Aesthetics, Slavery, and Sentiment: The Discourses and Practices of Mastery in the American Renaissance
Garner, Richard A.
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This dissertation examines two genres of nineteenth-century American literature which have progressively redefined the canon over the past half-century: slave narratives and sentimental fiction. The dissertation's first section is entitled "On the Making and Unmaking of Life; or, Slavery as a Practice of Mastery," and is comprised of four chapters. Chapter one, "The State of War Continued," provides a genealogy of slavery that juxtaposes the American colonial archives of the eighteenth century with the discourse of slave management from the middle of the nineteenth. Tracing the variation between the two demonstrates that the historical institution of slavery is not monolithic, as scholars often assume, but capable of rapid mutation, wherein slavery transformed itself ideologically from exemplifying " the State of War continued " (Locke) into "no more beautiful picture of human society" (Calhoun). Just as Foucault's gallows riots led to the humanization of the penal system, the constant revolt that simmered below this 'state of war continued' led to the humanization of the slave regime delineated in such documents as South Carolina's 1740 slave code. The second chapter, "Veritable Lovers of System," focuses its analyses on an archaeology of the discourse of slave management, which James O. Breeden aptly nominates "advice among masters." The slave, no longer denied agency altogether, is presented with a set of socially valorized subjective positions. This discourse of mastery contained three principles: the moderation of the body, the cultivation of sentiment, and the inculcation of habits. Beyond the mere maintenance of the body, practices of mastery attempted to inculcate habits while also cultivating the slave's sentimental milieu so as to foster what slave owner H. N. McTyeire termed the "strong yet pleasing cords binding [the slave] to his master." "The Symbolic Chain" begins to shift the scene from the archive of the master to that of the slave. Several crucial aspects of slave narratives are brought to the foreground, where we can see Frederick Douglass's Narrative , for instance, take up and contradict this discourse of mastery almost point-by-point. His insurgent knowledge emerges in specific opposition to the master narrative that governed plantation life. After a consideration of Foucault's aesthetics as a form of ethical practice, I argue that Douglass's text does precisely such "ethopoetic" work insofar as it tries to articulate a new type of social existence beyond being "a slave for life". "The Ethopoiesis of the Slave" argues, by way of Douglass, that this aesthetic practice requires the gathering and forging anew of symbolic materials from within the restricted symbolic economy of the plantation. This yearning for freedom is forged out of the materials he has at hand: a cast-off grade school reader, an offhand comment by a cruel master, single letters in a shipyard, a white minister, and a provincial newspaper. Douglass recounts numerous scenes of everyday poetic making and unmaking in the lives of the enslaved, such as the slaves singing "wild songs" in the woods on an errand to the master's house. He thus demonstrates that aesthetics is not about beauty alone, but about the creation of new forms of life. The second section, "On the Animal Magnetism of Sentiment; or, Modes of Imaginary Capture," builds on the juxtaposition of discourses of mastery to ethopoetic practices. In the chapter "Emotion as a Logical Structure," the analysis is extended to the adjacent field of sentimental literature. I argue that sentimental discourse embodies a form of rationality, one that elaborates a set of rules designed to condense emotional investments in the nuclear family, emphasize proper bodily comportment, and inculcate the internalization of the gaze; or, a discourse "calculated to Improve the heart, to form the manners, and enlighten the understanding" (Bennett). In conduct books, educational materials, and novels, a valorized model of female subjectivity was being constructed and made to function as truth. Yet sentimental literature is also not a monolith, and can function at certain times to construct new forms of life, at others to function as an "apparatus of capture" (Deleuze). The final chapter, "An Empire Over the Human Spirit," takes one of the existing metaphors of the time—animal magnetism, or mesmerism—and traces its presence in multiple texts of the period, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables , Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, and E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Mother-in-Law . After examining the way that literature warns against the animal magnetism of sentiment, the chapter concludes by arguing that the dichotomy between aesthetics and history needs to be abolished. Instead, a concept of aesthetics as ethopoiesis can, in the absence of beauty, provide a measure for the artistic and political work of the canon. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)