This essay juxtaposes two readings of J. M. W. Turner's 1840 painting, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On: one by British art historian John Ruskin and the other by contemporary Jamaican novelist Michelle Cliff. To examine the racial and national politics of visual spectatorship, the essay analyzes Cliff's novel Free Enterprise (1993); the central scene is an unveiling of this painting. Destabilizing Ruskin's reading of the painting's sublimity and asking what it means to “take pleasure in looking at images of terror,” Cliff's novel inserts a black viewer as the subject, not the object, of history. In contrast to Ruskin's writings that enshrine an English identity that would sublimate its specific relationship to slavery, the writings of contemporary postcolonial novelists such as Cliff articulate diasporic identities that interrogate such constructions, complicating the relationship between history and memory. Engaging with the archives of American history, Cliff's novel restores the resistant acts that have been pushed into the background, focusing on rewriting the history of Mary Ellen Pleasant. Between the two national identities Jamaican and British, Cliff inserts an American rebellious subject, Mary Ellen Pleasant. Pleasant's oppositional gaze on Turner's painting constructs a countermemory of new world black resistance and reminds us of the ways that diasporic identities are always already a part of the nation's identity.
Wendy W. Walters; “Object into Subject”: Michelle Cliff, John Ruskin, and the Terrors of Visual Art. American Literature 1 September 2008; 80 (3): 501–526. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-020
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