Utopia & Black Women (my engagement with Muñoz & Fanon)
This has been a strange year for me and theorists. Allan Sekula passed in August (and if you haven’t read it, you should read the Body and the Archive. It offers a wonderful frame for media studies/photographic culture). And then I learned yesterday on Twitter that José Esteban Muñoz passed away. I learned about it as Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven came on an internet radio station, followed by Perry Como’s Magic Moments (Above). The music seemed fitting for how I remember the experience of reading Muñoz and how I was feeling touched by nostalgia while understanding that this is someone who I hoped to meet some day in the flesh, that I will only ever know through the text and other people’s stories. I was working on the first chapter of my dissertation as I was reading Cruising Utopia with a group of Performance Studies people. We had different reactions to the book. It gave me the language to explain what I was looking for in that moment: Utopia. It felt like home. Here is what I wrote, a bit of my dissertation, in that moment… more than a year ago now I think. For it to make sense i should probably share the popcorn project that is part of the longer dissertation section this is excerpted from. on Trigger Warnings and Facing Oppression. This is the chapter that lays the frame for why I choose the site I do to start exploring ownership (of things, history, digital artifacts, hosted material), collectivity versus community online, digital movement, and the specific affordances of the digital medium that allows.
If the original purpose for so many of these images was to show how inhuman these women were, then seeing these pictures today as solely remnants of a negative past means we have not left the dialectic created by colonization’s desire to occupy not just the present, but the past and the future. Diaspora does not occupy just an imagined national space, it is a mode of being in the world defined by fleeting things like epidermal schemas, collective memory and history. Similarly, colonization is not just an actual state of being, it is a state of mind and of consciousness. The idea of a colonized brain, one steeped in values that see the West as central, either as the beacon of progress or the enemy, is not a brain that can break out of the net colonization. To look at the photographs and simply see a photograph of a woman, and accept her beauty, her being, her humanity, is a new level of consciousness. “At every meeting the brain multiplies the association of ideas and the eye discovers a wider human panorama” (Wretched 136).
“A chaque réunion, le cerveau multiplie ses voies d’association, l’oeil découvre un panorama de plus en plus humanisé” (Damne 131).
If, as the women in the picture is met, the viewer does not see the “wider human panorama”, if the viewer fails to experience humanity expanded, then they remain stuck in a veritable hell, the “hostile, oppressive and aggressive” world that will keep them trapped for as long as they are willing to stay. Unable to understand the true potential of a Diasporic approach of recognition as a way to expand the collective definition of humanity and the human, and to instead see all that which is and was out of her control. To see only the western baggage that existed to create the photograph, is to see the weakness in the net of colonization and not break through. It is simply a photograph of “her”.
‘Dirty nègre!’ or simply ‘Look! A nègre!’
I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I am an object among other objects.
Locked in this suffocating reification, I appealed to the Other so that his liberating gaze gliding over my body suddenly smoothed of rough edges, would give me back the lightness of being I thought I had lost, and taking me out of the world put me back in the world. But just as I get to the other slope I stumble, and the Other fixes me with his gaze, his gestures and attitude, the same way you fix a preparation with a dye. I lose my temper, demand an explanation… Nothing doing. I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me (BS 89).
« Sale nègre ! » ou simplement : « Tiens, un nègre ! »
J’arrivais dans le monde, soucieux de faire lever un sens aux choses, mon âme pleine du désir d’être à l’origine du monde, et voici que je me découvrais objet au milieu d’autres objets.
Enfermé dans cette objectivité écrasante, j’implorai autrui. Son regard libérateur, glissant sur mon corps devenu soudain nul d’aspérités, me rend une légèreté que je croyais perdue et, m’absentant du monde, me rend au monde. Mais là-bas, juste à contre-pente, je bute, et l’autre, par gestes, attitudes, regards, me fixe, dans le sens où l’on fixe une préparation par un colorant. Je m’emportai exigeai une explication… Rien n’y fit. J’explosai, Voici les menus morceaux par un autre moi réunis” (PN 88).
At the beginning of starting this project, I assumed it was something that would speak to people on different levels. When I thought of who it would affect, I knew, instinctively for me, the investment I imagined was with and for black women, and black people as a whole. As I have moved through the work of Fanon, I realized that this was very short-sighted of me. Just as liberating the women in these photographs from being just remnants of colonization or bad times for black folk around the globe helps change how we think of our own humanity, others can be affected by these photographs in similar ways. This re-imagining of a collective past, a new history, where we all existed in the same way, simply as people, transforms the fact that these women existed. We see them now, and it is liberator for everyone for us as seers and she as object who is now recognized as a woman. We exist because she existed before us. She existed before us, because we see her now.
The people’s encounter with this new song of heroic deeds brings an urgent breath of excitement, arouses forgotten muscular tension and develops the imagination. Every time the storyteller narrates a new episode, the public is treated to a real invocation. The existence of a new type of man is revealed to the public. The present is no longer turned inward but channeled in every direction. The storyteller once again gives free rein to his imagination, innovates, and turns creator. It even happens that unlikely characters for such a transformation, social misfits such as outlaws or drifters, are rediscovered and rehabilitated. Close attention should be paid to the emergence of the imagination and the inventiveness of songs and folk tales in a colonized country. The storyteller responds to the expectations of the people by trial and error and searches for new models, national models, apparently on his own, but in fact with the support of his audience. Comedy and farce disappear or else lose their appeal. As for drama, it is no longer the domain of the intellectual’s tormented conscience. No longer characterized by despair and revolt, it has become the people’s daily lot, it has become a part of an action in the making or already in progress (Wretched 175).
Le contact du peuple avec la geste nouvelle suscite un nouveau rythme respiratoire, des tensions musculaires oubliées et développe l’imagination. Chaque fois que le conteur expose devant son public un épisode nouveau, on assiste à une réelle invocation. Il est révélé au public l’existence d’un nouveau type d’homme. Le présent n’est plus fermé sur lui-même mais écartelé. Le conteur redonne liberté à son imagination, innove, fait oeuvre créatrice. Il arrive même que des figures mal préparées à cette transmutation, bandits de grands chemins ou vagabonds plus ou moins asociaux, soient reprises et remodelées. Il faut suivre pas à pas dans un pays colonisé l’émergence de l’imagination, de la création dans les chansons et dans les récits épiques populaires. Le conteur répond par approximations successives à l’attente du peuple et chemine, apparemment solitaire, mais en réalité soutenu par l’assistance, à la recherche de modèles nouveaux, de modèles nationaux. La comédie et la farce disparaissent ou perdent leur attrait. Quant à la dramatisation, elle ne se situe plus au niveau de la conscience en crise de l’intellectuel. En perdant ses caractères de désespoir et de révolte, elle est
devenue le lot commun du peuple, elle des devenue partie d’une action en préparation ou déjà en cours (Damne 170).
Perhaps, for me, part of this project is chasing Utopia. Rather than seeing Utopia as a mystical place that exists just beyond the horizon, instead, Utopia is the space where these women exist. Utopia, for me, is the place where black women, instead of being seen as “damned” or “wretched”, are seen as full beings, capable of living, loving, feeling, touching. It is also the space where black women can be loved, felt, and touched. It is the place where we realize that being “damned” or “wretched” is part of the universal human condition and to script black women as we do limits the potential of the Whole. This move towards utopia requires changing the lens we use when examining historic oppression and crisis.
I am chasing a Utopia where we see the right faces. Where our bodies are not grotesque, where our bodies are not the markers or racism and enslavement, they are simply our bodies. Instead, as the picture of Heilani shows so poetically and painfully well, we see where the real discomfort should be aimed, even if it is always just out of focus, we recognize it when we see it because we feel it. Rather than scripting these photographs as soul murder, I want to rescript them as remnants of lives lived, of a past that has always belonged to all of us, not the select few who were gifted with the ability to write History. Additionally, I want to show that Black women have always been.
We can begin to break away from linear/straight time and open up the temporal possibilities while at the same time removing the constrains of space. In doing this we allow these women to offer a different kind of nourishment. Rather than limiting Heilani and the negresse d’Adana to the hungers they satiated as though that is all that ever was to their life, we allow our knowledge of their existence to nourish how they face the past. We acknowledge the scripting that took place on their bodies and say this is not all they were and it is not all they shall ever be. They, and all the black women of the past re-present so much more as their experience are written on our collective bodies, be we witnesses, bystanders, or heirs of their experience. Rather than losing these women to the historical narrative, we are in a position to restore their humanity and ours simply by seeing them and their infinite beauty.
As I work through this chasing of Utopia, I hope to explore it by looking at the movement of the photographs as seen through the digital traces (She is Light), what this project offers to the field of critical memory studies especially as it intersects with the digital (She Looks so Familiar), and explore what all of this might mean for performing the digital archive and the performance of digital photography (She Affects Every Thing Digitally). As I work through these areas, I will be taking detours to explore individual photographs and imagine them in play.