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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.

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