“…this fellow was very black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”
Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feelings of The Beautiful and Sublime.
“Look, a Negro. . . . Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!”
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
“There is no hegemony without a haunting.”
Jacques Derrida, The Specter of Marx.
This essay is a revised version of the inaugural lecture for the Robert Hayden Collegiate Professorship presented at the University of Michigan on September 18, 2000. A slightly different version of the paper was presented at a keynote address to the conference on the “Black Gaze,” at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London, November 2, 2000.
I feel privileged to present this lecture in honor of Robert Hayden, clearly one of the most important writers associated with the University of Michigan.* For most of his life, Hayden struggled with the questions that will be at the center of my discussion in this paper: how the dominant categories of social life are constructed against the force of alterity, how the moral lines and social boundaries of modernity are drawn, and, ultimately the troubled relationship between the question of race and the idea of the aesthetic. Born in some of the most abject conditions of the American cosmopolis, Hayden located his seminal works at the crossroads where the alienated subject of modern culture, especially the black subject, confronted by the harsh realities of everyday life, turned to the creative imagination for escape and solace. Hayden’s major poems were painful meditations on the irony of modernity and its cultural negativity; but they were also about the capacity of the writer to turn to abjection as the source of creative energy and thus to bring some of the excesses—and ugliness—of modern life into a measure of control. Aware of the strange histories that had brought the African slave face to face with the culture of the modern West, Hayden sought to comprehend the undertones of the great narratives of our modern times, and to bring them face to face with their historical and cultural repressed. He understood, perhaps better than many analysts of the idiom of difference, that in order to comprehend such important notions as freedom, identity, and morality, we needed to come to terms with their opposite vectors, most notably, enslavement, difference, and impurity.
Concerned with the meaning of powerful ontological ideas of virtue and sin, being and unbeing, naming and unnaming, Hayden’s great poetic works are an exemplar of Mary Douglas’s claim that we cannot understand the vocabulary that represents and clarifies dominant ideas without confronting them with their contaminating ingredients, that “defilement is not merely a symbol of something else, or even the balance on which ideas of virtue and sin are weighed, but the basic condition of all reality”; that the language of impurity is undecipherable without a contrasting set of words that represent the “contaminating danger.” Hayden’s poetic works present us with many examples of conditions of experience defined by this contrast between ideas of cultural purity simultaneously defined and haunted by the danger of its contaminants; his major poems are powerful meditations on the making and unmaking of social identity.
If there is one distinguishing characteristic in Robert Hayden’s corpus, it is his concern with the problems that are evident in the epigraphs that open my discussion: the question of the white gaze, which, in Fanon’s famous terms, burdens the figure of the black with the weight of difference and surrounds it with an atmosphere of uncertainty; and the presence of the racial other as the ghost that haunts what Derrida would call the hegemonic discourse of modernity. In “The Tattooed Man,” one of Hayden’s most haunting poems, there is a powerful conjuncture between the gaze that disenables the other and the ghostliness that empowers it. In this poem, the poetic speaker, “Born alien / homeless everywhere,” yearns to be recognized as part of the same, to be loved and to be touched by someone, ostensibly appalled by the tattooed body. The speaker had apparently had his whole body tattooed in a desperate effort to be recognized as an insider in the culture in which he was born marked as an alien; but now, he recognizes, the tattoos have become marks of “bizzarity”; they have accentuated his alienation, making him a “grotesque outsider” whose unnaturalness assures those gawking at the tattooed body that they are natural insiders. The central irony of the poem, however, is that although the tattooed body now repels, the tattooed man had his body inscribed with figures of art so that he could be recognized as a human being and as an insider in the culture that he now haunts. Indeed, one of the most prominent tattoos on this now scarred body is a copy of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” a masterpiece inscribed on the body with pain. As the tattooed man notes in a parenthesis that also acts as the fulcrum of the poem:
(I clenched my teeth in pain; all art is pain suffered and outlived).
For those of us accustomed to associating art with beauty and enjoyment, there is something frightening in the idea that “all art is pain”; but Hayden’s poem is haunting for a slightly different reason, not so much the fact that the tattooed man’s desperate attempt to inscribe himself as a figure of art has accentuated his alienation, but that he does not conceive a mode of being and identity outside this painful inscription and scarification. This is the point that is made hauntingly at the end of the poem:
And I—I cannot (will not?) change. It is too late for any change but death. I am I.
The haunting nature of the poem—and also its melancholy—arises from its paradoxical postulation of art as the sphere in which the tattooed figure can assert his selfhood and the recognition that the field of art, the aesthetic domain as it were, is already alienated and alienating.
And yet, Hayden was not the first African-American writer to posit the arena of art as the site in which alienated black bodies could be recognized as human beings and modern subjects, nor was he the first to represent the melancholy that the invocation of art as a site of identity would engender. In the middle of The Souls of Black Folks, his classic reflections on the condition of blackness in the modern polity, W. E. B. Du Bois called attention to the paradoxical relation between blackness and art in these memorable words:
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
In a book devoted in large part to mapping the black subject’s agnostic and agonizing relationship to Western modernity, Du Bois saw the realm of art, in Arnoldian terms, as the place where racial and class differences could be overcome. Within the commonwealth of letters denoted by canonical figures such as Shakespeare and Balzac, and through the summoning of classical writers like Aristotle and Aurelius, Du Bois would imagine a utopia in which the black subject, alienated from the institutions of modern life, would be reconciled to its multiple identities and be recognized as whole within the domain of human culture. But it was precisely because the realities of race and caste negated the willing into being of this transcendental utopia that Du Bois was forced into the apostrophic language we see at the end of the passage above. The apostrophe was the mark of his awareness of the radical disjuncture between the political economy of modernity and the claims of its art forms.
Similarly, Hayden’s poetry carried within it a powerful elegiac quality, a sense of mourning and melancholy; its search for purity and presence was constantly haunted by danger and lack at the most personal level. As he noted in “Names,” absence was perhaps the key to his whole identity as a citizen and poet:
When my fourth decade came, I learned my name was not my name. I felt deserted, mocked. Why had the old ones lied? No matter. They were dead.
Significantly, however, this reflection on the absence of a name, clearly one of the most important marks of identity, is sandwiched between two stanzas: in the first one, the speaker recalls that, mocked and threatened in his neighborhood, he sought safety in “the danger zones” represented by books; in the last stanza he notes that while the name of his books has dissipated like the life his mother fled, this absence is an occasion to raise fundamental questions about the insignias of identity itself: If he doesn’t exist legally, he wonders, what is he—a ghost, a double, or an alter-ego?
As a poet, Hayden had an uncanny ability to take experiences from his own life and turn them into collective narratives of the African diasporic experience and to transform the trauma of his own childhood into a poetic scrapbook in which the loss of self, the dismemberment of time, community, and history, could become ironic sites of self-reflection and sometimes self-mockery. Quite often, it was in his poetry that Hayden could remake himself and his kin, rising beyond the ugliness of his neighborhood, his life, his times, to claim affinity with the utopian. He worked within the idiom of difference but always with a clear sense of its limits; he functioned within the canon and against it. The canon was the zone of refuge, but it was a dangerous one at that; it provided him with kinship with other writers but also marked his difference from them. Quite often in his major poems, we hear echoes of the poets he had read; but his intertextual relation to these poets was indirect and ironic:
Today, a little Chimney Sweep, His face and hands with soot quite Black, staring hard at me, politely asked: "Does you, m'lady, sweep chimneys too?" I was amused, but Dear Nathaniel (ever Solicitous) was not.
In this poem in which Phillis Wheatley is allowed to speak for herself and to gaze back at her English hosts, Hayden also echoes and ironizes William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper.”
Given the energy and value he invested in art, it could be said that Hayden, unhappy with the real conditions of his life, needed to turn his experiences into art so that he could reflect on them. It could be argued, further, that for a poet who had experienced alienation in its most profound sense (nothing ever seemed to fit into place, not his parentage, name, or religion), he used his poetry to create and secure his identity. In these circumstances, the role and value of art would reside in its utopian dimension: values that had been denied to a subject in real life could be secured in poetry; the voice that had been repressed by a hostile racist culture could be nurtured and sustained in verse. Subjected to what Arnold Rampersad describes as “harsh personal pressures that might easily have silenced someone less courageous,” Hayden would produce poetry as “testimony to the power of the artist to find and illuminate the profound human in the mist of chaos, and to produce art as a bulwark against the will to inhumanity that is such an essential part of the human condition.”
But if Hayden’s major poems do not now seem to fit neatly into either the politics of identity or the axiom of difference, it is because he was both for identity and difference and against both; he was for the redemptive power of art, but he was also keenly aware of how the great evils of the modern world had weaved themselves into the flow of thought itself, into the rhetorical language of modernity. He seemed to understand a maxim I have borrowed from Douglas: it is difficult to understand the purity of art without attending to the modes of defilement attending upon its emergence as one of the most powerful ideas of bourgeois culture. Indeed, the rhetoric of defilement energizes some of Hayden’s most powerful poems, such as “Middle Passage”:
"We find it paradoxical indeed that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty are rooted in the labor of your slaves should suffer the august John Quincy Adams to speak with so much passion of the right of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero's garland for Cinquez. I tell you that we are determined to return to Cuba with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez— or let us say 'the Prince'—Cinquez shall die."
In “Middle Passage,” there are no simple oppositions between purity and danger, moral good and social defilement; on the contrary, Hayden uses the scene of the trial of the Africans from the Amistad to reverse the fictional organization that might present the blacks as totally innocent, the Spaniards as totally depraved, and the American liberals as the arbiters of morality.
Given the complexity of moral positions in his verse, it is fair to say that Hayden is important to us not because his poetry negated the harsh life it represented, but because it suggested a different way of thinking about modern life and its institutions against the pressures of banality and evil. In his poetry, we have some of the most powerful examples of how to think about being, history, and experience within the rules of representation and from the margins and limits of discourse. His poetry thus serves as an important agent arresting the flow of thoughts toward easy answers and solutions; it adopts and complicates some of the dominant accounts of modern life, including the idea of art and aesthetic judgment; it brings together, in a dialectic but also a conflation, certain ideals of modernity, such as freedom and emancipation, which are, nevertheless, constantly haunted by their conceptual oppositions, namely, domination and enslavement.
My discussion here is a reflection on this central dilemma of modern life—the co-existence of doctrines of freedom and domination. In reflecting on how some of the most important ideas of bourgeois culture, namely art and freedom, are mapped and haunted by their contaminating danger, manifestly represented by the figure of race, or rather the racialized black body, my discussion is also an attempt to arrest the flow of our thoughts toward simple narratives that seek the resolution of our problems in either the purity of art and aesthetic judgments or the contaminating danger of political transgression. I am interested in questions that initially appear quite simple: what does it mean to think about the key terms and categories of (Western) modernity from its margins and limits? What role do margins play in the constitution of cultural centers? If the aesthetic—and indeed the institution of art—stands out as one of the most prominent examples of a social category that acquires its normative authority through radical acts of exclusion, what happens to its framework when it is confronted with the idea of race, which I will here consider to be its complementary opposition? The bringing together of the ideas of the aesthetic and race in this kind of discussion adapts the idiom of difference we have come to associate with the work of Jacques Derrida, whose central claim is that it is through a thinking of the other that philosophy “derives its essence, its definition, its production”; but it is through this thinking that it seeks to control “the margin of its volume.”
But I am not simply interested in how this other, which has been excluded from the center of discourse and has been relegated to the margins and footnotes of the dominant text, functions as the condition of possibility of the center that excludes it and yet requires it. Rather, I want to pursue the idea that institutions and the concepts that clarify them are contrapuntal, that is, they are organized by two mutually opposed ideas, such as race and the aesthetic, which are, nevertheless, theoretically connected. As I will show for most of this discussion, from the very beginning the modern idea of art and its judgment was theoretically connected to powerful racial economies. Indeed, we will see that this connection is sometimes so obvious that it does not demand any deep hermeneutics. And yet, it is not accidental that the ideas of race and the aesthetic are separated, almost instinctively, in all major discussions of modernity. Why is a connection that is so explicit in what I will call the theoretical base structure, almost absent in the critical superstructure? Why do the ideas of race and the aesthetic demand conjunction on one level but resist it on another? It seems that the ideas of the aesthetic and race confront analysts with a serious case of incommensurability and asymmetry: connected in their base structure, they are then separated and confined themselves to different superstructural spheres; here they come to exist in different theoretical spheres, to signify different social relationships, and to echo different political meanings. And yet, it is this separation that seems to call for conjointness, for while race and the aesthetic could have different meanings in their separate spheres and contexts, they could not exist, on a theoretical level, except as complementary institutions. My first goal, then, is to sketch out this complementarity.
But there is more at stake in any discussion of what Douglas would call contrapuntal institutions or complementary oppositions. Race and the aesthetic may be informed by two mutually opposed principles that theoretically encompass one another, but they are also part of a hierarchy defined by radical conceptual difference. To adopt Douglas’s vocabulary, the sphere of the aesthetic is clearly defined as that of ontological purity, while race has become one of the most powerful representations of conceptual and social impurity; in order to understand the pure, we must confront it with what it considers to be the source of contamination and danger. In other words, we need to repudiate, or at least distrust, the moral lines and social boundaries that separate the pure from the impure, the holy from the unholy, and the sacred from the blasphemous.
Now, from one perspective, that of what has come to be known as the ideology of the aesthetic, this concern with impurity and defilement would seem to miss the basic Kantian premise that it is precisely through what one may call its conceptual cleansing that art brings about the reconciliation of freedom and necessity. My contention, however, is that it is because of the failure of this cleansing that the aesthetic becomes an important category in the culture of modernity. In other words, it is in the domain of art that the impurities threaten the “single universal rule,” which, according to Ernst Cassirer, was one of the objectives of the Enlightenment. I believe that attempts to cleanse or condemn the aesthetic, either through the invocation of its utopian possibility, or by emphasizing its dystopic nature and its connection to violence, miss the most important aspect of its genealogy—its implication in the double play of modernity where it was deployed as a site of purity that was, nevertheless, haunted by social contaminants such as race.
I am sympathetic to both the utopian and dystopic views of art and aesthetic judgment, but I believe that both views remain incomplete without our understanding of the modes of social and theoretical exclusion that enable the emergence of the idea of art as a key ingredient of bourgeois culture, and by extension, a discourse of modernity caught between very parochial European concerns and a desire for globalization. Herein lies the significance of Douglas’s theory of pollution, especially her claim that defilement is not “a doctrine in the abstract,” but is defined by familiar sources of contamination, and “especially particular categories of persons who present a danger of contamination”; in order to understand social categories, “we always need to know who is issuing accusations of defilement and who is the accused,” for unless “we can trace which categories of social life are being kept apart, how they are ranked and who is being excluded, the usual analysis of defilement is blocked.” My claim here is that the modern idea of the aesthetic, through its manifest and surreptitious exclusion of others and its systematic valorization and repression of difference, became a ritualized system governed by its own rules of purity. It is these rules of purity that now allow advocates of an aesthetic ontology, most recently Elaine Scarry, to claim that the political complaints made against the idea of the beautiful are incoherent, that far from distracting us, or from damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice, aesthetic attributes “intensify the pressure we feel to repair existing injustices.” It is perhaps true that concerns with beauty do indeed make us hanker for justice and just solutions to our social problems, but still, if this claim is to be taken seriously, if we are to associate beauty with an immanent idea of justice, then we need to consider its counterpoint: the injuries done to the bodies of those considered to be outside the domain of the beautiful and the injustices committed on these bodies in the name of beauty. If we consider the idea of beauty as the effect of a specific set of interests rather than an abstract or emotional response to social phenomena, we may discover that it has no inherent connection to regimens of moral good; rather, the deployment of art in the interest of justice is determined by pragmatic interests. The problem, of course, is that the institutionalization of the modern idea of art through the differentiation of high and low foreclosed the art forms that were most clearly connected to such interests. But if we were to ignore this distinction between high and low art, we would notice how easily artworks swerve from notions of injustice to justice. This point can be made more clearly through the juxtaposition of two images. When the English pirate John Hawkins was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for his services to British commerce, specifically the African slave trade, he commissioned a crest that would secure his new genealogy and social standing for posterity; prominent in this icon were the bound figures of enslaved Africans with cords around their neck.
It is said that Hawkins was so proud of his role as the first Englishman to buy and sell Africans that he was eager to have his activities as a slave trader displayed prominently in court. That bodies in pain dominated this crest did not make much difference to Hawkins and his circle; what seemed to matter most was how the visual representation of blackness secured one’s social identity and class status; for Hawkins, who had become a member of the aristocracy through trafficking in Africans, displaying the black’s tortured body was a source of pride rather than shame. But this association of art and pain does not necessarily negate Scarry’s point that aesthetic attributes intensify our urge to fight social injustice. Just as certain sectors of society depend on art to affirm themselves (consider the Nazis’ looting of European museums as a recent example of this process), we have many instances in which visual images were central to social causes, such as abolitionism in the United States. One famous example of this involvement of art with social justice was Josiah Wedgwood’s famous medallion of a supplicating African, an icon which, in Benjamin Franklin’s words, had an effect “equal to that of the best written Pamphlet, in procuring favor to those oppressed People.” At the center of the debate on the relationship between art and questions of social justice, then, is the strategic mobilization of art for or against social causes, rather than its immanent quality.
At the same time, however, it is important to recognize that the search for an idea of the aesthetic constructed on notions of universality, the moral sense, and human rights, was simultaneously accompanied by a racist ideology. Indeed, it is only by understanding the sources and nature of this racist ideology that we can come to a better appreciation of the very nature of our modern identity. We cannot, for example, properly understand how certain subjects were considered enlightened, either because they had been liberated from the tutelage of tradition or because they had the capacity to make judgments that were subjective and yet universal, unless we also pay attention to the function assigned their opposite others. Consider, for example, the idea of Reason, clearly one of the cornerstones of European identity and hegemony in the modern world. As is well known, rationality was one of the tropes around which the uniqueness of Europe was constructed; it was one of the enabling conditions of modernity and a modern identity. But the discourse of rationality, as numerous commentators have shown, was founded on the institution, or the imagination, of its opposite, the irrational savage or barbarian. This was the case in the sixteenth century, when debates about the enslavement of the American Indian revolved on Aristotelian notions of reason as the distinguishing characteristic of human rights and freedom, to the eighteenth century, when debates on the enslavement of the African turned on the irrationality of the black. Reason could only be made intelligible through its absence in the other.
But the deficit of reason was not enough in itself. It was further reinforced by the claim, dominant in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, that the most obvious sign of savagery was the inability of the other to produce high art, or to make aesthetic judgments. The idea of an aesthetic deficit was so entrenched in the foundational discourse of modernism that it could not be displaced by the counter-evidence presented by abolitionists. Witness what happened when the Abbé Grégoire presented Thomas Jefferson with his book, De La Littérature des Négres, a collection of stories about blacks that had risen to prominence as artists and intellectuals. Confronted with what Grégoire considered to be “irrefutable arguments against the enemies of the negroes,” those who sought to prove that blacks were not capable of scientific or artistic achievement, Jefferson, a friend of the French philosophes and a founder of the American Republic, did not hesitate to dismiss Grégoire’s book as “a fantastic collection of inauthentic tales.” In addition, as Sander Gilman observes in “The Figure of the Black in German Aesthetic Theory,” the relation of blackness to questions of representation and perception was at the very center of the theoretical project on art and aesthetic judgment in the Age of Enlightenment: “When writers of this age turned to speculations concerning basic principles of art, the function of such figures in theoretical contexts provided a clue to the comprehension of the exotic as well as of the specific role of the Black in eighteenth-century thought.” In crucial moments of disputes about the nature of aesthetic judgments, notes Gilman, reflections on the nature of blackness became critical in the formulation of ideas about beauty. At the center of this debate, albeit in a negative way, was the question of whether blackness had an immanent value or whether it was the result of socially acquired knowledge.
In his now classic essay, Gilman provides at least two instances in which theories of race were fundamentally connected to the aesthetic ideology. The first instance concerned the physical and psychological nature of perception, a question central to eighteenth-century reflections on the distinction between “acquired and innate responses to perceptual categories”: Was our sense of perceptual categories such as size, perspective, and color innate in ourselves as human beings or acquired through our education? According to Gilman, debates about this question came to revolve around the report of an experiment carried out by Dr. William Cheselden at St. Thomas’s hospital in London. Cheselden had carried out an operation on a boy with impaired sight and reported on the transformations in his patient’s conception of colors. After the operation, Cheselden reported, the patient was forced to rethink his previously faint notion of colors:
Now Scarlet he thought the most beautiful of all Colours, and the others the most gay were the most pleasing, whereas the first time he saw Black, it gave him Uneasiness, yet after a little Time he was reconcil’d to it; but some Months after, seeing by Accident a Negroe Woman, he was struck with great Horror at the Sight. (quoted in Gilman, 374).
The conclusion here was that since the boy had not seen a black woman before, and had certainly not acquired the ability to associate blackness with ugliness through his culture and instruction, his terror was immediate and intuitive. Located on the level of physiology, that is, the eyes’ immediate association of blackness with values not acquired through social association, the Cheselden experiment would be used to counter Locke’s view that the association between darkness and fear was acquired through association. In its overpowering negativity, blackness was accorded an immanent value.
The second instance discussed by Gilman regards Edmund Burke’s famous claim, in his Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, that darkness and terror were innately associated. Referring directly to Cheselden’s experiment, Burke noted that blackness and darkness were made painful by “their natural operation, independent of any associations whatsoever” and that blackness triggered a horror, in the realm of perception, that could “scarcely be supposed to arise from any association” (377). Blackness terrifies us not simply because we have been taught to fear it, Burke claimed, but because the fear of darkness has a physiological source: it causes tension in the muscles of the eye and this, in turn, generates the terror; it is precisely because of its innate capacity to produce terror that blackness functions as the source of the sublime. And the sublime, as is well known, came to occupy a central role in the aesthetic ideology as it was variously associated with the ethical discourse of the Enlightenment and/or with revolutionary terror.
These examples exemplify a fact that proponents of high aesthetic theories find hard to stomach: that race was at the center of debates about the order of art and aesthetic judgments in the modern period; that if you remove the figure of the black from theories of modernity in general, and the aesthetic in particular, you would deprive Eurocentricism of one of its constitutive elements. Proponents of the aesthetic sought to use blackness as the counterpoint to beauty and enlightenment and then to relegate it to the margins of their discourse. Blackness would be used to process the category of beauty (and of morality and reason), then it would be kept out of critiques of judgment so that they would perform their transcendental function. The double play of blackness—its presence and absence—is most pronounced in Kant’s aesthetic theory.
If Kant seems to either colonize or haunt all discussions of the aesthetic, it is because it was largely due to his major writings on the aesthetic, notably The Critique of Judgment, that the idea of art and aesthetic judgment has come to occupy such an indispensable role in liberal culture. It is in Kant’s third critique, it is argued, that the idea of aesthetic liberalism and the ethics of liberal political principles were established. There are, of course, important disagreements on what exactly Kant’s central claims were in the third critique; these disagreements are the source of the utopian and dystopic visions of art discussed earlier. Did Kant represent the aesthetic as possessing the force that might reconcile the cognitive and ethical capacities of the subject, an arena where, to use Carscadi’s words, the “divisions characteristic of liberal modernity could be reconciled or made whole,” or does the aesthetic work to enshrine the separation of spheres of knowledge in the interests of specific class interests, many of them militating against multiplicity and difference? Whichever way you look at it, two axioms emerge out of this debate. First, that it was Kant who established the sphere of aesthetic judgment as an autonomous entity; and second, that he is largely responsible for the role the aesthetic has come to occupy as one of the defining characteristics of liberal culture, and, some might say, Eurocentrism. It is largely due to Kant that we associate the aesthetic with some of the largest questions in social epistemology, questions such as universal freedom and individual rights. It is hence not uncommon to see Kant’s aesthetic project as representing the moment in which the culture of the modern West was instituted as a culture that was differentiated from the rest of the world through its separation of spheres, “a public realm concerned with social organization and justice” separated from “a private realm in which the aesthetic is centered.” For Kant, the capacity for aesthetic judgments was one of the most important preconditions for a modern identity, but this modernity, which loudly spoke the language of universalism, was exclusively European.
In the circumstances, we cannot understand the idea of autonomy and transcendentalism in the ideology of the aesthetic outside of its economy of exclusion: the aesthetic ideology, considered to be a key mechanism in the drive toward universalism, was characterized by the same nervousness as other categories of modernity, most prominently rationality, in regard to the other who, in Dussel’s apt phrase, was “the obligatory context of all reflection on subjectivity, reason, the cogito.” For this reason, among others, it is simply not enough to read Kant within the systematic and positive idiom of his critiques; on the contrary, we must confront these critiques with some of the social contaminants that they sought to confine to discursive margins and parentheses. It is my contention here that these contaminants contain the key to understanding what the idea of the aesthetic was or was not, its entanglement with Eurocentrism and difference. Kant’s Critique of Judgment, for example, is remarkable for its management of contaminants: it contains scant mention of racial matters. Indeed, the critiques are responsible for establishing Kant’s reputation as a philosopher untouched and untroubled by matters of the world; yet at the bottom, the possibility of aesthetic judgment is here, as elsewhere in the discourse of modernity, predicated on race.
Clearly, the idea of Kant as a pure philosopher rests on an institutional separation of his critical philosophy from his work in anthropology and physical geography, work concerned, one might say obsessed, with questions of race. As Emmanuel Eze has argued, the idea of a canonical Kant rests on our desire to repress the role he played in the production of racial knowledge in the eighteenth century. Eze reminds us that Kant was keen to separate his pure philosophy from his anthropology. My whole argument here—the whole case for a discourse of defilement in the axiom of difference—depends on the radical rejection of these kinds of disciplinary, moral, and conceptual boundaries. These boundaries have to be rejected because they block theoretical contamination and hence the possibility of understanding the emergence of the idea of the aesthetic, and other dominant categories, against the grain, outside the rules of social organization and classification.
I want to argue, after Eze and others concerned with the question of race in Kant, that we can never have an understanding of the desire for purity in the name of the aesthetic, morality, and reason, unless we preface the pure works of the philosophers of modernity with the racial discourse that haunted these works. I am thinking here of some famous enunciative moments in the texts of modernity: the preface that excludes Africa from the narrative of history in Hegel’s historiography, the footnote that forecloses the black from the domain of art in Hume’s “Of National Characteristics,” the minor discourses that evacuate the African from the domain of aesthetic judgments in Kant’s anthropology. My immediate claim here, then, is that while questions of art and race seemed to be radically separated at the moment of their inauguration in the eighteenth century, they were conjoined in sometimes surreptitious, but often apparent ways; that one could not exist without the other. Indeed, I want to argue that the key terms in the idea of the aesthetic—its autonomy or disinterestedness, its concern with enlightened subjects, and its unique cognitive value—were enabled by equally important parallel reflections on race. In order to truly understand the axiom of difference, we must go beyond celebrating difference; we must see how difference is constructed as the fetish of identity, how it threatens but also affirms the hegemonic. But we must, at the same time, also recognize how the dominant institutions of knowledge seek to control what they consider to be the threat of difference, how the totem of domination lives under the terror of its taboos. Those who invest in the totem of art also need to come to terms with the taboo of difference. The point of all this is that some of the major theoretical concepts of the Western tradition, the ones that derive their authority from claims of purity and autonomy, have inescapable colonial origins.
The relation between the idea of the aesthetic and the colonial sphere, and by implication the eruption of race into the realm of taste and aesthetic judgment, can best be represented in the form of one of my most cherished eighteenth-century narratives.
The story begins in 1774 when the Jamaican planter Edward Long published his three-volume History of Jamaica. Like many members of the slave-owning class, Long had some very profound intellectual pretensions. He had a superficial understanding of the major works of the European canon, including Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Locke, and he did indeed consider the realm of ideas to be crucial to the sustenance of slave society in the West Indies. Long’s engagement with the intellectual minds of his time, like his desire to publish a history of Jamaica, was driven by two primary interests: the desire to produce a taxonomy of the island of Jamaica as proof of his mastery—and hence ownership—of the West Indian landscape, and the urgent need to provide evidence to support existing theories on the moral and intellectual incapacity of blacks in order to rationalize slavery. By the time Long came to produce his history, European intellectuals of the eighteenth century were becoming involved in debates on racial differences as a precondition of modernity, but many of them were handicapped by the fact that their knowledge of other races, blacks and Indians in particular, was purely theoretical, or was simply derived from books by colonial travelers and adventurers. If members of the plantocracy seemed eager to write topographies of slave societies, it was because they felt impelled to provide the evidence that would sustain theories and conjectures about racial difference. As we saw earlier in my brief comments on the discursive duel between Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Grégoire, the evidence gathered in the field of slavery could be marshaled to silence a burgeoning discourse of freedom, especially in the age of the French Revolution.
But what interests me here is the circularity involved in the production of racist discourse in the eighteenth century—its movement from the intellectual towers of the European university to the backrooms of plantation houses and back, from the colonial periphery to the centers of Eurocentrism. There are several points to consider in this circulation of ideas from the high to the low, as it were. First of all, in order for racial discourse to be authoritative, it needed some sort of conjunction between theories of difference and their practice. Theories produced in philosophical tracts by, let’s say, Buffon, did not have authority in themselves; they needed evidence in order to be socially functional. By the same token, field observations by slave owners such as Long and Jefferson were inadequate without theoretical presuppositions to frame them. Clearly, would-be plantation intellectuals such as Long needed the work of the philosophers to frame their racial ideologies; by the same token, philosophers of Eurocentrism needed the evidence of the planters to buttress their theoretical claims. This is why the History of Jamaica needed to rehearse and recite the works of European intellectuals such as Buffon and Hume while invoking the authority of first-hand experience. Conversely, as the formative discourse of modernity moved from European institutions to plantation houses, it needed the foundations of the “real” experience of difference that only the plantation class could provide.
Without the evidence that could only be found in the experience of everyday life, in a real world of slavery far removed from European academies and drawing rooms, the theory of difference needed a foundation in order to perform a social function. In other words, theories of difference, even the most powerful ones, remained incomplete commentaries on the nature of human society without this kind of evidence. Theorists of difference were actually the first to call attention to the incompleteness of their projects and their reliance on second or even third-hand evidence. Buffon, for example, had speculated on the origins of blackness, attributing it to geography or climate, never being sure where to place it; his uncertainty derived from the fact that he had no real acquaintance with black people other than those represented in the ethnographic text. Colonial intellectuals such as Long were the native informants who would provide the evidence that theories of difference needed or demanded. Long knew this quite well. The sign of his knowledge of the role of evidence is to be found in the laboriously descriptive nature of his book, its concern with physical geography, natural science, and the taxonomy of human difference as observed in Jamaica. In representing this information to the philosophers, Long was never in doubt that he could speak about black subjects with the authority of experience, of close encounters of the first kind. He could draw on these encounters to reflect on the physiognomy of the African in the new world and make a meticulous connection between the physical form and moral failure. He could write about the size of their heads, their fetid smell, and their immorality with the confidence of a close observer and make connections between the observed fact and the claims made in the high theories of difference. Long’s elaborate observations of the African slave in Jamaica would move from physical and cultural descriptions to an affirmation that connected them to high theory: “In general, they are void of genius, and seem almost incapable of making progress in civility or science. They have no plan or system of morality among them.”
What was crucial in these representations, observed in the slave plantation as spontaneous events of everyday life, was how they were also written according to the idiom of modernity; here the everyday was processed to fit into the theoretical grid that preceded it. Long’s grammar, his concern with code words such as genius, civility, science, and morality, like his systematic methodology, were located squarely within the dominant discourse of his time. Nevertheless, Long also sought to go beyond this discourse, albeit in a negative way, because as a colonist who knew his Africans well he had the license for excess, the kind of excess we find in his infamous equation of black women with orangutans. Unfortunately, because of its excessive racism, Edward Longdiscourse has come to be relegated to the realm of what I will call low theory. My point, however, is that the division between high and low theory, like the Kantian distinction between pure philosophy and anthropology, was deceptive because the lines between the two realms of knowledge could not be policed.
We can explore this point further by reflecting on Long’s intervention in the debate on the aesthetic, more specifically his influential involvement in the dispute on whether the poetry of Francis Williams, the eighteenth-century black Jamaican poet, could be considered to be real art. Williams’s audacious decision to produce poetry had attracted the attention of both pro- and anti-slavery interests in England. Opponents of slavery, seeking to salvage the humanity of the blacks through the aesthetic, presented Williams as evidence that black subjects had the capacity to produce art, which, as is well known, was considered to be a precondition for a modern identity. Proponents of slavery, on the other hand, were attracted to Williams, not simply because he threatened their central claim that the black subject was incapable of artistic genius, but because they felt that, with the proper equipment, they could prove that what he had produced was not actually poetry. Williams had in fact appeared indirectly in David Hume’s 1748 essay, “Of National Characters,” where the Scottish philosopher turned his attention, in a now famous footnote, to the moral and aesthetic capacity of blacks: “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites. . . . In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” Hume did not even bother to mention Williams by name. It was left to Edward Long, the philosopher of the plantocracy, to act as the native informant.
And Long did rise to the challenge, transforming Hume’s footnote into a memorable chapter in the History of Jamaica. In turning his attention to the case of Williams, Long was not in doubt that the question of artistic production was at the heart of the argument on racial difference, and that whichever side won this dispute would perhaps win the debate on some of the most important questions of the time, including the nature of human character and the immanency of slavery. After translating a series of Williams’s poems from Latin to English, Long reached a conclusion that takes us from the banality of plantation politics to the center of the eighteenth-century debate on the ordering of the arts:
To consider the merits of this specimen impartially, we must endeavor to forget, in the first place, that the writer was a Negroe; for if we regard it as an extraordinary production, merely because it came from a Negroe, we admit at once that inequality of genius which has been supposed, and admire it only as a rare phenomenon. . . . We are to estimate it as having flowed from the polished pen of one, who received an academic education, under every advantage that able preceptors, and munificent patrons, could furnish; we must likewise believe it to be, what it actually was, a piece highly labored; designed, modeled, and perfected, to the utmost stretch of his invention, imagination, and skill. (484)
As far as Long was concerned, Williams’s genius was educated not natural; educated genius was not a mark of a rational and moral self; it was a manifestation of the parrotology that Hume had noted in his footnote.
My interest in Long and his low theories of artistic genius should now be obvious. He stands out as a powerful example of the circularity between low and high theory as it moves from the colonial periphery to the European metropolis, a linkage that has been missing in most canonical accounts of the role of the aesthetic in the age of slavery and empire. I am intrigued by the fact that the Williams story could easily move from the domain of plantation politics to Enlightenment Scotland, and back, without being transformed by the modes of intellectual reflection one would expect from philosophical quarters. In addition, the involvement of Long, a distinguished member of the slave-owning class in Jamaica, in this debate should not be considered a minor episode in the history of the aesthetic ideology. Long is important to the debate on the aesthetic and the ordering of the arts in the modern period because he was forced, by necessity perhaps, to make a clear connection between questions of morality, artistic genius, and the economic interests of the slave-owning class. It was Long who gave substance to Hume’s conjecture; he did so from the perspective of one who saw black subjects as a phenomenological rather than an abstract threat, to Western notions of morality and selfhood. Long’s racism was grounded in what he considered facts; this was the basis of his authority and of the shadow he was to cast over the whole project of theorizing difference in the modern period.
Before we rush to dismiss Long’s low theory for its overt racism and bad taste, let us note how his reflections on blackness were to become the absent center that would shape more sophisticated commentaries on racial difference. Thus, when the good Kant finally turned his attention to the racial question in a crucial chapter of his book, Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Sublime, he could make confident allegations about black moral and aesthetic lack on the evidence provided by the slave-owning class:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that arises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through special gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.
As far as I know, Kant did not have any financial interest in African slavery, nor did Hume, but through the figure of Long their theorizing on the nature of blackness and its aesthetic deficit came to be connected to the everyday concerns of slavery and its powerful racial economies. For this reason, establishing the connection between the plantation ideology and the aesthetic ideology can help us clarify some central questions in the debates on modernity. In regard to the Enlightenment, for example, one of the most urgent, but difficult, tasks has been that of establishing a clear connection between the philosophers of modernity and their interests, given the privileging of disinterest in the discourse of Enlightenment. But what if we were to make interest—rather than disinterest—the centerpiece of the debate on the ordering of art and society in modernity? Would it matter that the major theoreticians of liberty invested heavily in imperial companies? Does it matter that John Locke was a significant shareholder in the Royal African Company, whose primary business was the African slave trade? Is it important for us to probe the possible relation between the founders of the English academy (Shaftsbury, for example) and the Hudson Bay Company? Are these questions worthy of reflection in the same domain as the sublime and the beautiful? Roy Porter argues that instead of “hypostatizing the Enlightenment as the destiny of Humanity we should see it rather as the ideology of particular articulate elites with defined interests.” I agree. It is my contention that low theorists such as Long are crucial in establishing the concrete link between articulate elites and their interests. The point to consider, though, is the place of that difference marked by race in the conflict between the ideals of freedom associated with the aesthetic and the violence of the economies that engendered modernity itself.
At issue here, of course, are the normative claims about art and the aesthetic ideology that opened my discussion. Consider the fact that we are constantly reminded, in almost every major textbook on the emergence of the modern idea of art, of how the aesthetic has historically been associated with a new order of things in the modern polity. We have been taught that the debate on art was also about changes in the way European society reconceived itself in the wake of the crisis triggered by modernity. The collapse of the old social order, Preben Mortensen argues in Art in the Social Order, created the need for “new social standards and new forms of regulating behavior.” What has been missing in these powerful interpretations of the relation between art and the social order is the narrative that motivates my reflections here: that the crisis afflicting modern society, and the mode of stabilization which art was supposed to establish, were directly linked to the racialized figures whom we see drifting on the margins of European cultural texts. In England, for example, the political crisis that threatened the old social order in the eighteenth century was triggered by the emergence of a new middle class whose wealth was acquired in the plantations of India, Africa, and the West Indies. The fortunes of white Creoles or Indian Nabobs, and their influential ideas in the English debates on culture and society, were indexed to the fortunate or the misfortune of slavery and the colonial order of things. And if social historians of the eighteenth century are right in their claim that the free market economy engendered by slavery and colonization threatened the social order most poignantly by accelerating and deepening consumption in “the social structure” then we must, as Edward Said has argued in his now classic reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, concern ourselves with how the new social order and its style were maintained by the colonial order. But this emphasis on the axiom of difference in modernity should not cause jitters among the defenders of art as a form of ethical interest. On the contrary, the work of art is important in the study of colonial society for two powerful reasons. First of all, in spite of the modes of exclusion I have discussed above, the artistic frame, what Jacques Derrida calls the parergon, sometimes working against the interests of the aesthetic ideology itself, contains the most powerful evidence of the existence of colonial subjects as determinative agents of the order of art and society. Secondly, even when the aesthetic ideology seemed to imprison the other in its normative economies, art could often function as a space in which racialized others could be represented, and represent themselves, as modern subjects. In regard to the first point, one of the most intriguing features of Western art history is the role figures of difference came to play in the works of prominent European artists, from the Dutch painters Van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt, to English artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Hogarth, and French painters such as Anne-Louis Girodet. When the German émigré Johann Zoffany, the painter of the English establishment, produced his famous portrait of Sir William Young, the governor of Dominica, he seemed quite aware of the fact that the presence of a black colonial figure was crucial to the way in which the modern self could, or should, be visualized (Fig. 2).
If Sir Albert’s social status depended on the powerful figuration of the slave boy who, in my reading, is both marginal and central to this family portrait, it is because he seemed to recognize the extent to which the portraiture of his family and its aristocratic social standing depended on the insignia of the slave. It is important that except for the black boy, who is usually referred to as a page, we can identify all the subjects in this picture by name and place in the family. Given this namelessness, one might be tempted to follow conventional opinion and argue that the black, like the dog or the horse, is there to inscribe what David Dabydeen has called “a hierarchy of power relationships . . . the superior white . . . is surrounded by inferior creatures, the black and the dog, who share the same status.” While it is clear that the black and the dog are crucial in defining and redefining social hierarchies in this kind of portrait, I am not convinced that they perform the same function. For one, the black is an addition to an already existing convention in portraiture and thus represents something extra in the imagination and representation of rank. More important, the black endows the portrait and its subjects with a unique value; its presence is a mark of new modes of wealth and social class, connected to slavery and the slave economy, which, it must be stressed, are sources of pride for the wealthy. Slavery constitutes one of the major signatures of social class in the eighteenth century. This is how blackness comes to be a mark of social standing and insignia of new wealth: while almost everyone can own a dog, only a certain social class can have blacks, and this represents the top of the social hierarchy. What portraits like these do is inscribe difference within their frame and also connect it to certain interests outside the work of art itself. By focusing on the work of art itself, we can already see how it comes to stand as a counterpoint to the ideology of the aesthetic discussed above. In this respect, while the eighteenth century might be dominated by an idea of the aesthetic in which the work of art is detached from what Peter Bürger would call the practical concerns of social life, even a cursory examination of art from this period provides us with visible evidence of how the aesthetic falls under “the principle of the maximization of profit prevailing in all spheres of life.” As numerous historians have observed, in a period in which the principle of pleasure was crucial to the organization of social life itself, property and propriety were linked in insoluble ways. What we tend to forget, perhaps too often, is the role plantation slavery played in the emergence of both the category of property and propriety. Slavery sustained the economies that made leisure possible; proper conduct, which involved restraint and decorum, was mapped out against what were seen as the excesses of slave life. It could be said that the wealth from slavery made the emergence of art possible; indeed the systems of patronage that enabled the works of European figures in the English court (from Hans Holbein to Zoffany) were made possible by the economy of slavery and empire. It is not difficult, Kant notwithstanding, to show that, in the modern period, art operated under the constraints of colonial slavery. But this connection between colonial slavery and artistic practices does not necessarily undermine the utopian and emancipatory claims associated with art itself; indeed, it was precisely in those moments when the aesthetic ideology and the system of art were enmeshed in the economy of slavery that they were deemed to hold the utopian possibility that the artwork might detach itself from bourgeois capitalism and play a redemptive role. It is this utopian possibility, the dream that the work of art might actually be separated from the slave economy that sustained it, that made the aesthetic central to the slave’s attempt to claim the central categories of bourgeois culture, including freedom, morality, and subjectivity. It is one of the great ironies of modern culture that the people excluded from the realm of artistic genius and aesthetic judgments were the ones who valued the aesthetic the most. There are many remarkable instances where art could provide enslaved Africans (defined by the dominant as socially dead, derided by philosophy as irrational, and sidelined by theology as immoral) with what Charles Taylor has called “moral orientation.” Represented in paintings that followed the conventions of their time, Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, born slaves in West Africa, could claim their identity as moral selves in the bourgeois order of things (Figs 3 and 4).
And today when Ignatius Sancho gazes at us from the hallowed walls of the Canadian National Gallery in Ottawa, we cannot even imagine what his life might have been on the day he was born on a slave ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Art endowed, or confirmed, the standing of these ex-slaves as modern, self-determining subjects. Slaves could perhaps not be allowed to live out modernity as it had been defined by the dominant culture, but in art they could effect what Taylor calls the “essential link between identity and a kind of orientation.” And if Taylor is right in his famous claim that our identity depends on our orientation in moral space, “a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary,” the work of art could indeed frame the question of the slave’s subjectivity and identity in dramatic ways.And although we may have reservations about the act of mimicry involved in the 1740 painting of Johannes Elisa Johannes Capitein, ex-slave, graduate of Leiden, minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (Fig. 5),
what strikes me about the portrait is the way the ex-slave could assert a sense of belonging in the hegemonic culture and appropriate its style of becoming. Similarly, Francis Williams appears to us in a another 1740 painting as the figure of caricature (Fig. 6),
but the significance of paintings such as this one lies not so much in its capacity to disturb our liberal sensibilities but the fact that it presented a sign of belonging within the economies of the eighteenth century; for black subjects art enabled modes of self-presentation that were not possible in the domain of social life.
In both Europe and the Americas, art was important to African slaves because it offered them the possibility of what I will call a socially transcendental existence; it could be marshaled into everyday life as a condition of survival against the laws that mapped out the place of the black as being outside the framework of modernity. In producing works of art and valuing them according to their utilitarian function, slave art could challenge the eighteenth-century dogma on the autonomy of art while affirming the centrality of the aesthetic in the order of social life. Defined as chattel property, slaves could not claim their identity as unique subjects in either the court of law or the court of European reason, but in art they could celebrate their existence as free subjects with distinctive cultural traditions. From slave narratives to quilts to drums and iron works, slave art would take the form of artifacts and objects; in this vein it would self-consciously associate itself with practical interests such as morality, being, and memory. Going against the grain of what the aesthetic ideology had defined as high art, an art whose value depended on claims to disinterestedness, the slave aesthetic was sustained by an underground symbolic order that spoke a cabalistic language, unintelligible or inaccessible to the dominant culture. From Montevideo to Havana to the Carolinas, slaves saw their art forms as indispensable counterpoints to the hegemony of plantation slavery. Observing a candombe in Montevideo in 1827, the French naturalist Alcides d’Orbigny would note that it was in their dances that African slaves recognized their nationality. In this world, art was the custodian of identity and the genesis of secrecy: when slaves disappeared into their own world, a rice planter in the Carolinas complained in 1828, “Their Morals and manners are their own keeping.” Just as the aesthetic could become a key index in the violence of modernity, it could also provide the subjects of this cruelty with the hallowed place where utopian dreams could be nurtured and secured.
And so we end with the dilemma of the ideology of the aesthetic, which, some might say, is also the dilemma of identity and difference in modernity. We are caught, on one hand, in the idealistic claim that it is in the universal realm of art and aesthetic judgment that we come to a sense of ourselves as free, self-reflective subjects; on the other hand, however, we are trapped in the powerful modern claim that questions of identity or moral orientation cannot be solved in universal terms, that the terms of our identity depend on our recognition of the other. It is precisely because of this conjuncture between the necessity for universality in identity and the imperative for difference that questions about art and race have been kept apart for so long. This is why, in social epistemology, art has been made the custodian of universal identity while race has become the phenomenological sign of difference.
In these reflections, however, I have sought to focus on these moments when the clamor for universal identity was haunted by the power of difference. But I also argue that, ironically, the moment in which difference was instituted as the condition of possibility of a modern European identity saw the eruption of the other into the fields and categories that defined Eurocentrism. This was also the moment when those subjects burdened with the stigma of difference turned to art (and other modern categories) to affirm their universal identity as human beings. This is how art came to be posited as the sign of the common humanity that makes identity possible and, at the same time, the space of reflection on the differences that define who and what we are or are not. If our goal as intellectuals is to show how the things we think about are important, how the tools of our thinking have bearing on social life, we have to accept the fact that categories such as the aesthetic are not pure enclaves of thought, totems that guide our universal and humanistic desires; rather, these categories only make sense, only become humanistic and universal, if they can withstand the test presented to them by their own taboos, their repressed, their others. This is the great lesson I have learnt from the work of Robert Hayden.