Liberal Bourgeois Normativity

Andrea Stuart - 'Sugar and Slavery'

Before posting the second rather long post on the issue of ‘The Critique of the Biennale Circuit’ I felt the need to post a quick and direct missive in response to a talk I just went to on the issue of ‘Sugar and Slavery’ by Andrea Stuart. The talk made me realise why I have so much trouble writing on the issue of critique and criticality. I have worked out that I have such a massive reserve of negative criticism about the current state of artistic, cultural and academic life-words I inhabit that I often find myself lost for words in the face of it.

I think I can encapsulate the object of my rage today, and probably for some time, in three words – Liberal Bourgeois Normativity. I will leave my pedagogical head off for the time being and refrain from defining precisely what I mean by these words and their theoretical history etc. But it is everywhere in my world and at times it has driven me mad. I realised that in order to survive in the world of academic employment I have had to work very hard at tempering and refining my class anger, of converting it into palatable, polite forms. That’s not such a bad thing in itself. I don’t particularly enjoy being angry and frustrated all the time. So it’s really not so bad on a ‘personal’ level. But I fear that writing this blog for the Ghetto Biennale is tempting the cat of criticality out of the bag of repressed class rage.

Andrea Stuart is currently writing a book about ‘Sugar and Slavery ’which grew out of earlier scholarly research into 18th century colonial history and the fact that one of her ancestors was a white plantation owner in Barbados. Her earlier books included Showgirls a book about glamour, Josephine Baker and the burlesque tradition and one about Josephine Boneparte: Josephine: The Rose of Martinique. I should have known. Glamour and Slavery eh? Interesting. But I didn’t pre-judge. In fact I thought that this was a potentially very interesting correlation of ideas to explore, and still do. But I started to get suspicious feelings noticing the way the speaker subtly stroked her hair as she spoke about the unimaginable affluence of her sugary aristocratic forefathers and the similarities with contemporary Russian oligarchs.

The talk itself was clear and informative. The body-language probably all in my paranoid imagination. For those who didn’t know much about the role of slavery in the sugar trade and the scale of the barbarism involved this was probably an enlightening introduction to the topic. But for some reason the way she told the story kept making me think of the Marquis De Sade, the first chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and all things gloriously cruel and Bataillian: the horribly seductive glamour of wealth, sumptuary expenditure,  limitless sovereign  power and murderous cruelty etc, etc. Which is fine. These are important issues and as relevant today as they were in the 18th century. Except she wasn’t talking ‘explicitly’ about them. She proffered no theoretical speculation about why unimaginable opulence might accompany unthinkable barbarism. One had to assume, given her introduction, that in some mysterious way it was the sugar’s fault.

“Sugar, in a profound sense, made us” she said.

So after an interesting and thought provoking 40 minutes the proceedings were opened up for questions from the audience. I was shaping one up – something like “Do you think that by treating sugar as the mysterious material ‘cause’ of your cultural identity you may be avoiding the bigger socio-economic picture of which sugar and slavery (like the oil and warfare of today, to which you likened them) are an integral part?” –when the first question came from the floor.  A young woman, who had been taking notes copiously throughout the talk asked in a plummy English accent (which is very important in this context. For those readers not familiar with British culture and society it is hard to articulate how drenched with class politics our accent system here is):

“I hope you don’t mind me suggesting this. But are you in some way saying that, without sugar and slavery, you and other people from the Caribbean would not be here with us today and that, as a consequence of it, our culture is now much richer and diverse than it was before? So in some way it was a good thing? ”.

“Well of course, this is a difficult thing to talk about. But certainly if it wasn’t for the sugar trade we wouldn’t have the richness and diversity of the multi-cultural society we have in Britain today. Just think of things like Jazz. You couldn’t have had that without slavery”.

I didn’t ask my question. My critical gaskets had blown again. So I wrote this instead.

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