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.