Category Archives: Gikandi

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 Five: “Popping Sorrow”: Loss and the Transformation of Servitude

As Dorothy Couchman points out in her post, the previous chapter moved from “the self-fashioning gestures of male planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake” to “William Blake’s 1793 engravings of slaves being tortured in Suriname.”  In Chapter Five “’Popping Sorrow’: Loss and the Transformation of Servitude,” Gikandi focuses on the representations of the slaves as subjects. This chapter serves as a transition into the next chapter’s deeper exploration of “the meaning of the scenes of merrymaking that dominate descriptive accounts of West Indian and American slavery and how they should be read or interpreted” (202). His exploration of the “happy slave” revolves around the performance of sorrow.

For writers creating a new black modernity through their narratives, the former slaves Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Frederick Douglass argued that slaves must recognize the negation defining their existential condition in order to recreate themselves as subjects. These authors work to interpret these scenes play and celebration by teaching their readers to read what seem to be markers of pleasure as melancholic signs of oppression. Douglass, Gikandi reminds us, “detested any suggestion that the experience of slavery would generate any kind of pleasure for the enslaved. . . . as far as he [Douglass] was concerned, slave holidays and performances were part of the master’s cunning, attempts to manipulate affect, rather than provide a vehicle through which the real feelings and sensibilities of slaves could be expressed” (197, 199). Building on but complicating these arguments, Gikandi asks that we interpret both these scenes of merrymaking and the slave narratives critique of them within a larger context of sensibility, aesthetic taste, and cultural memory.

For me, the most striking moments were the complicated relationship between affective performances and the moments when the black bodies depicted become marked by gender. Although not a major focus of the book, the discussion of the female, enslaved bodies of Mary Prince and unnamed mixed-race women illustrate the complicated performance of self required to create a black subjectivity within a slave society.

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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.

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 clichéd 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?

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.

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

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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

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


collaborative reading of simon gikandi’s slavery and the culture of taste, may 13th-19th at the long 18th

OK, I’m calling the Gikandi collaborative reading for next May 13th-19th.  Who’s in?

When I initially floated this proposal, a number of people responded on and off the blog.

Could I now get volunteers to commit to responding to a single chapter? You’ll see the Table of Contents below. I would like each chapter to be covered, but otherwise multiple respondents to a single chapter are fine.  I am also including a link to the Amazon listing.

If you are still interested in participating, either as a post-writer or respondent, please let me know as soon as you can.  Feel free to forward this to any colleagues or students you feel might be interested in participating. Just hit Reply, and let me know which of the chapters you’d like to tackle:

Ch. 1: Overture, 5/13: DELUCIA; MAZELLA
Ch. 2: Intersections, 5/14: CODR; BURNARD
Ch. 3: Unspeakable Events, 5/15: DYKE; WOOD
Ch. 4: Close Encounters, 5/16: MOWRY; COUCHMAN
Ch. 5: Popping Sorrow, 5/17: KUGLER
Ch. 6: The ontology of Play, 5/18: GOTTLIEB; HARDY
Coda, 5/19: MAZELLA

If you are too busy to do a formal post, but want to listen and respond to others, that would be fine, too.
Gikandi ToC

Thanks, DM