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.