I saw something the other day. On the Hottentot Venus wikipedia page, there was a copy of an advertisement, not well sourced. I was looking into the often told story of fashion being influenced by the Khoikhoi body type. Namely the bustle, that thing that protrudes at the back of dresses from the 1800s, when it came into fashion. Are you lost yet? It gets worse. Apparently there was another famous “hottentot” who was around at the same time as Saartjie Baartman. But, her body wasn’t treated the same, or maybe she lived a long and happy life, or something… her name has disappeared, but I found a reference to her existence somewhere in the archives and went on a hunt for her name and lost the original reference in the process but learned a lot more on the other side. And, as an aside, “hottentots” were shown for a really long time. I have a hard time with all the ones we forget for how strong the memory of Saartjie Baartman is… but I understand. I really, truly, understand. It is why I can’t bring myself to post the very old pictures of the cast of her body that was in the Jardins, even though I know where that photo lives digitally. It hurts to see. But, there were more. And they displayed the men and children too. Here are some albums from the 1884 international exposition in Paris (I don’t remember there being images of the children here): http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b77023200.r=Hottentots%2C+album+de+31+phot.langEN http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b7702319b.r=hottentot.langEN My relationship with these images is complicated. I will be addressing it in my dissertation (and I addressed part of it in my article). I mean, that part is basically written… the nuts and bolts of it is this though is, often people chose to go to these expositions. We cannot know why. But, often times, these images that come from these awful practices are the only reflections we see of bodies that look like ours in the historical photographic archive. And if we can step out of the colonial framing for a moment, and look again, maybe we’ll see something else. Maybe we’ll even find a name. For instance, the woman on the right in this series of photos is named Bebye Rooi.The names of the other two have been lost to history. I know her name because of the amazing work of Deborah WIllis and Carla Williams, who use one of the photos from this series in their book “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History”.
Anyway, in the midst of my research I found plays that talk about the Hottentot Venus and how in love with her body people were from 1814. I read the play linked below about a man who is so enamored with the idea of Venus Hottentot that he refuses to marry his cousin. She meets a man who tells her how popular the body shape is in Paris. All the women are buying clothes and house coats that allow them to have a body in her shape. She buys one of these outfits. Her cousin immediately falls in love with her, and when the real Venus Hottentot arrives he accuses her of being an impostor.
Just found a play called “La Vénus hottentote, ou Haine aux françaises , vaudeville en un acte” http://t.co/YGNIcIXzJz
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) June 26, 2014
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) June 27, 2014
I found a single reference to the “tournure hottentote” (hottentot bustle) in my initial French search. It was in a digest of court cases. The story is actually a little bit funny. A wife told her husband she was pregnant for the fourth time. He kicked her out of the house and sent her to the hospital and told her not to return home if she brought home another girl (they had three girls already). Well, luck would have it that she had a girl. And he didn’t let her come back. So with the help of a friend who had a key and had a neighbor who was on her side, when he was away she would have the neighbor go to the house and get her stuff, including a pot. The neighbor put the pot under her dress as he ran into her during one of these find and retrieve runs, in the back. He was very angry about the pot and said she looked ridiculous, with that pot giving her a “tournure hottentote” (you can read all about it here: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k4514944.r=%22tournure+hottentote%22.langEN). Since my French search was turning up nothing, and I’d fallen down a black hole of research for the night on this weird historical representation
This one was a bit painful because the idea of the body had gone from beautiful but grotesque (I think we understand grotesque but beautiful things) to monstrous… and it becomes monstrous at the time those three beautiful women above were in paris as well as the others in that album possibly. Anyway, after the French search I moved on to research in English. I found tons of photos American Bustles that mimic the shape, so I’m wondering if it was more an american fashion thing (will need to find a fashion scholar to ask). But something else happened… I looked up “hottentot bustle” and learned that it is medical short hand for Steatopygia, the medical term for having a completely natural body shape. The shape is described as having a backside that looks like it belongs to a wholey different body. But.. these women, men and children existed and exist. That’s why I think these photos are important.
and it hurts that this is the medical terminology. That is from 1994, so 20 years ago. So I did another scholar search and found medical references as recently as 2011 that call it the hottentot bustle.. and I learned that hottentot apron is the shorthand for elongated labia, or Hypertrophy of the labia minora, because that is something that was also common amongst the tribe. Another “medical condition” to describe perfectly normal bodies. That term also has an article from the 2010s, but I didn’t bookmark it and don’t care to look for it right now. So… a search for a name and a fashion reference (which yes, i found some in Vaudeville, but have not yet found a hard link to it changing fashion), led to finding out a bunch of other disturbing stuff. But it’s the stuff that makes me think it’s important that we see the image above for what it is, and for what it could be. I write about image 3 in my dissertation (if you click through on the image you can see a bigger version). The women are linked, they are embodied, and they are there. For some they might be an oddity, but for someone like me, and many others, it is one of the few occasions I see my body reflected back historically. And, despite the circumstance, their heads are high. They aren’t some marvel of modern medicine. They are just there. And they are beautiful. And I am thankful that I know they existed, even though I will only ever know the name of one. I never did find the name of the other famous “hottentot” from the early 1800s… she’s lost to a few historical footnotes.
So, I have an idea that is really a request. When we talk of society, we talk as though mutual recognition was a possibility that existed at the time of slavery. I think sure it did, but it didn’t. Exploring this was the purpose of the Letter post. Slavery is a complex system of seeing bodies as cyborgs, which to me, on some level means sexually viable for humanoid reproduction (at the cusp of recognition), yet not fully human. So, it’s about bodies that are resources of reproduction, both in terms of the almost human and labor, especially manual labor.
The thing that I think we all acknowledge but don’t actually interrogate is that slavery is the first real instance of a well oiled mechanical assembly line. That is why the transport of bodies as a labor class lasted for over three hundred years. When we look at the wealth of the west, the wealth that is now apparently in crisis, we are looking at wealth that was built on the backs of black slave labor. The Independent just wrote an article exploring this Britain’s colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after abolition. I tend to believe that society builds on itself. If the western structure for attaining wealth was built on being able to see certain bodies as less than you, as less than human, and relegating those bodies to do the labor that allows you to attain wealth, even as those bodies are forced into positions that, if you saw them as equals would be ethically unsound, I don’t know why we’d think that would change. (How crazy is it that the real wealth in the British instance was contingent on being able to dispose of the bodies!?)
So slavery was abolished in the west. I want to say not exactly. The slave trade, the need for slavery to be so focused on the bodies as technology, each with its own individual value, and skills is gone. But it is so ingrained in our culture, it has become such a point of articulation that slavery doesn’t need to exist as such anymore.
Slavery is a technique. As a result, we have situations like the Emory president speaking of the 3/5ths compromise and not realizing he’s made a horrible mistake… only not really, because in this system we have now, this slavery as technique mode of labor production, there are people who are 3/5ths. They are not in power. But they do the labor that ensures those with access to power and wealth stay in their positions. We have comments like the tweet below that instigated this post:
Slavery as technique. RT @sinboy: “We are ruled by people who think $250k/year means you’re poor, but the minimum wage is too high” – Atrios
— Jade D. (@jadedid) February 28, 2013
We all buy into the idea of “Human Resources” without realizing what we are saying when we speak these words. Hint, if Human Resources was really about serving the people that worked at the company/institution etc, I maintain that it would be called the “Office of Humanity”.
Even more than the things that are happening here at home in the states, we have people working in virtual slave positions around the world. It is the dark side of globalization and global connectivity through media devices. We can buy our cheap goods while the labor that went into creating them and bringing them to us remains invisible. Their labor is our pacifier. We are coddled by our ability to attain more than others. But, that’s part of the technique as well. Those with the bigger planation, or more stuff, are imagined to have more power. So we work to attain more. With that, I guess I should drop the link so we can all look at our slavery footprint.
The thing about understanding slavery as a technique is, techniques are in the background. We don’t have to think about them. They are built into how we move through society. The biggest issue for me is, as long as we get stuck focussing on and speaking about slavery as technology, we won’t be able to move it beyond the black body. As a technique, it is all encompassing. We all have a hand in ensuring the technique remains a part of our societal makeup. And as long as we live in the fancy big house, we seem to ignore all of those people in the global fields who are making sure we get our next fix of cheap goods… And I cannot forget the mostly black and brown people that clean the halls of my own University for lord knows how much money, but only in the middle of the night, when they can’t be seen.
Currently reading Cruising Utopia, The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz (Ha! he has a wikipedia page). It made me think of the image Your fictions become history (a current side obsession). It is reminding me that I have a very specific temporal position I work from. I think that it is something I need to… not get over… but be mindful of as I approach people working in different temporal frameworks. How/where we see the importance of time changing so much about how we approach the world. Truly. Also, I feel really dirty for having a temporal framework.
My Basic Temporal Configuration
I believe the now is transient at best.
(really, it is fleeting.)
I believe the past is about the future.
(as such, we create both the past and the future)
I believe that this means that the past is the key to the future.
(and the now is a combination of both the past and the future)
I believe memory is how we remember the past.
(it is also the key to how we imagine the future)
I believe that what we remember is faulty.
(and the past determines how we fill in the gaps in the future)
I believe the Digital fundamentally changes how we conceptualize & interact with Memory.
(and this is a big part of what I’m exploring in my dissertation)
This post brought to you from the confines of my humanistic little heart.
I am in the midst of an interesting internal debate with external consequences. I think I don’t like History. I am also so/so on history. Actually, I am probably currently rejecting any kind of historical derivative as well. Despite this, I am in love with the idea of looking at the past.
This line of thought started a while ago, but came to a head with the following image.
(I created a mini-project around the recent conversation/thoughts I’ve had and am having about this photo: http://jadedid.com/cameroon/)
Here is what is happening. History feels like myth to me. There are too many (w)holes and the narratives are to totalizing for my comfort level. I was speaking to someone about my project, and they said that they can never see the image in a photograph as separate from the history the photograph was created in. This meant that any photograph of black people they see are read as part of a horrible historical narrative regardless to the image in the photograph. [I am thinking of photograph as the thing and image as the read because it is easier than explaining Barthes]. This meant that, for said person, black people in the United States had no existence outside of the confines of a History of (violent) slavery. And, as this person was a black American, their existence was also articulated by slavery. I acknowledge that the legacy of slavery still exists in our social structures. However, that is not all black people are, nor has it ever been. If this is what history is doing to people, I don’t want it. But I knew this. I have major issues with the type/time (I wrote time initially when I meant to write type, but I think it works too. Yay Freudian slip) of empathy historical narratives of trauma create. I have a whole map of this system that I was not going to include in my dissertation (I was using it as a way to keep the work I am doing on track), but now I think I have to because I do not want this reaction. Nor do I want to be pulled back into the space of everyone always only being an agent of history.
There is quote that I commonly see attributed to Harriet Tubman that I thought of as I was going through all of this. I have no idea if it was really said by her or not, but I get the sentiment of both the speaker and the”not knowing” subjects being conjured.
I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
So, I move to the past. The hinge of how I think of the historical past is not History, but a temporal separation. I am playing with coevalness and presence, and the freedom that the speed of digital contact gives us. I am not saying we need to end History. I think we need it and it is necessary. I applaud anyone who can spend their life’s work looking at traumatic imagery and narratives. I am thankful they are able to write about it, theorize it, analyze it etc.. I am thankful for those who are out there writing counter narratives and working on understudied H/histories. I am thankful that those people exist, because I can’t do it. And if those people weren’t doing it, I couldn’t do the project I am doing. Histories need to be known. But we also have to accept that the past for many people was just that. Many people just lived their lives, just like we are. That is where I find beauty, at times tinged with sadness. It is beautiful none the less.
I have a question I’m trying to think through. Does the speed of digital media allow for the creation of history/historical encounters?
I am not in a history based field anymore, though my M.A. is. It is just a part of my formation, and an area of interest for me so there’s that…
Basically, we understand history as the passage of time, as something embodied, and as a before time/before now. The temporal aspect of history makes us and it contingent. However, the advancement of speed, that is, things moving at the speed of light due to the digitization of so much of our communication, interactions, and even our memories, has made it so the traces of new histories are vast and disjointed. In the past there were a few people gifted the ability to set the historical narrative and affirm it’s faultlessness, and reinforce its disciplining capacity by placing it in specific, recognized, archives. Often we talk of history as being written by “the winners”. Now though, people are constantly creating searchable, reproducible across time and space, public archives without the commitment or politics of what we previously marked as the Archive, and without being on the winning team. The archive isn’t as obviously being scripted by the power structures of society (though obviously there is power written into the code of the platforms we use etc., and nothing is created outside of society).
Still, I can’t help but think maybe there is no more History except for the history that exists in the browser.
The last big historical event that comes to mind before smartphones were the norm was September 11th.
My counter example is May 2, 2011. When I search that date on google what I am looking for comes up as the first result among 816,000,000+ other results. It should have been a major historical event.
The speed at which things happen now means there is no longer a future point in time where we go back and write the past. The past is written in virtually real time. we go back and look at the archive. I am thinking specifically here of the death of Osama bin Laden. In the past, the news of his death would have gone through a 24-48 hour news cycle, with those in power giving out the information to official sources who then passed it on to the journalist at most probably the New York Times. From there it would be on page 1, pass through other communication systems, and then be on the front pages of other papers, or on internet news sites within 12-48 hours. Instead, it was leaked, then officially announced, at which point the realization occurred that it was live tweeted by a random person nearby. People celebrated that night by tweeting pictures of their celebrations and posting those across social media while simultaneously being broadcasted live on 24hour news channels. Within two days, instead of the news just getting to people, people had already moved on.
When things move this quickly, I can’t help but wonder what the history will look like once it is codified and agreed upon and disseminated, and how all that will be done.