Marcus Wood's Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography seeks to unearth the cultural heritage of slavery in Britain from the eighteenth century to the present day by charting the discursive triangle trade between the three central terms of the title. Using a dazzling array of primary materials and moving adroitly among disciplines and fields, Wood locates British discussions of slavery in the context of evangelical social reform, pornographic reading practices, and the cult of sensibility. Like Wood's
... remarkable Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (2000 , Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography weaves together eighteenth-and nineteenth-century representations of slavery and their modern incarnations to argue that the legacy of slavery haunts life in Britain to the present day. Theoretically informed and provocatively and passionately argued, Wood's book uses close readings of texts and careful historical contextualization to strip away the rhetorical camouflage that hides the trauma of slavery in seemingly plain sight. Drawing on Shoshana Felman, Paul de Man, and Primo Levi's work on Holocaust testimony, Wood examines how the attempt to capture the experience of the slave may aestheticize, exploit, or appropriate others' suffering. In Wood's account, the empathetic subject may become a kind of affective vampire, siphoning pleasurable feeling -even sexual pleasure -from the wracked body of the slave. Wood's analysis of empathy's theater of cruelty usefully qualifies recent accounts of the sociable effects of sensibility. Although not intended as a survey, the book covers a dazzling amount of territory. The literary trajectory of the argument embraces the writings of late eighteenth-century evangelical and former slave-trader John Newton and the poet William Cowper, all the major Romantic poets (excepting Byron), and novelists from Austen and Brontë to their modern counterparts, Caryl Downloaded from Brill.com02/09/2020 07:14:56PM via free access BOOK REVIEWS 105 the powerful currents that unite past and present at times obscures the material and economic factors that shape historical causality. Yet the troubling questions posed by the book and the provocative and insightful answers Wood has tendered are a measure of the ambitious scope and achievement of Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography. If the legacy of slavery continues to make itself felt, it is in part because of its discomfiting capacity to make us feel.