Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Humanity Is Now the Pop'lar Cry": Laboring-Class Writers and the Liverpool Slave Trade, 1787-1789

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Humanity Is Now the Pop'lar Cry": Laboring-Class Writers and the Liverpool Slave Trade, 1787-1789

Article excerpt

This essay seeks to supplement the account of early romantic representations of race proposed in Alan Richardson's recent essay on Bristol abolitionist poetry in the years 1770 to 1810. (1) Reading the challenges to the Bristol trade made by Thomas Chatterton, Hannah More, Ann Yearsley, and Robert Southey, Richardson identifies the "divergent but internally unstable schemas" of racial categorization and classification which structure their critiques. (2) This particularly fascinating local tradition is not necessarily a reliable index to national ideas about the problem of slavery, however. An alternative sample, formed of poems written in the late 1780s in the very different conditions of Liverpool, Britain's largest slaving port, yields different results. Beneath some similarly unstable local divergences, the Liverpool verse articulates a remarkable convergence of ideas about human nature and racial distinctions, remarkable because the convergence can be detected in both abolitionist verse, and in conserva tive poems defending the trade. (3) As far as these texts are concerned, the mid-century debate between the polygenist and monogenist accounts of human origin has been settled. (4) From the monogenesis consensus, a struggle opens over the legitimate meaning and nature of "humanity," a newly abstracted category to which the poetry I discuss persistently appeals. The appropriation, by pro-slavery writers, of discourses of sensibility founded in a universal capacity for suffering and feeling, is one reason for this persistence; more significant still is the ongoing shift in discourses of race, in which signs of racial difference are increasingly naturalized and taxonomized. In part, however, the overlap of pro- and anti-slavery arguments is a consequence of my "biased" sample. The poets on whose work my discussion is focused are laboring-class writers (unlike Richardson's more representative sample in "Darkness Visible"), who locate themselves and their writing in a complex interstice framed by contradictory rel ations of class, gender, and race, with significant consequences for their representations of slavery. Not least of these consequences is the discovery that, for the laboring-class poet, 'darkness' is not straightforwardly visible or indeed representable.

In order to locate these poems within the discursive shifts of their historical moment, I will begin by turning to some recent studies of the relationship between subject formation and racial identity. The construction of racial identity and difference is not, for David Lloyd, the immediate effect of encounters with otherness, but rather depends on the prior emergence of "culture," the defining feature of which is a will-to-sameness: "It is not in the first instance the antagonistic recognition of difference which constitutes the discourse of racism but the subordination of difference to the demand for identity." (5) The modern category of race emerges, Lloyd argues, at the end of the eighteenth century as the inevitable residue in the production of what Kant, in the Critique of Judgement (1790), calls a "sensus communis"--the notion of a common culture, or shared standard of taste, or public sphere, against which subjective responses can be measured, and into which they can be absorbed. (6)

Race is created, Lloyd argues, in the temporal as well as conceptual gap that emerges between Kant's two models of aesthetic response. The Third Critique distinguishes sensory judgments, which are subjective responses to immediate matter, from formalized judgments, which refer themselves to the full possible (rather than actual) range of judgments. Formalized judgments require us to represent our relation to the object and other subjects, by envisaging ourselves in the position of everyone else. (7) A capacity to forestall immediate sensory responses in favor of disinterested representation marks a crucial stage in a developmental narrative of both the individual subject and the "civilization" which it subtends. …

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