(University of Sunderland)

“Radical Utopianism and Complicity”

I have been working on radical utopianism for several years. The project has so far produced two books, a book chapter, a journal article and seven keynote conference papers in China, Germany, Macau, Spain and the UK. Radical utopianism, I argue, seeks to bring about a ‘radical unfolding’ of what we usually take for granted. My concern with complicity, therefore, is almost entirely focused on how we might be encouraged to break with its dulling impact on hope, imagination and social change. In Radical Utopianism and Cultural Studies I presented a rather abstract account of how I think this might work. In my most recent book, Consuming Utopia, I attempt to make the connection between utopianism and complicity much more concrete, as I try to tease out what we can claim, and what we can hope for, when we deploy the term ‘the politics of utopian fiction’. My expectation from the ‘complicity network’ as proposed by Conny Wächter is that it will enable me to more adequately approach and answer such questions. I have no doubt that the conference organised by Conny Wächter in 2016 had a profound impact on my thinking and I am convinced that taking part in the proposed ‘complicity network’ would do a great deal more than simply repeat this beneficial experience.

“Darkness on the Edge of Mansfield Park: Slavery, Complicity, and the Return of the Repressed”

What we might call mainstream English history has tended to disavow England’s role in slavery and the slave trade and the contribution it made to the nation’s industrial prosperity. When it does appear, it is almost always part of a national celebration of 1807 and 1834, without ever really confronting the 300 years of selling and working enslaved people. In tones of self-righteous congratulation, England’s involvement in slavery and the slave trade is presented not as a story about something done that was incredibly profitable and barbarically brutal, but a story about the abolition of something that was morally reprehensible. It important to remember that abolition resulted in the compensation for the slave holders (a share of about £17bn in today’s money) and nothing for the enslaved. Moreover, as Catherine Hall et al. point out, ‚Slave-ownership is virtually invisible in British history. It has been elided by strategies of euphemism and evasion originally adopted by the slave-owners themselves and subsequently reproduced widely in British culture‘ (Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian England, 2016). To support this argument, they point to various people listed in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, supposedly there because of their contribution to the making of modern Britain. Instead of being listed as slave-owners, we are told they inherited considerable property in the West Indies, or they were West Indian merchants or planters. In 2020 demonstrators pulled down the bronze statue of seventeenth-century Tory MP and slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol Harbour. The debate that followed tells us a great deal about a certain type of complicity with slavery and the slave trade. Colston’s company, the Royal Africa Company (the initials of which were branded on the bodies of the enslaved people they owned), transported more than 80,000 men, women, and children from Africa, about a quarter of whom died in the crossing to the Americas and were simply thrown in the sea like so many damaged commodities. Within days of the statue coming down there was a national debate about the UK’s cultural legacy of slavery and the slave trade. The result was a re-evaluation of which cultural monuments should exist in public spaces. Performing his Trump tribute act in a series of tweets, the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, complained that removing statues from public spaces is to ‚lie about our history‘. Johnson also claimed that ’statues teach us about the past‘ and therefore to remove them from public view would ‚impoverish generations to come‘. But this is simply not true: statues do not exist to teach history but to memorialize and glorify the lives of mostly ‚great white men‘, often in ways that whitewash and mislead. Moreover, their presence in public spaces, maintained by local councils, tells us a great deal more about the values of the present than it ever does about what happened in the past. If Johnson were right, there would be statues of Hitler all over Europe. My aim in this paper is to examine how Mansfield Park, and a significant tradition of reading the novel, can be said to be complicit with the denial of the role of slavery and the slave trade in English history. Mansfield Park, and its reception history, might be seen as a small example of this complicity. But, as I will contend, a small example it might be, but given Jane Austen’s status in English culture, not an insignificant one. It has taken a long time, almost 200 years, but it is now widely accepted that Sir Thomas Bertram owns a sugar plantation in Antigua that is worked by enslaved labour. A world of elegance, polite conversation, detailed etiquette, and social grace is underpinned by the brutal barbarity of slavery and the slave trade. Austen may have found it almost impossible to say this openly, but when read symptomatically, Mansfield Park hints at a damning critique of slavery and the privileged lifestyles it supports. There are of course some critics who ignore this or see it as not particularly important. There are others who recognize it but see it only as the means to enable an allegory about something else. There are also those who argue that Austen intended her readers (her ‚active readers‘) to recognise the place of slavery and the slave trade in the world of Mansfield Park. Contrary to these critical and less critical positions, and unconcerned with what Austen might have intended, I want to suggest that slavery and the slave trade are a significant part of the ‚unconscious‘ of the novel, existing not as a coherent allegory or a fully workout critique, but as symptoms of a return of the repressed. Slavery and the slave trade, I will argue, are folded into the very fabric of the text – and a symptomatic  reading can perform a radical unfolding. To make this argument, I will mostly draw on the work of Pierre Macherey.