Category Archives: collaborative readings

Gikandi’s Ch 6: “The Ontology of Play”

Chapter 6 continues much of the work Gikandi begins in chapter 5, as he traces how “the possibility of being black in the new world . . . was transformed into a narrative of identity”(195). In so doing, what Gikandi offers in these chapters very much feels like a prehistory of Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk (1903), which serves as a sort of telos for much of the archives Gikandi explores in these chapters. Such a characterization of Gikandi’s work might sound like a criticism, but I don’t mean it as such. Let me explain.

In chapter 5, Gikandi defines what he terms a “mangled semantics,” or “the confusion of the performative and the truth-value of slave cultural activities and utterances” (203). [Side note: To add fodder to Evan Gottlieb’s excellent questions on this chapter , I think it is worth observing that Gikandi cites Austin, not Derrida or Butler on speech act theory and the performative]. In chapter 6, Gikandi defines some of the barriers faced in the expression of this mangled semantic: “how to recognize the impossibility of belonging to a place yet claim one’s presence in it; of how to strive and years for emplacement yet live in a world in which rights and ideals were constantly thwarted” (235). This sounds like a Harlem Renaissance dilemma, and it is no wonder, for it seems to me that what Gikandi is doing in these chapter is tracing the genealogy of a black aesthetic, an aesthetic that we might think, as we listen to scholars of contemporary and twentieth-century African American literature and culture (I’m thinking most recently of Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012)), has its roots in the eighteenth century, but until now, we have not had a single book to point to that covers much of that archive. As others have noted, Gikandi’s work here as a curator of a collection of such evidence indebts us to him. And what does he say about the collection he has assembled in chapter 6?

For one, he foregrounds the problem of memory at the heart of black expression. In slave culture, “memory,” Gikandi tells us, “was best doing its work when it was affective, magical, and ritualistic” (246). Thus, some memories were best publicly or collectively enshrined in dances, and others, such as the houses built in the “African style,” were private. This latter form was ultimately unproductive “because publicness was one of the essential conditions of being a modern subject,” and therefore was abandoned (253). Rituals and performances took precedent over private affect, Gikandi claims. I wonder though, could we possible reframe this as the problem of the archive, of institutionalized memory, rather than of a choice? Again, I ask this question in the spirit of Evan Gottlieb’s second question about the “the ambivalence of the archive” in this chapter. I am also reminded of Gikandi’s eloquent question in chapter 2, “Was the slave a human subject of a disposable body? Was her progress in time and space a journey toward the enhancement of the self or a movement toward its dissolution?” (67). We might push a bit further here and consider what the relationship between “dissolution” and archives of feelings, of affect might look like.

The highlight of chapter 6 for me was Gikandi’s discussion of property, and the central role of the provision grounds, which he reads as “a measure of control over time and space and hence part of the process of moral reorientation” (240). In this section, Gikandi allows us to rethink examples from later in the century of slaves’ claims to property, problematizing our assumptions that formerly enslaved persons had no positive experiences of ownership, either personally or in their communities. Gikandi opens the possibility of recasting slaves’ relationship to property as a form of “temporal leverage.” How might that sensitivity to the temporal help us to think of slaves purchasing their freedom, or of Belinda’s claim to her Isaac Royall’s Massachusetts estate, or of Equiano maintaining his literary property for his Interesting Narrative for the rest of his life?

I appreciated Melissa Mowry’s observation about the productive questioning that Gikandi models, and in that spirit, I would love to hear what others thoughts about his use of the term “public sphere” in chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 6, Gikandi tells us that what he is doing is tracing “how slaves presented themselves in the public sphere” (202), a public sphere that he later identifies as “altered” (206). In these chapters, he traces “the role [scenes of happiness] played as a means of recoding social life for a people excluded from multiple domains of freedom and the aesthetic life that came with it” (202). From this, we might deduce that he is thinking of the “public sphere” as a space of both freedom and expression. Are we to assume that the black “public sphere” also has a political dimension to it for Gikandi? Whose “public sphere” is he referring to?  Given this term’s vexed history in the last few decades of eighteenth-century studies, I am puzzled by Gikandi’s unexamined use of it in chapters 5 and 6. We get a cursory explanation of the term in relation to taste in the first chapter (20), but I would like to hear more on how the term means in relation to slave culture.

Molly O’Hagan Hardy is the Digital Humanities Curator at the American Antiquarian Society.

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).

Chapter Four—Making American Slavery Visible

Chapter Four, “Close Encounters: Taste and the Taint of Slavery” focuses on images of slaves and those who owned them, opening with the self-fashioning gestures of male planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake, and closing with William Blake’s 1793 engravings of slaves being tortured in Suriname. Through these images, Gikandi investigates how the colonial planter class “develop[ed] forms of art that conjured a pure and refined image of self and community and yet were rooted in the totality of plantation life” (166).

Here, I’ll just focus on a section from the middle of the chapter, part 4, where Gikandi describes how “the political economy of slavery made it difficult for a civilized way of life—or a culture of taste—to be simply transplanted to the American colonies” (166). Portraits in North America, he argues, became more realistic, gaining “a sense of character and background” (167), and “acknowledg[ing] colonial difference as the informing condition of the work of art” (168), only when they began to include “the figure of the slave, the subject/object that made the region distinctive from the Europe it worked hard to imitate” (169).

So how did portraits of the American planter class do this? Gikandi zeroes in on one such portrait, which may also be the first American painting with a black person in it: Justus Engelhardt Kühn’s portrait of Henry Darnall III, from about 1710. Darnall is front and center, with one of his slaves (a boy of about his own age) standing behind him. 

Images of slave owners with their human property are not unique to the Americas, Gikandi notes, but claims that there is “a subtle difference” between European portraits that include enslaved figures, and the versions from Colonial North America (172). In fact, Gikandi claims, “it is not an exaggeration to say that it was the presence of the slave in the frame that enabled the coming of age of the American portrait” (172). But why “American,” if eighteenth-century Maryland thought of itself as thoroughly British?

Although Gikandi acknowledges that enslaved figures appear in portraits from Europe, too, this is one place I wish he’d have brought his analysis further. Wikipedia offers a collection of such portraits of white aristocrats posed next to black slaves—a number of whom are wearing silver collars, like the enslaved boy in Kühn’s painting. In this context, then, the flip side of Kühn’s having made the economic and social life of the Maryland plantation visible is that he had to use a specifically Continental trope to make it happen. (Compare Kühn’s painting with Antoine Pesne’s portrait of Frederick the Great, also from the same decade.) Kühn portrays Darnall as a child aristocrat in the European imperial tradition first—and the future heir of his family’s land and slaves only by extension. That is, it’s the opening up of American portraiture to influences from across the Atlantic—the German painter who was familiar with continental styles, painting the image of an enslaved African-descended child and his European-descended future owner—that makes the portrait of Darnall more groundedly “American.”

As a whole, Slavery and the Culture of Taste offers a really impressive model for how to put the different scenes of the Anglophone Atlantic in conversation with each other, a project that poses huge rhetorical and conceptual challenges for any author. So the reading of Kühn’s painting for its especial Americanness feels surprising. Fortunately, later parts of the chapter write over this faint whiff of exceptionalism, going on to consider the English artist Eyre Crowe’s 1861 paintings of a Richmond, Virginia slave market, and John Greenwood’s 1750s painting of a Surinam tavern. If the reading of Kühn’s painting itself doesn’t link back to the broader world in which taste and slavery circulated, embedding it  with other images from across that world helps fill in the gap.

By the end of the chapter, although Gikandi doesn’t say so explicitly, one payoff is that  it’s easy to see Blake’s engravings as likewise giving form to “self and community rooted in the totality of plantation life”—but this time from Blake’s position as a critic of the slave system, not as a reinforcement of the social ambitions of its wealthiest members. By the end of the chapter, “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave” is as much a portrait of the planters’ cruelty and greed as it is a representation of the woman they are torturing.

Dorothy Couchman is a Phd candidate in the English Department at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation examines enslaved characters in eighteenth-century Anglophone novels, drama, and verse.

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.

Chapter 2: Intersections: Taste, Slavery, and the Modern Self, by Dwight Codr

Mungo -1821-illustration3

[image from

In “Chapter 2: Intersections: Taste, Slavery, and the Modern Self,” Simon Gikandi bears witness to the role played by the “culture of taste” in the repression of the brute and brutal facts of slavery and the slave trade.  The paradoxical simultaneity of Enlightenment political philosophy – championing rationality, taste, and liberty – and the institution of slavery – characterized by violence, disgust, and bondage – is rendered in and through a “contrapuntal” narration and analysis of the lives of middle-class lady-of-taste Anna Margaretta Larpent and an African slave, Nealee, left to die in the wilderness when she chose not to continue with her march into modernity, into bondage and terror (described in Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa).  Gikandi asks: how do we account for the simultaneous existence of these two lives, one leisured, one tragic, lives which, for all of their obvious differences, “operat[ed] in the same orbit” (70) insofar as global networks of trade and power gave us both slavery and “culture”?

What is the nature of the “intersection” named in the chapter’s title?  (It is a word that does not – as far as I can tell – appear in the body of the chapter itself.)  It seems to me Gikandi conceives of his own critical practice as instrumental in the process of actively intersecting these ostensibly discrete lines of life and force.  His analysis, that is, performs the work of merging life-lines that are treated as, at best, parallel (and more often altogether skew). A striking moment of this occurs when Gikandi raises Nealee from the dead: “the colonial library does not contain much information about her existence” (63). So, “[l]et us assume for a moment that Nealee did not die in the heat of Sahel. Let us suppose that she survived the West African wilderness on that fateful night of April 25, 1797” (74).

The effect of this critical necromancy is to enable readers to conceptualize the abstract collisions and overlaps of large-scale systems – of Slavery and Culture – as grounded, finally, in the affective and somatic realities of living, breathing bodies.  The haunting picture, taken by Gikandi himself, from Cape Coast Castle’s “Door of No Return” (85), suggests that this book is more than an analytic and historiographic exercise; it is an embodied writing about embodiment in an age when so many millions of bodies had little to no access to writing (even less that made it into the “colonial library”).

For me, the chapter raises many questions and ideas, but I’ll limit myself to two here.  Notwithstanding the analysis of intersections that deconstruct the opposition between slavery and culture, Gikandi’s dialectical readings maintain – however provisionally – the distinction between what might be called sordid commerce on the one hand and, on the other, culture, entailing everything from fashionable domestic interiors to novels by Samuel Richardson.  For instance: “slave traders and plantation masters studiously held on to, and jealously guarded, their identity as modern European subjects; […] they used architecture and art to assert their location in the mainstream of European fashion; and […] the cultivation of taste was an important counterpoint to the barbarism of slavery, which always had the potential to engulf their claims to be modern, rational subjects” (79).  Or, “[a]n aggressive commercial culture rooted in imperial control and expansion had enabled the culture of taste, but it had become its unspoken, almost unspeakable, event.  Also unspoken and unspeakable were the other bodies in this equation – the millions of African slaves, whose bodies were a key ingredient in the production of the wealth that made the culture of consumption possible” (63).

My question: did the sordid commerce of slavery produce its own culture?  Was slavery itself susceptible to “culturation,” in the sense Gikandi imparts to Culture?  When Gikandi gets to discussing William Snelgrave’s description of a slave execution on board a ship (89), he writes that the “scene of punishment reads like a spectacle from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish” (referring, presumably, to the description of the execution of Damiens, the regicide).  This suggests that there may be literary/textual genres of the brutality of slavery that double back to give shape to European culture.  One thinks forward, perhaps, to Django: Unchained, where Tarantino’s film’s success reveals, if nothing else, modernity’s taste for blood. Or one thinks back, to the gruesome spectacles of punishment in Behn’s Oroonoko. What is to be made of the long and on-going history of spectacles of slave punishment in the authorized spaces of “culture”?

Secondly, Gikandi rightly asserts and establishes as sacrosanct the discourses of liberty and rationality in the context of Enlightenment, but he approaches expressions of religious belief with a degree of skepticism that is itself the hallmark of an Enlightenment historiography that might not fully appreciate the dangerous potency of religious belief in political and aesthetic judgment.  Invocations of Liberty, for Gikandi, make perfect sense, whilst invocations of Providence, by contrast, are read as mystifications of or strategies for the repression of the real problem (“[t]he vocabulary of providence would thus come to mediate the double demands made on these men of taste” 83, my emphasis).  Perhaps Gikandi is less suspicious of true believers than I, but I’m uneasy reading expressions of faith as strategic vocabulary.

I am put in mind of 1990s debate between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins on the question of Captain James Cook’s divinity.  For Sahlins, Cook was seen as a divinity; for Obeyesekere, Cook’s divinity was strategically asserted and not ultimately “believed.”  Sahlins and Obeyesekere staked out their respective positions in the context of “native” Hawaiian thought.  I think it’s worth considering the fact that many eighteenth-century Europeans, for all of their “enlightenment,” just like many twenty-first century Americans, for all of their “modernity,” are still very much guided by religious belief. So, what if slaver-turned-preacher John Newton – who presided, it might be noted as an aside, at St. Mary Woolnoth, which had been recently re-designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, another figure discussed by Gikandi (61) – entirely resolved this tension within himself through the figure of God?  In a volume already confronting such a wealth of material, one can hardly ask for more treatment of religion than what Gikandi already offers, but when Newton describes his involvement in the slave trade as “the appointment Providence had worked out for me,” is this a strategic attempt to reconcile his role in the slave trade with a more fundamental faith in the Enlightenment project, or is it evidence that the Enlightenment project was less firmly established for someone such as Newton?  In any case, I’m happy to see some treatment of religious questions in the chapter, since questions raised by both slavery and culture were so often answered with chapter and verse.

Dwight Codr

Gikandi, Preface: armored men and quarantines


[image of James Drummond, 2rd Duke of Perth, from National Gallery of Scotland and Wikipedia; cf. also, Gikandi, x-xii]

I believe this image is as good a place to start as any in this densely argued book.  In his Preface, Gikandi describes an early moment of fascination in the National Gallery of Scotland, where he saw this portrait of the Jacobite James Drummond by Sir John Baptiste de Medina.  As he looked on this painting, with its conscious, almost theatrical projection of power, Gikandi began to wonder:

Why would Drummond, a symbol of the Catholic insurrection against the Protestant establishment, seek to inscribe an enslaved boy in his family portrait? What aura did this figure, undoubtedly the quintessential sign of blackness in bondage, add to the symbolism of white power?  What libidinal desires did the black slave represent? What was the relation of this blackness, confined to the margin of the modern world picture and placed in a state of subjection, to the man of power with his hand on his hip? And how were we to read this diminished, yet not unattractive, blackness in relation to the center embodied by the wig and armor?   And where was one to draw the line between the gesture of incorporation and dissociation? (xi-xii)

In some sense, I think it’s not too difficult to understand the relations here in the Drummond portrait as part of the theatrics of power, the way in which the “diminished, yet not unattractive, blackness” of the gazing, enslaved boy (signified by the collar around his neck) provides a readily comprehensible image of his, and by extension, our subjection to the armored, bewigged man at the painting’s center.  In this respect, the pairing seems at least comparable to our now familiar cultural repertoire of  assymetrical cross-cultural pairings like Crusoe/Friday, Huck/Jim, Lone Ranger/Tonto, Kirk/Spock, etc. etc.

In other words, de Medina’s pairing seems designed to demonstrate that the conquest has already occurred, and now a more subtle form of subjection has begun.  This is part of what I see at stake in these scenes of “incorporation and dissociation,” emblematized by Drummond’s helmet or Crusoe’s musket:


In some sense, as I’ve said in the comments, this story of subjection and hegemony has been hiding in plain view for some time, and I don’t think it has gone unnoticed in cultural criticism.  What Gikandi adds to this scenario of a visible “incorporation and dissociation” of the enslaved Other is a notion of the black as a source of libidinal energy for civilization and Modernity, one that requires regular maintenance, or “quarantining,” to be contained and yet productively nurtured:

What surprised me in the end, however, was the discovery that the world of the enslaved was not simply the submerged and concealed counterpoint of modern civilization; rather, what made the body of the slave repellant–its ugliness and dirt–was also what provided the sensations and the guilty pleasures of modern life (xii).

With this move into the “sensations and the guilty pleasures of modern life,” Gikandi has taken us into the peculiarly modern aesthetics of disavowal, what we thoughtlessly enjoy but cannot admit to having any contact with.  The libidinal pull of slavery and its  products is what takes us out of the purity and transcendence of Enlightenment aesthetics, and brings us into contact with something far more unsettling, the infrastructures of commercial modernity.  Drummond’s hand rests lightly upon his helmet, and Crusoe balances his musket on his shoulder, while these two figures set the terms for the “incorporation” of their black counterparts.


Gikandi, Chapter 1: “Overture: Sensibility and the Age of Slavery”

Slavery, Aesthetics, and the Making of Modernity

Disinterested and abstract figures like Addison and Steele’s spectator or Kant’s ideal observer have long served as a starting point for most discussions of aesthetics in the long eighteenth century. Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste challenges existing maps of aesthetics in the period by recovering “the specific role of slavery and blackness” in the British culture of taste (26). Gikandi’s work replaces the disinterested observer with a number of embodied alternatives, including the interested—even avaricious and often vulgar—slave owner. In his introduction, Gikandi argues that discussions of taste cannot be separated from the slave trade and its profits, which made possible the “consumption of culture” that refined consumers’ sensibilities and “determined the character and quality of the self” in the eighteenth century (18). Gikandi wants us to reconsider our entrenched understandings of modern aesthetics, including (at least in some aesthetic traditions: more on this later) transcendental and metaphysical questions of perception and judgment that often seem removed from the everyday concerns of political economy. As he writes, “my goal is to pinpoint those aspects that would ultimately make the category of taste a key mediator between British modernity and what I will call its repressive tendencies—namely, the attempt to use culture to conceal the intimate connection between modern subjectivity and the political economy of slavery” (17). Slavery and modern aesthetics are bound together.

I admired the approach Gikandi outlined in the introduction, but I did have a few questions about its application. Drawing on Edward Said, Gikandi reads “the figure of the black” and “the project of modernity. . . contrapuntually” (10).  This approach—made famous in eighteenth-century studies through Said’s interpretation of Mansfield Park—is a familiar one. What makes Gikandi’s approach startling is the way in which he reads contrapuntually not just within a single literary text but across a range of sources, including art works, aesthetic and philosophical treatises, and national archives (English, Scottish, and American as well as a less defined European tradition).  The impressive range of Gikandi’s sources suits a study that treats modern subjectivity and the transatlantic slave trade, which crossed national boundaries and created stateless subjects. Gikandi alludes to Walter Benjamin when describing his methodology and confesses that he prefers

working with emaciated temporal frames rather than epistemological frameworks. . . because I believe that working with a weak sense of history or with porous boundaries is one way of liberating the slave not from history but from the hold of historicism. Long ago, the planter class laid claim to historicism as one of its authorizing agents. Similarly, if I locate this book in what might seem to be an amorphous geography, it is not because I am not             aware of the differences between the culture of taste in England and Scotland or Virginia, or because I am impervious to the variety of localities in which slavery operated and shaped its landscapes; rather, I want to underscore the large projects that animated both the project of Enlightenment (which posited itself as English, Scottish, and British, but also European) and the almost universal assumption that the enslaved African, whether he or she lived in Britstol, England, or Bristol, Jamaica, was the counterpoint to modernity itself. (39)

Gikandi’s method effectively makes the figure of the slave the constant that unifies these various approaches to aesthetics and Enlightenment. Although I understand the important ways this method allows slavery to function as central to understandings of Enlightenment and aesthetics, I spent a lot of time thinking about this quote for a number of reasons. I take Benjamin’s critique of historicism seriously and welcome work, such as Gikandi’s study, that seeks to “liberate” the past. At the same time, I see significant differences between the culture of taste in England, Scotland, America, and Europe. Gikandi does recognize some of these differences.  For example, he acknowledges the substantive differences between the continental European approach to aesthetic judgment and the “British discourse on taste,” which never sorted out feeling from reason and, according to Kant, “was not transcendental or universal enough to claim the status of philosophical reflection” (16).  Yet his study sets out of “trouble the boundaries that divide continental European debates on aesthetic judgment from the British culture of taste” (11). Although he references Kant’s debt to Hume’s racism, I’m not sure yet how his study troubles this divide. He also spends a lot of time on Hume’s racism, but not as much on Smith’s critique of the slave trade in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Admittedly, I’m not exactly sure what these subtle differences add up to, but I do think they are worth mentioning.  At the same time, I’m also not sure that parsing the differences between aesthetic traditions and the perceptions of the philosophers within these separate traditions equals Benjamin’s historicism. How one might acknowledge these differences and still “liberate the slave . . . from the hold of historicism”?

Gikandi’s provocative contrapuntual readings also reminded me of two recent studies that, at least for me, haunted the first chapter: Susan Buck-Morss Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009) and Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic (2005).  Gikandi, Baucom, and Buck-Morss owe a debt to Benjamin, and all three attempt to rethink modern aesthetic discourse (particularly Baucom and Gikandi) as produced by slavery. Although Gikandi cites both of these studies in his bibliography, he does not directly engage with them in his introduction, which refers to foundational works on empire like Linda Colley’s Britons and Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown’s The New Eighteenth Century. I wish I had more time to think through how these three important studies speak to one another, and I would love to hear if others saw productive intersections.

JoEllen DeLucia is an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. She has published essays on the Bluestockings, Anna Seward, and Ann Radcliffe and is completing a manuscript entitled A Feminine Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the Philosophy of Progress, 1759-1820