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Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic

Sunday, April 20, 2008 - 08:35
Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. x + 387pp; illus. $84.95 (Hdbk; ISBN-10: 0-8223-3558-1; ISBN-13: 978-0-8223-3558-0); $23.95 (Pbk; ISBN-10:0-8223-3596-4; ISBN-13: 978-0-8223-3596-2).

Reviewed by
S. Adair Rispoli
Greg Pierrot, Shawna Ross, David Jefferson, Dustin Kennedy, Laura Collins,
Tyler Hollet, Esther Deutsch, Paul Johnston, Brian Neff
Pennsylvania State University

Ian Baucom's stimulating and rigorous Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History provides a philosophically sophisticated account of the role of slavery within the development of Western capitalism. Borrowing from Walter Benjamin's angel of history and Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origin of Our Times (Verso, 1994), Baucom advances the notion that "now" is never simply the present but rather an accumulation of history, which also moves through alternating cycles of economic development. Slavery, then, is no issue of the past, but one with the most salient consequences in the present, not only because the past has gathered itself within the present, but also because, according to Baucom, our era of high finance capitalism is comparable to that which arose out of the consolidation of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Through a minutely detailed analysis of the 1781 Zong incident—in which one hundred and thirty-three slaves were thrown overboard in order to collect insurance—he shows how slaves as physical merchandise became at that historical moment the equivalent of finance capital: a potential, abstract and impersonal medium of exchange.

Though centered on the Zong incident, Baucom's argument locates this shift not only in the status of slaves, but also in Western epistemology more generally. The slave trade required new ways of thinking about the economy and the people who ran it. European thought shifted to a credit-based system, a process that combined rational calculations and imaginative speculation in order to judge character, know types, and trust abstractions. Meanwhile, private society and its literature also became a speculative affair, where one had to learn how to trust the unknown. To supplement his argument about this literary turn, Baucom frequently turns to Catherine Gallagher's Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace 1670-1820 (University of California Press, 1994) and to Deirdre Lynch's The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (University of Chicago Press, 1998), both of which help explain the connection between credit and the task of the novel to "teach" people how to interact with new types.

Despite his astonishing range of reference—from Jameson to Zizek, from Benjamin to Derrida, from Pocock to Lynch—what Baucom perhaps misses is not the theoretical side of the argument, which he explains with depth, clarity, and sophistication, but instead its material conditions and exceptions to his brilliant rules. Where, for instance, is resistance? Where are the voices of the slaves themselves? His imaginative reconstruction of the Zong event effectively re-silences the slaves, burying their bodies a second time in the Atlantic. Naturally, the already broad range of his book perhaps makes these issues appear peripheral or irrelevant, yet his erasure of the slaves' voices and presences overstates his argument. This review, therefore, examines the omissions in Spectres of the Atlantic as well as demonstrates how Baucom's argument easily accommodates such considerations.

Baucom demonstrates cannily that the famous abolitionist lawyer Granville Sharp structured the court cases for the Zong in a performative fashion, using the pages of his indictment to reproduce the exact number of slaves murdered. Sharp organized his document so that of 138 total pages, six were blank, leaving 132 printed pages, the number of slaves killed. If we include the index, the number of pages is 133, or the total number of slaves thrown into the ocean. When Baucom describes the total number of slaves sold (9,914) by the Zong's owners, who died during the middle passage, he halts his discussion; an asterisk impedes the reading. Baucom then continues: "Nine thousand, nine hundred and fourteen of the human beings who were taken aboard ships Gregson either owned or co-owned did not reach the Americas alive. All of them, and none of them, typical human beings" (49). Another asterisk follows as Baucom returns to his primary discussion. This bathos positions Baucom on his own reiterative chain wherein the human actors in the tale (including the slaves, Sharp, the ship owners, etc.) become theoretical, textual constructs, and philosophical abstractions.

For Baucom, Sharp's textual maneuver "imitates both the form of the event it seeks not so much to describe as to surrogate and the form of appearance of this event as a quasi-Benjaminian, quasi-Kantian, quasi-Badiouvian truth event" (133). Similarly, Baucom formats his own text so that his discussion of Sharp's "reiterative submission" falls on pages 132 and 133 of Specters of the Atlantic. Baucom is himself the author of a reiterative submission. But what exactly does he reiterate? The dual layers of reiteration serve two functions. First, Baucom's text enacts his theory of history's accumulative nature; his text is a reformed and intensified repetition of Sharp's document. Secondly, through Baucom, both the Zong massacre and Sharp's document become quasi-truth events. Baucom's performance risks a potential reenactment of finance capital's disembodiment of the victims of the Zong massacre.

"Why does Sharp," Baucom asks, "force his readers to encounter and reencounter and reencounter this shock, this horror, this violent impression on the mind?" (131). The obvious is stated: Sharp employs a specific method in order to "reproduce the shock of the event as an affect of reading, to cultivate in the minds of the belated 'spectators of his event' not . . . a 'universal yet disinterested sympathy for the players . . . '" but, rather, "'a universal and interested sympathy'" (131). Baucom thereby imitates Sharp's method for the readers of Specters of the Atlantic. Sharp forces his readers to absorb the effects of each individual jettisoned over the side of the Zong; Baucom fragments his text in similar fashion to achieve similar effects. Baucom's use of Sharp's methodology saves him from being an author who becomes lost in theoretical babble, which would fail to establish Sharp's "universal and interested sympathy": this is theory with a facelift. In other words, Baucom's book departs from a purely theoretical approach, and instead novelizes its performances. By doing so, Specters of the Atlantic becomes a kind of novel whose discourse enters a "theoretical realism" to produce a type of Zong slave/situation (43) for twenty-first-century readers.

Blurring the lines between archival research and his own performance in redacting the Zong through his fragmented approach, Baucom moves between poetry, history, and literature. Chapter epigraphs taken from Trinidad-and-Tobago-born M. NourbeSe Philip's poetry collection Zong! echo his text to move the reader. For example, Chapter Six, "Frontispiece," begins with this:
frontispiece poem
By including Philip's work as epigraph, Baucom wants to call attention to the words on the page and their placement. Each epigraph shapes his text in some manner. The presence of wordless spaces impacts the readers by disconnecting them from an education that has taught normative reading skills: from left to right. This disconnect encourages readers to assess their own relationship to both poet and author, while bearing full responsibility for their readings.

As a result, the Zong massacre and Sharp's document and even Baucom's book become quasi-truth events. Capitalism's marginalized people (e.g., slaves, low wage-labours, freed slaves, etc.) were made into instruments of production in a frightening way, which capitalism made look almost natural. Baucom finds a source for this naturalization in the formal attributes of European literature, specifically the novel. Historical causality thus becomes a matter of form itself, as form becomes an historical actor and actually makes things happen because it makes certain forms of capitalism epistemologically imaginable. Nodding to Jameson's Marxism and Form (Princeton University Press, 1972), Baucom avoids a crude base-superstructure model of analysis, yet he uncharacteristically neglects outlining particularly one end of this relationship—what he refers to as the "novelistic imagination." What seems missing to us is neither economic analysis nor intellectual history but rather attention to the nature of "theoretical realism" in literature.

The realist novel accepts many imperfect substitutions—characters for people, descriptions for objects, etc.—yet if the novel does "teach" its readers how to act in new socioeconomic realms, the real suspension of belief occurs through neutralizing or neglecting the non-equivalence of exchange (in Zizek's terminology). In other words, readers learn socioeconomic lessons (i.e., how to identify and deal with new "types") not through content but through form. More particularly, they learn faith in the credit system that creates these new "types" in the first place. The belief that the novel can teach lessons through representation is itself a form of credit—a willful decision to believe, say, the narrator of a triple-decker novel. A strange reversal of agency is effected here, however, as there is a difference between what happens with credit and what happens with the novel: in the financial world, responsibility is dispersed among shareholders and underwriters, but in a novel's world, responsibility is typically focused and concentrated on one specific though unseen narrator, a metaphoric attempt to return to a time when one could identify someone actually responsible for one's financial stability (the father, the banker, the landlord).

As the realist novel teaches its readers specific socioeconomic lessons, it also scripts and circulates a particular way of understanding history. In the novel's conventional form, the narrator is the source of all discourse—from their singular points of view, characters are defined, and a story is told in a way that implies a linear chronology of events with definite beginnings and ends. In this classic European form, one voice has the authority to reconstruct historical events. These events exist in a concrete and unalterable reality—reality as the narrator knows and writes it. In Specters of the Atlantic, Baucom recreates an understanding of history in the European literary tradition. He offers a version of the Zong story. But he does not attempt to recover counter-narratives. His voice usurps all others. Voices belonging to the bodies thrown off the Zong remain mute—as perhaps they must—but must all the voices of all slaves? If Specters of the Atlantic is literature, then this puts Baucom in a hard place. He is attempting to do history in a novelistic form, and, interestingly enough, his attempt to displace the reader to render a more effective absorption of the Zong incident requires us to fill in with heart where Baucom cannot put it in himself.

* * * *

Baucom's book largely argues that finance capital was a major impetus behind modernity and, by extension, behind the development of slavery. Using the example of twenty-first-century international corporations such as Nike—although he does not say it in so many words—Baucom claims that we are still in many ways within the system that could insure humans as commercial goods. Yet while Specters of the Atlantic shows how insurance and finance capital shed a new light on the philosophy of history and the "reading" of modernity in relation to slavery, it makes no mention of the court case brought against the Aetna Insurance Company, among other companies, in 2002. That year, Attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellmann initiated a reparations law suit against Aetna Insurance for making incredible profits on slavery in its earlier, eighteenth-century incarnation. Aetna originally apologized to the African American community and made vague promises about pursuing initiatives to eliminate disparities in health care and in health status. Nothing happened, of course. Moral behavior also has a market value: Aetna paid lip-service to the "human interest" side of the issue because it looked like it might threaten their financial interests. In the process, they showed themselves as detached from the human side of the trade in Zong slaves as their forebears were. This Baucom sees clearly: it is all a matter of capital. Yet by focusing on financiers, he himself loses sight of the people whom he means to vindicate, the Zong slaves. We cannot bring them back, goes the time-old argument, and of course, that much is true, but only because they never left. They are not specters so as much as anonymous figures denied agency entered in the accounting books of finance capital. Baucom is keenly aware of this process, exposes it and yet fails to extend his own writing practice beyond it. By refusing to see beyond the accounting book, Baucom condemns the Zong slaves to remain forever ghosts.

Why does Baucom not construe all bodies (owners, slaves, wage-workers) as subject to the rule of finance capital, extending its perversion beyond the White/Black dichotomy? By using his sense of the financial revolution as the prime mover of trans-Atlantic culture to cross-contaminate ethnic absolutism, we could locate similar collisions in contemporary accounts of slave society. John Stedman's 1796 Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America, from the year 1772 to 1777 advances Baucom's argument beyond the silent Zong slaves. Stedman (1744-1797), a half-Scots, half-Dutch ship captian driven by curiosity to enlist himself in a military party embarking to Surinam to quell a slave insurrection, kept a journal during his expedition. Stedman's narrative enacts a symbiotic, pathological relationship between meandering trans-Atlantic identities through its transvaluations of Black/White spheres. Stedman comes to represent the nexus of Black/White ethnic spheres as a source of hybridity rather than antagonism. It is precisely the effects of cross-contamination that show these two seemingly antagonistic spheres have multiple punctures that permit them to bleed together. In fact, the cross-contamination of White and Black can even occur via finance capital.

Stedman, for instance, secures a loan to purchase manumission for his mulatto lover, Joanna. She locates her agency within the terms of finance capital by voicing her stubborn desire to stay in Surinam until every farthing for the loan has been paid in full, despite Stedman's pleas to do otherwise. Instead of reading the refusal to leave before the loan is paid off as a self-deprecating response, she responds as an effect of capitalism that has intertwined debts with the market value of morality. Joanna's agency defies the silence of slaves in Baucom's work. Granted, her response may not capture the same revolutionary drive for freedom as her contemporaries, the Maroons, but both of these slave agencies are responding to the same conditions of capital Baucom reads purely.

Slaves and displaced people are, in fact, radicals who often turned against the force of finance capital. The financial revolution provided the occasion for an eclectic underground culture to develop, offering rich material for any attempt to recover a counter-history. Only once does Baucom acknowledge Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Verso, 2000), when this text ought to be a primary source of material for Baucom's counter-history. The Many-Headed Hydra encapsulates a motley array of voices antithetical to the beneficiaries of capitalism. This text demonstrates richly what Specters of the Atlantic might have realized, but Baucom refrains from recognizing what Linebaugh and Rediker already knew: in the "history of modern Atlantic revolutionary movements" there is chatter everywhere (Baucom 227). And it undermines Baucom's silencing of the Zong slaves. Neither text can recover a whole counter-history on its own, but through a concerted approach both texts can help modernity better discern meaning within the chatter.

Global capitalism has since left slavery behind, but its effects on the bottom-most position of coerced labor are still with us. Ultimately, Specters of the Atlantic underestimates that:

It takes human capital to fuel the capital machine
It takes human capital to man the arms of war
It takes human capital to build the ships
It takes human capital to sail the ships
It takes human capital to claim the land
It takes human capital to clear the forests
It takes human capital to spread humanity
It takes human capital to produce human capital.

The way Baucom elides issues of class is perhaps most obvious in the use he makes of the very symbolic building, the Liverpool Exchange. Built in 1754, the Exchange was also the city's town hall and became the crowning achievement of a series of constructions throughout the city, the symbol of Liverpool's "novel" wealth. Describing the friezes on the building's façade, Baucom isolates representations of "what had generated the vast amounts of money circulating through Liverpool and accumulating within it: a set of African heads, circling the Exchange" (52). Later, he mentions a 1784 masquerade ball on the same premises in which "the principal families of the city would have found themselves performing . . . their moment, their city, and their city's shared sovereignty over its moment" (79).

There is much insight in Baucom's reading, but it ignores a few signs on that façade: in one of Baucom's sources—Richard Brooke's Liverpool as It Was During the Last Quarter of the Eighteenth Century, 1775 to 1800 (London: J. Mawdsley & Son, 1853)—we learn that "[m]ore than one of the marks of the cannon balls fired at the Exchange [were] even yet visible" in 1853 (342). Between 1754 and 1784, the Exchange was damaged in at least two massive riots. During the sailors' riot of 1775, "one of the most extraordinary and dangerous riots that occurred in England [in the eighteenth century]" (qtd. in Brooke 74), a mob attacked the Exchange with guns and cannons, bombarding the building. This riot had started over wage disputes between slave traders and sailors working on their ships; after attacking several "Guineamen" in the harbor, the sailors ransacked houses belonging to slave merchants, "threaten[ing] hostile visits to all the merchants engaged in the Guinea trade" (342); they eventually met them with demands at the Exchange, where the merchants were barricaded and defended by a militia. Thus, the masquerade ball can be seen in a different light when we realize that the Exchange was as much a fortification for finance capital as it was a monument to its glory. Therein lies the strength and the weakness of Baucom's work: his study concentrates on the elites, and in the same movement ignores the masses; it focuses on finance capital but bypasses the labor that produces it. Baucom's Specters of the Atlantic, for being thought-provoking and thorough-going as it is, addresses one side only of the Guinea coin.