Gikandi, Preface: armored men and quarantines


[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:


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.


3 responses to “Gikandi, Preface: armored men and quarantines

  1. deluciajoellen

    I find the “modern aesthetics of disavowal” really compelling, but when reading Gikandi’s book I kept thinking about Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and even Adam Smith’s account of the “noble savage” in his _Theory of Moral Sentiments_. These seem to me to be aesthetic figures, who evoke a range of sensations and are meant to test our moral and aesthetic judgement. They also evoke slavery in direct and indirect ways, but differently than the figures Gikandi described. A figure like Oroonoko isn’t about disavowal or dissociation but association (Charles I). What do we do with exceptions like this?

  2. Dave Mazella

    JoEllen, that’s a good point, but I think the “incorporation/dissociation” dialectic (or is it an antinomy?) is pretty well emblematized with the before/after images of the bodies of Imoinda and Oroonoko at the beginning and end of that work. They are heavily invested with an exotic-yet-familiar glamour and beauty in the early part of that work, but reduced to stinking or damaged flesh by the conclusion. So they seem to fully instantiate Gikandi’s observation about the double-function of the slave’s body as provocations of both libidinal energies and disgust.

    Having said that, it seems that many images of “the black” or enslaved people, especially the idealized ones, seem to exist at the “libidinal” end of the spectrum. (Libidinal in the sense of expressing a desire by the presumed white European reader) That’s where I’d place the black page in the Drummond portrait, or the image I found of “kind slave” in Mungo Park that I used to illustrate Dwight’s post. I suppose one argument would be that these images are always intended to counter other, more repellant images already in circulation. Does that make sense?

  3. deluciajoellen

    I think so. I did like Dwight’s question about Oroonoko and aesthetics: “What is to be made of the long and on-going history of spectacles of slave punishment in the authorized spaces of “culture”?” This clarified some things for me, and I think posed my question about Oroonoko in a more productive way.