The problem with problems: Gikandi ch. 3

As it turns out I have not given myself enough time to get into the spirit of this magnificent book. It may not be the kind of book I want to get in the spirit of, but I’ll keep trying through at least this week and probably beyond. And I’ll do another post later today that engages with it more directly and, I hope, generously.

In the meantime, I propose for discussion, if anyone’s interested, a provocation that arises from the accidents of a disorderly life. My wife Rachel is a conceptual artist whose concept for the last little while has been ‘the problem with problems’. One of the reasons we get along is that we both feel very deeply that there are plenty of facts of the matter to live around without making them into problems; and therefore it makes us sad and frustrated and angry when folks make problems where it seems like facts of the matter would have been plenty tricky to sort out.

And then this morning while I was circling Gikandi’s text, trying to sort out what he’s up to and what I’d like to be up to about it, and therefore doing some staring off into space and feed-checking to give my thoughts room to settle, one of my colleagues posted a link on Facebook to an article by Peggy Orenstein on “Our Feelgood War on Breast Cancer,” an absolutely brilliant little piece of reflective meta-analysis in which it turns out that making breast cancer a problem, to be aware of, creates new problems without contributing significantly to solving the old ones.

Like obesity and breast cancer and lots of other things, there are facts of the matter aplenty in Gikandi’s book. That it is so chock-full of fascinating facts of the matter is, to me as a historian, magnificent. I’m not sure I see a problem, however, and I haven’t entirely settled on whether Gikandi does either. Slavery clearly wasn’t a problem for big chunks of history, and for the most part educated people don’t have any problem seeing why it wasn’t a problem. So there’s a fact of the matter question about when, where, how and why slavery, in this case the racialized Atlantic variant, became a problem, that makes great sense to be the matter with this book. Clearly a moment that both articulates completely novel standards of universal humanity while also selectively denying their applicability to various humans – Africans, women, the working class, the Irish – is busily inventing new ways to make slavery in particular, and forced labor more in general, a problem. Ways that we have inherited and take for granted, which would be another interesting book. Gikandi gets this, and the use of aesthetics and the culture of taste to explore and illustrate this history of problemification is a further magnificence of the book.

Yet, and maybe this is just a prejudice from reading so many bad versions of this sort of project, I can’t help reading, or reading in, a problem in the book that looks a lot more like taking the universalism these folks invented and turning it back on them, retrospectively making slavery a problem when historically it wasn’t one yet. This standpoint of critique would be a problem to me, because it makes a problem where there wasn’t a problem, just a fact of the matter.

Specifically, it feels to me like Gikandi keeps puffing up this great and powerful Oz, Hume and the Enlightenment, just so he can keep whipping aside the curtain and saying Gotcha! Slavery! Which, in a sense that helps make the book essential, is true: the Enlightenment was enabled by an economy shot through with (not driven by, I’m afraid) slavery; and slavery (along with the Reformation, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, global empire, etc.) was part of the dense context / intertext of the development of notions of human self, dignity, rights, and liberty that again we now take for granted, so much so that my students all now want to talk about slavery as ‘dehumanizing’ as if the humanity they have in mind existed at the time. But that’s the point – this was not a moment in history when those concepts existed in any effective way – they were emergent there, being cobbled together as practices by the transition to industrial economy and consumer society, as ideas by a few intellectuals distant enough from the enabling contexts that they could begin to cluelessly imagine what it would look like to take privileges hitherto unproblematically associated with only a small fraction of the human race and assign them, eventually as ‘human rights’, to increasingly inclusive everyones.

Which again, Gikandi fully understands. So, why does it keep feeling like slavery ‘is’ a problem rather than becoming one? Am I just jumping at shadows, myself making problems where there are just facts of the matter?

Carl Dyke teaches, mostly introductory world history, at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC.

2 responses to “The problem with problems: Gikandi ch. 3

  1. Dave Mazella

    Hi Carl, I’m still trying to figure out your problem with Gikandi’s problems in this book. In some places, it sounds like you’re somewhat bothered by the supposed anachronism of Gikandi’s historiographic approach (“this was not a moment in history when those concepts existed in any effective way”), though your Orenstein breast cancer analogy seems to suggest that identifying any problems in the realm of the social or the historical will lead to “further problems” in the political domain that only distance us further from possible solutions. However, it’s unclear to me what problem a book like this could “solve,” beyond giving us additional insight into a particular moment in history and its felt and unfelt contradictions. So could you follow up, with some examples from the chapter?

  2. Thanks Dave, we may be talking past each other. I don’t find the metaphor of contradictions helpful any more, although I revere the critical tradition it came from. The kernel of it seems to me to be a notion that consistency is the norm or at least a regulative ideal, and therefore when we see inconsistency we’ve seen something that at least needs to be explained, and possibly needs to be criticized. Since I now think that inconsistency is the norm, and in most respects also desirable, I don’t find this approach productive.

    As far as I can tell, the consistency presumption is the moral/cognitive register of the book, but I’m trying now to re-read it ‘contrapuntally’ in case Gikandi’s doing something much more interesting to me, which is seeing how movements of history with no particular obligation of consistency with each other (or, obviously, inherent moral content) interact to produce emergent effects also inconsistent with any of them separately. Slavery and the culture of taste, for example. This is consistent with the parts of the book where Gikandi gets down to cases, whereas his overheated rhetoric in the more programmatic sections (repression, haunting, bodies, fundamental beliefs, rabid, libelous and virulent descriptions, “on the surface”) seems to shoot straight from the sort of utopian universalism which would then be both the armory and the target of the attack.