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Nicole Kaiser CC ’20: A Response to Shades of Intimacy: Women in the Time of Revolution with Hortense Spillers

A Response to Shades of Intimacy: Women in the Time of Revolution with Hortense Spillers          

by Nicole Kaiser CC ’20

Hortense Spillers introduced her talk with one of the greatest ideological paradoxes of the 18th century, involving the United States, France, and their imperialist domination over African states: how can a nation that stands for freedom practice slavery? In her lecture, Spillers complicates conceptions of 18th century politics, Western powers, and the history of the African slave trade by challenging the idea of what is means to be human.

With a masterful manipulation of language, as exemplified in the title of her talk, Spillers played with different associations of the word “labor” to describe both the manual labor of slaves and the labor of bearing children in coercive sexual relationships. Explicitly defining the separation between the master’s family and the “shadow family,” she argued that a master’s ownership of his own enslaved children cannot allow for intimacy in a system that encourages the differentiation between the family and the “other.”

Spillers also discussed the destruction of the “cultural history of touch” at the onset of the 18th century, using the powerful binaries of body and flesh, and belonging citizen and alien body. Spillers asserted that if a body cannot prevent or ward off another’s touch, if it can be invaded, entered, or penetrated by coercive power, then the touch is no longer intimacy, but now defined as violence. How can intimacy, a word associated with love and healing, also describe relations that violate and wound? In her discussion on captive bodies, Spillers drew on the alienation from lawful protection and the blurred lines between animal life and human life that characterized master-slave relations. She also considered how sex, gender, and race function differently in private and public settings, arguing that the public master-slave social contract outweighs any private personal sentimental feelings if one partner involved is not self-willing or self-owning.

Spillers focused on the relationship, or lack thereof, between Sally Hemings and her master, Thomas Jefferson. How, she asked, can love and intimacy possibly exist at this inter-racial crossing between a master and slave? Close proximity, she argued, is not reliable as a measure of social cohesion and does not constitute as “intimacy.” A consensual, intimate relationship is not possible between master and slave if the master can sell off his sexual partner and shadow children for profit. Spillers claimed that this social order is not conducive to feelings of love and intimacy. Love under conditions where there is no law, no protection, and an arbitrary abuse of power is not love. Love does not and will not matter if it is not free.

Spillers’ evaluation of master-slave relations and redefinition of intimacy made me question the implications of historical events I previously thought I understood. Through this critical lens of gender and sexuality, Spillers demonstrated the ways we can examine the fractured gender and power dynamics of other political movements, historical trends, and societal patterns.

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