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

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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

4 responses to “Chapter 2: Intersections: Taste, Slavery, and the Modern Self, by Dwight Codr

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for the fine post, Dwight. The portion that really stuck with me was your question about whether the “sordid commerce of slavery produce its own culture”? This study seems to focus on the signifying process that displaces or transforms the bodies of slaves into art, literature, or some kind of stratified form of high culture. Gikandi’s focus seems to be the historical process whereby one culture appropriates the material goods and labor of the other. The question for me is whether we are seeing enough of the intersections between cultures to defamiliarize them, and are able to see the monuments of high European culture as less autonomous and self-sufficient than before.

  2. Dwight Codr

    Exactly; and I think that later chapters deal with this more explicitly than 2. As someone who thinks about culture in the world of finance — arguably the least ostensibly “cultural” aspect of modern life, a space of almost complete disenchantment — Gikandi had me thinking about the intensely cultural quality of writing about slavery. So there have obviously been a lot of readings of the culture of commerce and finance. I was wondering, to elaborate on my point a bit, about the ways in which the rendition and representation of sordid commerce reveals that at the heart of commerce lies an unexpressed but evident desire for something like genre, literary conventions, and, horrible as it is to say in light of what’s being described, something like writerly creativity. This is, at the end of the day, what draws crowds to spectacles of violence in cinema, to read of atrocity, to seek out brutality in its various and varying forms. One thinks, as I mentioned, of Behn’s reluctant fascination with Oroonoko’s tortures, or perhaps of Richardsonian sadism, or of Blake and the Gothic (it’s also why, I’d venture to guess, Foucault’s opening description of Damiens’ torture in D&P is so widely known). And so my question is whether the genre of slave torture/punishment responds to desires (aesthetic and moral) that the impersonal and abstracted receipts for slaves that Gikandi discusses in his Overture are unable to satisfy. If the insurance mentality that arose from slavery, as described by Baucom, is one legacy of “Enlightenment,” is the intensification of need for graphic and horrific violence another?

  3. Dave Mazella

    That’s a great question: one of the really difficult problems created for writers and readers of anti-slavery narratives is the libidinal pull of the violent and/or sexually charged episodes, and those narratives’ generic proximity to gothic or sensationalist narrative forms. I’ve always felt that Equiano was highly conscious of this problem, and adopted a very strategic and selective reticence about the violence he’d witnessed and experienced. Stedman seems to take this in almost the opposite direction.

    But it does seem that Gikandi constructs this assymetrically: the world of slavery helps to produce the culture of taste, a culture that creates an aesthetic genre of “gothic” that in some sense coexists with or reflects in some way the really unspeakable practices on the plantations. This is what is at stake in a discussion of Beckford.

    But one of the things I’ve been wondering about is whether taking the subject-centered categories from our still-dominant culture of taste distorts the aspects of collective experience that are crucial to understanding the historical suffering connected with slavery? In other words, we know the stories of a relatively small number of enslaved people, insofar as they are included in representations of the dominant culture, but how might we use some of the notions of collectivity developed during this time (e.g., Foucault’s genealogy of “population” in discourses of government) to defamiliarize the culture of taste in a more effective way?

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    I like your discussion, and Gikandi’s discussion, of these two women: Anna Lapent and Nealee, and how Gikandi observes that Larpent does not describe or perceive herself as oppressed or objectified. It also strikes me, however, that a different kind of record of the brutality of commerce is right there in her hands. When she is reading *Clarissa,* she is reading the narrative of a woman who refuses food rather enter (what she sees as) sexual slavery after she has been raped, after being drugged and held down by prostitutes. The prostitutes who held her prisoner in their house later have her thrown into another prison for debtors, and they make clear to her than she can only be “free” by becoming a sex worker. So while much of eighteenth-century culture indeed tried suggest that commerce generates refinement, there were also representations that unsparingly explored counter-examples. This seems related to Dwight’s point about the fascination with violence: borrowing perhaps Gikandi’s framework, we can see a narrative of unwilling and brutal commodification functioning in itself as an emblem of politeness.