Contrapuntal analysis will show that even when the lives of enslaved Africans were located at the opposite pole of modern identity and when their objectification was at odds with the triumphant subjectivism of modernity, slaves were intimately connected to the political and moral economy of the modern world. It was difficult to imagine a modern identity that was totally detached from the Africans’ subjection (Gikandi, 2011: 81).
Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste explores eighteenth-century European and American archive to identify what was excluded from the “discourse of taste and the series of omissions, repressions, and conceptual failures that were its condition of possibility” (25). Gikandi’s uses this century as a reference point because it marks a period when issues of slavery and culture of taste were more prominent. This was also the age of enlightenment in Europe when individuals discovered the increasing significance of personal liberty. Moreover, this was the century when more slaves were shipped from Africa. As Olaniyan writes, “over half of all the enslaved Africans in 366 years of slavery were shipped out or disembarked” in that century. Arguably, this century was the most affected by the phenomenon of slavery. The presence of so many slaves in Euro-American society was bound to shape lives of people in many ways.
Gikandi uses “culture of taste” to refer to institutions, norms, and practices of high culture in Europe and America. He notes that during this time to refer to one as a “person of taste” meant that the person is “highly cultured and of refined or sophisticated sensibilities” (xii). He reads the eighteenth-century archive contrapuntally to show that modernity cannot be read without incorporating slavery because they are two sides of the same coin. He demonstrates this point by pointing out that “slavery and the culture of taste were connected by the theories and practices that emerged in the modern period” (xiii). Gikandi aims to allegorically engage the archive through interrogating a series of following questions, such as:
What was the relation between aesthetic objects and the political economy of slavery? How do we read these two spheres of social life-one rooted in the realm of the aesthetic, civility, and taste, and the other in the political economy of slavery in the same register (Gikandi, 2011:35).
This essay explores some of the ways Gikandi has tried to respond to those questions. Gikandi reads Euro-American modernity, which is conceptualized as an era of personal freedom that allowed individuals to develop faculties for appreciating art, against the institution of slavery in Africa and the Caribbean. He discusses the story of Anna Margaretta Larpent, icon of social mobility in the culture of taste, writer of voluminous diaries, a woman attuned to the cultural sensibilities of her time; and Nealee, a faceless African woman slave in a coffle, bought for gold dust in a Bambara slave market, destined to die somewhere between Sego and the Gambia. On the one hand, Larpent enjoys her freedom – she goes to galleries, keeps a diary, has coffee in cafes and enjoys art. On the other hand, in Africa, Neale a slave woman howls across the Sahara Desert as her captors are determined to get her to the shore where she will be shipped across the Atlantic. Nealee and Larpent are players in the same era of modernity, albeit playing different roles. They show that although the slave master and the slaves occupied distinct geographies, they were connected through a single political economy.
Gikandi establishes that Nealee’s life, in a way, enables Larpent’s life. In other words, slavery produced sugar and other commodities that allowed and fueled a Euro-American culture of taste. As Gikandi points out, sugar more than anything was a major commodity of modernity. But while we can easily read Larpent’s story, Neale’s story is buried in accounts narrated by European masters, which raises a question about the extent to which we can rely on these narratives. How can we engage the archive when it is solely a product of European hegemony and racism? Gikandi examines this phenomenon through what he calls “the paradox of presence/absence”. Here, he notes that “the very social classes that were considered to be outside the domain of taste functioned as counterpoints of the ideals of polite behavior or even as figures of desires” (27). He shows that even though European masters wrote the archive, we can read it contrapuntally to reveal what is omitted.
Nealee’s life negates the achievement of European modernity. It questions the assumptions of the enlightenment and contests the whole idea of modernity. This kind of reading is conspicuously absent from European accounts of this century. Perhaps the absence of slaves in Britain made it difficult for Europeans to conceptualize or represent slaves as integral to their society (Gikandi, 2011). It made it even harder for them to interrogate their freedom as a product of modernity of which slavery was a significant part. As Gikandi reflects, “it is clear to him that one of the reasons that slavery could not be included in the discourse of taste, even when it pervaded its cultural forms, is because it was not compatible with the epistemological categories that defined high culture” (37). For such a society, Larpent’s story of self-fashioning takes precedence as a visible form of life. Nealee’s story is invisible and has no place in such a society. Larpent’s way of life was important to her self-fashioning in public space, and this centers her in a “historical moment in which the rise of a culture of taste as the mediator of social position constituted an important mode of freedom” – an essential element of the age of Enlightenment (56).
In conclusion, Gikandi’s project shows that the eighteenth-century archive is still relevant in African cultural studies. Engaging the archive creatively as Gikandi has achieved through allegory will lead us to new ways of understanding slavery and colonialism.