Marcus Wood

Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865

Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865. New York: Routledge, 2000. ISBN: 041592698X (Paperback). Price: $49.95 (CAN), $32.95 (USA)

Reviewed by Richard Milton Juang, Oberlin College in Symbiosis 9.1 (April 2005)


It may be useful to read Marcus Wood's Blind Memory with some understanding of the revitalization of slavery studies that has taken place over the last three decades. The stream of thick, well-researched volumes on slavery, the slave trade, and abolition that now flows regularly out of major academic publishers is by no means a fad. Interest in the study of slavery, critical or otherwise, is long-standing, not least of all because slavery stands highly visible, although not unique, as a mode of domination and labor which has crossed continents and which appears to traverse the 'ancient' and 'modern' worlds. Some aspect of the study of slavery has found a place in nearly every discipline. It need hardly be said that slavery's historical importance should not be underestimated. In the specific context of transatlantic relations, enslaved Africans were as much responsible as European colonists for creating cultural connections among the different sides of the Atlantic.

In the United States, the context I am most familiar with, this renewal has been due strongly to the work of the generations of African-American Studies scholars who took the perspectives, experiences, artistic production, and cultures of Africans and the African Diaspora seriously. The emergence of Black British cultural studies has been no less vital and has, in part, transfused an important element of Marxist cultural studies into the American academy. A third influence has been the assimilation of what well underway outside of the borders of the US academy: the critical study of colonialism and decolonization. This list is by no means exhaustive. In the context of civil rights and human rights struggles, one notable facet of the change in slavery studies has been a heightened critical attention to the self-representations of white abolitionists, not least of all in order to understand why anti-black racism deepened and imperialist aspirations expanded, even as anti-slavery humanitarianism succeeded.

Wood's book is a powerful addition to what is already a vital body of cross-disciplinary study. Each chapter explores, in vigorous but nuanced prose, the images surrounding a critical battleground in American and British slavery debates: the middle passage, the desire of slaves to flee captivity, narratives and novels about of the experience of slavery, and the torture of slaves. Certain conclusions are not unexpected. Wood argues that the mainstream of abolitionist thought during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relied upon images of black passivity and suffering, while recoiling from the idea of black men and women taking their fate into their own hands, as in the case of the Haitian revolution. In their woodcuts, etchings, and portraits of slave ships, abolitionists attempted to show the squalor and violence inherent to slave ships. However, they quickly reached the limits of representational possibilities by relying heavily upon a vision of slaves as creatures defined by their captivity and who possessed agency only insofar as they pleaded for succor.

This is not startling: in their writings, abolitionists regarded black men and women as human, certainly, but not as equals. For example, both pro- and anti-slavery writers found so-called racial 'intermixture' distasteful. Abolitionist writings appear to have offered few significant challenges to the hardening of nineteenth-century 'scientific' racism. If this seems a cynical interpretive path (were not abolitionists simply working with the representational tools at hand, after all?), Wood's meditation on J. M. W. Turner's Slaver Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840) gives us an alternative, telling us in the process something about Romanticism's potential for a powerful political aesthetic. Wood reads the painting through Ruskin's commentary on it. Rather than attempt to summarize a tightly woven intertextual analysis, I will simply present a sample of it:

Ruskin sees a sea that is both grave and agent of mourning for the slaves. The bodies that fight for life in the storm currents mysteriously become the waves themselves, in their eternal battle to rise above the ocean...

Ruskin explains Turner's overall design. The deaths of the slaves thrown overboard are to be saved from their debased historico-economic context- the painting is an act of artistic salvage. If the squalid story of the slave ship Zong was the narrative trigger for the painting then the narrative impulse for the painting is to uncover the evil inherent in a system that could justify mass murder as an insurance loophole. Turner's painting triumphantly redeems these victims from a legal and economic context that is not only wicked but colossally mean. Turner makes these deaths mean something, by bathing them in on of his most terrific seascapes and one of his most sublime sunsets. The gold of the slave trade is shifted into an ironically gorgeous light. (63)

Wood's reading of Turner is valuable, certainly, but there is also something else at work. More broadly, Wood transforms the visual archive of Anglo-American slavery. By taking the visual representations of the interior of slave ships not as mere illustrations of the written word, Wood demonstrates the importance of treating slavery's visual legacy as a complex code in need of interpretation. In effect, the size of the archive for slavery studies and, thus, the possibilities for elucidating the nature and consequences of Anglo-American battles over slavery have now increased considerably.

Subsequent chapters trace the tensions between written narratives and their 'illustrations' in documents such as runaway slave notices, Northern abolitionist writings, American slave narratives, and the internationally famous Uncle Tom's Cabin. In his study of the iconography of the runaway, Wood traces the emergence of a standardized image of an escaped slave (a male slave in motion, holding a bag of goods on the end of a stick) used on notices for runaways. Such standardization asserted 'the legal and economic anonymity of the slave' (87) and helped to assimilate slave-catching into the everyday of the American economy. In turn, abolitionists adapted the template of the runaway as a 'counter-rhetoric.' What became established was less a clarification of the conditions of slavery, however, but 'patterns of the presentation of the fugitive as passive victim in the white abolitionist press' (99). In contrast, slave narratives such as those of Frederick Douglass, Henry Box Brown (Wood dwells at length on Brown's telling of his own story as an abolitionist figure in Britain, as well), and Henry Bibb sought to present both subjectivity and agency within, despite, and against enslavement. The 'illustrations' accompanying those text were, in turn, a kind of running commentary, sometimes at odds with the very text they illustrated.

The tensions between text and images are magnified many-fold in the subjects of the two final chapters: Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and the representation of torture and its instruments. With its international audience, Stowe's novel was the engine for a small industry of image-making: 'The power and technical intricacy of the original novel was, to a remarkable degree, drowned in a visual rhetoric of colossal vulgarity, which encrusted itself onto the ineradicable structures which white supremacy and philanthropy had established for the presentation of the black' (143). At first glance, such a proposal seems to risk creating a facile equation between the unmitigated racial supremacism of slavers with the stumbling racialized humanisms of the abolitionists. But what Wood presents, in fact, is a rich collection of images through which he traces the intertextual development of caricaturish and satiric renditions of black figures. Good intentions, it turns out, are not quite enough to prevent the descent into images in which blackness is offered up as the subservient negation of whiteness.

If Uncle Tom's Cabin is the novel about slavery that is most famous for and most distorted by the iconography it engendered, scenes of torture, the subject of Wood's final chapter, might be considered the visual legacy of slavery which is both best known and most fetishized. An important thesis has been brewing for some time and come to fruition here. In abolitionist depictions of tortured slaves, 'The slave emerges predominantly as an object afflicted, not as a subject capable of describing his or her affliction' (216). This is not surprising; such depictions were oriented toward eliciting sympathy from white spectators within a context in which alleviating pain and preventing cruelty were good things, while racial equality was nearly unthinkable. Wood argues that it was the white slave owner and his Southern society that was often the primary target of the abolitionist visual commentaries and indictments. Observing how abolitionists and subsequent historians of the slavery debates turned instruments of torture into regular features in publications and museum displays, Wood suggests that 'Once the object of torture has gained such primacy the slave body is no longer necessary in order to remember, or to pretend to remember, slavery' (223).

All this might seem an ungracious assessment of the visual history that circulated around anti-slavery politics, an early kind of human rights movement that opposed a system of deep power and brutality. However, Wood's point, I think, is precisely that responding visually to such deliberate violence, in the context of widespread racism, is not a simple matter. Portraits of victims done by racial elites can evolve into a conversation among elites in which victimization is consumed and reproduced, rather than undone. Turner, Wood suggests, offers a different path:

Painting which describes the atrocities committed by humans on humans has to embrace contradiction, and must try to make impossible combinations- pure form with raw emotion, beauty with horror, baseness with ideality, light with dark and black with white.... [Turner's] solution to the pictorial rendering of mass murder was very different from that of his contemporary, Goya. It lay in providing a seascape which expresses the emotions which man does not, or cannot. (63-4) 

© Symbiosis, 2005