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  • Symposium–2018 Neal A. Maxwell Lecture2018 Neal A. Maxwell Lecture, Introduction
  • Steven Johnston (bio)

Elisabeth R. Anker delivered the 2018 Maxwell lecture, "'White and Deadly': The Sweet Taste of Freedom in a Global Era." The essay forms part of Anker's larger book project entitled Ugly Freedoms. She argues that sugar's intercontinental history discloses critical dimensions of freedom's lived history and practice ordinarily denied or disavowed. Sugar as "object" (instead of text) forms part of freedom's "gustatory archive." Excavating the brutal plantation system on Barbados (the greatest producer of sugar in the Caribbean) as well as the work of John Locke (sugar slave trade profiteer), Anker offers a disconcerting genealogy of modern freedom tracing its implication in mastery, enslavement, domination, and dispossession, the constitutive flip-side of progressive stories about it that celebrate individual choice, self-possession, the rule of law, and private property. What's more, the history of sugar, given the enormous wealth it generated, is linked to the rise of industrial capitalism, the origins of which are linked to colonialism and slavery. Freedom is thus ugly at its core, as the liberty and prosperity of white Europeans is dependent on the enslavement, misery, and death of imported Africans. "Sugar," she argues, "is what freedom tastes like." What's more, Barbados was indispensable to the settlement of the American colonies: Carolina was conquered largely to support Barbados, which was anything but self-sufficient, its extermination economy concentrated solely on sugar. This analysis ups the ante on critical accounts of founding and Locke's place in the history of early modern liberty with freedom and slavery (combined with dispossession) tied together from the start. Anker concludes her essay with an analysis of Kara Walker's Marvelous Sugar Baby, a gigantic black female sphinxlike sculpture made of sugar briefly on display in 2014 in the former Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn. This extraordinary artwork initiated a "sensorial narrative of ugly freedom" enabling its viewers to move from (initially) experiencing the feel and smell of sugar as "sweet and lively…[to] …something so horrible and deathly." Sugar Baby made it possible to imagine freedom "beyond the sugar plantation," that is, beyond mastery and domination, property relations and control, beyond any one individual.

Lida Maxwell ponders the alternative direction in which Anker takes contemporary critical thinking about liberal freedom's implication [End Page 166] with imperialism and colonialism. Rather than focus on liberalism's contradictory principles, she notes that Anker turns to freedom's lived (that is, material, embodied, violent, global) experience through the commodity of sugar. This allows her to "connect our sensorium with our politics," and to connect our ordinary tastes to sugar's ugly history of slavery and exploitation. Yet sugar is also a pleasure that masks the violence that produced it and Maxwell "complicates" this line of Anker's thought by exploring pleasure's important relationship to freedom asking, while not ignoring its constitutive underside, if sugar can be linked to different kinds of pleasure and freedom, especially nonsovereign forms. She engages Locke, Hannah Arendt, Audre Lorde and Kara Walker, analyzing Locke's invention and incitement of what she calls "appropriative pleasures," a European prerogative, part of "the distorting sensorial frame that liberalism enacts." This serves as a prelude to theorizing sugar tasting like something other than liberal freedom. The pleasure of another kind of freedom, that is, can taste different. Here Maxwell turns to Lorde and Walker to imagine the inspirational possibility of risky, ambiguous, nonsovereign forms of pleasure and freedom "that cut through and across racial hierarchy and power differences."

Andrew Dilts zeroes in on Anker's treatment of the ancient dialectic between freedom and slavery that is continually being recovered and practiced in new forms. He observes how easy it is to point out that this is the case—that modern liberal freedom is practiced through violence," which Anker knows. It is more important, then, to demonstrate "how it has come to be this way." Delineating the "how" matters insofar as the historical contingencies that produced the dialectic reveal that other arrangements or outcomes were—and thus remain—possible. "Cure" rather than "diagnosis" is the challenge. The question becomes not just...


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pp. 166-168
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