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date: 29 May 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Reviewing scenes from canonical narratives of slavery, this essay analyzes sexuality as encoded in the disciplining and display of enslaved bodies in exhibitionary spaces (i.e., on the floor, at auction, stripped and suspended for whipping, etc.). While visual, pictorial, and theatric renderings of slave subjection lend themselves to voyeuristic consumption, they also contain an ethical imperative to witness. This essay attends to the life-world of slaves made perceptible through an ocular register that incorporates and implicates readers in momentary acts of such witnessing. It proceeds by showing the ways in which first-person accounts of enslavement juxtapose spectacular and mundane depictions of slave bodies in use and in pain in order (1) to reveal the institutionalization of sadism in slavery’s quotidian apparatus, (2) to expose scopic terror as standard practice within the disciplinary regime of slavery, and (3) to challenge culturally dominant notions of racialized sexual difference that undegirded the institution and supported its expansion. This essay emphasizes ultimately the ways in which slave narratives utilize the rhetorical potency, the political immediacy, and the consumptive pleasure of sight to transform disparate individual readers into a galvanized community of first-hand witnesses to slavery’s everyday terror.

Keywords: sexuality, scopic terror, theatricality, testimony, witnessing

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