Slavery and the Culture of Taste

Slavery and the Culture of Taste

Slavery and the Culture of Taste

Slavery and the Culture of Taste


It would be easy to assume that, in the eighteenth century, slavery and the culture of taste--the world of politeness, manners, and aesthetics--existed as separate and unequal domains, unrelated in the spheres of social life. But to the contrary, Slavery and the Culture of Taste demonstrates that these two areas of modernity were surprisingly entwined. Ranging across Britain, the antebellum South, and the West Indies, and examining vast archives, including portraits, period paintings, personal narratives, and diaries, Simon Gikandi illustrates how the violence and ugliness of enslavement actually shaped theories of taste, notions of beauty, and practices of high culture, and how slavery's impurity informed and haunted the rarified customs of the time.

Gikandi focuses on the ways that the enslavement of Africans and the profits derived from this exploitation enabled the moment of taste in European--mainly British--life, leading to a transformation of bourgeois ideas regarding freedom and selfhood. He explores how these connections played out in the immense fortunes made in the West Indies sugar colonies, supporting the lavish lives of English barons and altering the ideals that defined middle-class subjects. Discussing how the ownership of slaves turned the American planter class into a new aristocracy, Gikandi engages with the slaves' own response to the strange interplay of modern notions of freedom and the realities of bondage, and he emphasizes the aesthetic and cultural processes developed by slaves to create spaces of freedom outside the regimen of enforced labor and truncated leisure.

Through a close look at the eighteenth century's many remarkable documents and artworks, Slavery and the Culture of Taste sets forth the tensions and contradictions entangling a brutal practice and the distinctions of civility.


Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
In that gray vault. The sea. The sea
Has locked them up. The sea is History.

—Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History”

I start with Derek Walcott’s poem because there is a sense in which this book is about the interlaced experiences of the enslaved—those people without monumental histories, battles, martyrs, or tribal memories—and those others, the cultured subjects of modernity, whose lives are available to us through the monuments and institutions of European civilization— what I call the culture of taste. This book is about the encounter between these two groups of modern subjects across the Atlantic, the sea that in our modern times connected the enslaved and their enslavers. But although the book spends considerable time sketching both the visible and invisible connections of two social practices or realms of experience that have been kept apart so that they can continue to do their cultural work, separately and unequally, it started as an almost casual reflection on the gray vault in which common histories are encrypted.

The informing epigraph, or even epitaph, to this project came from an idea, or at least the fragment of a thought, once encountered in the middle of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s “Mourning and Melancholia”: What are we to make of those experiences and losses that cannot be acknowledged because they seem to be at odds with the narrative of . . .

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