“When slave narratives are done on film,” Quentin Tarantino says, regarding his film Django Unchained, “they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.” Tarantino tropes the adoption of a particular generic mode as an act of (salutary) historiographical violence. Against filmic slave narratives that would place history at a remove, behind the glass of a museum exhibition, Django shatters this historiographical-aesthetic speculum in order to inscribe slavery within new economies of sense and sensation. The viewer of Django is no longer distanced from the history it relates; rather, the viewer is “take[n…] into it,” a trespass into the real of history in which the order of the sanitary and sanitized visual is replaced with the scandalous sensuousness of embodied violence. One will still access this history via audiovisual mediation—Django is a film—but the sense of this history registers immediately, in the violent affectivity of viewing bodies affected by violence. This is Tarantino’s gift to the slave narrative: For the first time, someone will “take you into it,” into slavery, into a history of violence unmediated by fetishized legal instruments (Lincoln, Amistad) or by displacement of affect to an exemplary witness (Amazing Grace, etc. etc.)
Tarantino’s generic selection has occasioned a great deal of debate and criticism, the most cited of which has come from Spike Lee. The pulpy generic mode deployed by Tarantino, Lee tells us, is inadequate to the history of violence that Tarantino treats. It is so inadequate that Lee refuses to see the film. As Lee told VibeTV, “It'd be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film. That's the only thing I'm going to say. I can't disrespect my ancestors.” Later, on Twitter, Lee would write, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them.” Tarantino’s act of historiographical violence—his shattering of the “history-under-glass aspect” of slave narratives—is disrespectful in an etymological sense: Tarantino’s film does not look correctly at slavery, it doesn’t adopt the proper speculative or specular apparatus, it disrespects a history that should only be available to a speculative mode of recovery that keeps slavery at an awed distance. Lee’s critiques have filtered through the public sphere. At the LA Times, Erin Aubry Kaplan writes: “ A white director slinging around the n-word in a homage to '70s blaxploitation à la Jackie Brown is one thing, but the same director turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction is quite another.” “Pulp fiction” attempts taking leave of the ordered economies of sense presupposed by middlebrow film in order to render “savageness” sensible in non-speculative forms; “turning slavery into pulp fiction” would violate the aesthetic and historigraphical norm that would position slavery as something uniquely unavailable to we who posses our bodies in non-transgressible ways. We might all bitch about Spielberg’s Lincoln, as it were, but at least Lincoln did not engage in the fantasy that the glass separating us from slavery could be shattered—at least Lincoln, by foregrounding the necessity of a specular apparatus, an apparatus that mediates history and that Lincoln names Lincoln, refuses the white fantasy that the horror of slavery could ever become an object of immediate experience for film-goers in 2012. And so on. At this point, the critiques of Tarantino write themselves.
I don’t want to defend Tarantino; I don’t care for his work, really, and, like Lee, I haven’t yet seen the film. (Unlike Lee, I will.) I am puzzled, though, by two claims organizing the discourse of Tarantino and his critiques. First, Tarantino and his critics assume that there is something singular about Tarantino’s act of “turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction.” Second, Tarantino’s critics assume that the politics and imaginative possibilities of a genre are aprioristically determined: pulp fiction amounts to a kind of aesthetic titillation that lacks the piety and political purchase of other modes of narration. As a kind of pulp fiction, Django makes slavery mere entertainment; as stylized genre piece, Django risks being nothing more than “insensitive, exploitative and ahistorical,” in Erin Aubry Kaplan’s terms.
Yet, these claims are themselves grossly “ahistorical.” First, slavery has provided pulp fiction with raw narratological and thematic material since the emergence of the multiple genres of pulp fiction in the nineteenth century. Far from being singular, Tarantino returns pulp fiction to its historical roots. Story papers, dime novels, and penny dreadfuls emerged in a world turned by slavery, and the stuff of slavery was readily incorporated into these popular narrative modes. An engagement with slavery was, in part, a necessity for U.S. dime novelists whose romances thrived in foreign and tropical climes: the centrality of Mexico and Cuba to dime novelists meant that readers encountered diverse modalities of bonded and unfree labor. Moreover, the dynamics of slavery that make it such an object of horror lent themselves to the sensational modes of representation forged by dime novelists; slavery provided dime novelists with the illicit sex, miscegenation, violence, and revenge fantasies that charged their narratives and made them popular successes. And the thematics and metaphorics of slavery were taken over by white dime novelists in the urban northeast concerned with “wage slavery” under conditions of the failure of Jeffersonian republicanism and emergent industrial capitalism. Slavery was always already turned into “pulp fiction”—it was, indeed, the pulp of this fiction.
This history might only serve to buttress Lee’s claims that pulpy modalities of narrative obscure, sensationalize, and disrespect the real histories of slavery; Tarantino, like George Lippard, may only have drawn on the narrative and thematic materials of slavery in order to tell a tale with ambiguous political consequences. Indeed, pulp modes of representation only bore a fantasmatic relation to slavery, and these fantasies could be set to work with racist and imperialist ambitions (e.g., the articulation of racism, imperialism, and “wage slavery” well tracked by, well, many of us). But they could also operate in the opposite direction. I’m thinking, first off, of the history of public reception of the Amistad Africans that Marcus Rediker has recently traced. Rediker gives a fair amount of attention to the various aesthetic modes by which the events on the Amistad became culturally intelligible to working class U.S. citizens. He focuses in particular on the play The Black Schooner, performed at the Bowery Theater. The play—as well as engravings, lithographs, and a traveling wax museum—helped keep the case of the Amistad Africans before the popular eye and helped generate massive public support for them. As Rediker makes clear, the managers at the Bowery did not put on The Black Schooner in the name of engendering abolitionist or antislavery sentiments; rather, they put it on because the sensational tale of the Amistad Africans fit neatly into pulpy narratives of revenge popular everywhere. Antislavery was an almost accidental byproduct of the play, but—at least in the very specific case of the Amistad—it was a byproduct.
The Black Schooner would reappear in another work of pulp fiction, this time in Emmanuel Appadocca; or, Blighted Life, a dime novel written in 1854 by a young Trinidadian of color, Michel Maxwell Philip. (I disagree with Belinda Edmondson’s characterization of the work as an enactment of “Caribbean middlebrow” lit, as I argue in my
diss book manuscript.) A pirate tale, Emmanuel Appadocca is a revenge fantasy
in which the eponymous mulatto hero sails his ship, the Black Schooner, seeking
vengeance against his white Anglo father who has abandoned his (possibly
enslaved) black mother and himself. Philip’s text seems to disrespect the
history upon which it draws—the text even features an utterly racist minstrel
character, distinguishing the mulatto hero’s Europeanized culture from the
debased culture of “more African” slaves. Written a decade and a half after the
end of slavery in the British Empire, Philip’s historical romance draws upon
the narrative resources of pulp fiction (narratives of disguise and revenge,
stark lines of good and evil, melodramatic soliloquy and dialogue, etc) and
slavery (miscegenation, juridical orphanage, neglect, self-interested
accumulation). It does so not simply to spin a good yarn, but to offer a) a
critique of the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act and b) a critique of economic
liberalism’s reconstitution of the British Empire, one that left the West
Indies abandoned and neglected by the erstwhile mercantilist imperial center.
The affectivity of slavery coupled with the story-form of pulpy fiction enabled
Philip to translate a critique of a politico-economic situation utterly
deleterious to the lives of the Caribbean’s recently freedpeople into terms
understandable by those metropolitan liberal do-gooders who emancipated
Britain’s slaves and then emancipated Britain’s economy from its former slave
colonies. One could proliferate examples of blacks in the Americas deploying
sensationalistic modes of narration for politically useful ends: Delany’s Blake, Des Sources’ Adolphus, and so on.
In short, the politics of a genre cannot be determined aprioristically—we need to engage with the particularity of each text as it emerges from a given cultural matrix. Within the Americas, slavery has always been implicated within a populist cultural matrix that drew upon the narrative resources and metaphorics of slavery to tell sensational tales and, sometimes, to work for politically worthwhile ends. If slavery has always been the stuff of pulp, the museumization of slavery is a secondary formation. And this museumization is dreadfully incomplete. For one, there is not, after all, a federal museum dedicated to slavery, nor is there a national holiday in which the U.S. remembers (or tries to remember) its terrible founding fact. Moreover, even as the rhetoric of a particular memory of slavery continues to permeate U.S. culture, this popular memory of slavery tends to be as ahistorical as the pulp narratives disseminated by Tarantino, the Bowery Theater, or Michel Maxwell Philip. At a certain point, showing “respect” for slavery has translated into not talking about it. A museumized object without a museum, slavery has transformed into a sublime and aesthetically unavailable factum that enables us to not engage with it. If Django Unchained shatters “history-under-glass” modes of representing slavery, it’s crucial to recall that the pop high/middlebrow historiography of slavery in the U.S. is all glass and no history—a transparent bar that distances us from a history without revealing an object on the other side.
This is not to say that Django is good or politically viable. It’s rather to say that there is a long tradition in the Americas of drawing upon slavery for the telling of sensational tales. Making ahistorical and aprioristic evaluations of Django on the basis of its generic affiliation is to liquidate over a hundred years of cultural history—a history in which the meaning of slavery was worked out by ordinary non-enslaved people for good or ill, and, occasionally, descendents of slaves who felt the best way of respecting their ancestors was to make the stuff of their history, sensationally rendered or not, available to others for politically useful ends. Django’s appearance of exceptionality simply testifies to bourgie middlebrow culture’s success in enclosing and engrossing the cultural commons of slavery—as if the line running from Stowe to Spielberg amounts to the only possible and existent mode of representing slavery. But the culture of slavery was always more common than that, and had to be, for slavery touched on and informed every sphere of life in the Americas for centuries. This commonness did not translate into political progressiveness; as noted, pulpy investments of slavery could be as racist as a rant from Thomas Carlyle. The point is that Tarantino’s pulp doesn’t bring us into the real of history; rather, it returns us once more to an impious cultural field in which the meaning of slavery was worked out, contested, and made the subject of popular debate.