Imperception : Alex Moskowitz

J.M.W. Turner / The Slave ShipJ.M.W. Turner / The Slave Ship

Imperception :
Alex Moskowitz

Phillis Wheatley Peters’s collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773. First appearing in London, the collection is perhaps best remembered today for the poem titled “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”1 Scholars of Wheatley Peters know to pay particular attention to her titles, especially for their oblique relation to the content of the poems themselves. For example, “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England” is odd because the poem itself is directed to the students at Harvard, although the title might lead one to believe that the poem is more concerned with the institution itself.2 This disjunction between the poem and its title asks us to think through how Wheatley Peters’s critique of Harvard students relates to larger institutional power.3 Think of it: A young, enslaved, teenaged Black girl who is absolutely excluded from these elite circles poetically positions herself in the morally superior position, instructing Harvard students on proper conduct. So, although the poem speaks to a particular group of individuals, it also opens up onto a more capacious form of institutional critique.

How might we better characterize this disjunction between the poem’s title and its content? Let us return to Wheatley Peters’s most famous poem, the one I mentioned a moment ago, “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Here, we find a similar type of misdirection. Upon reading the title, we might expect a poem detailing the horrors of the Middle Passage. Just like the Harvard poem, however, that is not what we find. Instead, readers are presented with a succinct group of heroic couplets that express the speaker’s thankfulness for being brought out of Africa to learn about the Christian God:

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.4

How we understand what seems like the speaker’s thankfulness, and how we understand what is meant by “mercy” will direct our reading of the poem. Mercy sits in an uncomfortable place here: knowledge of the Christian God is tied to enslavement, as the former—within the context of the poem—is impossible without the latter. But to understand who or what this “mercy” refers to, we also have to consider how the Middle Passage, or at least a description of it, is a conspicuous absence in a poem that names that journey but then refuses to talk about it with its reader. And, at the same time that the poem points to its own gap—a gap that it is well aware of—it also ends on a note of chastisement, just like the Harvard poem, whose concluding stanza begins, “Improve your privileges while they stay, / Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears / Or good or bad report of you to heav’n.”5 Wheatley Peters here strikes a tone not unlike that of the final couplet of “On Being Brought”: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”6 The tone here is unmistakable; it is characterized by a directness that starkly contrasts with the disjunctive nature of the titles of both poems.

My concern, then, is how we might read this tone as against that conspicuous absence of the Middle Passage, as a commentary on the scenes of torture and dehumanization that are not depicted. My concern is how this tone is, in fact, authorized by an experience that Wheatley Peters refuses to reproduce for her reader. The brutality contained in the poem’s central absence, then, directs us to understand that “mercy” as a type of godly mercy that allowed her to survive the journey through the Middle Passage. Scholars have long noted this misdirection. Don Holmes writes that the poem’s “‘mercy,’ a noun,” is indicative first of the experience of the “horrors of the Middle Passage,” which continue “to echo in Wheatley’s memory.”7 Katherine Clay Bassard describes how others have been indeed misled by this misdirection: Wheatley Peters “is not, as some have assumed, thankful for slavery, but for her safety,” having made it through the Middle Passage alive.8  And while this poem is also a poem about spiritual awakening, knowledge of the Christian God is nevertheless inextricable from Wheatley Peters’s enslavement. But it is not that enslavement was first necessary for her to then, after having been enslaved, learn of God; rather, the fact that she survives the Middle Passage is, in itself, evidence of God’s existence. What greater proof would anyone need? Wheatley Peters’s “thankfulness,” in other words, is something of a misdirection, just like the title—a thankfulness that only becomes apparent when we think through the poem’s central absence.

Indeed, that absence of the Middle Passage is something that Wheatley Peters herself wrestled with. More specifically, the question for Wheatley Peters was how directly she could point to the Middle Passage, or, how directly or indirectly she should represent it. As Bassard reconstructs, in a 1767 draft of “To the University of Cambridge,” Wheatley Peters had switched a reference to the singular “dark abode” of Africa, from which she was kidnapped, to the plural “dark abodes,” from which she was brought “in safety.”9  The final version of the poem reads as follows: “Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand / Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.”10 The “dark abodes,” Bassard writes, “could signify nothing but the hateful and unsanitary ship’s holds where the majority of enslaved Africans spent the bulk of their time during their crossing, chained together, deprived of light, air, decent food, and water.”11 The overlap between the mercy of “To the University of Cambridge” and the mercy of “On Being Brought” (“’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land”) is impossible to miss. The former poem retains a diegetic reference to the Middle Passage, while in the latter Wheatley Peters opts to merely point toward the Middle Passage only outside the poem itself, through its title. Thus, what is absent in the poem itself can instead be located in its title, which, through its use of the present continuous “being brought,” suggests more of an action as opposed to a place. Not only is this reference to the Middle Passage relegated to the title only; furthermore, it is recast less as a place and more as an experience for which the poem’s speaker expresses thankfulness for merely having survived.

So, it is this absence that interests me: how literary writers make legible an otherwise imperceptible absence that their works are necessarily about. Put simply: Wheatley Peters’s poem is about the Middle Passage, but, strictly speaking, the Middle Passage does not appear anywhere in her poem, even as she makes these oblique references to it throughout. This non-appearance of the Middle Passage, I argue, is the way that Wheatley Peters thinks in economies of perception: not only the ways in which perception is rationed, withheld, and budgeted with affordances for different groups of readers, but also how perception and literary representation are tethered to political economy. What is perceptible, and what Wheatley Peters chooses to represent, have a political-economic logic. And what does not get represented in “On Being Brought” holds a central place in the production of value in the world of eighteenth-century transatlantic slavery.

We should not be surprised that the Middle Passage, this core of economic production and of economic activity, is rendered imperceptible—that is, we do not find it represented directly, but rather only indirectly, by looking askance at it through literary form. It is this relationship that I explore and define here—this relationship of imperception, or, the relation between literary form, sensory perception, and political economy. In what follows, I’ll consider how the senses have been historically conditioned by economics. Or how, in other words, the political economy of slavery has been central to the ways in which the modern sensorium has developed. As I will discuss below, capital always tries to obscure the site of production; Wheatley Peters’s poem brings the way in which the site of production is obscured into stark relief, while also refusing to directly represent it. This question of representation is therefore central to my concept of imperception. Ultimately, what I want to think about here is how the senses demarcate the limits of political possibility: what is imperceptible, in other words, is also unthinkable, which is exactly the problem that I think Wheatley Peters’s poem articulates. What I hope, therefore, this term “imperception” makes legible, is a reinvigorated sense of how literature diagnoses social and political limitation, and how it critiques, from its present, the political and economic world from which it emerges.

* * *

Recall the familiar section of Capital, where Marx has us follow the capitalist into “the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business.’”12 In part, what Marx here suggests is that production is always hidden from view. More specifically, Marx tells us that, in the sphere of production, “we shall see,” he writes, “not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare.”13 Notice how, for Marx, it is not just the process of production as such that is hidden, that is secretive. Rather, it is “how capital is itself produced.” At the core of Marx’s concern is not the material goods that are the result of the process of production; rather it is how this specific relation that we call capital is produced. So, understanding the secret of profit-making is going to be more complicated than just taking a peek behind the curtain, and witnessing the workers at work.

What I want to think about here is how literature does not exactly try to make the invisible visible—to do something like reveal the conditions of production—but rather how it instead makes the imperceptible legible. I bring up this language of the visible and the invisible because we know very well what it looks like when we make the sphere of production visible. In fact, it is done all the time. We can see the stitching on our clothing, or we notice the imperfect sizing on our jeans—imperfections that bear the signs of a process of human labor. Or maybe we hear a charming story at the farmer’s market from the person who grew the tomatoes you are buying. Perhaps, you think, as you swipe your credit card, production has been demystified: we have pulled back the curtain and have gained insight into the process of production.

But all of these examples miss something essential. Because it is not exactly that the process of labor itself is imperceptible. Rather, it is value, and the social nature of value, that can be known, but not sensed. As Marx writes in Capital, “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values. . . . We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value.”14 Value is not a physical, tangible thing; rather, it is the expression of a social relation. That social relation can be known of; it can be intellectually understood, analyzed, critiqued, or ultimately expressed in the form of a price. But it cannot be sensed. It is one thing to sense—to see, hear, and otherwise perceive—the process of production or evidence of it having occurred. It is another to perceive the social nature of the relation that impels these processes in the first place. As David Harvey writes, value “is a social relation. As such it is, like gravity, an immaterial but objective force. I cannot dissect a shirt and find atoms of value in it any more than I can dissect a stone and find atoms of gravity. Both are immaterial relations that have objective material consequences.”15  When we sense an apple falling from a tree, we are not sensing gravity. Rather, we are sensing the effect that gravity has on the apple. We might see gravity in action, but we do not see gravity itself. Similarly, when we notice the imperfections in the stitching on our clothing, or watch a building being constructed, we are sensing labor and the signs of it, not value itself. Value always remains fundamentally imperceptible.

All of this suggests, I argue, that the sensorium cannot sense sociality. And I think the sensorium cannot sense sociality because the concept of the social has been subsumed by capital under the sign of value. Let me stitch some of this together with Marx’s earlier writing in the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. This is where Marx thinks through this direct relation, and where he writes that “The development of the five senses is a labor of the whole previous history of the world.16 The senses have developed alongside capital. The capitalist mode of production produces material goods under the sign of the commodity form; it also produces a sensorium that is bound to, determined by, and which has developed with and alongside value under capital. So, in a world where social relations appear as mere material relations—and here I again take Marx to be very deliberate in his emphasis on the appearance of commodity fetishism—it is not a surprise that we do not know how to sense socially. Marx is explicit on this point. As he writes in the 1844 Manuscripts, “music alone awakens man’s musical sense and the most beautiful music has no meaning for the unmusical ear . . . for this reason the senses of social man differ from those of the unsocial.”17 The senses have developed alongside capital to be profoundly anti-social—to be unable to sense sociality. And this, I would like to suggest, is because of the way in which value—the primary social relation under capital—is itself always suprasensible.

* * *

Imperception names this mode of perception whereby the sensorium, either individually or collectively, fails to perceive objects or events that are otherwise available to the senses. By tracing these failures, I have argued that sensory perception has a specific structure that corresponds to the regime of value under capital. But what I would like to suggest here is that, because slavery played a central role in the development of capital, it also played a central role in the development of the modern sensorium. Indeed, Cedric Robinson very forcefully makes the point in Black Marxism that “historically, slavery was a critical foundation for capitalism.”18 So, how might we reread Marx’s thinking on the relation between value and perception as deeply intertwined with the transatlantic system of slavery—the one that Wheatley Peters points to obliquely but refuses to directly represent? In other words, how might early African American writers offer their readers an analysis of the structures of perception under racial capitalism?

In part, what I suggest has a long philosophical history that I do not have the time or space to rehearse here. Nevertheless, I want to suggest briefly that we extend David Lloyd’s argument in Under Representation to think more generally about the specifically economic determination of perception under racial capitalism.19 Lloyd tracks how aesthetic theory has traditionally been separated from questions of race: with a few notable exceptions, “we lack” he argues, “any extended treatments of the constitutive rather than contingent role played by racial judgements in the very formation of aesthetic theory.”20 Unlike Jacques Rancière’s notion of the “distribution of the sensible,” the political project that the term “imperception” seeks to identify does not ultimately point to the hopeful inclusion of previously silenced voices.21 Quite the opposite, imperception names the ways in which African American writers have forcefully refused representation and have posited the systematic enslavement and exploitation of Black labor as being the condition of possibility for the modern conception of liberal democratic representation in the first place. The point, as Lloyd puts it, is “not a means to inclusion through dissensus” but rather to investigate how aesthetics has functioned as “a mode of regulating access to recognition as a fully human and politically capable subject.”22

The writers that I investigate here aim at something more than an equal participation in social life under capital. They ask, to my mind, a somewhat different question. They are instead interested in the ways in which capital necessarily objectifies Black life. True freedom, as a result, is only possible at the abolition of capital. The concept of imperception tracks these failures to perceive as these structures of perception under capital were being constructed. As I have said, I am interested in the central role of slavery in the development of the modern sensorium. Slavery was the economic foundation of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world. And we have to examine the character of capitalist production of a given period to think through the specificity of its development. This is why, earlier, I asked us to think though how Wheatley Peters does not just expose, or make visible, the Middle Passage in her poem. Rather, she cites it in a rather indirect manner. And, in so doing, she might not reveal the brutality of the journey, but she does make legible the imperceptible fault lines upon which the political imagination rests. And this is where I think the question of literariness is most crucial. How might literature demarcate the limits to political possibility? And how might literature help us come to an understanding of how and why the world appears to us as it does? As Jameson writes in Representing ‘Capital,’ “the ‘form of appearance’ of a properly capitalist reality” is “neither true nor false but simply real.”23

The point for me is not that literature cuts through illusion and gets us to the heart of the matter. Instead, I want to think about something more in line with Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick, in which she writes that “the appearance concealing the essence is part of that essence, entailed by and indispensable to it.”24 The absence of the Middle Passage in Wheatley Peters’s poem here becomes a way of refracting back to us the imperceptible economic core—or “essence,” in Ngai’s words—of capitalist production. That transformation of human life into cargo is the basis on which Western sociality rests. Wheatley Peters might not reveal or expose the specifics of the Middle Passage. She might not raise to the level of content the experience of traversing the Middle Passage, and she might not bring into representation anything about the ship or the hold. What her poem does do—what it does reveal—however, is how the ship, the hold, and the Middle Passage are nevertheless ceaselessly hidden because of the economics of perception.

What I hope is becoming clear is how this is a developmental moment in the history of sensing. And Wheatley Peters’s refusal to directly represent the Middle Passage is just such an imperceptible refraction: it makes legible the economic relation that defines Black life in the Americas and which also provides the grounds for the social sphere under capital as such. In other words, “Imperception”—this political concept and this political-economic relation that I am here trying to define—is not something we ever come to an understanding of through representation. Imperception is not concerned with representation; it is profoundly antirepresentational, and this is because the sociality of value is similarly impossible to represent. In this sense, my interest lies in texts that engage in their political thinking in just such an antirepresentational modein texts that resonate at the same frequency as the society that they critique.

This question of the non-representational nature of social life is one that a number of African American writers were interested in, especially in the nineteenth century. So while Wheatley Peters broaches this issue of imperception toward the end of the eighteenth century, it is in the nineteenth century that this interest in the relation between perception, political economy, and social life reaches its height. I turn here toward another profoundly antirepresentational text—a novel, in this case. Martin R. Delany’s only novel, Blake; or the Huts of America, was serialized in two separate runs, first in 1859 and then from 1861 to 1862.25 It is essentially a novel about the fomenting of an international Black revolution to dismantle the system of slavery. The revolutionary force is led by a coalition of free and enslaved people of color in the United States, Caribbean, Africa, and across the larger Black Atlantic. What is so strange about the novel, however, is that the revolution never happens. Part of this might just be a historical oddity—the last few chapters of the novel are missing. So, the final extant chapter brings readers right up to the point where a violent revolution is about to break out in Cuba. But then the novel ends abruptly. And so the reader is left in a state of suspense, unknowing of how things would have come to pass.

I am interested in Blake because of how the text essentially refuses to bring into representation the revolution that it is otherwise centrally about. It is worth mentioning here that Blake was published in Black-run publications that were especially known for their eclectic offerings: specifically, in the Anglo-African Magazine and later in the Weekly Anglo-African. In fact, Delany published articles on Haiti and debated the possibility of Haitian emigration throughout Blake’s run in the Weekly Anglo-African. There is not, in short, something like a historical concern over censorship or palatability, where Delany or his publisher would have been worried about offending the sensibilities of potential readers. Some readers would have loved to see the revolution represented. But the novel refuses to bring that revolution into positive representation. The text toys with its reader throughout, consciously concealing the plans for revolution at one moment, and cutting short a mutiny of enslaved people on a slave ship in the Middle Passage at another. The text, in other words, plays with the reader’s desire for a positive representation of revolution—it constantly snatches away that satisfaction as it dangles it right in front of them. And, ultimately, the ending—or lack of an ending—only reinforces this point.

I want explore why this novel gets at something central about imperception. The novel’s refusal to depict Black revolution, as I understand it, is a way of commenting on the ways in which the political economy of slavery tries to render Black social life imperceptible in the nineteenth century. I understand this as a way of thinking through a fundamental limitation imposed by capital that always relegates Black social and political life to the “historical backburner,” to quote Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the Haitian Revolution.26 This is what I think the novel helps us diagnose about the foundations of political perception, while helping us consider how perception in modernity is intertwined with white supremacy. This is something that the novel models with a number of its white characters. Take, for example, the scene that takes place on a slave ship traversing the Middle Passage. The kidnapped Africans in the hold of the ship break free of their chains and arm themselves with weapons, and they are preparing to kill their captors and take command of the ship. At this moment, the Capitan looks below deck to find out what has been going on. All he notices, however, is that the Africans have opened up some barrels of food and have started eating and drinking the supplies. He cannot, in other words, make sense of what is happening right in front of his eyes. He completely misapprehends this expression of Black sociality precisely because he cannot conceptualize Black people as political and social beings. Here, perception and imperception are, of course, linked to one another. Where the Captain fails to perceive this expression of Black sociality, he instead perceives a confirmation of the ways in which legal, economic, and cultural discourse render enslaved people as property or as objects otherwise incapable of political action. Thus, where Black sociality remains imperceptible, other perceptible objects take its place.

It is not a surprise that this scene happens while the ship is traversing the Middle Passage. It is also not surprising that the mechanisms of white perception render Black political and social action only in terms of consumption. Similar to Wheatley Peters, Delany locates this scene in an economic space that represents the transformation of life into cargo, into capital. The white sensorium is not prepared to make sense of Black sociality within this space. Moreover, this space lays the foundations for white modes of perception throughout a world of capital that is driven by enslaved labor.

Perception follows on the heels of the political-economic racialization that occurs in the Middle Passage. And as much as there is a white perception—which is precisely this imperception, or, inability to perceive Black political and social life—there is also a mode of Black perception that Delany’s novel is interested in. That Black mode of perception is similarly rendered as an inability to perceive. In Blake, however, Black imperception is represented by an inability of the characters of color throughout the novel to perceive that the means for revolution are right in front of them. Thus, much of Blake focuses on Henry Blake’s travels throughout the world of the Black Atlantic on his mission of consciousness raising, as he tries to convince the people he interacts with that revolution is not only necessary but also possible.

These two modes of imperception are therefore connected. And although Black and white imperception manifest differently, they both have at their core the economic disfiguration of the possibilities for Black social life. Imperception—as a larger political concept—names and does just this type of work. It helps us to begin to demarcate the limits to the political imagination. And, as Delany demonstrates through these limits to political perception throughout Blake, the political imagination is directly tied to what people can or cannot perceive. Between the way that the novel deals with characterization, with form, with narrative, Delany brings his reader up to an epistemic limit to the political imagination by making legible the impossibility of sensing, perceiving, and imagining Black sociality within the constraints of capital. Black life is so intertwined with labor and economics, Delany wants to say, that the revolution is beyond the capabilities of both the Black and white political imagination. Just as the centrality of Black labor and Black life to the world economy is rendered imperceptible to the white sensorium, so too, for the Black sensorium within the world of Delany’s text, is the possibility of a social formation that would figure things differently.

I may try to represent to you Slavery as it is; another may follow me and try to represent the condition of the Slave; we may all represent it as we think it is; and yet we shall all fail to represent the real condition of the Slave. Your fastidiousness would not allow me to do it; and if it would, I, for one, should not be willing to do it—at least to an audience. Were I about to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you.
Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented.27  

Brown reflects on the role that representation can, or should play, in attempting to say something about slavery. In some ways, I think Brown here anticipates the more recent debate between Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten—he asks us to consider the politics of representation, and urges us to think about what it means for literary forms of expression to presume to capture slavery’s degradation.28 “Is any of this possible in a public forum?”— Brown asks. How are people’s interest in the specifics of brutalization tied to a larger understanding of the aporetic nature of slavery, of the Middle Passage?

Thinking through the politics of representation in the first, London edition of Brown’s novel Clotel brings the stakes of the impossible-to-represent nature of slavery into starker relief.29 Brown’s novel gives his readers the illusion of a full representation without ever claiming to have accounted for everything. His method, and his privileged form for accomplishing the impossible task of representing that which cannot be represented, is the sketch. In a section of Clotel that Judith Madera has called “The Ohio River Sketches,” Brown offers his reader two brief vignettes of enslaved individuals on their way toward freedom.30 Rather than fleshing out in full detail scenes of dramatic escape, and rather than asking his reader to become deeply involved in the life stories of the figures in the Ohio River Sketches, Brown instead gives us a glimpse of their methods of escape, as they drift in and very quickly drift out of the narrative. Both scenes here are marked by “the ways fugitives used slave epistemologies . . . to find routes beneath slaveholder expectations,” Madera writes.31 The narrative itself comes to mirror the ways in which “slave epistemologies” provide no detailed account of enslaved individuals. Rather than trying to represent the fullness of life of those who briefly appear in the text, Clotel gives its reader brief snapshots that demand a politically imaginative engagement with the absences that Brown centers in his novel. In other words, these short sketches of moments of escape do not ask the reader to fill in the blanks; rather, they demand a reflection on the incompleteness of the form of the sketch itself. This incompleteness is something that is captured by the nonchalance of the narrative voice throughout the Ohio River Sketches. The section opens as follows: 

No country has produced so much heroism in so short a time, connected with escapes from peril and oppression, as has occurred in the United States among fugitive slaves, many of whom show great shrewdness in their endeavours to escape from this land of bondage. A slave was one day seen passing on the high road from a border town in the interior of the state of Virginia to the Ohio river. The man had neither hat upon his head or coat upon his back. He was driving before him a very nice fat pig, and appeared to all who saw him to be a labourer employed on an adjoining farm.32

The opening clause of the first sentence mirrors the unfinished, sketch-like nature of the scenes that follow as a whole: “so much heroism in so short a time” both points toward an immense archive and the impossibility of capturing, relaying, and representing it all. As the passage continues, it narrows down to just one such example: “A slave was one day seen.” The narrative voice, in its nonchalance, suggests to us that this could be any enslaved person, on any given day—what we are getting here is just a snippet, or an example, of a whole world of similar scenes and experiences. I am interested here in how the narrative voice’s nonchalance mirrors the cool and composed affect of the man driving the pig. Just like the man who has neither hat nor coat, the narrative voice here relays the story with its guard down, which, in the text, has the effect of keeping at bay the suspicions of the potential slave catchers that the man meets while on the road.

Here, I draw from Xine Yao’s notion of “disaffection” to consider how Brown presents his reader with a sort of negative archive that rejects the white impulse to sympathize while uncovering racialized, unrecognized, and illegible modes of unfeeling.33 What might it mean in this context to tie together Brown’s interest in the unrepresentable nature of slavery with Yao’s disaffection by thinking through “aesthetic form as sedimented content,” as Theodor W. Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory?34 Brown’s sketches do not ask for sympathy; they do not ask for a type of Stowean “right feelings.” Rather, they force the reader into an affective detachment that points toward a much larger representational impossibility. Just as the text repels a sympathetic connection—which requires a depth of character development—so too does it repel the fantasy of exposing, representing, and thereby making perceptible both the lives of enslaved people and slavery as a whole. Rather than representing, the sketches point us toward an imperceptibility that, in the text, is reappropriated and which becomes a path for escape.

Imperception captures something central about the representative politics of this type of relationship. And this is where I want to leave this discussion: how might early African American literature take up this proposition as one of its central problematics? And how might these interventions by Wheatley Peters, Delany, and Brown suggest that these limits to representation have both developed alongside and undergirded the perceptual mechanisms of a form of capital based on economies of enslaved labor? We might read the early African American novel in these terms specifically: the baroque, experimental style; the dropped plot lines; the disappearing characters and the seemingly disconnected snapshots of enslaved life that characterize both Brown’s and Delany’s novels. How might we understand all of these attempts to make legible the fundamental unrepresentability of slavery? These writers point toward the impossibility of capturing and representing through literary form the enormity of slavery and the Middle Passage, just as they—at the same time—make legible the imperceptibility of Black social life as it is defined under capital. In my understanding, and in closing, I want to suggest that Wheatley Peters, Delany, and Brown give readers the tools to learn to read how perception has been conditioned under capital. And they give readers these tools precisely because they tie their investigations of the imperceptible nature of slavery and the Middle Passage to the intertwinement of Black social life with political economy. So while they might not present readers with an object to study—which is exactly what Brown warns against—they offer instead a literary method that that has grown up alongside the development of the senses within the context of racial capitalism.

Published on March 8, 2024


 Alex Moskowitz is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English at Mount Holyoke College


1. Phillis Wheatley Peters, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Complete Writings: Phillis Wheatley, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin, 2001), 13.

2. Phillis Wheatley Peters, “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” Complete Writings, 11.

3. See Britt Rusert, “‘The World Is a Severe Schoolmaster’: Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry of Domination and Submission,” Early American Literature 57:3 (2022): 790–791.

4. Phillis Wheatley Peters, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” 13.

5. Phillis Wheatley Peters, “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” 12.

6. Wheatley Peters, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” 13.

7. Don Holmes, “Diplomatic Negotiations in Phillis Wheatley’s Ambassadorial ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America,’” Early American Literature 57:3 (2022): 693. 

8. Katherine Clay Bassard, Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women’s Writing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 44.

9. Katherine Clay Bassard, Spiritual Interrogations, 44.

10. Phillis Wheatley Peters, “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” 11. 

11. Katherine Clay Bassard, Spiritual Interrogations, 44.

12. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 279–280.

13. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 280.

14. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 138.

15. David Harvey, Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 5.

16. Karl Marx, Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 309.

17. Karl Marx, Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), 309.

18. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 116.

19. David Lloyd, Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

20. David Lloyd, Under Representation, 4.

21. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. and ed. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004).

22. David Lloyd, Under Representation, 14.

23. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Commentary on Volume One (London: Verso, 2011), 26.

24. Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgement and Capitalist Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), 38.

25. Martin R. Delany, Blake or the Huts of America, ed. Floyd J. Miller (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970).

26. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, Beacon Press, 2015), 98.

27. William Wells Brown, “A Lecture Delivered Before The Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem [at Lyceum Hall, Nov. 14, 1847],” William Wells Brown: A Reader, ed. Ezra Greenspan (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 108.

28. See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3–14; Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 1–24.

29. William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, ed. M. Giulia Fabi (New York: Penguin, 2004).

30. Judith Madera, Black Atlas: Geography and Flow in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 50.

31. Judith Madera, Black Atlas, 50.

32. William Wells Brown, Clotel, 139. 

33. Xine Yao, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 3–4.

34. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (London: Continuum, 1997), 5.