Category Archives: Dwight Codr

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

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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

Dwight Codr on ch. 4, Skin

Between the 1400 and 1500 blocks of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans runs a single street that has two different names, depending on which side of the avenue one is. Running towards the lake and tracking into some of the most dangerous parts of the city is Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Running towards the river and tracking into one of the many wealthy and predominantly white blocks of the Garden District is Melpomene Street (the tragic muse and central figure of this chapter). The sign announcing this provocative intersection of black and white, modern and ancient, history and myth, would serve as an excellent visualization of the claims put forward in Joseph Roach’s “Skin” (Chapter 4, It). Like Reynolds’ portrait of Siddons as the tragic muse (1784, p. 152), Melpomene Avenue betokens a Classical past, but here it is transformed to suit American circumstance, taste, and history, where wrought-iron lattice work besmeared by time and consequently evocative of a dignified antiquity plays on the same psychic keys as finely shaped marble sculpture (such as the Apollo Belvedere) did for eighteenth-century English cultural consumers. In virtue of its proximity to a tragic American figure whose death itself serves as a kind of figure for the neighborhood his boulevard at times traverses, the situational irony of Melpomene Avenue’s architecture and cultural resonance is all the more palpable after a reading of Roach’s chapter, wherein the whiteness of tragedy is seen as less white than it is lustrous, antique, and suffused with heritage. Siddons’ skin, Roach argues, traded in the visual intersection of tragedy and tradition, and in so doing became the “It-girl” of her own time.

Ranging from patina, or, the accreted sense of historical weight and significance on the most superficial visual element of celebrity identity (i.e. skin), to deep skin, or “a phenomenon [involving] the attribution of enormously important (and not infrequently tragic) consequences to differences that are in fact only skin deep,” to brand, in which the public image of the celebrity contains Whitmanesque multitudes (nobility/vulnerability, strength/tenderness, etc.), “Skin” offers the reader a series of ostensibly simple terms theoretically re-imagined for immediate and wide critical appropriation and consideration. One would expect an account of skin and “It” in the eighteenth century to turn on images of blackness, the link between blushing and sexual (im)purity, the threat of sullied skin to the socialite (smallpox, measles, etc.), or the wealth of literature and imagery of the female toilet and cosmetics, but Roach here approaches what is ultimately a racial problem by looking at the power of a particular kind of whiteness in popular culture.

One question that arises in this context concerns precisely the form of Roach’s primary object text in this chapter: Reynolds’ painting of Siddons. While the book is clearly not designed to provide the kind of ethnographic information we suppose to be relevant to the evaluation of such things as effervescence or even popularity, I do wonder what is at stake in defining “It” largely in terms of a painting whose visual consumption takes a decidedly more private form than, say, theatrical consumption. Roach asserts that actresses such as Anne Bracegirdle and Siddons set “the terms of the It-Effect, [partly] because their images began to circulate widely and hyperbolically in the absence of their persons” (149). Were their images circulated? In what forms? Do we have any accounts of reception? If they were circulated widely, in what sense was that circulation hyperbolic? It is comparatively easy to follow Roach’s reading of Princess Diana, whose image was so heavily circulated that the market for her image was directly responsible for her death, but I would like know a bit more about Roach’s sense of his critical method, and particularly his criteria for evidence. This book seems at times to deliberately flout scholarly conventions, leaving me to wonder whether Roach would prefer that we cite his work or muse upon it.