Remarks on “The Ontology of Play: Mimicry and the Counterculture of Taste,” Chapter 6 of Slavery and the Culture of Taste by Simon Gikandi

With apologies, in order to keep on schedule, what follows is very much a series of working notes rather than a fully formed “reading” of the chapter. The rest of you have set the bar very high, which I greatly appreciate – but will not try to emulate (mimic?) here!

This chapter engages with a selection of slave culture-related phenomena that Gikandi looks to in order to find evidence of what he calls “a counter-aesthetic” (239): one that would provide black slaves with a “modern identity” (238) different from the abject identity forced upon them by the regime of slavery.The examples Gikandi considers in this chapter are varied and fascinating. In Section One alone, he puts forward for consideration:

  • An Akan-style African drum, recovered in Virginia (233-34)
  • Frederick Douglass’ memories of hearing slave chants (236-37)
  • The one acre of “provision-ground” granted to every five Jamaican slaves for their personal use (239-243)
  • The slave work practice known as the “task system” that developed in South Carolina (243-245)

Section Two, similarly, focuses on examples of seemingly African-inspired architecture in the structures and dwellings built by slaves (and on at least one occasional, a free black) in the American South (247-53). Sections Three, Four, and Five focuses on paintings, sketches, and records of African-style slave songs, dances, rituals, and festivals (253-279).

Gikandi helpfully sums up his argument in a paragraph worth quoting in full at the top of 280: “My argument in this chapter is that whether they were produced in defiance or imitation of the culture of taste, the works art imagined and implemented by slaves, from buildings to dances to festivals, enabled the enslaved to redefine their relation to time and space, to reconstitute their own bodies and social relationships outside the shadow of their masters, and thus to display bodies that were not mere chattel.”

I note that, necessarily, many of these assertions need to be made in a subjunctive mood: On the African echoes in the architecture of Melrose Plantation in colonial Louisiana, for example, Gikandi mostly relies on evocative questions to situate his reading: “Why, then, would a wealthy woman, the owner of more than eighteenth thousand acres of land and hundreds of slaves . . . want to construct a house that would recall the ontology of African architecture? . . . Did she, then, want a building that stood out in its environment in memoriam to an imagined Africa? Or was the African House intended to be the depository of an unknown and thus frightening ghost?” (251).

To help him make his case(s), Gikandi invokes a host of theorists in the chapter: Benjamin on “the allegory of ruins” (234); Glissant on “a forced poetics . . . [of] Creole cultures” (234-35); de Certeau’s concept of “a tactic” as a method for enacting resistance on territory that is not one’s own (241-24); Taylor’s assertion that “being a person” involves “holding values” (247); Heidegger on habitation (251); Certeau, Harvey, and Soja on “the functional symbolism of the spatial” (252); Gadamer on “the sensuousness of the symbol” (252); Foucault and Debord on the distinction between surveillance and spectacle (263); Fanon on “the lived experience of blackness” (269); Bakhtin on “the festival . . . [as] an extraterritorial space of identity” (269); Gluckman on “rituals of rebellion” (270); E.P. Thompson on consensus and crowds (277-78).

But it may be worth noting the conspicuous absence of two other well-known thinkers: Jacques Derrida is not cited at all, and Friedrich Schiller (whose letters on the aesthetic education of man would seem central to Gikandi’s argument here) is mentioned only once, in passing and disparagingly, back on 122. It might seem uncharitable to fault a book that is so packed with marvelous scholarly sources and examples for what it leaves out: but the near-total absence of these two dead white (if one thinks of Derrida as French and not Jewish-Algerian) male thinkers in particular seems worth remarking on:

  • I wonder especially about the absence of Derrida, with whose deconstructive methods the word “play” – featured prominently in the chapter’s title – was so indelibly associated, from his seminal lecture “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” onward. Is his notion of “play” as semiotic undecidability not attractive to Gikandi because it cuts against the grain of Gikandi’s desire to locate clear sources of resistance and counter-discourse in slave culture phenomena?
  • Derrida was also a great theorizer of the ambivalence of the archive – but my sense is that, especially in this last chapter, Gikandi is eager to forego ambivalence (I note in passing that no citation of Homi Bhabha’s work is to be found anywhere here) in favor of sturdier assertions regarding the meaning and value of “free” slave practices
  • I also wonder about the absence of Schiller from this chapter, since his notion of “play” as the highest form of human activity seems so central to Gikandi’s project of unearthing a hitherto occluded sense of aesthetic dignity in slave lands and rituals. Does Gikandi disavow this origin because of the apolitical nature of Schiller’s aesthetic, or because it is a product of high, white European culture?

I also couldn’t help thinking that Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of anthropotechnics – the way that humans make and remake themselves through repetitive practices (see his recently translated You Must Change Your Life) — would seem to be a useful concept for everything being argued here. But of course Sloterdijk’s whole point (here and in his amazing Spheres trilogy, of which only the first volume has appeared in English) is that all humans have always been engaged in shaping and molding their environments to their needs, and vice versa: and the universality of his claims might threaten as much as support the distinctiveness Gikandi wishes to argue characterizes slave culture, in the moral as well as aesthetic domains.

Finally, I want to add that nothing that I’ve noted here should be taken as a totalizing or final critique of Gikandi’s book, which I very much admire, and from which I feel certain I will continue to learn in the coming months and years: it is the work of a mature scholar and critic at the top of his game, so to speak, and to my mind probably the most compelling and provocative piece of literary historical criticism I’ve read since Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic.

Evan Gottlieb is an Associate Professor of English at Oregon State University. His most recent books are Walter Scott and Contemporary Theory (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Representing Place in British Literature and Culture, 1660-1830: From Local to Global, co-edited with Juliet Shields  (Ashgate, 2013).


4 responses to “Remarks on “The Ontology of Play: Mimicry and the Counterculture of Taste,” Chapter 6 of Slavery and the Culture of Taste by Simon Gikandi

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for this post, Evan, and for your useful overview of G’s chapter. What I noticed, coming from our previous discussion, is how this chapter seems to answer Dwight’s earlier question of whether slavery produced its “own” culture? G’s answer seems to be a qualified one, that certain practices were developed, first among the African-born or “Africanized” slaves on the plantations, then later among the creole populations, that responded in various ways to their conditions. These practices included the provision-ground and the task system, but also more “counter-aesthetic” practices like the singing, instrument-playing, and dancing that signified their difference from the white planters. These practices, produced in hardship, remain fragmentary, tactical, yet resistant “practices” among people who lack any territory to call their own (Certeau). Nonetheless, they do allow some kind of community to form, and for some kind of culture to be transmitted, even in attenuated ways, over time.

    The examples of “John Canoe” and other forms of ritualized performance described here seem to exemplify for me the “safety-valve” interpretation of Bakhtinian carnival, which allows a determinate period of inversion to release tensions before shutting them down and restoring the usual hierarchy of things. Is this why you believe that G’s treatment of the archive is more recuperative than “ambivalent”? On the other hand, I think the accounts of Douglass and ultimately Madden are intended to offset the possibility of a pastoralized depiction of these kinds of “counter-aesthetic” performances. No sentiment, no gratitude, on display here.

    I think that one of the reasons why Douglass plays such an interesting role in this book is that he seems to articulate the ethical problems of spectatorial pleasure in racialized bodies and their subjection. It also seems that voices like the “old slave” are brought forward to challenge and disenchant those, like Madden, who would take an aesthetic pleasure in the suffering or subjection of others. The culture of taste, and its imagined affinities, are caught up short in such encounters.

  2. Melissa Mowry

    I think Dave’s reading is spot on and I think it offers a great opportunity to draw in some commentary from the posts on Chapter Four and engage in candid conversation about the nature of Gikandi’s archive, what we’re willing to accept as evidence, the somewhat idiosyncratic role of theory in his work. For some reason, Gikandi’s discussion of bodies in Chapter 4, particularly his reading of Douglass’s description of his aunt’s whipping and my agreement with him that Hester’s master had a libidinal investment in punishing her, has elicited charges of “trumped up evidence.” I’m less interested in rebutting this specific charge than using it as a springboard to discuss how we constitute a “body of evidence” or an archive and why discussions of systematic physical brutality and systematic exploitation can be so intellectually uncomfortable.
    A propos of this, I really appreciated Evan’s point that Gikandi’s relationship to theory often seems idiosyncratically citational or evocative, rather than discursive. I did wonder if the play in the title of chapter 6 was both a reference to “Structure, Sign, and Play”, but also to “Archive Fever” where Derrida writes: “evil for evil’s sake diabolical evil, the existence of the Devil can serve as an excuse for God, because exterior to him anarchic angel and dissident, analogy, the Jew can play the analogous role of economic relief or exonerations assigned to him by the world of the Aryan ideal” (13). For Derrida identity is always a “play” between two positions, an articulation that allows him to think beyond the limits of negativity, which I feel like Gikandi sometimes gets trapped by. More importantly, though, identity positions are always the fictions that both enable and disable the archive. What happens, though, and I’ve struggled with this in my own work on 17thc prostitution, when the identity position who’s archive you’re trying to reassemble, has no legal standing, or is not in other important ways, recognizable to its own historical moment? How do scholars assemble that kind of archive? What are our ethical and intellectual obligations?

  3. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Melissa, for following this up, and for raising the questions of theory and evidence here.

    My own feeling is that G’s use of theory as pastiche or running commentary does end up distracting readers, even some presumed ideal reader familiar with every name and work cited, since it adds a layer of interpretive work that seems to add relatively little to the most intriguing insights and juxtapositions of his material.

    In our discussion, we’ve seen instances where commentators wondered whether a term like “public sphere” was being used in some deliberately inflected way or not, or whether Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” or “Archive Fever” were being invoked (the answer seems to be no, but see p. 26, n. 95 for “trace”). This may be a matter of stylistic or methodological preference, but I confess to being baffled by the relative absence? unimportance? underemphasis? of Bourdieu’s Distinction, likewise much of the Marxist side of either Caribbean social history or post-structural thought, or the historians of slavery like Blackburn. In other words, considering the subject matter and the argument, the post-structuralism embraced here seems rather apolitical, and strangely, much more closely aligned with the European “culture of taste” than the post-colonial criticism or cultural studies descended from, say, E.P. Thompson or Gayatri Spivak.

    On the question of evidence, I’ve reread the Overture, and G does state that “the questions that I find compelling will not have answers, evidence, or proof, nor will they satisfy any standard of explanation, because my objects of analysis–slavery and enslavement–are surrounded by silence and are submerged under what Patrick Chamoiseau, the Martinican novelist, has called a “web of memories which scorch us with things forgotten and screaming presences” (37). The problem that I have is that this book, even with these caveats, still remains a scholarly “analysis,” even if it represents a more broadly and eclectically conceived scholarly analysis than perhaps other scholars have done. Without some acknowledgment or further explanation of its genre, this book itself constitutes another “aesthetic gesture” rather than a “counter-aesthetic” one.

    The problem of dealing with problematic sources to delve into social history is something that Thompson discusses in Customs in Common, and I think Thompson is very useful in his reminders of how the academic historian or literary critic can identify with the landowners or their functionaries in the past. I believe that the answer to this conundrum must lie in the use of as wide an array of sources as one can assemble, very much along the lines of G’s uses of visual and verbal materials here. Sharon Howard, who works at the Old Bailey, also discussed many of these issues a few years ago at this blog, here.

  4. I’m really enjoying this discussion, and learning more and more appreciation for this amazing book from it.

    I keep wondering if the (to me) odd inflections of the theoretical pastiche, and of evidence selection and handling, have to do with Gikandi’s standpoint of critique. As you say Dave, there’s really nothing more than gestures here toward the Marxian tradition; I too missed Bourdieu, and although the link between slavery and Europe’s wealth and power so well analyzed by Blackburn is part of the critical equipment of the book, exploitation is not really the problem here.

    So what is? I have to admit I’ve had some trouble staying focused on the book long enough to feel confident I understand it; this is because every couple of pages my momentum and trust is disrupted by an optional reading or arbitrary presentation of evidence, such as the one from ch. 3 I discussed at length in my second post, or Douglass’ Aunt Hester story. More on that in a second. But to anticipate the point, I think I disagree with you that the repression metanarrative is an optional overlay; I think that’s where Gikandi’s standpoint of critique is, I think it shapes how he sees and handles evidence, I think it therefore shapes the evidence that’s available for other uses in the book, and so I don’t think the book can be (or even should be, depending on what you want to accomplish) saved from it.

    OK, back to the Aunt Hester story since we’ve been having so much fun with it. What Gikandi (and some readers here) do with that is really interesting. I kindled up a copy of Douglass’ Narrative and confirmed the undeniable sexual dimension of the master’s relation to Hester, and libidinal quality of his violence. Douglass describes him as a cruel and hardened man who sometimes took “great pleasure in whipping a slave,” and Hester as “a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions,” whose offense on the occasion was to be caught in the company of a man other than the master.

    “Clearly, the act of punishing the slave was not purely instrumental – it was bound up with perverse pleasures,” Gikandi rightly says. But where is the clarity? In Douglass, but not in Gikandi, who quotes the whole description of the beating, but NOT the setup passages in which the libidinal context is clearly established. The beating itself is so lacking in any evidence of libidity that readers here had to read it in, imagining and making much of a garment-ripping that is not in either the quoted material or anywhere else in the text, and taking a stand on facts not in evidence that easily could have been. Why did Gikandi do that to us?

    Strikingly, the plainly-stated sexual motive of the mulatto woman’s flogging in Stedman is also left off-stage, in the midst of an interpretation confidently asserting the self-evidence of this motive. Instead, we are asked to accept a speculative assertion of a more universal eroticization based on the fact that the woman (actually not a mulatto but a samboe, a distinction that mattered in context) resembled Stedman’s mulatto mistress Joanna. Why? Apparently because all attractive mixed-race women look alike and stimulate the same perverse lusts.

    Douglass, it turns out, was very interested in assessing the slaveholders’ libidinal relationship to slavery, which was not uniform. Some, starting with his likely father and by his estimate thousands of others, saw enslaved women as a sexual resource, objects of “lust” and “wicked desires.” He is not coy about this; he explicitly refers to and leverages sexual outrage. In contrast Mr. Severe, the overseer, “seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity,” while his replacement, Mr. Hopkins, “whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it,” and Mr. Gore “seemed to do so from a sense of duty.” These are variations on the theme of slavery’s brutality, but they complicate the story of its sexualization, and find no place in Gikandi’s discussion. Why?

    I also found Stedman at the Internet Archive and spent a sleepless night reading through both volumes. They are a fascinating example of the ‘rhizomatic’ style of presentation JRW and DM have been talking about in relation to The Spectator. Gikandi tells us that Stedman “knew, for example, that his expedition was in Suriname to protect the sources of the coffee that had become a major source of pleasure in European high culture. Stedman easily recognized the connection between coffee, a valued stimulant, and the violence of slavery.” But actually what connections Stedman ‘knew’ and ‘recognized’ is by no means so clear in a text that jumps without transition or apparent reflection between descriptions of military campaigns, accounts of ‘shocking’ slave tortures and admirable slave lives, reports of brutal disciplining of soldiers and seamen, romantic transports about the lovely and virtuous Joanna, and naturalistic catalogs of the flora and fauna of the region.

    A striking feature of the text to current sensibilities is the extraordinary scale and scope of routine violence, mayhem, disease, and death in the colony. Stedman fights duels with severe woundings for small insults; suffers a series of gruesome tropical diseases and afflictions, of which many of his company die after lengthy agonies; whole units are wiped out, the survivors taken and tortured; rebels mangle and kill plantation families; cockroaches eat his spare shoes and undies. By the time the rebel Gikandi cites and Blake depicts is broken on the rack, enough mutineers, murderers and thieves have suffered the same punishment that the only relief from the banality of barbarism is Stedman’s notably more sympathetic depiction of the victim. Gikandi is therefore quite right about the spectacular re-representation of the slaves’ torture for a European audience; Europeans whose bones were publically and spectacularly being splintered for offenses with which Stedman felt no sympathy are only briefly remarked. It might seem to make practical sense in this context that punitive violence would need something ‘extra’, as it did in much of Europe until well into the 19th century and as Gikandi acknowledges. So why does Gikandi still insist that the ubiquity of human and environmental violence “doesn’t explain the necessity of the spectacle and the exhibitionary order, the scopic regime of slavery…?”

    Prompted by something Dave’s been saying I pulled up Foucault’s History of Sexuality and refreshed my memory on the ‘repressive hypothesis’. Gikandi makes much of the unspeakability of slavery; like its associated sexualization, it was hidden, denied, repressed, and sublimated into an aestheticized culture of taste that denied its brutal unconscious. In other words despite the parade of theoretical citation, also unreliable as it turns out, the analysis is a throwback to Freud, old school. In his Overture Gikandi tells us he’s going to be an unreliable analyst, and justifies this by the silences of his sources. But in his sources slavery and its uneven sexualization is widely discussed, and not at all hidden; in fact, it’s hidden only in how he treats his sources, approached by assertion and imaginative leap when it’s right there elsewhere in the archive or in those sources themselves, as JRW also notes. “Why has [slavery] been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it? What were the effects of power generated by what was said?,” Foucault might ask.