Gikandi, Chapter 1: “Overture: Sensibility and the Age of Slavery”

Slavery, Aesthetics, and the Making of Modernity

Disinterested and abstract figures like Addison and Steele’s spectator or Kant’s ideal observer have long served as a starting point for most discussions of aesthetics in the long eighteenth century. Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste challenges existing maps of aesthetics in the period by recovering “the specific role of slavery and blackness” in the British culture of taste (26). Gikandi’s work replaces the disinterested observer with a number of embodied alternatives, including the interested—even avaricious and often vulgar—slave owner. In his introduction, Gikandi argues that discussions of taste cannot be separated from the slave trade and its profits, which made possible the “consumption of culture” that refined consumers’ sensibilities and “determined the character and quality of the self” in the eighteenth century (18). Gikandi wants us to reconsider our entrenched understandings of modern aesthetics, including (at least in some aesthetic traditions: more on this later) transcendental and metaphysical questions of perception and judgment that often seem removed from the everyday concerns of political economy. As he writes, “my goal is to pinpoint those aspects that would ultimately make the category of taste a key mediator between British modernity and what I will call its repressive tendencies—namely, the attempt to use culture to conceal the intimate connection between modern subjectivity and the political economy of slavery” (17). Slavery and modern aesthetics are bound together.

I admired the approach Gikandi outlined in the introduction, but I did have a few questions about its application. Drawing on Edward Said, Gikandi reads “the figure of the black” and “the project of modernity. . . contrapuntually” (10).  This approach—made famous in eighteenth-century studies through Said’s interpretation of Mansfield Park—is a familiar one. What makes Gikandi’s approach startling is the way in which he reads contrapuntually not just within a single literary text but across a range of sources, including art works, aesthetic and philosophical treatises, and national archives (English, Scottish, and American as well as a less defined European tradition).  The impressive range of Gikandi’s sources suits a study that treats modern subjectivity and the transatlantic slave trade, which crossed national boundaries and created stateless subjects. Gikandi alludes to Walter Benjamin when describing his methodology and confesses that he prefers

working with emaciated temporal frames rather than epistemological frameworks. . . because I believe that working with a weak sense of history or with porous boundaries is one way of liberating the slave not from history but from the hold of historicism. Long ago, the planter class laid claim to historicism as one of its authorizing agents. Similarly, if I locate this book in what might seem to be an amorphous geography, it is not because I am not             aware of the differences between the culture of taste in England and Scotland or Virginia, or because I am impervious to the variety of localities in which slavery operated and shaped its landscapes; rather, I want to underscore the large projects that animated both the project of Enlightenment (which posited itself as English, Scottish, and British, but also European) and the almost universal assumption that the enslaved African, whether he or she lived in Britstol, England, or Bristol, Jamaica, was the counterpoint to modernity itself. (39)

Gikandi’s method effectively makes the figure of the slave the constant that unifies these various approaches to aesthetics and Enlightenment. Although I understand the important ways this method allows slavery to function as central to understandings of Enlightenment and aesthetics, I spent a lot of time thinking about this quote for a number of reasons. I take Benjamin’s critique of historicism seriously and welcome work, such as Gikandi’s study, that seeks to “liberate” the past. At the same time, I see significant differences between the culture of taste in England, Scotland, America, and Europe. Gikandi does recognize some of these differences.  For example, he acknowledges the substantive differences between the continental European approach to aesthetic judgment and the “British discourse on taste,” which never sorted out feeling from reason and, according to Kant, “was not transcendental or universal enough to claim the status of philosophical reflection” (16).  Yet his study sets out of “trouble the boundaries that divide continental European debates on aesthetic judgment from the British culture of taste” (11). Although he references Kant’s debt to Hume’s racism, I’m not sure yet how his study troubles this divide. He also spends a lot of time on Hume’s racism, but not as much on Smith’s critique of the slave trade in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Admittedly, I’m not exactly sure what these subtle differences add up to, but I do think they are worth mentioning.  At the same time, I’m also not sure that parsing the differences between aesthetic traditions and the perceptions of the philosophers within these separate traditions equals Benjamin’s historicism. How one might acknowledge these differences and still “liberate the slave . . . from the hold of historicism”?

Gikandi’s provocative contrapuntual readings also reminded me of two recent studies that, at least for me, haunted the first chapter: Susan Buck-Morss Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009) and Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic (2005).  Gikandi, Baucom, and Buck-Morss owe a debt to Benjamin, and all three attempt to rethink modern aesthetic discourse (particularly Baucom and Gikandi) as produced by slavery. Although Gikandi cites both of these studies in his bibliography, he does not directly engage with them in his introduction, which refers to foundational works on empire like Linda Colley’s Britons and Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown’s The New Eighteenth Century. I wish I had more time to think through how these three important studies speak to one another, and I would love to hear if others saw productive intersections.

JoEllen DeLucia is an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. She has published essays on the Bluestockings, Anna Seward, and Ann Radcliffe and is completing a manuscript entitled A Feminine Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the Philosophy of Progress, 1759-1820



5 responses to “Gikandi, Chapter 1: “Overture: Sensibility and the Age of Slavery”

  1. Pingback: Slavery and Taste in the Long Eighteenth | Dead Voles

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi JoEllen,

    Thanks for this excellent post. I’ll see if I can get the discussion going.

    As I read through Gikandi’s Overture, I am still trying to imagine how the category of taste could operate as a “key mediator between British modernity and what I will call its repressive tendencies—namely, the attempt to use culture to conceal the intimate connection between modern subjectivity and the political economy of slavery.”

    There seems to be a geo-temporal aspect to this story of modernization, as European modernity defines itself over and against the parts of the world that it views as “backward.” Europe’s appropriation of the backward helps to explain a statement like, “within the culture of modernity, slavery always appears as anachronistic.” (4) And yet this acceptance of slavery’s anachronism into modernity seems to richly reward the modern European, who defines himself as a free person, or non-slave.

    Similarly, there seems to be an economic dimension to this story of modernization, which encompasses the “emergence and shaping of a discourse predicated on the need or desire to quarantine one aspect of social life–the tasteful, the beautiful, and the civil, from a public domain saturated by diverse forms of commerce, including the sale of black bodies in the modern marketplace.” (6-7)

    What I’m noting in both these domains is a sense in which slavery fails to signify, fails to register enough to be felt as contradiction either to modernity or the purity of the aesthetic. This kind of simultaneous, loosely-coupled coexistence of the culture of taste with slavery seems to enable Gikandi’s “contrapuntalism,” does it not? My question is, what kinds of insights does this contrapuntal mode of “reading together” lead us toward?

  3. deluciajoellen

    Hi David,

    Thanks for this response. I’m glad that you are following up on the “contrapuntal mode” Gikandi favors. This might seem to obvious, but one answer to your question might be that this hermeneutic forces us to think beyond national literatures (I think this is part of what I was struggling with in my own post). I want to read/interpret/understand a global eighteenth century, but I think its difficult to leave behind some of the particulars we have become so accustomed to in studying literature in a national context. His contrapuntal method, what he calls in other places an “allegory or reading,” seems at times partial and even random, but maybe this is what a global eighteenth century demands? I would love to hear more about how others understood his “allegory of reading” and his contrapuntal method.

  4. Dave Mazella

    It makes a lot of sense to move the study of Atlantic slavery out of the national into the transnational context, but doing so tends to leave us wondering whether we have enough scholarly expertise to do this kind of work. Do we possess requisite knowledge in the languages, the background in institutional contexts, the immersion in regional and social histories to work effectively? And the answer is, no, of course not, at least not when we begin.

    On the other hand, I think that a lot of this kind of work is about taking what has been “hiding in plain sight” for some time, say, the figures of those exotic black pages in 17th and 18th century pages and begin to try to connect what was once considered “background” to “foreground.” That’s why the analysis of visual culture seems so important to this kind of reading. The usual linguistic and national boundaries are at least put into question when we consider the totality of some of these images, reading the figure of the black alongside the aristocrat posing in armor.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    Another interesting methodological choice that Gikandi makes in this chapter is to bring blackness and slavery back together after much criticism in the period has tried to complicate this pairing. I wonder if this convergence becomes more and more persuasive or able to be assumed over the course of the eighteenth century. *Robinson Crusoe* came up in another post. Robinson spends some time as a slave and as a slave trader (which of course leads to being stranded on the island of despair); Defoe’s readers probably would have been familiar with numerous slave narratives written by Europeans captured into Ottoman slavery. He doesn’t like being a slave, but does not object to it on any principled grounds; similarly, he seems to feel no pressure to justify is own slave trading. But I’m not sure the disassociation ever works the other way–that is, did Europeans ever visualize a black person without thinking about or referring to slavery, even if the person was not a slave and even if they noticed other things about the person as well?