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  • A Writing of NothingIntercession and the Autobiographical Subject in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative
  • Stephanie Youngblood (bio)

How can one write nothing?

Jacques Derrida, “Shibboleth”

The figure of intercession functions throughout The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, both as a means through which the text by Equiano is made legible to the white British reading public and as the condition of possibility for Equiano to exist within discourse at all. Here, the figure of intercession emerges as a mode of autobiography that both relies on the self as an object that can be narrated and promotes a refusal of that same objectification. The Interesting Narrative’s alternating modes of self-representation—as a means of accessibility between Equiano and the reading public, and as a means of constitutive self-formation—are necessitated both by the dominant discourses within eighteenth-century Britain and the demands of the autobiographical act itself. Intercession within this autobiographical discourse thus functions as site of mediation amongst the various discourses within and against which Equiano must function, as well as the conditions under which that mediation simultaneously emerges and necessarily fails.

Ultimately, Equiano’s failure to inscribe the autobiographical subject as object within the rhetorical structures necessary for subject-formation in Enlightenment market systems is productive of an autobiographical mode dependent not on the performative speech act itself but instead on the intercessionary function of language that allows the possibility for both the performative and the constative to function. Consequently, the figure of intercession emerges as both motivating and mirroring the need for, and thus lack of, a clear referentiality, as manifest most explicitly in the attestations to sincerity and honesty in the opening testimonial accounts attached to The Interesting Narrative, in the acculturation necessary for slave narratives to reach the white reading public, and in the failure of that acculturation to assimilate fully an autobiographical subject who does not readily conform to Enlightenment models of subjectivity.1

In his essay “Knowledge and Freedom,” Fred Moten argues that “there is an enduring politico-economic and philosophical moment with which the black radical tradition is engaged. That moment is called the Enlightenment. [This engagement] bears a generativity that shines and sounds through even that purely negational discourse which is prompted by the assumption that nothing good . . . can come from horror” (275). Moten [End Page 414] goes on to locate this generativity more specifically in the “vexed ethics of encounter” that emerge from Equiano’s initial sighting of the slave ship in his Interesting Narrative, even as Equiano encounters other ostensibly enlightened models of subjectivity that position the autobiographical subject as unified and coherent. According to Moten, the slave ship inducts Equiano into Western models of subjectivity that promise a coherence that they then cannot deliver, although this failure constitutes an alternate black radical tradition. In fact, the failure of these models throughout The Interesting Narrative indicates not only these specific possibilities within “the black radical tradition,” as Moten argues, but also the specific possibilities and constraints placed on a writing subject who cannot fully participate in the economies that constitute the legibility of that subject as narrated or narratable. In other words, the failure of Enlightenment models of subjectivity become the condition of possibility for Equiano-as-writer to emerge; Equiano’s inability to inhabit fully the subject position promised by Enlightenment discourse becomes the criteria upon which Equiano claims and performs his autobiographical possibilities.

While Paul de Man argues that “political and autobiographical texts have in common that they share a referential reading-moment explicitly built in within the spectrum of their significations,” eighteenth-century slave narratives, understood as both autobiographical texts that detail conversionary experiences and political treatises that advocate the abolition of the slave trade, present specific complications to this “referential reading-moment” (278). In fact, given the contested status of the (former) slave as a rights-bearing subject, slave narratives must constitute their own ability to function referentially, even though that implicit referentiality—the slave as already a subject—is seemingly necessary for the text to be read in the first place. In other words, the autobiographical speaker must be able...