Media and the Affective Life of Slavery
University of Minnesota Press, 2022
Reviewed by Alexander J. Holt
From “The Restless Black Peril” to “Algorithmic Governance and Guilt,” Media and the Affective Life of Slavery endeavors to “historicize periodic cultural fixations on the history of US chattel slavery as imagined by and through media culture.” Pulling on an assortment of cultural products—including documentary films and television, educational videogames, ‘conscious consumerism’ websites, and art exhibitions—Allison Page provides a cogent analysis of US chattel slavery’s contemporary impact on socio-emotional norm development. Throughout the book they demonstrate the embeddedness of neoliberal race narratives in both historical and contemporary discussions of slavery and racism to further the conversation on contemporary racism and what Saidiya Hartman describes as the “afterlife of slavery;” a concept Page rifts on to theorize affect and emotion in a post-slavery world. By highlighting the differing manifestations of ‘affective governance,’ beginning in the civil rights era and concluding in contemporary times, Page emphasizes the social construction and active manipulation of emotions as a form of governmentality and control. This cross-temporal analysis unveils longstanding technologies of control and the methods by which those technologies shift and change. Such mechanisms, Pugh argues, buttress non-critical understandings of US chattel slavery and facilitate the de-racialization of contemporary discourse on equity.
Joining the chorus of other contemporary works such as LaMarr Jurelle Bruce’s How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind and Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology, Media and the Afterlife of Slavery challenges readers to consider emotion an intentionally managed aspect of both historical and contemporary racial formation while seriously positioning non-traditional texts as part of the archive. Such a call encourages—and demonstrates through engagement with Black Feminist Theory and Critical media studies—an innovative exploration of emotion management and a redefining of both emotion and archives. This work also provides readers with insight into the role media and technology play in making race. Considering ongoing debates about the importance of different sources of media for understanding contemporary racial politics, the contributions of Media and the Afterlife of Slavery are both timely and critical.
While the work does well to identify different media sources (like educational games) as an oft overlooked aspect of racial formation, the book is limited by its failure to consistently engage in a multi-axis analysis of race and power, as well as a hesitancy to move beyond a binary (black-white) understanding of race and racism. This reliance on the traditional black-white binary—though intended to highlight white supremacy’s role in structuring affective governance—may leave readers questioning the role that non-white subjects play in reproducing, or challenging, both white supremacist and neoliberal logics in their engagements with slavery’s digital and affective afterlife. Including more demographic specificity in their analysis of affect management—and more clearly exploring their interest in anti-blackness as an analytic—may have strengthened Page’s argument while helping to elucidate other non-white actors’ relationality to both Black and White subjects in a national context built on histories of Black enslavement.
These limitations are further emphasized by the author’s failure to clearly explicate how intra-racial differences in experience (specifically those experiences delineated by class, gender, and sexuality) may result in differential engagements with and reactions to slavery narratives. Chapter One, for example, clearly explicates the affective governance of Black American’s race-based reactions to texts like ABC’s ‘Cast the First Stone’ and CBS’s ‘The Harlem Temper’ but does little to acknowledge the role that gender has in structuring normatively appropriate affective responses. Instead, this book follows long-standing socio-political conventions by focusing explicitly on Black American men’s expressions of anger and discontent during the civil rights era. This is done at the expense of exploring responses from both non-hegemonically positioned Black men andthose inhabiting non-masculine subjectivities. Further, even Black American men’s affective responses are engaged to a limited degree as Page hyper-focuses on their anger and little else.
Considering the increasingly prevalent understanding that emotions are socially mediated by gender, class, race, and sexuality, an explicit mapping of these categories’ multiplicative impact on affective governance would have elevated Page’s overall argument. Such an intervention would have broadened the scope of the work and emphasized a pluralistic understanding of race while highlighting the wealth of work queer Black, Black Radical, and Black Feminist scholars have done to contextualize the destabilizing effect slavery has had on both historical and contemporary emotional economies. It should be noted that the author’s citational practice speaks to a clear understanding of the gendered, sexed, and classed dynamics undergirding their racial analysis, but the engagement itself fails to incorporate these ideas fully into the exploration. The final chapter, which explicitly engages ‘Black Feminist Cultural Production,’ corrects this gendered oversight by centering a Black woman artists’ work but may leave readers asking for a similarly engaged gender critique of the other texts explored throughout the book.
Where Page lacks a consistent gendered, classed, and sexed analysis of racialism, portions of the book offer a transnational exploration of slavery’s affective afterlife by establishing a definition of slavery that recognizes “the ways that racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism render certain populations ‘vulnerable’ to poverty, crime, discrimination, and even the effects of climate change.” This comes as a refreshing addition to the literature, considering race and media scholarship’s long-standing hyperfocus on the American aftermath of US chattel slavery.
Media and the Affective Life of Slavery provides a clearly interdisciplinary but historically situated look at a critical social phenomenon. It highlights the connection between governmentality and emotionality while providing vivid examples that readers can use to dig deeply into complex structures. This book’s cross-disciplinarity and easy legibility provides a detailed gateway into both critical race and critical media studies. It also provides a clear gateway into the increasingly popular exploration of digital racism. As such, Media and the Affective Life of Slavery is well positioned to be of theoretical and pedagogical use to a plethora of interested parties. Those interested in governmentality and social control will find Page’s exploration of affective governance of interest. Critical Race Theorists will find utility in Page’s structural analysis of race and racism. Emotion scholars will find significant contributions to contemporary understandings of emotion’s structural and cultural manifestations. Methodologists—particularly archivists—will find that this book offers a useful re-examination of the archive and subsequent textual analyses. Finally, social theorists more broadly defined may find this text essential for speaking cogently about the historical and contemporary manifestations of neoliberal approaches to race scholarship.