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Specters of DemocracyBlackness and the Aesthetics of Politics in the Antebellum U.S.$

Ivy G. Wilson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780195337372

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195337372.001.0001

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The Spectacle of Disorder

The Spectacle of Disorder

Race, Decoration, and the Social Logic of Space

(p.126) 6 The Spectacle of Disorder
Specters of Democracy

Ivy G. Wilson

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter interrogates the idea of visuality in Herman Melville's short story “Benito Cereno” (1855) by examining the arrangement of space about the slave ship San Dominick. Turning away from the prevailing New Historicist readings, it argues that the text's fraught aesthetic sensibility needs to be correlated to the ambiguous social position of the African slaves. In Melville's story, the Spanish ship is riddled with improperly placed things, half-finished pieces of art, rude performances, and graffiti scrawling. “Benito Cereno” is best understood through its staging of art that are put into high relief if one thinks about the Africans as curators of sorts; the story sets the American Captain Delano's desire to restore law and order against the statelessness of the slaves whose insurrection is fashioned as a veritable example of Outsider Art.

Keywords:   San Dominick, decoration, New Historicist readings, graffiti, Melville, stateliness, statelessness, icon, objets d'art, zones of perspective

Out there,

in darkness,

stuck in the Middle Passage


[Ships] were mobile elements that stood for the shifting spaces in between the fixed places that they connected. Accordingly they need to be thought of as cultural and political units rather than abstract embodiments of the triangular trade. They were something more—a means to conduct political dissent and possibly a distinct mode of cultural production. . . . Ships also refer us back to the middle passage, to the half-remembered micro-politics of the slave trade and its relationship to both industrialisation and modernisation.1


In the early moments of Moby-Dick, after he has made the acquaintance of his new comrade Queequeg, Ishmael thinks to himself that the tattooed harpooner sitting before him has an expression on his face that contains a profound sentiment: “‘It's a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.”2 When the Pequod is dashed into oblivion at the novel's end, Ishmael is able to avoid drowning because Queequeg's coffin keeps him afloat. Notwithstanding its prophetic quality, Queequeg's would-be rumination about the “joint-stock world” prefigures two of the most recurrent understandings of the ship as an emblem of modernity in the contemporary criticism of Moby-Dick, one being that the Pequod is a heterotopia, the other being that it is a node on a constellation that comprises a world system.

Both of these positions are more fully illuminated when we consider the competing visions of the Pequod as a particular kind of space. The first understanding of the Pequod intimates that it is a Foucauldian heterotopia, an area that contains the multitudes or, as Cesare Casarino defines it, “a special type of space from which one can make new and different sense of all other spaces.”3 This image of the Pequod as a heterotopia is illustrated in the chapter “Midnight, Forecastle” as the crew—variously composed of a French sailor, a Maltese sailor, a Sicilian sailor, and a Tahitian sailor, among many others—join in chorus to the rhythm of the young Pip's tambourine. Sterling Stuckey has underscored the retentions of African culture that belie an ostensibly totalizing social death of black subjectivity and locates in this very subjectivity a poetics capable of unfolding a (p.127) liberatory politics through culture itself.4 This illustration is also reminiscent of Paul Gilroy's theorization of the ship as an alternative modality to the social formations of the nation-state.

The other view of the Pequod, as a ship of a totalitarian or imperial state is rendered powerfully throughout the novel as the wanton obsession of Ahab's monomaniacal pursuit.5 In one of the central chapters that comprise the final episodes, however, Melville's imagination depends as much on the language of spatial architecture as it prefigures psychoanalysis: “For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp—yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; . . . all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.”6

With chapters like “The Cabin Table” and “The Quarter-Deck,” Moby-Dick reflects the significance of space and spatialization in Melville's works. From the vast expanse of the South Seas in Typee (1846) to the office crevices in “Bartleby” (1853), from a love triangle where things become a little too close for comfort in Pierre (1852) to the regulated zones of production in the second half of “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (1855) thinking through the meanings of space in Melville's oeuvre is a necessary consideration for the author who once wrote, “You must have plenty of sea-room to tell the truth in.”7 In no Melville work is space more important than in “Benito Cereno.”

Melville's story about a revolt gone awry aboard the San Dominick and the subsequent efforts to reestablish law and order has been the subject of a considerable amount of recent criticism. In much of the subsequent criticism following Eric J. Sundquist's To Wake the Nations (1993), many of the readings of “Benito Cereno” have decidedly taken a turn to the historiographical impulses of Melville's story with keen attention to the relationship of the Fugitive Slave Law and the global economies of new-world slavery to the mid-nineteenth-century United States as well as to the histories of the Haitian Revolution. Other criticism has focused on Melville's story as a metaliterary allegory about the vicissitudes of reading.8 Still others have explored the latent issues of performativity that undergird the story from Eric Lott's understanding of the minstrel show subtext to Jennifer Jordan Baker's recovery of the high (formal) artistry of an operatic Babo.9 But in much of the criticism it seems as if the ship itself has been lost at sea.

The relationship of historical events to the underpinnings of “Benito Cereno” and, more generically, the place of the ship in Melville's imagination is an important consideration, but interrogating the objets d'art of the San Dominick promises to reroute our understanding of the story altogether. What are the ways that we can begin to examine the slave ship as a distinct cultural artifact? How can we begin to approach the slave ship as a physical unit and not simply as an emblem of modernity but rather as a material entity with a certain composition and substance? What readings of “Benito Cereno” urgently need is a (p.128) line of critical inquiry that analyzes the political codings of the objets d'art in Melville's tale. By turning to what W.J.T. Mitchell has called the “special objects” and “visual scenes” embedded in literature, we are able to analyze the ekphrastic moments in the story that underwrite its ideological purposes.10 The evidence of the San Dominick as a damaged space is everywhere with things strewn about here and there.11 It is, in a word, unsightly and hardly looks like what would be expected from a well-maintained ship. But if the San Dominick does not look well-maintained in the eyes of the American captain Delano, it is because the ship has been rearranged with “special objects” in ways that confuses the idiomatic expression “shipshape” and violates the underlying spatial economics of the term's meaning.

It might be said that the space of the San Dominick has been curated by the insurgent Africans. Taking Philip Fisher's observation that the San Dominick feels “like a museum of objects no longer in use” as well as Nancy Bentley's understanding of the museum trope in U.S. literature as cues, I want to examine how the story's preoccupation with the arrangement and rearrangement of outsider art is a metaphor for regulating social polities.12 To analogize a slave ship to a kind of museum space might seem specious but it is precisely the use of these would-be pieces of art—objets d'art that remain as mere things in Delano's eyes but are later registered as unduly sublime—that Babo and his compatriots arrange a counter-symbolic order that evinces their own fraught status as being stuck between freedom and enslavement. The meanings of these reconfigured objects challenge what Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible,” the implicit law governing modes of perception that circumscribe the fields of what is visible and audible. My central claim here is that we should attend to the ways that the effort by Babo and his compatriots to push these objects outside of the realm of art proper parallels, and is itself constitutive of, the ways that they attempted to exceed the agential limits imposed upon them by the authority of slavery.

The San Dominick is a contested space of multiple Žižekian symbolic orders—the American, the Spanish, and the African—unorthodoxly overlaid with and continually protruding into each other, stalling the national symbolic from consolidating as a specific fixed singularity. In “Benito Cereno” nearly every image or icon is re-scripted as a sign of sub- or extra-nationality. Objects such as the Spanish flag, Aranda's bones, and the chalk caption scrawled on the forward side of the ship, constitute a provisional counter-symbolic order that leans toward a new black subjectivity. In this sense, the objects by Babo and the other African leaders of the revolt in varying degrees create (as much as they themselves are created into) museum pieces and public art that are meant less to monumentalize the past as they are a sign of a coming community.

In the opening lines of the story, the San Dominick is described as having been devastated by an epidemic of lawlessness. Law and order, in the political sense, is a governing concern throughout “Benito Cereno.” But the story is also preoccupied with a subsumed question about the aesthetics of law and order, with how (p.129) one reads “Benito Cereno” given its architecture, its outline, and its spatial organization. By underlining the issue of organization and, equally important, decoration, this chapter seeks to foreground how space is mobilized to regulate forms of subjectivity, something that the semantic term “slaver” belies and the graphic representations of the slave ships can only nominally approximate. These spaces need to be read not simply as areas, as in domains, but as designations with specific coordinates, operations, and, as it turns out, political repercussions. More specifically, by deconstructing the particular precincts of the ship (such as the stern, cuddy, and bow), as well as the parts of the story that constitute the text of Melville's work, we are better able to decipher how space works to organize both the tale's textual formatting and its ideological codes. Analyzing the visual field of how these objets d'art are arranged promises to reveal what Michael Chaney, writing in different context, has called “the unspeakable and unseeable trace of a subjectivity not yet become.”13 In attending to the social registers that disallow the crude African pieces from being concretized completely as mere things or readily identified objets d'art, constituted and exhibited simultaneously as museum pieces and public art, I seek to uncover the ways that Babo and his compatriots (re)imagined art to articulate their claims for a reconstituted subjectivity.


As the tale begins, the Bachelor's Delight is resting in the St. Maria harbor off of the coast of Chile when one Captain Amasa Delano, from Duxbury, Massachusetts, is informed that a strange sail is veering into the bay. Dropping a whaleboat, Delano decides that he will venture out to assist the ship. With heavy fog rolling in and out like vapors, Delano initially thinks to himself that the ship resembles a “white-washed monastery” with “Black Friars” pacing to and fro.14 The vessel is not only seemingly off course but in disrepair as well, and Delano later notices that the ship is in fact a slaver. The San Dominick apparently was one of those “Spanish merchantmen of the first class” that moved “from one colonial port to another” (354).

The ships in “Benito Cereno” are planked, sea-bound versions of joint-stock companies and a veritable example of what Fredric Jameson has noted as being the early forms of a global network that enabled the formation of imperial capitalism.15 Given the fact that the San Dominick was holding 150 slaves in addition to other commodities, Cereno's “transatlantic emigrant ship” symbolically evinces the compatibility of slavery and the protoforms of capitalism or at least reveals how the slave ship becomes the site where these two world system overlap (366). But unlike the Pequod, which is ostensibly a floating factory that produces goods from whales, the Bachelor's Delight and San Dominick are more identifiable components of a global mercantilist economy. As he tries to discreetly gauge the condition of Delano's ship, Cereno learns that the Bachelor's Delight was most recently (p.130) in port at Canton, where its crew collected teas and silks. Because it was a major center for international trade bordered by the South China Sea, which Melville's readers would have been more aware of because of his earlier sea romances, the reference to Canton reveals one coordinate within a world system that linked various regional economies and, collaterally extended, peoples, cultures, and ideas.

In Cereno's initial story to Delano, (p.131) the San Dominick began its most recent expedition in Buenos Aires bound for Lima on the opposite side of South America. To get there, the San Dominick tried to travel around Cape Horn; it was here apparently that the crew were hit with heavy gales and then the fever and scurvy. But as his testimony in the deposition makes clear, they were already on the western side of South America, actually beginning their voyage in Valparaiso bound for Callao. In the aftermath of the second insurrection, both the Bachelor's Delight and the San Dominick make their way first to Conception and then to Lima, “where, before the vice-regal courts, the whole affair, from the beginning, underwent investigation” (637). Perhaps Melville wanted to underscore the irony of Cereno indeed arriving at his initial destination, albeit as only a shadow of his former self, but it seems unusual that the deposition and trial had to occur in Lima when both Chile and Peru remained colonies until 1818 and 1821, respectively. Ultimately, however, the references to Buenos Aires, Conception, Valparaiso, Lima, and Callao outline a constellation within the larger cartographic map of the Spanish empire and thereby evince a different world-historical formation engendered by imperialism. Both of these world systems, the global mercantilist and the imperialistic, mapped the globe and created specific destinations and particular locations such that even when off course, one could hope to find one's way back onto the grid. That is, one might be lost at sea but not have to be lost in space.

But this is exactly where the black subjects of the San Dominick were—lost in space. In the moments when the ship drifted farther and farther northwest off of the coast of Chile, farther into the Pacific Ocean, the enslaved blacks of the San Dominick must have thought they were reliving their first voyage through the Atlantic Ocean ad nauseam and ad infinitum. The distinction being drawn here, then, between being lost at sea and lost in space, is that in the former condition one might very well be able to still imagine a given location as a possible destination whereas in the latter condition the spatial equation between a present “here” and its conceptual complement of a future “there” is dissolved, producing a sensation, if not psychology, that one might forever be in transit. As Hortense Spillers has famously written, “Those African persons in ‘Middle Passage’ were literally suspended in the ‘oceanic’ . . . removed from the indigenous land and culture, and not yet ‘American’ either, these captive persons, without names that their captors would recognize, were in movement across the Atlantic, but they were also nowhere at all.”16 Here in Melville's tale is a Middle Passage that pushes beyond its conventionally understood triangulated zone—rather than being part of the Atlantic world, this story is set off of the Pacific coast, illustrating the global trajectory of slavery. In desperate need of provisions, the black subjects aboard the San Dominick were not only out of place but also out of time—not in the sense that it denotes the normativizing temporality of history but quite literally out of time in the quantitatively mathematical sense of the word.

If blacks stuck in the Middle Passage were suspended in a liminality between a here and there, simultaneously somewhere and nowhere, they were also subjected to practices that threatened to reconfigure their identities altogether. The Middle Passage was part and parcel of the processes that attempted to obliterate the specificity of their being Ashantee or Igbo or Fulani, among other distinctions, and classify them into systems of social formation that organized racial definitions and categories. Furthermore, a latent preoccupation of the Middle Passage was concerned with transforming black “subjects” into “objects” so that those very “objects” could be placed on the auction block for purchase, trade, or exchange like any other commodity. The Middle Passage was a particular form of commodification, one that nautical mile by nautical mile attempted to reconfigure the African into someone—and all too often, into something—else. A fundamental component of the Middle Passage was always about transubstantiating black bodies into commodities and, tellingly, also the means of production. Captured black bodies were entered into a process of commodification that subjected blackness to the dictates of a certain global political economy, and the revolt, therefore, disrupted not only the charted itinerary of the San Dominick but also the ship's relation to a global economic circuit. The San Dominick emblematizes this contestation of space, one that underlines the machinations of fraught subjectivities and one in which identities are in transit as it were.


Cereno becomes the very embodiment of Melville's duality in the narrative of the interplay between statelessness and stateliness. Although he is not quite stateless, the conspicuous quality of Cereno's appearance is interpreted by Delano as a sign of his ostentatious stateliness. When he finally makes his way through the throng of people, Delano finds himself captivated by the sheer extravagance of Cereno's attire. The loose jacket of dark velvet, the high-crowned sombrero, and the silver sword all place Cereno in a culture of decadence, marking him, as Nicola Nixon has argued, a kind of dandy.17 Delano thinks it peculiar that Cereno is not dressed in less ostentatious attire but then recalls that Chileans had not yet adopted “the plain coat and once plebeian pantaloons” and still “adhered to their provincial costume, picturesque as any in the world” (360). Delano's confusion here fails to translate the coded message of Cereno's appearance in the sense that Roland Barthes has suggested that every image has a rhetoric; instead Delano is calmly reassured by what he assumes to be simply the non-coded image of a quintessentially decadent Spanish captain.18 And the comeliness of Cereno's appearance is punctuated by, what Delano thinks to be, his daily grooming habits. But Cereno's dress is accentuated to the point where he becomes a caricature. Given the dire (p.132) condition of the San Dominick, he becomes a spectacle as he parades about the ship, making Delano feel as if he were being subjected to a surreal carnival and prompting him to think that Cereno was merely “masquerading as an oceanic grandee” (364). Cereno's appearance puts Delano in mind that there is something singularly incongruent with his look, that his attire does not match the setting and is but another illustration of the failed order of things aboard the San Dominick.

Delano's own Bachelor's Delight becomes the unstated example of what a ship should look like, of how a vessel should be organized. When he first sees the San Dominick, Delano had been resting in the harbors of St. Maria with valuable cargo. Although the contents of the Bachelor's Delight remain unknown until Babo later prompts Cereno to learn the specifics, one of the principal differences between the ships is the status and quality of their inventories. The Bachelor's Delight’s is contained and well accounted; the San Dominick’s, while open to public view, is in disarray.

Making his way to offer assistance to Benito Cereno and his crew, Delano is taken aback by the poor condition of the ship, causing him to remark to himself that the San Dominick is nothing but a “spectacle of disorder” (459). The most conspicuous sign of this disorganization is the sheer number of black subjects strewn about the ship in the oddest places. A random oakum picker here, a puzzling man who ties knots there, and a random coterie of strange hatchet polishers all seem arbitrarily placed to Delano, who, even though he does not command a slave ship himself, surmises that something must be out of order.

Melville's description of the “spectacle of disorder” aboard the San Dominick is accentuated by his particular use of the languages of race and space. In a free moment away from Cereno, Delano decides that he will engage one of the white sailors to gain his perspective on the events that have debilitated the San Dominick. Descending the poop, he makes his way through the “Ghetto” of blacks to approach the sailor (459). Melville's use of the word “Ghetto,” still primarily associated with the quarter of Italian cities to which Jews were restricted, did more than associate the ship with the later more idiomatic connotations of the word that would become increasingly prominent at the end of the nineteenth century; the word also associated the San Dominick with a certain configuration and topography, spatializing the ship as if it were a city on a map with distinct quarters, domains, and precincts. Rather than being a ship where space is properly configured, one where the ship's superstructure is governed by a subsumed mode of hierarchical stratification, space is flattened on the primary deck of the San Dominick, evincing the overall feeling that there is not enough distinction from the top to the bottom, that there is not enough vertical delineation of space.

Delano concludes that the San Dominick’s condition is a result not only of ill-trained sailors but also of improper organization, and his thoughts equally imply that the ship has been mismanaged. In ways that we now readily associate (p.133) with Foucault's reading of Jeremy Bentham's notion of the panopticon, Delano surmises that the numerous anomalies he witnesses aboard the San Dominick are due in large part to “the absence of those subordinate deck-officers to whom, along with higher duties, is entrusted what may be styled the police department of a populous ship” (358).19 Such a body might have been especially useful in one of the most vivid moments of “Benito Cereno” where a young white boy is assaulted by a young black one, forcing some blood to trickle from his head: “‘I should think Don Benito,’ he now said, glancing towards the oakum-picker who had sought to interfere with the boys, ‘that you would find it advantageous to keep all of your blacks employed, especially the younger ones, no matter at what useless task, and no matter what happens to the ship’” (361). Although he is startled by this act of violence, one that no less goes unpunished, Delano offers a curious suggestion to the Spanish captain that is as much about space as it is about regulation. Rather than suggesting to Cereno that the Africans be remanded to the bowel of ship, for example, or otherwise punished, he proposes instead that they be “employed,” fastened into place at a workstation intent upon one task. Useless tasks, therefore, were less about work per se than one of the means through which a monitorial system could better regulate social space by ordering and enforcing positions in whose ritualistic performance Philip Fisher locates aspects akin to a police state.20

An early signal of Delano's interventionist practices of realigning the space of the San Dominick occurs when one of his small boats brings the first round of provisions.21 As the Rover approaches, the black subjects are anxious for some relief. Melville's language underlines this sense of desperation by depicting the scene as being in need of control and containment, with the San Dominick’s black subjects “hung over the bulwarks in disorderly raptures” (464). Delano reestablishes the necessary law and order—“with good-natured authority he bade the blacks stand back; to enforce his words making use of a half-mirthful, half-menacing gesture. Instantly the blacks paused, just where they were, each negro and negress exactly as the word had found them” (464). After the oakum pickers quell the hatchet polishers, both blacks and whites join in hoisting the casks of water “singing at the tackle,” a fleeting moment that echoes the “Midnight, Forecastle” scene in Moby-Dick. This reconfigured spatiality of equality is produced not by the authoritarian impulses of a strict ideology of law and order but rather by a kind of “republican impartiality”: “The casks being on deck, Captain Delano was handed a number of jars and cups by one of the steward's aides, who, in the name of Don Benito, entreated him to do as he had proposed: dole out the water. He compiled, with republican impartiality as to this republican element, which always seeks one level, serving the oldest white no better than the youngest black” (465). Delano's act of “republican impartiality” here reverberates with what Melville elsewhere calls “ruthless democracy.” While in the midst of finishing Moby-Dick, Melville wrote a letter to Hawthorne, articulating his notion of a “ruthless democracy on all sides,” a sentiment summarized by (p.134) the declaration that “a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington.”22

This sense of disorganization afflicts not only the open, public areas of the ship but even the private corridors and zones of the San Dominick. The oft-discussed “play of the barber” scene has been analyzed as an example of tautology and as a theatrical performance, both of which complicate the dynamics of power and authority on board the ship, but this subversion is keenly prefigured through Melville's description of the cuddy as a particular space that suffers from a lack of compositional unity.23 Part of the cuddy had formerly been officers’ quarters, but after the San Dominick’s difficulties, the hall fell into a kind of “picturesque disarray, of odd appurtenances” (466). Melville then moves to an extended description of these odd appurtenances, from a claw-footed table to a torn hammock, from cane settees to a black mahogany pedestal. Portentously, there are also a misshapen armchair and a flag locker. Not only are things in disarray, they simply do not match, making the cuddy feel as if it were poorly decorated. Like Melville's story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” where a more pronounced cognitive similitude yokes two seemingly disparate places together, the incongruity of the objects strewn about the cuddy is intensified by a similitude that makes “the country and ocean seem cousins-german” (466). When Delano walks into the room with Cereno, his senses are assaulted by the unkempt nature of the room as much as they are by the collapse of the conventional borders of space itself:

“This seems a sort of dormitory, sitting-room, sail-loft, chapel, armory, and private closet all together, Don Benito,” added Captain Delano, looking around.

“Yes, Señor; events have not been favorable to much order in my arrangements.” (466)

The violation of space that Delano registers here is one produced by the dissolution of the demarcated perimeters that act as the borders that would properly contain and align areas. The cuddy is, in essence, all mixed up, with one quarter being improperly superimposed on another and another. This obfuscating of the would-be separate domains of the San Dominick acts as a precursor to convey the dangers of failing to maintain proper assignments, positions, and ultimately roles—a confused setting that quite literally sets the stage for the “play of the barber” scene.

As they all retire to the cuddy so that Cereno can be shaved, Delano finds himself amused by the “African love of bright colors” as Babo casually selects a bunting of many hues to use as an apron for the Spanish captain (467). Delano is brought to mind that blacks, by their very disposition, are somehow especially suited for the positions of valets and personal servants, and the tone of the entire passage associates Delano as a quasi ethnographer intent on decoding the cultural practices of the Spanish and the African. Delano can only see a jovial and happy servant who is all too pleased to groom his master. But Babo is actually in control here; he sets the stage, chooses the props, and directs the script in (p.135) a fascinating panorama.24 It is ironic that in order to complete the revolution, the black subjects must revert to a previous condition—that they don the masks that Paul Laurence Dunbar later speaks of—to effectuate the materialization of their escape. Delano finds himself nominally disturbed that Cereno is apparently so nonchalant about the use of national symbols: “‘The castle and the lion,’ exclaimed Captain Delano—‘why, Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It's well it's only I, and not the King, that sees this,’ he added, with a smile, ‘but’—turning towards the black—‘it's all one, I suppose, so the colors be gay’; which playful remark did not fail to somewhat tickle the negro” (468).

Babo, “that hive of subtlety,” is unduly aware of the symbolic importance of this particular accoutrement (644). Gaining its resonance through metonymy, the flag becomes the sign that associates a vessel to a discernible, landed territory while floating upon the high seas. With a locker full of other flags and a random assortment of other material laying around, Babo's selection of the Spanish flag attempts to resignify its meaning as a particular symbol. Rather than remaining an icon of the Spanish empire, Babo's manipulation of the flag figuratively brings the subaltern underside of imperialism to the fore. Already removed from the mast, the flag placed on Cereno intimates that far from being figuratively tethered to the empire, the Spanish captain was in danger of being cut off altogether.


By having Delano harp on the distressed condition of the ship as an indication of the faded grandeur of an overly decadent Spanish empire, Melville continually underscores the absent or missing stateliness of the San Dominick. This absence of stateliness is initially prefigured, however, as a kind of statelessness, as if the ship were somehow devoid of national affiliation: “To Captain Delano's surprise, the stranger, viewed through the glass, showed no colors; though to do so upon entering a haven . . . was the custom among peaceful seamen of all nations” (353). How utterly stateless the San Dominick is, Delano has little clue. The opening lines of the tale are replete with observation after observation regarding the poor look of the ship, from the frayed ropes and moldy forecastle to the torn sails and the moss-covered balustrades, all giving Delano the impression that the San Dominick had been reduced to a mere shadow of its former glory, which, “like super-annuated Italian palaces, still, under a decline of masters, preserved signs of [its] former state” (354).

If the country and ocean are depicted as cousins-german in “Benito Cereno,” then the correlative of the ship and house has an even greater resonance in the story. Ships might be microcosms of society, complete with their own set of laws, but given their intricate architecture with numerous rooms, cabins, and quarters, they also were a kind of floating house. For enslaved Africans, it must have seemed more like a prison house. Houses and ships, as Melville notes, both made particular use of privacy: “Both house and ship, the one by its walls and blinds, (p.136) the other by its high bulwarks like ramparts, hoard from view their interiors till the last moment” (355). The notion of a veiled interiority is exemplified in “Benito Cereno” whenever Delano attempts to go past the figurative anterior room of Cereno's story, to strike through the mask, so to speak, and learn more specifics about the San Dominick’s inside narrative. Even though the signs are in plain view, the public life of these things has an interior meaning that Delano cannot translate. One of the most important of these signs is the shieldlike stern-piece of Castile and Leon, which is more than merely an emblem or decoration.

Examining the things, objects, and writings that adorn the exterior of the San Dominick is fundamentally necessary to decode both the aesthetic and the political intricacies of Melville's story; for as Edith Wharton will later articulate, decoration occurs “by means of those structural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.”25 In another degree, what I am calling attention to by underscoring these particular objects is their spectacularity, both in the sense that they are staged as quasi-museum pieces on the ship and as a variation of Guy Debord's claim that the spectacle obfuscates the ways in which commodities have supplanted the relations between people.26 Here, aboard the San Dominick, is an instance instead where the spectacularity of these images insistently reveals these very relations before they are reified racially through the iconography of “master” and “slave” and illuminates the shifts in modernity between the violent and confounding histories of colonial slavery and early capitalism.

The stern-piece is situated directly below the farthest extremity of the cuddy, where one of the most dramatic scenes of “Benito Cereno” unfolds in spectacular degrees. Its placement—both on the ship and in the narrative—is far from random. As the cuddy extends out and forms an overhang, from certain angles its image would be clouded in shadows, becoming clear only as Delano closes in on the San Dominick. Its placement intensifies the boding impression of “shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come” (353). Looking at the rear of the ship at the end of the story, it becomes manifestly evident that the stern-piece is, more critically, meant to offer a different mode of visuality that competes with the shaving scene that unfolded immediately above it. While the “play of the barber” scene has the effect of being animated and dramatized in a certain way, the stern-piece is not a static, inert image. Rather, the image carries within it a subsumed imperative that prefigures how the action of the story will develop and culminate and, by the end of the story, is an image that is set into motion and brought to life. Interrogating the properties of the form of the stern-piece, including its imagery and its placement, reveals the complicated interplay between Melville's manipulation of the visual and the textual in his story—an interplay that is illuminated by an analysis of the story's use of visual culture and an outsider art that is quite literally raw.

Although Delano reads the stern-piece allegorically, as a sign of the deterioration of the Spanish empire, it also needs to be read literally, as an engagement (p.137) with its prima facie meanings that later exposes its recursive function within the story to legitimate a specific social formation. Delano first sees it while riding in his small whaleboat as he approaches the San Dominick: “But the principle relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolic devices; uppermost and central to which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked” (354). The figures in the image are meant to be not only abstract but, in their masks, anonymous and concealed. With one figure in submission, the act of subjugation is already an accepted phenomenon here in the stern-piece. Although it is introduced in the opening pages, its seemingly innocuous presence lurks in the shadows and, ultimately, guides the entire narrative plot. Throughout “Benito Cereno,” the stern-piece functions as both pre-text and subtext. More than simply corresponding ex post facto to a plot that will ensue, the description of the stern-piece essentially dictates the action to follow. But to make the plot correspond to the image intricately carved on the stern-piece—to make it not merely pictorial but didactic—the plot can only achieve closure with a complementary image.

Cereno has just bid good-bye to Captain Delano, and, at the crucial moment, he jumps overboard only to have a “sooty avalanche” of Africans follow (635). Delano thinks that the Spanish captain is after him and that Cereno's ever trust-worthy slaves are his allies. Finally, Delano realizes that Babo is trying to kill Don Benito: “At this juncture, the left hand of Captain Delano, on one side, again clutched the half-reclined Don Benito, heedless that he was in a speechless faint, while his right foot, on the other side ground, the prostrate negro; and his right arm pressed for added speed on the after oar, his eye bent forward, encouraging his men to their utmost” (635). The moment of revelation depends upon a transliteration of the fictions of representation into the materialities of actualization, where the good American captain transforms this imitation of life into a very real world, replete with its own scenes of subjection and acts of imperial domination. Delano's actions transform the static image of the stern-piece by animating it, by moving it from the second dimension into the third. Bringing this image to life, putting it in motion, as it were, Melville deconstructs and then inverts the aesthetic functionality of the image as a simulacrum by interpolating the real into the imaginary.27

Furthermore, the stern-piece determines how the text's numerous examples of tautology—those moments and episodes where things both are and are not, such as Babo being both a “master” and a “slave”—are put into relief. By animating the final image, the story confirms that Cereno was little more than a “paper” captain and that, indeed, a slave is nothing but a slave (361). As the scene unfolds, there is a curious substitution. The prostrate figure is Babo, but the position that should ostensibly be occupied by Cereno is held instead by Delano. The stern-piece of the San Dominick not only evinces the consolidation of whiteness as a kind of (p.138) racial confederation but also illuminates Delano as a symbol of U.S. imperialism, where his authoritarian inclinations over both the African and the Spanish are simultaneously veiled and coded as white hegemony. Rather than refurbishing the fading grandeur of the Spanish empire, Delano's actions mark the beginnings of an imperial U.S. nationalism.

As much as Delano's actions bring the image of the stern-piece to life, they also serve as the delayed reaction to the initial revolt. Promising his officers that the San Dominick had gold and silver worth more than a thousand doubloons, Delano assures his men that if they took her, “no small part should be theirs” (636). This is no “Revolutionary Atlantic” where sailors and slaves come to represent a community bound by the planks of ships.28 Far from “leaguing in against” whiteness by running with the black insurrectionists, the sailors of both ships come together as one (“November,” 462). Killing or maiming the black subjects in recovering the ship was much less desired than reclaiming the ship and its blacks subjects as property per se outright:

They were almost overborne, when, rallying themselves into a squad as one man, with a huzza, they sprang inboard, where entangled, they involuntarily separated again. For a few breaths’ space, there was a vague, muffled, inner sound, as of submerged sword-fish rushing hither and thither through shoals of black-fish. Soon, in a reunited band, and joined by the Spanish seamen, the whites came to surface . . . in five minutes more, the ship was won. (637)

Melville's language, which has been so precise in maintaining the differences between Cereno and Delano as being the distinction of national cultures, invokes whiteness as the quotidian register through which the Americans and Spanish locate their coalition politics. And, more critically, this is the one moment, however fleeting, that the Spanish are translated as the social equal to the Americans. The national affiliations of the Americans and the Spanish temporarily dissipate only to be reconfigured within a racialized dialectic that illuminates the black and white polarity that has lingered under the surface of the story throughout the text.


The story of “Benito Cereno” is contained by the functionality of the stern-piece as an objet d'art and its subsequent embodied animation; everything else is seemingly outside of the story, including the first revolt and the trial itself, thus making “Benito Cereno” very much a divided text. Given the literal placement of the stern-piece on the ship, the plot essentially concludes where the tale itself began: at the rear. What initially seems, therefore, to be a linear plot progression is, in actuality, much more akin to a circuit. That is, “Benito Cereno” as a text can attain closure only with the appended documents that function as the (p.139) stern-piece to the very text itself. Furthermore, when one considers that the stern is not merely at the rear of ship but, in nautical parlance, a term that implies pursuit and chase, it becomes unduly apparent that the stern-piece, although a dilapidated adornment, structurally undergirds the entire tale by framing the “living spectacle” that is about to occur on the ship, not on that of the enfeebled Cereno but the good American Delano (355). These contrapuntal images evince that “Benito Cereno” needs to be approached from the stern and that the text of Melville's story can be made intelligible only by approaching it from the rear, in this case, the appended legal documents.

The story begins after the revolt, and the reader becomes privy to the prior actions only after the San Dominick is recovered, and even then only by the scanty selective “legal documents” provided by the narrator. “Benito Cereno” is essentially a sequel to a prehistory that the reader is ultimately denied. Thinking about space within the story and the text, the revolt is both off-site and out of sight. The ordeals of the San Dominick are made to seem all the more distant and, perhaps, less imminent by the fractured nature of the text itself, which, like Douglass's story The Heroic Slave, refuses to illustrate the action of black insurrections. Yet whereas Douglass abbreviates Washington's actions aboard the Creole by having them finitely compressed in the linear sequence of his story, Melville excises the revolution of Babo and his counterparts and, in essence, makes “Benito Cereno” a sequel to an earlier event. The reader gains some insight into how the revolt occurred through the legal documents but nothing from the Africans’ testimony conveys late-eighteenth or nineteenth-century liberation discourse like Douglass's Heroic Slave or Brown's Clotel. It is these documents positioned as postscript that act as a corrective to essentially revisit and, in the end, clarify previous ambiguities. Moreover, they not only act as an explicatory legend included as a subsequent addendum—not dissimilar to Stowe's Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1854)—but they get realigned in the reader's imagination as a cognitive map to retrospectively allow one to understand what happened on the San Dominick.29 Within the space of “Benito Cereno,” Melville destabilizes linearity by inverting the sequence of present and past in his text.30

Ultimately, the framed court depositions bring closure to the text of “Benito Cereno.” Ironically, however, Cereno's deposition, like his silences in the narrative, is riddled with omissions.31 With the shadow of Babo still cast, Cereno is nearly incapable of speaking. Before the deposition hearings, Cereno furnishes his account, much to the disbelief of those who hear it. In the eyes of the tribunal, Cereno's story smacks of paranoid phantasm, and it is only after the “subsequent depositions of the surviving sailors” that the court “rested its capital sentences upon statements which, had they lacked confirmation, it would have deemed it but duty to reject” (637). Near the deposition's end, the court increasingly relies upon the testimony of the Africans themselves, yet within the deposition itself, they are never quoted. That is, there is a keen manipulation of spacing voice within the deposition itself. Cereno's knowledge of the (p.140) mutiny is substantiated only because “the negroes afterwards told the deponent” and his account verifiable “because the negroes have said it” (641). Many of the black subjects, however, remain silent after their recapture, an aspect that one critic has identified as “evidence of a consciousness that privileges the efficacy of deeds over words.”32 The acts of appropriation that incorporate the words of the enslaved black subjects literally extend the forms and meanings of court-ordered representation. It is all the more ironic here because Cereno now shapes the words of the very individuals who previously held him and his voice hostage.


The outline of “Benito Cereno” as a divided text draws attention to the very vicissitudes of reading. Read as the incongruities of interpretation between Captain Delano and Benito Cereno, the text seems preoccupied with reestablishing the law and order of U.S. political logic. Read through the vantage point of Babo, the text seems latently concerned with the rerouting and rerooting of black subjectivity.33 For example, at the end of the text, the “legal identity” of Babo is confirmed by the testimony of sailors because Cereno is incapable of speaking. The aspects of Babo's subjectivity that extend beyond this legal identity are made little known to the reader by the court documents themselves, save that he was “a small negro of Senegal, but some years among the Spaniards, aged about thirty” (638). Condensed in the testimonies, the court documents are presented as the most accurate source of the true sentiments of Babo and the other enslaved subjects. Given the abbreviated form of the documents, frequently announced underneath the rubric that “the negroes have said it” and the fact that they have been selected by none other than Delano himself, locating the subjectivities of the captured slaves by reconstructing their voices calls attention to the very fault lines of representation in the text. But to do so is also an act of recuperating the traces of agency, which have been pushed into the recesses of the spectral, to better theorize the correlation between agency and the idea of freedom in the black imagination during the age of global slavery.

Although the insurgent slaves have set their course for Senegal in particular, their actions have coalesced them into an interstitial coalition, indeed a coming community.34 I invoke Giorgio Agamben here, most notably his idea of “whatever singularity” as an “inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” to underscore the processes of collectivities that bind the African slaves as a coalitional bloc in a temporally or spatially delimited moment. As Sterling Stuckey has argued, slave ships “were the first real incubators of slave unity across cultural lines.”35 Babo, Atufal, and Francesco are reminders of the terminal points within the circuits of slavery—something that is further illuminated by the names of the other black subjects of the San Dominick that are (p.141) revealed in the deposition. The names of the four oakum pickers (Muri, Nacta, Yola, Ghofan) and those of the six hatchet polishers (Martiniqui, Yan, Lecbe, Mapenda, Yambaio, Akim) are set in contrast to José and Francesco, who have been under Spanish rule for some time longer than the rest. In fact, José is described as being fluent in Spanish, and Francesco, “a mulatto and fine singer,” was a native of Buenos Aires (638). The Ashanti hatchet polishers, apparently, were recently captured, being described in the deposition as “all raw” (638). Although they remain nameless throughout the text, the enslaved women are earlier associated with the Ashanti, putting Delano in mind that some of them might have been made into “capital soldiers” (472). In particular, their singing is a form of communication that Delano cannot translate and constitutes a form of nonspeech communication that indicates their efforts to circumscribe themselves as a coming community. This community was marked not only by Babo but by the various roles that the other black subjects played within this system, such as the four older caulkers who were assigned to keep “domestic order” (640). As much as Senegal might have been an imaginary homeland for all the racialized subjects aboard the San Dominick, their insurrection instantiated blackness as a kind of transnational politics.

The deposition's early declaration that the “negroes revolted suddenly” is counterbalanced by a later statement that Alexandro Aranda was killed to ensure the liberty of the ship's slave population (638). Death might not guarantee freedom, but the killing of Aranda belies the Hegelian formulation of the master/slave dialectic in very stark terms. More specifically, however, Babo and his counterparts are compatriots in name only, in possession of a conditional liberation with nowhere to go in the New World: “They told the deponent to come up, and that they would not kill him; which having done, the negro Babo asked him whether there were in those seas any negro countries were they might be carried, and he answered them. No; that the negro Babo afterwards told him to carry them to Senegal, or to the neighboring islands of St. Nicholas” (638).

This is where Melville's setting of 1799 is crucial; for had he set the story after 1804, the newly independent country of Haiti might have been suggested. As it is, with the ship in serious disrepair and without water, Babo and his counterparts would indeed need the assistance of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, if they were going to take control of their new itinerary and reverse the routes of the Middle Passage. The document that is drawn up and “signed by the deponent and the sailors who could write, as also by the negro Babo, for himself and all the blacks,” becomes a receipt for the change in their itinerary from a one-way to round-trip sojourn (639). It also approximates a social contract, protecting certain privileges and rights among those within the closed system aboard the San Dominick.36 Babo's statement urging that they push on toward Senegal intimates that only a return to a black nation-state could reverse the “malign machinations” of the Middle Passage that attempted to transubstantiate Africans bodies into something less than human (643). (p.142)

The story concludes with two competing images of the body being torn asunder: Babo's head and Aranda's bones. In the moments before Delano and his men work to recover the ship, these objects are examples of Frank Ankersmit's notion of representation as the “intermediate limbo between what is already and what is not yet reality.”37 The severed head of Babo has been commonly understood as the excessive, but expected, corporeal punishment of the leader of an insurrection. Placed on a pole, his head “met unabashed, the gaze of whites” (644). In her reading of DuBois, Spillers notes “the importance of the specular and the spectacular” in his conceptualization of racial subjectivity.38 Surely Babo's head functions as a device of the spectacular, as something that one's eyes are impulsively and compulsively drawn to. But the description of his head leaves the reader feeling as if Babo could still see, as if he is still specular, as if he were still staring into the whites of their eyes demanding recognition. Even when Babo is severed, Melville gives him a sense of near agency, as if Babo were staring back at his onlookers in defiant reconfirmation of his actions. Babo's head—“whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt”—echoes another curious Melville depiction of heads (643). Earlier in the story, as Babo finishes grooming Cereno, the American captain thinks to himself that “the negro seemed a Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue-head” (469). In Moby-Dick, as they share quarters together at the Spouter-Inn, Ishmael thinks to himself that with his head freshly shaven, Queequeg's appearance reminds Ishmael of “General Washington's head, as seen in the popular busts of him.”39

At the close of “Benito Cereno,” what remains is a violent inversion of the “Nubian sculptor” and the “white statue-head.” Babo's head becomes a bust of sorts, truncated and damaged to be sure and its function as an icon of imperialism is palpably discernible. Babo's head is not an icon of black transnationalism. On public display, his severed head allows the constituents of Lima to reconfirm the illegitimacy of the efforts of the captured slaves. Babo's head signifies not only the containment of an insurgent black transnationalism but an emerging racial order that arranges race and nation through the commingled world systems of slavery and colonialism. In view of Babo's refusal to have his testimony otherwise transcribed, the head contests the meanings of the phrase res ipsa loquitur, as part of the public sphere legal discourse on the claims of representation, by undermining its impulses as a self-evidentiary mechanism. As a violent act of separation that materializes a literary device, Babo's severed head pushes synecdoche to its outer boundaries at the very moment that the solubility of synecdoche is disclosed as a function of representation for both culture and politics. But, I want to emphasize that only recognizing or privileging the countersignatory moment, to borrow Derrida's concept, of the trial (if not the earlier moment of U.S. intervention aboard the San Dominick) threatens to disallow us from recognizing Aranda's bones and the chalk-lettering produced as the manifestation of a political aesthetic attempting to articulate a claim for a new black sociality. Both of these instances illustrate how art furnishes a source of autonomy and (p.143) opposition to the status quo.40 The efforts of Babo and his counterparts, who conceptualize and foment for a new political horizon through art, are akin to what Rancière identifies as “dissensus” or political processes that resist the “sensible order” and established horizons of what is visible and audible.41 To read Babo's head in this way, then, is an attempt to recover and interpret the meanings of the “virtual discourses” of his silence.42

The second closing image of the text is Aranda's skeleton. There is an exhaustive history of debate about the alleged cannibalism of the black subjects, but Aranda's bones serve a different function in the story as a metonym for the mass carnage of Africans decimated during the Middle Passage. Although the black subjects were vindictive in destroying the conditions of their bondage, the fact remains that they were initially enslaved and that violence had thus been done to them. As Sterling Stuckey and Joshua Leslie argue, “The slaves’ shaving down of Aranda's body is a symbolic reflection of a white historical act.”43 Spillers's distinction between “body” and “flesh” helps to illustrate Babo's reconfiguration of the Middle Passage. In Spillers's estimation, the central distinction “between captive and liberated subject-positions” recognizes that “before the ‘body’ there is the ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, of the reflexes of iconography.”44

As the San Dominick’s figurehead, Aranda's remains are symbolically important not only as body and flesh in Spillers's construction but also specifically as a corpus of bones, which remain unmarked and unidentifiable to Delano until the battle. Although the reader has premonitions that these bones may indeed belong to Aranda early in the narrative, placing the skeleton as the ship's figurehead unnames Aranda as owner and symbolically situates the carcass as guiding the return to Africa. Substituting the figurehead of Christopher Columbus, the placement of Aranda's bones on the bow indicates that the Africans plan to take a reverse route. Reduced to the spectral, Aranda's bones thus become a parallel representation of the bones of millions of Africans trapped at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. These bones outline a figurative network, a subterranean constellation, which reroutes the itineraries of black subjectivity through the dream of an imagined community. Divested of its corporeal attachments, Aranda's bones are reconfigured as an icon of black transnationalism.

By so doing, Babo and his counterparts attempted to figuratively put flesh on these bones and raise the dead—a sentiment that is intimated in the text with the reference to Ezekiel's Dry Valley of Bones. Given the pervasive machinations of violence perpetrated upon their bodies, reconnecting the flesh and bone has been a central preoccupation of modern black thought and culture. DuBois opens The Souls of Black Folk (1903), for example, by inquiring of his readers if he needed to “add that I who speak here am bone of bone and the flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil.”45 Likewise, the African American spiritual “Dry Bones” imagines the reconstitution of the black subject from the ground up, from the toe to the head.46 (p.144)

It is in this resignification of iconicity—an iconicity that gains its fullest purchase as a symbol for the anonymous dead—where Babo inverts the processes that have too often made blacks phantoms of the state. As Sundquist notes, Babo's power is exercised “through his uncanny manipulation of the revolt's linguistic and visual narrative.”47 Babo is an embodiment of the signifying monkey, one who, in Gates's definition, is a “trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus itself, repeating and reversing as he does in one deft discursive act.”48 It is consequential that the signifying monkey is said to appear at the crossroads because the Middle Passage is thought of as one such crossroads—a nexus where the cultures of the Americas, Europe, and Africa meet. Babo's attempt at reversing the traditional route of the Middle Passage, then, renders new meaning to the chalk-scripted words “Seguid vuestro jefe” (355).

The words “follow your leader” become an unduly freighted symbolic phrase throughout the text—not the least of which is the near taunting of the reader to either follow the narrator or follow the author. But my insistence here on maintaining “Seguid vuestro jefe” is an attempt to recover the closest thing to a vernacular statement articulated by the ship's black subjects: “Rudely painted or chalked, as in a sailor freak, along the forward side of a sort of pedestal below the canvas, was the sentence, ‘Seguid vuestro jefe,’ (follow your leader); while upon the tarnished head-boards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals, once gilt, the ship's name, ‘SAN DOMINICK,’ each letter streakingly corroded with tricklings of copper-spike rust” (355).

The visual depiction here accentuates how the differential in art is used as an index of the state of affairs. The faded gilded letters proclaiming the ship's identification are put into stark relief by the “sailor freak” writing of the phrase “Seguid vuestro jefe,” as if the latter words were graffiti upon a stately edifice. The words are placed below the canvas that conceals Aranda's bones, as if they were a label denoting a work of art about to be uncovered for public display. The words are even expressed in the deposition, as if they were a quote: “The negro Babo, coming close, said words to this effect: ‘Keep faith with the blacks from here to Senegal, or you shall in spirit, as now in body, follow your leader’” (639). But, more important, “Seguid vuestro jefe” signals the permutations of lexicons and codes of languages that black subjects have manipulated to state their claims to the social machinations that governed subjectivity and citizenship. Scrawled on the side of the San Dominick as a veritable precursor to outsider art, the phrase “Seguid vuestro jefe” challenges its viewers to read the writing on the wall that blacks will no longer remain apparitions of the state, specters of the nation, of this one or any other.


(1.) Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 16.

(2.) Melville, Moby-Dick, 62.

(3.) Casarino, Modernity at Sea, 12.

(4.) Extending some of the claims of his foundational Slave Culture, Stuckey has offered the most trenchant analyses of Melville and an emergent, coalescing African (American) culture in a pair of essays; see “The Tambourine in Glory” and “Cheer and Gloom.” These essays from the basis for his recent book African Culture and Melville's Art (2009). For more on the formation of an interstitial “black” culture borne out of the travel across the Atlantic and elsewhere, see Stuckey, Slave Culture, 3–97 and Gilory, The Black Atlantic, 1–40.

(5.) See, for example, Pease, “Moby-Dick and the Cold War”; on “Benito Cereno” specifically, see Emery, “’Benito Cereno’ and Manifest Destiny” and Franklin, “’Apparent Symbol of Despotic Command.”

(6.) Melville, Moby-Dick, 557. (p.197)

(7.) Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” 246.

(8.) See, for example, Eaton, “’Lost in their Mazes,’” 218–24; Levine, Conspiracy and Romance, 200–02; Nelson, The Word in Black and White, 109; and Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 151.

(9.) See Lott, Love and Theft, 234–35 and Baker, “Staging Revolution in Melville's Benito Cereno.” Other works which address the actions of the Africans, especially Babo's “show” and Atufal's masquerade, as performance include Franklin, “Past, Present, and Future Seemed One,” 243; Levine, Conspiracy and Romance, 208; and Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 135–82.

(10.) Mitchell, “Narrative, Memory, and Slavery,” 220.

(11.) I draw the term “damaged space” from Philip Fisher. In one of the most insightful essays on “Benito Cereno” and indeed the post-New Critical American literary studies, Fisher urges that we attend to issues of space. Outlining four principal characteristics of what he calls a “democratic social space,” an infinitely reproducible cellular zone, he finds in Whitman's poetry the promise of such a domain, while in “Benito Cereno” its very abnegation. See Fisher, “Democratic Social Space,” 62, 77.

(12.) Fisher, “Democratic Social Space,” 96; Bentley, Frantic Panoramas, 22–68.

(13.) Chaney, Fugitive Vision, 211.

(14.) Melville, “Benito Cereno,” 354. All later references to this edition will be cited in the text with page number in parentheses.

(15.) In The Political Unconscious, Jameson writes: “For the sea is the empty space between the concrete places of work and life; but it is also, just as surely, itself a place of work and the very element by which an imperial capitalism draws its scattered beachheads and outposts together, through which it slowly realizes its sometimes violent, sometimes silent and corrosive, penetration of the outlying precapitalist zones of the globe” (205).

(16.) Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 72. It is no surprise that Toni Morrison's Beloved and other writings, such as Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow and Audre Lorde's Zami, call for either a literal or a metaphoric journey across the Atlantic as an essential component in healing the wounds produced by enslavement and slavery.

(17.) For more on the political implications of this form of decadence and the “dandiacal body,” see Nicola Nixon's essay “Men and Coats,” 360.

(18.) Writing specifically on photography, Barthes has noted that images can have at least three messages: a linguistic message, a coded iconic message, and a non-coded iconic message; see Image, Music, Text, 36.

(19.) Foucault borrows Bentham's concept for his study on surveillance and the birth of the prison in his book Discipline and Punish. For a commentary on Foucault's reading of Bentham, see Jay, Downcast Eyes, 384.

(20.) Fisher, “Democratic Social Space,” 82.

(21.) On the topic of Delano's benevolence and, by extension, U.S. charity, see Andrews, “No Charity on Earth, Not Even at Sea”; Coviello, “The American in Charity”; and Downes, “Melville's Benito Cereno and the Politics of Humanitarian Intervention.”

(22.) Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1 [?], 1851, in Correspondence, 191.

(23.) Deception, imitation, and performativity function as subversive mechanisms for black liberation in a process that Sundquist calls a “tautology.” According to Sundquist, this tautology “defines not just the perceptual apparatus that occludes Delano's recognition but also the relationship of Benito Cereno and Babo, whose enacted revolt has been contained as something that is and is not” (To Wake the Nations, 156). (p.198)

(24.) Yet what initially seems a performance is in fact no performance to Babo. That is, the “play of the barber” scene can only be maintained as such a posteriori and from the viewpoint of Delano, not in real time and from the perspective of Babo or any of the other black subjects for whom these actions are anything but play. From the perspective of the black subjects aboard the ship, there is no delineation between the cultural performance of their ostensible subservience, scripted as nonaction, versus the physical action of the revolt itself in part because the end game remains the same: either they will be returned into bondage, or they will gain their freedom.

(25.) Wharton, The Decoration of Houses, xix.

(26.) Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 7.

(27.) By contrast, Charles Berryman contends that the “repetition of words like ‘prostrate’ and ‘writhing’ follows the movement of Babo from slave to master and back to slave again, and the symbolic stern-piece of the San Dominick finally suggests the interchangeability of master and slave” (“’Benito Cereno” and the Black Friars,” 164).

(28.) This concept of the “Revolutionary Atlantic” is from Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's Many-Headed Hydra where they reconstruct and analyze the complicated cultural interchanges between merchant seamen, sailors, and slaves in the maritime world.

(29.) For discussions of the significance of the appended documents to the text and story of “Benito Cereno,” see Robertson-Lorant, Melville: A Biography, 350 and Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 179. For more on these documents specifically as legal text in “Benito Cereno,” see Lee Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 144–45; DeLombard, “Salvaging Legal Personhood”; and Weiner, “’Benito Cereno’ and the Failure of Law.” For more on Melville and the law more generally, see Thomas, “The Legal Fictions of Herman Mevlille and Lemuel Shaw.”

(30.) Time has emerged as one of the most salient units of critical inquiry in recent criticism on “Benito Cereno”; see, for example, Luciano, “Melville's Untimely History.” On time, chronology, and memory in Melville's later work, see Trodd, “A Hid Event, Twice Lived,” esp. 56–59.

(31.) The meanings of Melville's decision to have Babo remain silent is heavily contested, with opinions ranging from Melville's sympathy with Babo to an illustration of his own ostensible racism; see, for example, Colatella, “The Significant Silence of Race”; Goldberg, “Benito Cereno’s Mute Testimony”; Haegert, “Voicing Slavery through Silence”; Jones, “Dusky Comments of Silence” and Lee, “Melville's Subversive Political Philosophy.”

(32.) Bartley, “’The Creature of His Own Tasteful Hands,’” 451.

(33.) I am signifying here on Gilroy's well-known concept of “roots and routes” where he suggests that black identity in particular but all identity in general might relinquish the illusion of a fixed rootedness and let the self accept its continual mediation through various routes or itineraries of being; see The Black Atlantic, 19, 133.

(34.) Agamben, Coming Community, 18–19.

(35.) Stuckey, Slave Culture, 3.

(36.) Heavily critiqued, the notion of a “closed system” is most closely associated with John Rawls's Theory of Justice.

(37.) Ankersmit, Political Representation, 158.

(38.) Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 67.

(39.) Melville, Moby-Dick, 847.

(40.) Quoting Michael P. Clark's introduction to Revenge of the Aesthetic (2000), Castiglia and Castronovo make this point in their own introduction for the special issue of American Literature; see “A ‘Hive of Subtlety,’” 426. (p.199)

(41.) See Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 12–19 and “Ten Theses on Politics,” especially numbers 8 and 10. Rancière's understanding of dissensus runs counter to various political theorists and philosophers from Habermas's “communicative action,” Rawl's “closed system,” and Young's “communicative democracy” and, especially with respect to what might be called the liberal democratic practices of the black writers I discussed in Part I.

(42.) Derrida, “The Spatial Arts,” 18.

(43.) Stuckey and Leslie, “Death of Benito Cereno,” 297. According to Harold Scudder, in Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels, it was the whites who shaved the Africans: “On going aboard the next morning with hand-cuffs, leg irons, and shackled bolts, to secure the hands and feet of the negroes, the sight which presented itself to our view was truly horrid. They had got all of the men who were living made fast, hand and feet, to the ring bolts in the deck; some of them had parts of their bowels hanging out, and some with half their backs and thighs shaved off” (Scudder, “Melville's ‘Benito Cereno’ and Captain Delano's ‘Voyages,’” 510).

(44.) Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 67.

(45.) DuBois, Souls of Black Folk, 2.

(46.) Ezekiel cried them dry bones.

Now hear the word of the Lord

Ezekiel connected them dry bones.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Your toe bone connected to your foot bone.

Your foot bone connected to your ankle bone.

Your ankle bone connected to your leg bone.

Your leg bone connected to your thigh bone.

Your thigh bone connected to your hip bone.

Your hip bone connected to your back bone.

Your back bone connected to your shoulder bone.

Your shoulder bone connected to your neck bone.

Your neck bone connected to your head bone.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Them bones gonna walk around.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

(47.) Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 156.

(48.) Gates, Signifying Monkey, 236.