Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 11, 2002
Marcus Wood Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America 1780–1865 London: Routledge, 1999. 341 pp.; 7 color ills.; 168 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (041592698x)
Thumbnail

On the deceptively simple premise that “the imagery of slavery has not been taken as seriously as it should have been” (6), Marcus Wood has built a work of awesome breadth and depth. He rightly points out that most of the visual material relating to slavery has fallen below the horizon of high art and thus the purview of art historians. The exceptions, like Hugh Honour and Albert Boime, have been more likely to subsume high art images related to slavery into the stylistic movements of neoclassicism, romanticism, or realism, than to engage with them in theoretical ways. At the same time, Wood claims that cultural and social historians have not attended to slavery images with the same critical incisiveness as they have to written texts.

The challenge Wood designs for himself in Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America 1780–1865 is to directly confront the problematic nature of the visual representation of slavery in Europe and North America. Faced with a legacy of centuries of calculated horror and its material rewards, Wood observes that the “attempts of Western painters, sculptors, engravers and lithographers to provide European culture with a record of slave experience is consequently a history fraught with irony, paradox, voyeurism and erasure” (8). The archive of relevant material is both vast and incredibly complex. In light of this, Wood has wisely acknowledged the inability of any text to cover the field comprehensively. He has chosen to focus on four key sites, around which the discourse of slavery has developed: the middle passage, slave flight and escape, the popular imagery generated by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and slave torture and punishment. A number of questions about the relationship of memory, trauma, and visual representation underpin the text. What are the limits and effects of visual memorials? For whom are they created? What can they possibly signify?

The first chapter on the middle passage takes up the rich semiotic life of the diagrammatic Description of the Slave Ship Brookes, a document used by the London Committee to publicize the appalling conditions on slave ships, as well as J. M. W. Turner’s masterpiece known as The Slave Ship (1840). Wood is concerned with how these representations participate not in elucidating the middle passage, but in obfuscating it. In the Description, the middle passage is configured as a new beginning: ordered, idealized, and abstracted. Based on formalized models of naval architecture, its aesthetic strategies erase past experiences and cultural histories. Although it leaves no cultural space for slaves in its representation, the Description remains to the present day a complex monument to the middle passage.

The connection between past and present is crucial to Wood’s thesis. He contends that the history of slavery is intensely relevant because it is constantly evolving and continues to shape contemporary culture. Blind Memory invokes an argument increasingly at the root of many postcolonial endeavors—that slavery is hardly an oddity of history or an embarrassment out of step with the Enlightenment legacy of the West. Instead, along with Paul Gilroy, Henry Louis Gates, and Toni Morrison, Wood explains how slavery is a central constitutive element of the “West.” Along this line of historical inquiry, Wood dissects John Ruskin’s experience of Turner’s strange and powerful painting to demonstrate that The Slave Ship is “at the heart of Ruskin’s definition of his visual aesthetics” (61). Wood, drawing on Ruskin, calls the astounding form and content of The Slave Ship “an act of artistic salvage…to uncover the evil inherent in a system that could justify mass murder” (63).

The challenges slavery posed to the central tenets of law, religion, and modern democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are understood as constitutive of the development of these institutions. Wood’s preoccupation, though, lies more in the realm of representation and the ability of slavery as a semiotic sign to destabilize established discourses. Using the conventions of mass advertising, abolitionists inverted owners’ ads for the return of their escaped slaves. In these parodies, slaves “are not running forward with progress, but away from the ‘progressive’ civilization which enslaved them” (82). The “truth” of the slave narrative was equally complicated by “fundamental differences between the ways in which [former American slave Henry Box] Brown saw and wished to tell his story and the ways in which white abolition desired to design the product” (104). The same kind of semiotic challenge is posed by the circulation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as popular entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century. Wood carefully analyzes how its distribution was shaped by historical conventions regarding the representation of blacks, by a new and powerful belief in scientific racism, and by technological developments in printing and mass media. Eventually the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin becomes less conceivable as a discreet text than as a cultural phenomenon and a “convenient iconic storehouse” of ideas about slavery and race. For instance, George Cruikshank’s illustrations visualize an “inability to decide whether Tom was to be drawn with the traditional features of an Anglo-Saxon hero or as a grinning Blackface, there being no stylistic middle ground” (176).

In the final chapter, Wood turns to torture implements, perhaps the most common signifier of slavery and yet one of its least stable. In contrast to the creative endeavors examined in previous chapters, these silent relics focus and limit our collective memory, replacing bodies with banal signs. Wood asserts that it is a “shying away from, or an inability to deal with, the universality of this polluting horror (and this is the memory of slavery) which finally lies behind the Western obsession with representing the memory of slave torture through objects” (280). These limitations inform his withering analysis of contemporary museum monuments to slavery, but are also used comparatively to point to the possibilities of art. He concludes that “visual art can transform how we read words, and words can transform images” (301).

Wood has produced a text grounded in impressive research and driven forward by provocative and convincing theoretical interpretations. This is not a work of political or social history so much as a relatively internal, cultural study of the memorial construction and reconstruction of slavery, which cuts across decades and oceans. Wood is sensitive to the different circulation of images and texts in England and America, but his emphasis is on the culturally pervasive and shared legacy of Atlantic slavery. His purpose is to “understand how these works have been read, and why they have become the primary imagistic memorial sites for the West’s perpetration of the slave trade” (16). In dealing with the century-long history of the slavery debates in both Britain and America, Wood follows a long line of scholars of slavery. However, it would be interesting to consider the ways in which Americans and Britons might differ fundamentally in their relationship to slavery. Even the average Northerner in America had more familiarity with blacks, the plantation system, and runaway slaves than did Britons. On the other hand, popular British interest in slavery and abolition was simultaneous with a period of avid British colonization and empire-building in which conceptions of racial difference were connected to emerging obsessions with place, the nation, and its rightful inhabitants. How might this differentiation affect the semiotic circulation of signs? How has the legacy of slavery shaped the distinct histories of England and America?

As Wood explains in the introduction, his mission in this study excludes from consideration images of emancipation, slave rebellion, and “documentary” imagery of slave life. Instead, he deliberately chose polemical works that, he argues, left a lasting impression on Western culture. Reasonable as this choice was for this text, it leaves open the question of whether only great and dramatic events make an impact on cultural discourses. What cumulative effect might less polemical images have? These questions reflect one of Blind Memory‘s greatest strengths; Wood’s argument is developed with an unwavering sense of purpose. Not only does he yield an exciting and readable text, but his success indicates how any number of different studies might contribute to the understanding of slavery and its representation in equally rich and distinct ways.

Sarah Parsons
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Arts, York University, Toronto

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.