Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture

By Benedicty, Alessandra | Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture


Benedicty, Alessandra, Journal of Haitian Studies


Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture. By Madeleine Dobie. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8014-7609-9. 336 pp. $27.50 paperback.

"Slavery hovering in the air" (188) may be considered the undergirding image that puts into relation the diverse and rich panoply of texts, eras, and locations, which constitute the scope of Madeleine Dobie's tour-deforce analysis of how French culture was (and was not) shaped by the trope of slavery both in "the Orient" and the in the Americas, and was (and was not) transformed economically, socially, and culturally by the fact of slavery in the Western Atlantic. Dobie's expression, "slavery hovering in the air," refers directly to her analysis of Chateaubriand's limited, yet telling allusions to slavery in Voyage to America, written in the early 1800s. Yet, the ethereal grotesqueness of the image also emblematizes what might be considered a paradigmatic shift in thinking about representations of slavery and race in texts of the eighteenth century and the scholarship devoted to the study of the French Enlightenment. ("Enlightenment" is a term that Dobie does not find particularly useful in discussing eighteenthcentury France (27).) If most previous studies of how French texts deal with slavery speak more of silences (9), Dobie's work shows how slavery is "latently]" ubiquitous (11). It "hover[s]," lurking disturbingly close by, with repercussions for scholars of eighteenth-century France, but also for academic constituencies as varied as specialists of colonial America or pundits of contemporary European thought.

Dobie anchors her study of colonization and slavery in eighteenthcentury French culture; however, its scope surpasses the eighteenth century to include considerations of French outlooks on slavery from the early 1600s to its consequences on cultural and social politics in France and the French Caribbean in the contemporary era. In a sense, Dobie's work is an all-encompassing survey of how French culture was radically transformed by slavery. At the same time, it looks at how French culture has learned to "displace" (11) any possible overt (and even conscientious) recognition of the monumental role that slavery played in the transformation of French society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the subject of textiles, and particularly of the cotton " indiennes," Dobie speaks of a veritable "revolution" in French clothing (99) that would lead to an increased dependency on the colonies to provide the "raw materials" for France's new tastes-in dress, in home furnishings, and in culinary needs (124). Yet, the recognition of the Americas-and slavery-as a "point of origin for new textiles, techniques, and styles... long remained largely invisible" (124), even to the point of creating a complex web of "mechanisms of disavowal carried over into the postabolition era" (293).

The corpus that Dobie covers in her book is itself a magnum opus. She considers slavery in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early-nineteenthcentury French texts, as well as the repercussions that such "patterns" of a sort of "nonrepresentation" of slavery and colonization "occurring on a broader cultural level" have had on contemporary discussions of race in contemporary France and the DOM (11). In other words, she uses texts in which slavery is present, yet repressed. Her primary texts are extremely varied, from the written to the material: philosophical and economic treatises, short stories and epistolary novels, travel logs and narratives, and furniture and textiles. From Montesquieu to de Tocqueville; from Olympe de Gouges to Germaine de Staël; from JeanBaptiste Labat; Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz and Cornelius De Pauw to Chateaubriand and Delacroix; from mahogany and indigo to cotton, Dobie exhaustively, yet concisely, examines how slavery and colonization were quietly dealt with throughout a French century that sought both in thought and in material life to democratize itself in an unprecedented way.

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