sthash.pTUvYCEA.dpuf
The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production. – See more at: http://chronicle.com.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/article/The-Moral-Panic-in-Literary/145757/#sthash.pTUvYCEA.dpuf

MLA 2014, pt III: The Revised Draft of the MLA Forums, Open Hearings, plus updates

mla2014-logo

Hi folks,

I won’t be attending MLA this year, but I wanted to provide a few 18c updates for those attending and those staying at home:

As always, at the Long 18th, we’re always happy to hear about any news or thoughts about the matters discussed in or out of the panels at MLA. Hit Reply if you want to pass along some bit of news.

Stay warm,

DM

MLA 2014, pt II: sessions organized by the late-18c division, Jan. 9-11

mla2014-logo

And now for the later 18c.

Below you will find the sessions organized by the Late 18c Division for this year. As with the other post, please feel free to share your thoughts about these sessions, or about MLA more generally, below. Thanks, DM

113. Have We Ever Been Secular?

Thursday, 9 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Addison, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

Presiding: Deidre Shauna Lynch, Univ. of Toronto

1. “Never: The Making of the Modern Aura,” Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Univ. of California, Irvine

2.  “Pretending to Believe, Pretending Not to Believe,” Lori Branch, Univ. of Iowa

3. “Was Sentimentalism Secular?” Lisa M. O’Connell, Univ. of Queensland

4. “Quasi-nonsecularism; or, The Eighteenth-Century Sublime,” Richard A. Barney, Univ. at Albany, State Univ. of New York

Session Description: This session revisits customary narratives about Enlightenment and secularization and explores 18th-century studies after the “theological turn.”

235. Life: Before and after 1800

Friday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Addison, Chicago Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature and the Division on the English Romantic Period

Presiding:  Kevis Goodman, Univ. of California, Berkeley
Speakers:  Amanda Jo Goldstein, Cornell Univ.; Heather Keenleyside, Univ. of Chicago; Catherine Packham, Univ. of Sussex;Andrew Piper, McGill Univ.

Session Description:
“Until the end of the eighteenth century . . . life does not exist: only living beings.” Our two divisions will revisit Foucault’s still influential, periodizing thesis to question its validity in the light of recent work in the field and to think about what we do and do not share.

  608. War and Literature, 1754–1815
Saturday, 11 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., O’Hare, Chicago Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

Presiding:  William Beatty Warner, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

Speakers:  Siraj Ahmed, Lehman Coll., City Univ. of New York; Betty Joseph, Rice Univ.; Scott Krawczyk, United States Military Acad.; Daniel O’Quinn, Univ. of Guelph

Session Description:
In the wake of the 250th anniversary of the Seven Years’ War, considered by many as the first worldwide war, we would like to open a discussion of war and literature. On both the continent of North America and the Indian subcontinent, war for empire among the European nations swept away first nations, redrew boundaries, and inflected communal identities.

MLA 2014, pt I: sessions organized by the restoration and early 18c english literature division

mla2014-logo

In light of earlier posts urging continued representation of all three sub-periods in our 18c MLA sessions, I would urge any ASECS members attending MLA this year to attend as many sessions as possible and show your support.

Below you will find the sessions organized by the Restoration and Early 18c English Literature Division.  Feel free to comment here if you have any thoughts about the session you saw, or about MLA more generally. Thanks, DM

MLA 2014_Page_1

MLA 2014_Page_2

Last Year’s Letter from the Exec Committee for Late-18c English Literature (Anderson, Goodman, Lynch, Macpherson, Warner) about the Proposed Reorganization

Hi folks,

Since the program committee is meeting  soon, I would suggest, yet again, that if you feel a stake in the proposed reorganization, please visit the draft proposal site to register your response ASAP. The relevant paragraphs concerning 18c studies are paragraphs 82 and 83.

There is also an online petition getting circulated by Rivka Swenson, Danielle Spratt, Deidre Lynch, and Jonathan Kramnick, which would be helpful for you to sign. Please take a look, and if you agree, sign and share with your colleagues.

Here is the very thorough response that last year’s Late Eighteenth-Century Division made to the proposal to reorganize the 18c group and reduce its conference panels.  The writers of this letter are making it available to the Long 18th and its readers, so that the 18th century scholarly community can see the efforts they have made to work with the MLA in its ongoing development.  It is clear, however, that this letter was not taken into consideration when MLA moved forward with the proposal. Take a look:

Response to Marianne Hirsch & Margaret Ferguson - rev final 4-20 copy_Page_1

Response to Marianne Hirsch & Margaret Ferguson - rev final 4-20 copy_Page_2

Response to Marianne Hirsch & Margaret Ferguson - rev final 4-20 copy_Page_3

Response to Marianne Hirsch & Margaret Ferguson - rev final 4-20 copy_Page_4

Thanks,

David Mazella

18th century folks: please add your comments to the MLA draft proposal before September 18th

Rivka Swenson and I are trying to alert everyone working in 18th-century studies to an important discussion taking place at the MLA right now.  This is a proposed restructuring of the existing discussion groups and divisions that would drastically reduce the number of guaranteed panels for our field, and merge existing “Restoration,” “Early Eighteenth Century,”and “Late Eighteenth Century” fields into a single “Long Eighteenth Century” field.  The effect of this proposal would be to reduce guaranteed panels at the annual conference from 8 to 2, and to demand that panels be constituted from submissions from all three sub-fields.

Here, to begin with, is Pres. Marianne Hirsch’s explanation of the “document map” concerning a proposed reorganization of the MLA’s committee structure:

There are further, general remarks found at this link, but no rationale for the specific collapsing of existing 18th-century sub-fields or reduction of panels.  There is no narrative explanation for the newly constituted or merged groups or what these new names might mean.

The MLA Commons site is confusing, but please persevere until you reach this site, which contains the “document map” for the proposed changes.  On the left there are the new “groups”; you will find the new collapsed groups under the heading of “English,” with “Restoration,” “Early Eighteenth Century” and “Late Eighteenth Century” now listed as part of “The Long Eighteenth Century.”

The relevant paragraphs to comment upon are 82 and 83, which can be accessed by clicking on the panel names on the left, or by scrolling down on the numbered paragraphs on the right.

Please let the MLA Working Group, and Prof. Hirsch, hear what you think about this proposal and its specific impact on eighteenth-century studies. How would it affect you and your work?  How would it affect the work or job prospects of your graduate students?  Does this proposal reflect an up-to-date understanding of the research going on in your field?  Would it affect your willingness to attend or contribute to MLA?  And so forth.

I would also suggest that all discussion for the moment go to the MLA, so that it can be seen by the MLA leadership.  It would be helpful for all these comments to be on the MLA site by the 18th of September, in time for the Program Committee to consider the feedback.  I will observe that the total comments on the two 18th century panels have reached about 44, and that these overwhelmingly negative comments vastly outnumber the comments on the other portions. So good luck, and I hope to see your thoughts on the MLA site.

Thanks,

DM

VIA the ASECS newsletter: Julie Hayes’ President’s Column, May 2013

[Julie Hayes asked me if she could re-post her May 2013 President's Column  on the blog, and I agreed. Take a look, and hit "Reply" if you want to add to our ongoing discussion on the uses of literature and the humanities--DM]

“Why college?”

Julie Candler Hayes
@J_C_Hayes

My spring column is somewhat delayed this year (as was spring itself, in our region). The good feelings and intellectual recharge born of the April ASECS meeting in Cleveland quickly disappeared in the late-season avalanche of institutional demands. I continue to work through my stack of books on the state of American higher education. Having looked last time at Clayton Christensen’s less-than-edifying vision of disruption fueled by underpaid adjunct faculty and government-subsidized student loans to for-profits, I’m turning to two defenses of the humanities and liberal arts, Mark William Roche’s Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (2010) and Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (2012). I wanted very much to like both of these books, and there is much to enjoy in them: both are well-written, thoughtful meditations on the value of a liberal education. And yet…

I heard Mark Roche speak nearly fifteen years ago at a summer chairs’ seminars run by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. At the time, he’d recently finished a stint as chair of the German Department at Ohio State and had moved to Notre Dame as Dean of Arts and Letters. He spoke on ways that department chairs could promote their departments and the ideas came so quickly that I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all in my notes.[1] I picked up his 2010 book hoping for an equally intense blast of arguments for the humanities and strategies for changing the anti-intellectual bent of so much recent debate. This is a more philosophical book, however, an extended answer to the question asked by so many parents: “What can my child do with a major in…?” For Roche, the answer is three-fold. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, inspiring learning for its own sake; they cultivate the “intellectual virtues … requisite for success beyond the academy”; and they lead to the development of a sense of vocation, which he defines as “participation in a higher reality, a commitment to the transcendent.” Because the points are simple ones, the book defies simple paraphrase. It’s worth reading both for the subtlety of the ideas and for the moving evocations of personal experience, especially in the classroom. And I could not have agreed more on the reasons for serving as dean: “One can only assume such a role and persevere in it because one identifies with the goal of fostering learning, scholarship, and formation, and one recognizes the potential to impact the world more deeply in a position of leadership, even if at some level the impact is less embodied and more abstract than when working with many students and writing or researching full-time” (150).

I sighed, therefore, when I encountered an all-too familiar suggestion that college education too often fails in its mission by faculty who substitute “low ambitions” for great ideas and teach only “mediocre books that derive from faculty research interests or ideological perspectives” (32). Roche points to Stanley Fish’s May 2003 Chronicle essay, “Aim Low.” It’s unfortunate, because while Roche and Fish might never be able to speak the same language of morality and higher calling, they certainly both champion rigorous thought and eschew platitudes—Fish’s chief target in his essay.

I experienced a similar momentary disappointment in Andrew Delbanco’s book. Delbanco’s sense of what college is “for” is as high-minded as Roche’s, but as the title suggests his approach is historical and polemical. Delbanco underscores the fault-lines in self-congratulatory narratives about expanding educational access, arguing that colleges and universities “have lately been reinforcing more than ameliorating the disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society” (122) and drawing analogies between the decline of students’ educational experience and that of faculty careers: “the gap is widening between the majority and the select few” (142). His final chapter, “What is to be done?” is maddeningly brief, offering glimpses of a few “high-tech” and “low tech” solutions, before focusing, oddly, on the need for “teachers who care about teaching.” Given his own analysis of the social, political, and economic challenges facing higher education, why turn to the evils of professionalization and the purported disconnect between teaching and research?[2]

Both Roche and Delbanco are literary scholars. Presumably, we all came of age during the same period, riding the wave of the theoretical turn in literary studies in the 1970s. Their experiences were perhaps different from mine. I remain unconvinced that attentiveness to form, to the rusing strategies of language, to the imbrication of discourses within one another, is somehow alien to intellectual ambition, to educating for democracy. Au contraire, collègues!


[1] Fortunately, the talk was published: Mark W. Roche, “Strategies for Enhancing the Visibility and Role of Foreign Language Departments,” ADFL Bulletin Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1999), 10–18.

[2] For an infinitely cruder version of this argument, see a recent opinion piece by Chris Buczinsky and Robert Frodeman in Inside Higher Ed: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/04/30/essay-how-keep-humanities-vibrant-rejecting-elite-universities-models.

Chapter 2: Intersections: Taste, Slavery, and the Modern Self, by Dwight Codr

Mungo -1821-illustration3

[image from http://canadianfly-by-night.blogspot.com/2011/07/mungo-park-part-vi.html%5D

In “Chapter 2: Intersections: Taste, Slavery, and the Modern Self,” Simon Gikandi bears witness to the role played by the “culture of taste” in the repression of the brute and brutal facts of slavery and the slave trade.  The paradoxical simultaneity of Enlightenment political philosophy – championing rationality, taste, and liberty – and the institution of slavery – characterized by violence, disgust, and bondage – is rendered in and through a “contrapuntal” narration and analysis of the lives of middle-class lady-of-taste Anna Margaretta Larpent and an African slave, Nealee, left to die in the wilderness when she chose not to continue with her march into modernity, into bondage and terror (described in Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa).  Gikandi asks: how do we account for the simultaneous existence of these two lives, one leisured, one tragic, lives which, for all of their obvious differences, “operat[ed] in the same orbit” (70) insofar as global networks of trade and power gave us both slavery and “culture”?

What is the nature of the “intersection” named in the chapter’s title?  (It is a word that does not – as far as I can tell – appear in the body of the chapter itself.)  It seems to me Gikandi conceives of his own critical practice as instrumental in the process of actively intersecting these ostensibly discrete lines of life and force.  His analysis, that is, performs the work of merging life-lines that are treated as, at best, parallel (and more often altogether skew). A striking moment of this occurs when Gikandi raises Nealee from the dead: “the colonial library does not contain much information about her existence” (63). So, “[l]et us assume for a moment that Nealee did not die in the heat of Sahel. Let us suppose that she survived the West African wilderness on that fateful night of April 25, 1797” (74).

The effect of this critical necromancy is to enable readers to conceptualize the abstract collisions and overlaps of large-scale systems – of Slavery and Culture – as grounded, finally, in the affective and somatic realities of living, breathing bodies.  The haunting picture, taken by Gikandi himself, from Cape Coast Castle’s “Door of No Return” (85), suggests that this book is more than an analytic and historiographic exercise; it is an embodied writing about embodiment in an age when so many millions of bodies had little to no access to writing (even less that made it into the “colonial library”).

For me, the chapter raises many questions and ideas, but I’ll limit myself to two here.  Notwithstanding the analysis of intersections that deconstruct the opposition between slavery and culture, Gikandi’s dialectical readings maintain – however provisionally – the distinction between what might be called sordid commerce on the one hand and, on the other, culture, entailing everything from fashionable domestic interiors to novels by Samuel Richardson.  For instance: “slave traders and plantation masters studiously held on to, and jealously guarded, their identity as modern European subjects; […] they used architecture and art to assert their location in the mainstream of European fashion; and […] the cultivation of taste was an important counterpoint to the barbarism of slavery, which always had the potential to engulf their claims to be modern, rational subjects” (79).  Or, “[a]n aggressive commercial culture rooted in imperial control and expansion had enabled the culture of taste, but it had become its unspoken, almost unspeakable, event.  Also unspoken and unspeakable were the other bodies in this equation – the millions of African slaves, whose bodies were a key ingredient in the production of the wealth that made the culture of consumption possible” (63).

My question: did the sordid commerce of slavery produce its own culture?  Was slavery itself susceptible to “culturation,” in the sense Gikandi imparts to Culture?  When Gikandi gets to discussing William Snelgrave’s description of a slave execution on board a ship (89), he writes that the “scene of punishment reads like a spectacle from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish” (referring, presumably, to the description of the execution of Damiens, the regicide).  This suggests that there may be literary/textual genres of the brutality of slavery that double back to give shape to European culture.  One thinks forward, perhaps, to Django: Unchained, where Tarantino’s film’s success reveals, if nothing else, modernity’s taste for blood. Or one thinks back, to the gruesome spectacles of punishment in Behn’s Oroonoko. What is to be made of the long and on-going history of spectacles of slave punishment in the authorized spaces of “culture”?

Secondly, Gikandi rightly asserts and establishes as sacrosanct the discourses of liberty and rationality in the context of Enlightenment, but he approaches expressions of religious belief with a degree of skepticism that is itself the hallmark of an Enlightenment historiography that might not fully appreciate the dangerous potency of religious belief in political and aesthetic judgment.  Invocations of Liberty, for Gikandi, make perfect sense, whilst invocations of Providence, by contrast, are read as mystifications of or strategies for the repression of the real problem (“[t]he vocabulary of providence would thus come to mediate the double demands made on these men of taste” 83, my emphasis).  Perhaps Gikandi is less suspicious of true believers than I, but I’m uneasy reading expressions of faith as strategic vocabulary.

I am put in mind of 1990s debate between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins on the question of Captain James Cook’s divinity.  For Sahlins, Cook was seen as a divinity; for Obeyesekere, Cook’s divinity was strategically asserted and not ultimately “believed.”  Sahlins and Obeyesekere staked out their respective positions in the context of “native” Hawaiian thought.  I think it’s worth considering the fact that many eighteenth-century Europeans, for all of their “enlightenment,” just like many twenty-first century Americans, for all of their “modernity,” are still very much guided by religious belief. So, what if slaver-turned-preacher John Newton – who presided, it might be noted as an aside, at St. Mary Woolnoth, which had been recently re-designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, another figure discussed by Gikandi (61) – entirely resolved this tension within himself through the figure of God?  In a volume already confronting such a wealth of material, one can hardly ask for more treatment of religion than what Gikandi already offers, but when Newton describes his involvement in the slave trade as “the appointment Providence had worked out for me,” is this a strategic attempt to reconcile his role in the slave trade with a more fundamental faith in the Enlightenment project, or is it evidence that the Enlightenment project was less firmly established for someone such as Newton?  In any case, I’m happy to see some treatment of religious questions in the chapter, since questions raised by both slavery and culture were so often answered with chapter and verse.

Dwight Codr

Gikandi, Preface: armored men and quarantines

JamesDrummond2nd_Duke_of_Perth

[image of James Drummond, 2rd Duke of Perth, from National Gallery of Scotland and Wikipedia; cf. also, Gikandi, x-xii]

I believe this image is as good a place to start as any in this densely argued book.  In his Preface, Gikandi describes an early moment of fascination in the National Gallery of Scotland, where he saw this portrait of the Jacobite James Drummond by Sir John Baptiste de Medina.  As he looked on this painting, with its conscious, almost theatrical projection of power, Gikandi began to wonder:

Why would Drummond, a symbol of the Catholic insurrection against the Protestant establishment, seek to inscribe an enslaved boy in his family portrait? What aura did this figure, undoubtedly the quintessential sign of blackness in bondage, add to the symbolism of white power?  What libidinal desires did the black slave represent? What was the relation of this blackness, confined to the margin of the modern world picture and placed in a state of subjection, to the man of power with his hand on his hip? And how were we to read this diminished, yet not unattractive, blackness in relation to the center embodied by the wig and armor?   And where was one to draw the line between the gesture of incorporation and dissociation? (xi-xii)

In some sense, I think it’s not too difficult to understand the relations here in the Drummond portrait as part of the theatrics of power, the way in which the “diminished, yet not unattractive, blackness” of the gazing, enslaved boy (signified by the collar around his neck) provides a readily comprehensible image of his, and by extension, our subjection to the armored, bewigged man at the painting’s center.  In this respect, the pairing seems at least comparable to our now familiar cultural repertoire of  assymetrical cross-cultural pairings like Crusoe/Friday, Huck/Jim, Lone Ranger/Tonto, Kirk/Spock, etc. etc.

In other words, de Medina’s pairing seems designed to demonstrate that the conquest has already occurred, and now a more subtle form of subjection has begun.  This is part of what I see at stake in these scenes of “incorporation and dissociation,” emblematized by Drummond’s helmet or Crusoe’s musket:

RC2

In some sense, as I’ve said in the comments, this story of subjection and hegemony has been hiding in plain view for some time, and I don’t think it has gone unnoticed in cultural criticism.  What Gikandi adds to this scenario of a visible “incorporation and dissociation” of the enslaved Other is a notion of the black as a source of libidinal energy for civilization and Modernity, one that requires regular maintenance, or “quarantining,” to be contained and yet productively nurtured:

What surprised me in the end, however, was the discovery that the world of the enslaved was not simply the submerged and concealed counterpoint of modern civilization; rather, what made the body of the slave repellant–its ugliness and dirt–was also what provided the sensations and the guilty pleasures of modern life (xii).

With this move into the “sensations and the guilty pleasures of modern life,” Gikandi has taken us into the peculiarly modern aesthetics of disavowal, what we thoughtlessly enjoy but cannot admit to having any contact with.  The libidinal pull of slavery and its  products is what takes us out of the purity and transcendence of Enlightenment aesthetics, and brings us into contact with something far more unsettling, the infrastructures of commercial modernity.  Drummond’s hand rests lightly upon his helmet, and Crusoe balances his musket on his shoulder, while these two figures set the terms for the “incorporation” of their black counterparts.

DM