Ch. 3: “Unspeakable Events” by James Robert Wood

Gikandi’s account of the relation between slavery and taste often reminded me of Marx’s famous definition of ideology as a camera obscura in which people and their circumstances appear upside down. The ugly reality of slavery is inverted in the culture of taste: the unfreedom of the slave turns into aesthetic freedom of the gentleman, the ugliness and brutality of slavery turn into the cults of beauty and refinement, the labour of black bodies in the New World turns into leisured consumption of privileged whites in European metropoles. This inversion is accompanied by the culture of taste’s repression of its economic and conceptual origins in the culture of slavery. As Gikandi says in this chapter “it was precisely the proximity of these two spheres of social existence–a cosmopolitan culture and the world of bondage–that necessitated their conceptual separation” (100).

After reading Gikandi’s book I felt entirely convinced that slavery and the culture of taste are intimately intertwined with one another. But I would like to question the premise of an almost impregnable conceptual separation that walled off the culture of taste from the reality of slavery.

The first point is one that Gikandi himself often makes: that the whole idea of aesthetic taste was radically unstable from its first inception, pivoting between elitist and universalizing impulses. The former explains Hume’s notorious footnote in the second edition of “Of National Characters” in which, as Gikandi notes, blacks are denied any capacity for art or culture. The universalizing impulse, on the other hand, explains why the model for the man of taste in Hume’s “Essay on the Standard of Taste” should not be some urbane gentleman but Sancho Panza’s kinsmen.

In Addison’s and Steele’s The Spectator, a foundational work in the culture of taste, a trunk-maker emerges as a hero of taste. Spectator 235 gives a portrait of this man who sits in the upper gallery of the theatre and thumps his staff whenever he descries something excellent in either the text or the performance, frequently seeing excellences that pass the audience by but who are brought, with repeated thwackings, into agreement with the trunk-maker’s judgment. The description of the trunk-maker as a “large black man” means of course that the man was of a dark complexion. But the trunk-maker is still counterevidence for the proposition that the culture of taste was automatically associated with whiteness and gentlemanly refinement.

Slavery itself is hardly “unspeakable” in The Spectator. Richard Steele, who himself owned a large plantation in the West Indies until 1708, tells the story of a Native American woman sold into slavery by her white lover in Spectator 4. Addison tells another story from the West Indies in which two slaves in love with the same woman kill both the woman and themselves in Spectator 215. (See Brycchan Carey’s article on this topic in The Spectator: Emerging Discourses.)

In these anecdotes, the brutality of slavery is distorted: telescoped into the moral failing of a single European or deflected onto the relation between slave and slave. But slavery is nevertheless intertwined with taste in The Spectator rather than repressed under it. The movement from taste to slavery is a matter of turning the pages of the collected Spectator papers. Each essay influences how the others are read: the story of Inkle’s conversion of Yarico into property, for example, must change the way we read Addison’s observation that imagination gives a man “a kind of property in everything he sees.” The prominence of the essay form in eighteenth-century discussions of both slavery and taste alike might be a promising avenue of future research.

While Gikandi’s premise of a conceptual separation between the culture of slavery and the culture of taste finds powerful support in, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s racist dismissal of Phillis Wheatley in his Notes on the State of Virginia, the premise seems less clear when it is put in its context as part of a wider debate on the capacity of slaves and former slaves like Wheatley to enter into the culture of taste, a debate which Gikandi surveys more fully in later chapters, which move from the earlier chapters’ concern with the exclusion of black slaves from the culture of taste to a concern with their inclusion in the culture, however partial and qualified.

The case of the slave-owner and self-styled man of taste Christopher Codrington is another of Gikandi’s examples that seem to pull against his thesis of conceptual separation, so much that Gikandi himself writes that “On the surface, Codrington’s intimate connection to the complex of sugar and slavery was not repressed.” Is it not possible that the inability to see the two at the same instant was a problem facing future biographers, not Codrington’s contemporaries? Although Gikandi works with a model of repression and separation, I think some of the biggest revelations of the book are to show the extent to which the culture of taste was fully in dialogue with the institution of slavery.

After Gikandi’s book we will no longer be able to think of slavery and taste in isolation from each other. I think, however, that we could build on the evidence and arguments presented in the book by following up the metaphorical implications of contrapuntal reading, in which separate things (slavery and taste) would be seen as two interdependent lines, sometimes in inversion and sometimes in parallel. The more disturbing suggestion of Gikandi’s book is not so much that the culture of taste repressed the fact of slavery but rather that so many men and women saw no contradiction between slavery and taste.

James Robert Wood teaches at Trinity College Dublin.


10 responses to “Ch. 3: “Unspeakable Events” by James Robert Wood

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for this response, James, and for the detailed engagement with the Spectator here. Two things stood out for me as I was reading this:

    1. In Gikandi’s account of the “conceptual separation” of a cosmopolitan culture of taste from a “world” of bondage (which begs the question of whether slavery produces its own culture), it is often unclear to me whether the separation occurs in the thought and writings of the 18th century writers, or retrospectively in the historiography of the Enlightenment. Your example of Steele suggests that the two certainly coexisted in the pages of the Spectator. I suppose the question is whether Steele or his subsequent readers were able to see them as interlinked. Do you have any thoughts about whether this “quarantining” could have been a retrospective effect?

    2. “The more disturbing suggestion of Gikandi’s book is not so much that the culture of taste repressed the fact of slavery but rather that so many men and women saw no contradiction between slavery and taste”: I agree that somehow the language of “repression” does not quite capture the dynamic Gikandi is trying to describe. What seems most interesting is that “conceptual separation” that allows the same people (e.g., Steele, Jefferson, etc.) to participate in both the culture of taste and the sordid commerce of slavery without feeling a contradiction between their roles in each domain.
    As Jefferson’s example shows, it goes beyond issues of personal “hypocrisy” into the question of whether contemporaries perceived any cognitive dissonance in their behavior in these respective areas.

  2. “This inversion is accompanied by the culture of taste’s repression of its economic and conceptual origins in the culture of slavery.”

    I agree with your perplexity here, and with Dave’s question about “whether contemporaries perceived any cognitive dissonance in their behavior in these respective areas.” Historically it’s very clear that there was no such cognitive dissonance up to a certain point, conditioned both by lack of an effective discourse making slavery problematic and by the practical fact that slavery and many other forms of forced labor were effectively ubiquitous.

    So I think what Gikandi has to be getting at is a moment in which what had not been a problem became one, with the culture of taste as a sort of canary in that coal mine. In which case there’s no need to invoke repression – unless you think, and I don’t, that what is unproblematically taken for granted is being ‘repressed’.

  3. jrobertwood

    Thanks for these comments on my post David and Carl. Both of your replies point out a question of historical change. Gikandi’s book tends to project a relatively stable dynamic between slavery and taste that stretches across our “long” eighteenth century. Carl suggests a two part development where “what had not been a problem became one,” and taste’s connection to slavery had to be actively repressed. But if this is so we should be looking at a later moment for the evidence of repression, not the eighteenth century. The assumption of a fairly stable relation between slavery and taste enables Gikandi to jump around a lot from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, often with illuminating results. But the drawback is that a structural confusion arises between, for example, later commentators’ repression of the connection of slavery and taste and the putative repression of the connection on the part of men of taste and slaveholders like Codrington and Steele.

    On David’s question on the Spectator on whether contemporaries might have perceived links between slavery and taste in quite the way I described. One piece of evidence for how The Spectator might have been read is Spectator 46, in which Mr. Spectator’s notes are discovered, which read as an anarchic miscellany: “Sir Roger de Coverly’s Country Seat — Yes, for I hate long Speeches — Query, if a good Christian may be a Conjurer — Childermas-day, Saltseller, House-Dog, Screech-owl, Cricket — Mr. Thomas Inkle of London, in the good Ship called The Achilles. Yarico — Ægrescitique medendo — Ghosts — The Lady’s Library”–and so on. Here the Inkle and Yarico story is tucked away between Sir Roger de Coverly’s Country Seat and The Lady’s Library. I think later readers have tended to take away the rhizomatic quality of The Spectator so we now tend to talk about The Pleasures of the Imagination series, for example, in isolation from their original context. I’m especially motivated to see connections between the papers on taste and the papers on slavery of course, but I do think contemporary readers would have been more inclined to read all The Spectator papers as part of a interconnected project rather than as a series of individual reflections on separate topics.

    • Dave Mazella

      It so happens that I’ve been working a lot lately with periodicals, and so I completely agree with you that we as scholars tend to treat the Spectator essays as a lot more discrete and compartmentalized than periodical-readers seem to have done in their own initial moment of production and consumption. This is probably the result of how they were subsequently collected and then mined by scholars like ourselves.

      I like your example of Mr. Spectator’s “anarchic miscellany,” which suggests an array of topics arranged, as you call it, “rhizomatically” rather than hierarchically. There is a vague sense in which these things coexist, but not in a clearly defined or hierarchized way. However, I think that if we kept that miscellany within a more clearly defined moment, if not linear chronology, then we could perhaps do more with that list and its tacit relations. What do you think?

      • Thanks for this David, I’m glad to hear you are working on the periodical essay. As you can probably tell I’m very interested in The Spectator at the moment–in fact an essay of mine is coming out in Eighteenth Century Life on it. Mr. Spectator’s anarchic list has not been much discussed in recent criticism–in fact not all to my knowledge–but it does suggest a kind of associative energy that is not really associated with Addison and Steele. There’s clearly more we can do with the list–one quick thought is that the progression of the list fairly closely mirrors The Spectator itself, which begins by fastening Mr. Spectator to a “small Hereditary Estate” and then follows his mind ranging over the human world. What the list suggests is not the well ordered “equal wide survey” of James Thomson’s The Seasons and John Barrell’s book of the same name, but rather an associative zigzagging that quickly takes Mr Spectator to the “ghosts” haunting the culture of taste: including slavery. But the fact of slavery is not repressed in The Spectator. It’s right there in front of us, fully readable on the surface.

        Although it is far from clear that Steele, the absentee owner of a plantation, saw slavery itself as an immoral institution in itself, The Spectator does not presuppose a wall of separation between high culture and forced labour. Certainly The Spectator seems closer to Gikandi’s way of thinking about how the arts relate to the economic speculation and exploitation than, say, Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy essays.

  4. I agree, I think trouble comes from a structural approach that flattens what was actually an evolutionary process; and I agree it allows Gikandi to achieve some spectacular effects of juxtaposition that accumulate into a massively unambiguous, albeit massively subjunctive case, as Evan suggests. The dynamics in the text are all about covering and uncovering, centers and margins, surfaces and essences; everything is related hierarchically rather than, as you allude, rhizomatically.

  5. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, James. I agree about the importance of the non-hierarchical, lateral, “rhizomatic” organization of periodicals like the Spectator, with lots of things arranged side by side in interesting but contingent ways side by side. Periodical studies in the 18c, now championed by folks like Manushag Powell, are picking up on these formal issues, and they are certainly relevant to your list.

    I think one of the issues here we’ve been confronting repeatedly is what to make of the “rhizomatic” organization of a number of our texts, esp. recently canonized works discussing slavery and empire like Behn’s Oroonoko or Stedman’s Narrative, where the violence of slavery is just placed side by side with lots of other stuff. I’ve always believed that many of the documents we have in the 18c archive concerning slavery, at least from metropolitan, white writers, feature this kind of rhizomatic quality, while the accounts of Afro-British or abolitionist writers like Equiano, Cugoano, Douglass etc. are much more deliberately constructed and argued. I think this is an important formal and generic feature of the texts we’ve been discussing from Gikandi, but his thematic emphasis on depth rather than surface renders these phenomena invisible.

  6. Laura Rosenthal

    I think you’re making a good point about Codrington. Slavery and taste seem to me to intersect pretty explicitly and be fully in dialogue, as you put it, with Codrington’s patronage of Thomas Southerne, who adapted Behn’s *Oroonoko* for the stage. Southerne’s modern editors, Jordan and Love, think that the adaptation was itself a bid for Codrington’s patronage. Codrington also wrote an epilogue to another of Southerne’ plays. I think Gikandi is right, though, that in criticism these intersections have not been sufficiently considered. Codrington was certainly using his money to establish himself as a man of taste, but part of that “taste” included patronizing the author of an extremely popular play about a slave.

  7. Thanks for this comment Laura, I agree with you that the intersections between slavery and taste have not been sufficiently considered in the criticism. I think the best part of Gikandi’s book is establishing these connections–both “material” connections like patronage networks and “conceptual” ones like Gikandi’s elegant account of how the culture of slavery gets inverted in the culture of taste: unfreedom turns to freedom etc. My suggestion has more to do with the emphasis on repression. Although I focused on The Spectator, I think many late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century writers especially were in fact interested in exploring some of the links between slavery and taste that Gikandi uncovers (with very different commitments and assumptions of course). Nobody before Gikandi has documented these links so massively, and I think it adds rather than detracts from his case that many eighteenth-century writers did think in print about the connections between slavery and taste.

  8. Laura Rosenthal

    The *Spectator* is a good example because it shows a widespread awareness of where the beautiful objects and the money to buy them was coming from. Theater is another place where you see this. So I too am less persuaded by the repression hypothesis than the pervasiveness of the connection, although there might be some repression later in the century when moral objections to slavery became more common and visible, and when more romantic views of art become popular.