Early modernism and blackness have always had an intimate, but troubled, relationship: Intimate because it is hard to imagine a modernism without blackness either as a sign of difference or identity; troubled because modernism is always surrounded by the suspicion that its turn to blackness in the name of the primitive or exotic was opportunistic—an alibi for sustaining domination in the aesthetic realm. But in order to take the full measure of modernism, we have to go beyond primitivism and locate the movement in a complex moment defined by the afterlife of slavery. What was the effect of the end of slavery on forms of art and systems of representation? This lecture will reflect on what freedom—its promise and its betrayal—meant in the aesthetic sphere.
Simon Gikandi is Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University and President of the Modern Languages Association. He was editor of the PMLA from 2011-2016. His most recent book is Slavery and the Culture of Taste, co-winner of the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Award, the African Studies Association’s Melville J. Herskovits Award, and a Choice Outstanding Academic title. He is the editor of Volume 11 of The Oxford History of the Novel in English: The Novel in Africa and the Caribbean Since the 1950s. He is currently working on a series of research projects revolving around two themes: the relationship between slavery and the origins of modern culture and the institution of the novel from below. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018.
This talk is presented in connection with the Comparative Literatures of Slavery Workshop, co-sponsored by the Maison Française, the International Comparative Literature Association, the Comparative Literary Histories in European Languages program of the International Comparative Literature Association, the Reading Slavery program of Aarhus University and the Velux Foundation of Denmark.
Other co-sponsors at Columbia University are the Institute for African Studies, the Department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies, the Department of English and Comparative Literature, and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.