Author Archives: Carl Dyke

What chapter 3 does

“Unspeakable Events: Slavery and White Self-Fashioning” is, like the rest of this book, a tour de force. Gikandi opens by contrasting the shattering of Olaudah Equiano’s cosmopolitan dreams with the dazzling cosmopolitanism of David Hume in Paris, contrasted again with Hume’s own shattering of cosmopolitanism in his famous footnote on race. That a man of his time could spout racism is not surprising, Gikandi notes (102).

What is surprising is that an intellectual of Hume’s caliber and humanistic interests, one whose goal was to establish universal moral and aesthetic judgments, and one who considered prejudice injurious to this endeavor, seemed untroubled by his own sense of prejudice.

I’ll admit to being surprised about this myself when I first looked closely at Hume, and Gikandi cites Richard Popkin to the same effect. But Gikandi adds that Hume only seemed untroubled by his contradictory self. There’s no surprise, if we understand that like the other theorists and practitioners of taste, “Hume [was] determined to quarantine cosmopolitan Europe from black dirt” (100).

Similarly, we find the story of Francis Williams’ Cambridge education and accomplished Latin poetry failing to be “transformed by the modes of intellectual reflection one would expect from the best minds of the time” (105-6); instead, processed through the dismissive double-bind of racial prejudice footnoted by Hume and enacted by Jamaican slave-owner Edward Long. And again, what seems to be a surprising dereliction of attention and reflection turns out instead to have been an active, albeit unspeakable, exclusion and repression. In the cloistered universities, coffeehouses, and salons, the makers of the culture of taste were in fact deeply, constitutively troubled by the contradiction of their high sensibilities and the grim violence and shame of slavery.

The argument therefore hinges on shame and its repression. Hume, Long, Jefferson, and William Beckford in just a moment, have to be read contrapuntally to find amidst all of the not at all saying that they were ashamed of slavery, and all of the historical context in which slavery was only just beginning to become shameful, that they were in fact fundamentally ashamed of slavery. And they had to know it too, and be determined about it, and active in every way but speaking about it. I’m going to move to late in the chapter now, to the discussion of Beckford, to a representative instance of this argument.

Beckford was a complex fellow, as Gikandi makes clear. Creole, colonial parvenu, homosexual, art collector, Francophile, failed joiner, and all-around difficult character, for Gikandi the “greatest repressed force” in his life, a force that oppressed him, damaging his sense of self and/in relationship to the culture of taste, was slavery – the origin and dependence of the family fortune on the complex of sugar and slaves. Gikandi acknowledges that there are plenty of marginalizing factors to overdetermine the account, then dives into the evidence. This turns out to be Beckford’s reclusive hoarding of art, on which more in a moment, and letters in which he discusses the fortunes of his fortune. Here’s the first piece of that analysis:

Jamaica could be absent from Beckford’s biography, but this does not mean he was not aware of the extent to which his ability to live the lavish life of an aesthetic subject depended on his slaveholdings. We find acknowledgment of this connection in a letter to Lady Craven in 1790: “One of my new estates in Jamaica brought me home seven thousand pounds last year more than usual. So I am growing rich, and mean to build Towers, and sing hymns to the powers of Heaven on their summits […]” (137).

That the kind of spoiled, clueless punk emergent from Gikandi’s account and this quotation made the reflective connection between profitable “estates” and the cruel reality of slavery is now meant to be a fact in evidence, despite not being at all a fact in evidence. Why do he and Hume and the rest need so much to have been reflectively ashamed? I don’t know; maybe for the same reason it’s way more upsetting if lots of the Germans killing Jews and sitting at home while Jews were being killed next door didn’t give much thought to Jews, didn’t really much care about them at all? Killed them or let them be killed because at that moment it was more convenient than not?

But now anxiety makes its inevitable appearance, as Beckford is seen “worried about the effects of sugar prices, slave revolts, and legal challenges to his Jamaican holdings on his ability to maintain Fonthill House,” the family manor in the English countryside.

Nevertheless, the language used to express these colonial anxieties was one of denial, avoiding the subject at hand, refusing to recognize the source of the trauma, to be drawn close to it, or even to speak its language. Hiding behind the clich├ęd language of lawyers and agents, and using citations and indirect discourse, Beckford worked hard to distance himself from the unnamable event that was his legacy (138).

Or, he was pissed off that he wasn’t rich any more but saying so wouldn’t have done his status any good. That is, his thoughts and feelings followed a situated path of least resistance. In an analysis I’d like better, we’d now be looking at what the global economy was doing to ruin the profitability of Jamaican sugar plantations and marginalize the old planter class, creating an anxiety that had lots to do with being royally screwed and maybe little to do with feeling ashamed of slavery; until, of course, slavery became a financial liability and therefore safely a moral one.

“Denial was Beckford’s mode of existence,” Gikandi now feels comfortable asserting. “He was aware,” a fact not in evidence but admittedly probable, “that his success as a collector and man of taste was tied to slavery and sugar, but any direct association with black bondage was injurious to the social standing of a modern subject, especially toward the end of the eighteenth century, when slavery was no longer in vogue.” A more prudent man in such circumstances might well have invested in sweat shops, as in fact many classy folks did – showing no effective carry-over of the shame from that other brutal, humanly-destructive forced labor (or repressing the new shame in turn, perhaps). In any case, we have again the assumption presented as fact backed by speculative depth psychology and manifestly unsupported by anything else about the history or character of this fella that he had made a reflective and strategic connection between his taste, slavery, and shame. Into this epistemological gap now helpfully steps the genre, in the persons of John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, who handwave “that beneath the ‘houses and masterpieces’ of the collectors, ‘there is much to be learned by listening in to the quieter, subversive voices rising out of that “unacceptable” residue lying in culture’s shadow'” (138-9). Later in this hall of mirrors, we find amusement hinting at muses and museums. I would have left this snark out if it wasn’t almost 5am.

Anyhoo this is fine conceptual play, as good as it gets in fact, with an amazing richness of breadth and detail. And unlike the subjects of the book the brute fact that all of the goodies of modernity emerged from a complex that essentially included history’s most systematically vicious slavery is never far enough away to lose sight of. But surely after decades now of this genre experiment in optional readings we’re not finding them persuasive or satisfying any more?

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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.