Thursday, 26 February 2015

‘Jefferson’s Orphan: Colonization in Theory and Practice, 1779-1826’

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

On Wednesday 25th February, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Dr Nick Guyatt for the penultimate lecture in the 2014-15 series. Dr Guyatt is the author of Providence and the Invention of the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and the forthcoming Bind Us Apart: A Pre-History of 'Separate But Equal' (Basic Books, 2015). The topic of the discussion was Thomas Jefferson’s shifting position on black colonization during the period 1779-1826. More broadly, Dr Guyatt wished to demonstrate that colonization featured heavily in abolitionist discussions, an argument previously neglected by historians in the mainstream narrative of anti-slavery in the United States. In doing so, Dr Guyatt brought to our attention a noticeable gap in the extant historiography on Jefferson, race and colonization efforts in the early republic, absent even from Annette Gordon-Reed’s brilliant studies of the Jefferson and Hemings families - Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello (2008).

In discussing his reasons for choosing to examine Jefferson more closely, Dr Guyatt asserted that Jefferson held an extremely unique position – first as the Governor of Virginia and then as the President of the United States. Occupying as he did a prominent and influential place in American society, Jefferson corresponded with a multitude of high-profile individuals, many of whom were concerned with the topic of black colonization or the seeds of ‘developmental separatism’ in the aftermath of slave uprisings. As such, Dr Guyatt identified three distinct phases of Jefferson’s life, during which time discussions of colonization had figured prominently. Firstly, in the early 1780s when Jefferson wrote the (in)famous Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Secondly, in the negotiations between Jefferson, James Monroe and John Page (both Governors of Virginia) in the aftermath of Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 and lastly, on Jefferson’s engagement with colonization during retirement.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)

Dr Guyatt began by pin-pointing the moment in which Jefferson first proposed the idea of the gradual emancipation of slavery in June 1779. In the years that followed, this idea fermented in Jefferson’s mind, until he put his views on slavery and colonization to paper in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). In this document, Jefferson was explicit about the physical difference between slaves and their masters – more so, in fact, than any of his contemporaries. Where in Europe, slavery opponents believed in the unity of mankind and attributed the current intellectual inferiority of slaves to the social and environmental factors of slavery, Jefferson took no such approach. The inferiority of the black population, he believed, was attributable to ‘the real distinctions which nature has made.’ Comparing the problem of slavery in the early republic to that of the Roman Empire, Jefferson wrote:

Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.

Thus, Dr Guyatt highlighted the fundamental difference between Jefferson’s inherent belief in racial prejudice and accompanying fears of miscegenation, juxtaposed with those of his contemporaries and enlightened European counterparts whose argument rested on natural rights. Moreover, Jefferson’s curious emphasis of black biology over social environment helps to explain why the Notes were not referenced by anti-slavery advocates thereafter. Nonetheless, close examination of Jefferson’s slavery ‘query’ is integral to inform an understanding of Jefferson’s belief that colonization be part of any plan to emancipate the American slave populace.

Dr Guyatt then turned his attention to the correspondence between James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. The former sought the advice of the elder statesman over the appropriate response to the slave conspirators, which, up until that point, had involved multiple executions. Jefferson’s reply asked if it might be possible to ‘pass a law for their exploitation’ thereby using Gabriel’s Rebellion as a pre-text for his colonization plan. During the Secret Session of 1800, the legislative went on to pass a bill, where Monroe proposed that ‘persons dangerous to the peace of society’ i.e. all slaves, could be sold into Spanish slavery. After some delay, Jefferson’s response to Monroe’s letter was accompanied by five possibilities as to the relocation of slaves: north of the Ohio river, Canada (if Britain could be persuaded), Louisiana (if Spain could be persuaded), a new U.S. colony in North Africa, or in Saint-Domingue. In May of 1802, Jefferson contacted the British ambassador, Rufus King, suggesting that unruly slaves could be sent to Sierre Leone. However, this plan had one glaring problem, namely, that by securing passage for rebellious slaves, did such a plan not seem likely to incite widespread slave rebellions? Around this time, Jefferson appeared to back-peddle on his colonization plans, listing in his correspondence to Virginian politicians the great obstacles to colonization and questioning the overall soundness of the proposals.

In the final strand of the lecture, Dr Guyatt emphasized that during Jefferson’s retirement years his position on colonization during his retirement was much changed. Jefferson repeatedly stressed that he had no power or influence to enact such laws, and that ‘the national mind is not yet prepared’ for such government action. Interestingly, Dr Guyatt referenced a letter sent by Edward Coles to Jefferson on 31 July 1814, wherein Cole wrote of the ‘hallowed principles in that renowned Declaration of which you were the immortal author,’ in what was the sole example of Jefferson being directly confronted with the idea that the continuation of slavery was an affront to the founding principles of the republic. In his response, Jefferson lamented that Coles was a lone, dissenting voice, and that the fight against slavery was ‘an enterprise for the young,’ thus distancing himself once again from the anti-slavery movement.

Dr Guyatt thus demonstrated throughout his lecture that Thomas Jefferson had been an early advocate of colonization whose belief in the plans gradually eroded. In this way, Dr Guyatt suggested that colonization was Jefferson’s ‘orphan’ or, in other words, his brainchild - which he failed to execute. By way of explaining this, Dr Guyatt offered three possible explanations: First, that Jefferson was at the very conservative end of the anti-slavery spectrum, with little inclination to engage with the concept of natural rights. Second, that his lack of enthusiasm for the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 during Jefferson’s retirement, was in part due to his constitutional issues with private societies and lastly, that, at the heart of almost all of Jefferson’s writings on slavery and colonization, lay a deep-rooted fear of miscegenation. In this line of enquiry, Jefferson’s determination that the United States avoid a mixed-race citizenry imbued all judgment, irrespective of the (now proven) racial-mixing of his own family.

Dr Guyatt’s discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s shifting position on the tangibility of colonization was both informative and enjoyable. Drawing attention to an oft-overlooked aspect of Jefferson’s illustrious life, Dr Guyatt exposed the colonization debate which came to the fore at various stages of Jefferson’s life and beyond. Jefferson’s unique engagement with the colonization debate exposes one complex sub-stratum of the anti-slavery movement. Namely, that in amongst the rhetoric of natural rights and the steadfast belief (held by some) that slavery was a plague of which the United States must rid itself, lay the deep-rooted fear, held by one of the nation’s most revered and respected men, that miscegenation was the curse most likely to befall the republic in the event of emancipation. Propelled by this fear, colonization was the ‘orphan’ of Thomas Jefferson’s career – a plan nurtured, measured and debated at length, though ultimately unattainable and unsuited to a country whose very fabric rested on the rapid economic expansion made possible through the institution of slavery.  

By Rebecca Dunbar

PGR at The University of Glasgow

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hollywood, Software and the User Gaze

Welcome back to the University of Glasgow’s American Studies blog. For the ninth instalment in our 2014-2015 seminar series, the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies invited Dr. Zara Dinnen for an engaging lecture, ‘Hollywood, Software and the User Gaze’. Dr. Zinnen is a lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Birmingham and presented this talk as part of the book she’s currently working on, American Culture & the Digital Every Day (working title).

Dr. Dinnen is exploring the way the digital, especially computer code, is represented on screen in film and television, and how we, as viewers, watch and are being made to watch this. She initiated her subject matter by showing two clips – a scene from Die Hard 4 and the trailer of upcoming film Blackhat, in which we hear and read lines such as “security infrastructure under compromise”, “hacking defence network”, and “our systems interconnected”.

The U.S.’s preoccupation with vulnerable security and dissident actions in the digital sphere has become quite apparent in film and television in recent years, and mainstream media too has developed a fascination with these topics, apparent from the coverage of Anonymous’ hacktivism or the Aaron Swartz case. There is however much about the digital sphere and its concepts that the mainstream media consumer is unaware of, and Dr. Dinnen’s talk focused on how this can be problematic when computer code and other digital technologies are represented and translated on screen. She considers the image of code as shown in fiction film or television, and how through its impenetrability for the unknowledgeable viewer, it is resistant to narrative. Within this context, Dr. Dinnen introduced the idea of user vs. expert – the users being the passive audience who let complex images of code and computation be translated by whichever mediating human character on screen (often the hacker or computer geek), and the experts being the small group who do not need this mediation.

Because of the passivity forced upon the user group, Dr. Dinnen emphasises the need to question how we are looking at these images and how we are being made to look at them. Relating to Die Hard 4, she aligns the viewing audience with action hero John McLane, who equally feels alienated and unknowing about the code appearing on screen when he is with his hacker sidekicks. Both McLane and the audience need and automatically expect whatever the code signifies to be translated to them.  In the trailer for Blackhat, with a release date 8 years later than Die Hard 4, it appears that the on-screen roles have slightly changed. The hero and hacker are now the same character – Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth – and so the protagonist becomes both the character we aim to relate to but also the one who has to be our mediator, thereby also increasing the presence and importance of the ‘expert’.

Dr. Zinnen also focused on the animated ways digital technologies are represented on screen, for example the now-familiar manner in which the ‘camera’ guides the user on a rollercoaster through imagined connections and wires, or animated 3D visualisations of technology, as often unrealistically portrayed in series such as CSI. Again, as audience we become passive, being made to accept the representations of the digital because we are unknowledgeable. This was illustrated once more with the trailer of Blackhat, which uses live action and animation to create an image of the digital technologies in the film, and with the 2011 art video by Faith Holland, RIP Geo Cities, which is a montage of several of these ‘rollercoaster’ animations taken from the last decades of Hollywood cinema. After showing RIP Geo Cities, Dr. Zinnen argued that the reason these images are alienating is because of the absence of bodies and monitors that we as viewers tend to expect and need to translate information for us. By cutting the mediator out of her video, Holland has taken away the human aspect, the person who is on screen staring at a screen and relaying digital information.

Quoting Dr. Stephanie Ricker Schulte, who stated that “we need to understand how culture has influenced our ideas about the digital world”, Dr. Zinnen then argued that her focus on this topic comes from her consideration that it is important for us to understand the technologies we use on a day-to-day basis.

Ricker Schulte further questioned why we tend to consider and contextualise digital culture a part of American culture, while digital culture plays a global role, and through its very nature this raises legal and ethical conflicts. This was illustrated with a recent case in which Microsoft argued that it could withhold data from American courts because its server was located in Ireland. However, Dr. Zinnen did emphasise that for her own research, she is approaching this topic in the context of American Studies, via a focus on Hollywood.

In her development of the concept of the ‘user gaze’, Dr. Zinnen referenced the influential ideas Laura Mulvey explored about the male gaze in cinema. ‘The user’ is defined as being someone who uses a personal computer as a means rather than an end, someone who is passive and asks ‘silly questions’, who doesn’t solve or explore issues in-depth. The user is unknowledgeable. The user might not be able to see the difference between authentic and inauthentic code when shown in a film, while an expert will be able to tell. Mulvey stated that it is built into the spectacle itself how we look at the spectacle. Regarding the user gaze and the digital on screen, Dr. Zinnen argued that the user (is being made to) glaze(s) over representations of computation, since to the mainstream viewer they are incomprehensible, thus leaving them with no other ways to look at them.   

Dr. Zinnen illustrated her ideas further by showing a clip out of Netflix series House of Cards. Season 2 of the series contains a hacker subplot in which the government uses a previously detained hacker’s services against his will. U.K. experts advised on the creation of this storyline. The series’ way of representing this topic is pedagogical; it is helping educate the U.S. public about the hypocrisy in criminalising hackers. Meanwhile, it also creates a ‘usergate’ through the inauthenticity of the hacker plot.

In a talk which provoked thoughts about viewers’ acceptance of representations of the digital on screen and the assumption that we will get accurate information relayed to us, ‘Source Code in TV and Films’, a blog which claims ‘expert spectatorship’, was an interesting addition to the lecture. The blog points out flaws in the accuracies of representations of the digital in film and television. Its contributors are clearly profiling themselves as not the normal ‘user’, they are not passive in receiving this information on screen, they have the privilege of being an expert. Through this position, experts are acting ‘for’ the users, to make us aware that we do not just have to accept being made to watch a certain way.

Dr. Zinnen’s talk was engaging and provoking in the sense that it makes us consider what we accept as authentic on screen and how our gaze is controlled. These are not new concepts in film theory, but they are fresh and fascinating applied to this relatively new topic of the digital and representations of the digital in film and television. The lecture also made us question whether it is problematic that users (the majority of the audience) do not have more awareness about the technologies they use every day, and are in essence unknowledgeable about. This issue is emphasised through the user gaze and its passivity.

In an interesting Q&A session, Dr. Zinnen commented on questions about (amongst others) representations of the digital in fiction literature and the idea of a ‘satirical user gaze’. Considering the continuous developments in both screen media and digital technologies, it will be interesting to see how her research will develop and expand, and what its relevancy will be in the future.

Sanne Jehoul