Apr 072009

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Centry America Oxford University Press, 1997 Google Books Amazon

I’m still looking into the relationship of real-world slavery and BDSM slavery.

Hartman starts her (?) book by quoting a letter from noted abolitionist John Rankin to his slaveholding brother, struggling to convey the horrors of slavery. He employs shock tactics to get through the reader’s comfortable remove, “to rouse the sensibility of those indifferent to slavery”.

So intent and determined is Rankin to establish that slaves possess the same nature and feelings as himself, and thereby establish the common humanity of all men on the basis of this extended suffering, that he literally narrates an imagined scenario in which he, along with his wife and child, is enslaved. The “horrible scenes of cruelty that were presented to [his] mind” as a consquence of this imagining aroused the “highest pitch of indignant feeling.” In addition, this scenario enables Rankin to speak not only for but literally in the place of the enslaved.

The nature of the feelings aroused here is rather complicated. While this flight of imagination enables a vicarious firsthand experience of the lash, excorciates the pleasure experienced by the master in this brutal exercise of power, and unleashes Rankin’s fiery indignation and resentment, the phantasmic vehicle of this identification is complicated, unsettling, and disturbing. Although Rankin’s fantasy culminates in indignant outcries against the institution of slavery and, clearly, the purposes of this identification is to highlight the crimes of slavery, this flight of imagination and slipping into the captive’s body unlatches a Pandora’s box and, surprisingly, what comes to the fore is the difficulty and slipperiness of empathy.

The purpose of these inquiries is not to cast doubt on Rankin’s motives for recounting these events but to consider the precariousness of empathy and the thin line between witness and spectator. In the fantasy of being beaten, Rankin must substitute himself and his wife and children for the black captive in order that this pain be perceived and experienced…. Put differently, the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. Yet if this violence can become palpable and indignation can be fully aroused only through the masochistic fantasy, then it becomes clear that empathy is double-edged, for in making the other’s suffering one’s own, this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration.

Pg. 18-19

This is the same idea explored in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which the (presumably white) reader is invited to step into the place of the suffering black. This is not a logical, rational argument. It is intended to “shock and awe”, and the use of the words “rouse” and “arouse” are particularly revealing.

Thus the desire to don, occupy, or possess blackness or the black body as a sentimental resource and/or locus of excess enjoyment is both founded upon and enabled by the material relations of chattel slavery. In light of this, is it too extreme or too obvious to suggest that Rankin’s flight of imagination and the excitements engendered by suffering might also be pleasurable? Certainly this willing abasement confirms Rankin’s moral authority, but what about the pleasure engendered by this embrace of pain – that is, the tumultuous passions of the flightly imagination stirred by this fantasy of being beaten? Rankin’s imagined beating is immune neither to the pleasures to be derived from the masochistic fantasy nor to the sadistic pleasure to be derived from the spectacle of sufferance.


Later on, the author discusses the ideas of consent and agency and whether such concepts have any meaning in the context of chattel slavery, when one party has the power of life and death over the other. Did slaves have any form of power in the Master-slave relationship?

Some of the pro-slavery rhetoric describes slavery in terms of mutual affection, reciprocity, interdependence, and so on. Some goes so far as to say that the master is really the servant of the slave household. The idea of seduction comes up a lot.

…seduction denotes a theory of power that demands the absolute and “perfect” submission of the enslaved as the guiding principle of slave relations and yet seeks the mitigate the avowedly necessary brutality of slave relations through the shared affections of owner and captive. The doctrine of “perfect submission” reconciled violence and the claims of mutual benevolence between master and slave as necessary in maintaining the harmony of the institution. The presumed mutuality of feelings in maintaining domination enchanted the brutal and direct violence of master-slave relations. Bearing this in mind, the term “seduction” is employed here to designate this displacement and euphemization of violence, for seduction epitomizes the discursive alchemy that shrouds direct forms of violence under the “veil of enchanted relations” – that is, the reciprocal and mutual relations of master and slave.

Pg. 88

This actually suggests a second source for BDSM fantasy/ideas, in addition to abolitionist text: pro-slavery apologetics. Slavery was justified on the idea that slaves were simultaneously “obsequious and threatening”. Uncontrolled, they were dangerous. Controlled by constant surveillance and threat of punishment, then they were affectionate. Proslavery ideologues like George Fitzhugh, author of Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters, said that “The dependent exercise, because of their dependence, as much control over their superiors, in most things, as those superiors exercise over them. Thus and thus only, can conditions be equalized.” (quoted on pg. 89)

This is an interesting echo of the discussion of BDSM Master-slave relationships, that there is a push-pull between the two roles instead of domination or hegemony.

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