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.
Simon Gikandi is the Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University.
"In this at times disturbing and often provocative book, Gikandi seeks to bring together two seemingly disparate areas of experience, African slavery and European high culture. . . . This impressive, and in places startling, book is sure to redirect the tide of contemporary 18th-century studies; it exemplifies critical inquiry into the 'global 18th century' at its best."--Choice
"[T]his is an absorbing and otherwise well-executed study. It is nuanced, erudite and wide-ranging, shedding much valuable new light on the vexed relationships between eighteenth-century aesthetic culture and the outrageous history that shadows it."--Carl Plasa, Review of English Studies
"Among the many strengths of this study is that it will engage scholars and students from a variety of disciplines, including the Atlantic world, British history and/or literature, colonial history both North American and Caribbean--and the slave trade. Gikandi is an engaging author, but he assumes some prior knowledge of the materials that he so intricately weaves into his remarkably detailed narrative."--Dorothy Potter, Sixteenth Century Journal
"Interdisciplinary in approach, Slavery and the Culture of Taste is a virtuoso performance that mobilizes a vast amount of secondary literature and deploys a dazzling array of theory."--Ryan Whyte, Journal of Curatorial Studies
"It is difficult to think of a single work that more clearly and carefully reveals the inextricable intertwining of the habits and social practices of the British elite in the drawing rooms of London with the harsh brutalities of Britain's central involvement in the creation and maintenance of the slave trade in the West Indies and West Africa. This book is full of stunning insights and is a pleasure to read. It is an original contribution to the study of the Enlightenment."--Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of Tradition and the Black Atlantic and The Trials of Phillis Wheatley
Table of Contents:
Chapter 1: Overture: Sensibility in the Age of Slavery 1
Chapter 2: Intersections: Taste, Slavery, and the Modern Self 50
Chapter 3: Unspeakable Events: Slavery and White Self-Fashioning 97
Chapter 4: Close Encounters: Taste and the Taint of Slavery 145
Chapter 5: "Popping Sorrow": Loss and the Transformation of Servitude 188
Chapter 6: The Ontology of Play: Mimicry and the Counterculture of Taste 233
Coda: Three Fragments 282