Spectacular Suffering: Witnessing Slavery in the Eighteenth-century British Atlantic
Spectacular Suffering focuses on commodification and discipline, two key dimensions of Atlantic slavery through which black bodies were turned into things in the marketplace and persons into property on plantations. Mallipeddi approaches the problem of slavery as a problem of embodiment in this nuanced account of how melancholy sentiment mediated colonial relations between English citizens and Caribbean slaves.
The book's first chapters consider how slave distress emerged as a topic of emotional concern and political intervention in the writings of Aphra Behn, Richard Steele, and Laurence Sterne. As Mallipeddi shows, sentimentalism allowed metropolitan authors to fashion themselves as melancholy witnesses to racial slavery by counterposing the singular body to the abstract commodity and by taking affective property in slaves against the legal proprietorship of slaveholders.
Spectacular Suffering then turns to the practices of the enslaved, tracing how they contended with the effects of chattel slavery. The author attends not only to the work of African British writers and archival textual materials but also to economic and social activities, including slaves' petty production, recreational forms, and commemorative rituals. In examining the slaves' embodied agency, the book moves away from spectacular images of suffering to concentrate on slow, incremental acts of regeneration by the enslaved. One of the foremost contributions of this study is its exploration of the ways in which the ostensible objects of sentimental compassion--African slaves--negotiated the forces of capitalist abstraction and produced a melancholic counterdiscourse on slavery.
Throughout, Mallipeddi's keen reading of primary texts alongside historical and critical work produce fresh and persuasive insights. Spectacular Suffering is an important book that will alter conceptions of slave agency and of sentimentalism across the long eighteenth century.