Symposium Introduction

Samantha Pinto’s Infamous Bodies has changed conversations in the field of Black feminist studies, insisting not only on the importance of celebrity as an analytic, but also centering difficult and challenging objects as necessary for the continued vibrancy of our field. Pinto’s book centers the category of celebrity as a way in which Black women come into visibility, and as bodies (famous and infamous) who come to hold cultural and political desires, attachments, and longings. Pinto treats celebrity as a “genre of black political history, one that foregrounds culture, femininity, and media consumption as not merely reflective of, ancillary to, or compensation for black exclusion from formal politics, but as the grounds of the political itself” (3). What do we want from Black women celebrities, Pinto asks, not only in the moment of their fame/infamy, but in the decades and centuries to follow, when their stories are obsessively told and retold? In probing these longings, Pinto pushes her readers—and the fields of Black studies and gender studies—from what she terms the “attendant genres of heroism and tragedy as the model of black political subjectivity” (10) toward a delightfully uncomfortable embrace of uncertainty and vulnerability. She turns attention to Phillis Wheatley, Sarah Baartman, Sally Hemmings, Mary Seacole, and Sara Forbes Bonetta, all of whom have proven to be “difficult” in their complexity, and in their challenges to categories of freedom, consent, contract, and citizenship. In so doing, she suggests the importance of difficult and uncomfortable figures for Black feminist scholarship, as it is these figures that can challenge and unsettle entrenched conceptions of race, rights, and representation. Pinto’s book is breathtaking in its intellectual reach, speaking across multiple fields, including Black feminist theory, literary studies, performance studies, and ongoing debates about rights (and the afterlives of rights) in critical legal studies. The responses to Pinto’s book—from scholars working across fields—are truly a testament to the interdisciplinary reach and provocativeness of Infamous Bodies, a book which has already prompted necessary conversations.

Response

The Racial Lure of Transnational Bodies

Dear Samantha,

 

I write to you while sitting in my office in Oakland (unceded land of the Mukwekma/Ohlone peoples) in this time of terror and hope. Your recent work has given me and all your readers much to think about regarding the limits of “the” (?) human, of black female bodies, of archives, infamy, and vulnerability.

In reorganizing my home office (I have not been to Stanford in many months now), I came across some notes I made for the panel we did at the Cultural Studies Association in 2011 with Francesca Royster and Deb Parades. Do you recall that? The panel was titled after your now second book, Infamous Bodies—and the panel’s subtitle was “the racial lure of transnational bodies.” I think that you presented what became the Mary Seacole chapter! I shared work on Edmonia Lewis (about whom more below). Although you changed the subtitle of your book to “Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights,” I have to say I also loved “the racial lure of transnational bodies.”  The word “lure” is a near rhyme with allure and suggests celebrity. So, too, that the idea of “transnational bodies,” as opposed to “early black women’s celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights” helps us to conceptualize these figures as bodies in motion, or to invoke Daphne Brooks’s work, “in dissent.” What do you think about these ideas in retrospect? As it turned out, infamy is the keyword of the title. A third meaning of this term is: “(of a person) deprived of all or some citizens’ rights as a consequence of conviction for a serious crime.” You mention “criminalization” at least four times in the book, imagining this as a horizon of possibility in the post-civil rights imaginary for these vulnerable black female bodies. But how do you understand the criminal aspect here? Also, since vulnerability appears much more throughout the text, did you think about using it in the title? These questions speak to the through line and major arguments in the book.

Before turning to the “inside” of the book, I want to say a word about the para-text or rather, the cover art—Heather Agyepong’s wonderful “Too Many Blackamoors #2” (2015) that you analyze in the penultimate chapter. The cropping of the photograph is perfect and viewers can imagine the image reflected, but not seen, in the elaborate compact the model holds in her right hand. The figure’s gaze is intense: the brow furrowed, the lace collar and ruff of her costume fall into perfect curves while the lighting of the black-and-white image is such that the jacquard silk shimmers “alluringly” and the dark silk curtain appears like framing rays of sunshine setting off the pristine braids held back by black bobby pin and haircap, the single pearl earring serving as a singular reminder of global commodity culture, and of conventions of beauty, luxury, and colonialism. I think this image sets the stage, as it were, for your subsequent analyses.

Speaking generally, this book joins other crucial considerations of black women’s celebrity as it pertains to questions of subjection. I marveled at how this work both diverges and follows from your first book, Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic. While the former focused on form, highlighting writers, the latter focuses on political figures in multiple discourses. I think that you have written an erudite, wide-ranging study that opens up crucial questions about black women’s subjectivity. I would love to hear more about your decision to include this specific concatenation of actual/historical black female figures—a poet, a concubine, a curiosity, a consoler, and a consort (namely, Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta). You assert that these figures reverberate in the cultural field, that “in their celebrity, they are archived” (24). Here, I wanted a more trenchant critique of celebrity that might account more for the cautions of “charismatic” figures critiqued by Erica Edwards and Mia Mask. What of these named figures’ singularity? Of their celebrated “two bodies”: the flesh and its infinite signification? I think that you gesture towards the differences here with your attention to contemporary revisions of these subjects. You make clear that aspects of these bodies pose profound questions about “race, rights and difference” (to misquote the title of a famous volume on a related topic)—whether about consent, contracts, concubinage, civic desire, celebrity, or citizenship. Indeed, your work pertains to many major questions that cross temporalities, genres, and nation-states. The sheer scope of this work leads me to ask about the differences among your subjects that are glossed over in the text. For example, does it matter that Hemings is enslaved in America whereas Seacole is a colonial citizen in Great Britain? Also, if infamy and the infamous have legal ties to criminality—what exactly are the crimes of these bodies? Or rather, how do you distinguish between the juridical and ontological or other discursive formations? Is it merely that they have been or could be categorized as black female subjects? In other words, I would love to hear more about your decision to deploy this term in particular. I wondered as well if you think these women are now famous rather than infamous?

If, to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, violence is “constitutive of identity,” how does your work account for difference? I ask since your study highlights “vulnerability” as a means of “evoking injury, threat, precarity, and paternalism as well as concomitant displays of the force of the security state and rhetorics of personal entitlement and responsibility” (20). Moreover, you argue “the social contract that binds society together should be fashioned around the concept of the vulnerable subject, a construct that would displace the autonomous and independent liberal subject that currently serves to define the core responsibilities of policy and law.” As such, your project joins a longer critique of neoliberal human rights and conceptions of freedom that limit or rather, pose certain subjects as the limit of the human. Here, you imagine “black women’s experience in Enlightenment modernity as the center of political subjectivity” (22). Is this center ground zero? The horizon that will, as proposed in the Combahee River Collective, be the measure of freedom for all? Whose freedom, what freedom, and how? Anne Cubilié’s book, Women Witnessing Terror, like Nyugen’s work you cite, goes a long way toward critiquing the “universal” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Your project is aligned with such critiques and this is its promise. You read with critical distance, desiring “repair and resistance” rather than an impossible quest for “mutual reparations” (19). In this, you are in dialogue with Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman and so many other key scholars of black female subjectivity. I read this work with interest since I have been working on a book about related subject, the nineteenth century, “infamous” Afro-Native (Black-Ojibwe) sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907). Having learned from your astute critique of so-called universal rights discourse, I think that Lewis might be read as an “infamous” figure. I have resisted reading her as “anomalous” following Phil Deloria’s insights in his wonderful study Indians in Unexpected Places, which argues that the invocation of the term serves to limit the horizons of expectation and affirm stereotypes. It seems to me that your study cautions those who would seek, miraculously, to revive these bodies as whole, holy, and heroic resisters of oppression; rather, in my reading, you wish to have them remain partial, their interiority inaccessible (and perhaps unnecessary for a certain kind of Enlightenment, cartesian subject) and yet their traces—in ink, DNA, albumen as material moments of memory.

Finally, your book made me return to one of my favorite works of art: Lorraine O’Grady’s brilliant photomontage diptych “The Clearing: or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me” (1991) from “Body Is the Ground of My Experience” or “BodyGround” for short. These unrelated photos were shown together at the INTAR Gallery in NYC 1991. Like your work, I believe these photos are about social justice, about care rather than cure (4)—which is the crux of your argument about why these black women matter.

How might you read this work? Here is some of what O’Grady had to say about this period and the photomontages she was working on . . .

During her absence from the art world, O’Grady had become concerned about postmodernism’s oversimplifications, which she felt relocated subjectivity away from the body to history in a way conveniently serving those in power. For while the body undoubtedly received history’s effects and was shaped by them, it was also, in an excess, the location of resistance. To make the point, her new photomontages—made the old-fashioned way just before Photoshop—eschewed both her earlier work’s layered beauty and postmodern photography’s dry formalism. Instead, they employed a psychological literalness reminiscent of Surrealism. In the Gaze and Dream quadriptychs, the bodies schematically enact both subjectivity’s stunting by history and latent resistance to it. And a group of three images, including The Strange Taxi and The Fir-Palm, employ a black body as a literal ground on which history acts but is unexpectedly modified.1

Given that your wide-ranging chapters take up postmodern and contemporary art, architecture, commemorative sculptures, children’s books, plays, poetry, song, film, and other media, what might you say about this image? The attention to these current currencies compels one to want more close reading and discussion of these rich intertexts. For example, in chapter 3, “Venus at Work: The Contracted Body and Fictions of Sarah Baartman,” you include a graphic of a woodcut by Hank Willis Thomas, entitled “When Harriet Met Saartje” (2009). This made me think about what in fact these different women might have to say to one another if, through some critical fabulation, they were able to converse across time and space. Indeed, the question of the sonic that critics such as Lindon Barrett, Fred Moten, Daphne Brooks, and Tina Campt discuss might have opened up the photographs you analyze here. You do mention this briefly, but again, even more attention to modes and meanings could make the work resonate more deeply.

Please know that I look forward to your reply and to reading the other responses to be published in this issue of Syndicate. Please let Jennifer Nash know that I am grateful to her for the invitation. Again, thank you for writing this book. Stay well.

 

Yours, most respectfully,

 

Jennifer


  1. Lorraine O’Grady, “Body Is the Ground of My Experience,” Lorraine O’Grady: Concept-Based Art (blog), accessed January 10, 2022, https://lorraineogrady.com/art/body-is-the-ground-of-my-experience/.

  • Samantha Pinto

    Reply

    On the Sonic

    Jennifer, you leave a wonderful question that I should take up at the close of your essay– namely, the place of (theories of) the sonic in this work. For all that I pay attention to media forms across the book, I largely ignore the sonic components and textures (even when I write about Beyonce at the opening and closing of the book, and even as I engage theorists of the sonic like the incandescent scholars Daphne Brooks and Shane Vogel (Hi!) throughout). Which is to go back to the O’Grady, the in-the-airness of early black women’s celebrity: resonance. reverberation. the echo. The theories of the sonic, these metaphors of contact, relation, reception, infuse my book but I don’t give them the material or theoretical heft they deserve, esp. as the sonic is THE dominant mode of imagining black feminine celebrity of the 20th century (again, see the brilliant and generous scholars Daphne Brooks and Jayna Brown [hi!]), even as it is relentlessly paired with the visual. How are these figures “heard” in the corrective and innovative histories constructed around and about them? What does the space of the museum sound like as their lives and likenesses are contemplated? I address the appearance but only occasionally the sound of these iconic retreads (in my momentary analysis of the accent of Seacole)– what about the soundscapes of Hemings and Baartman (see Edwin Hill’s excellent book, too, on French soundscapes of Blackness) as they are reimagined in film (and for Hemings, at least one classical music suite)? How would we read Alexander’s evocative, impressive Baartman as monologue, let alone the sound of the fractured grammar of Parks’s? There’s so much I’ve absorbed from performance studies and put to aesthetic analytical use in both my first book and in Infamous Bodies; I read your call to the sonic as a calling out in the best way, to honor the ways that the sonic and theories of the sonic are underpinning my work in unacknowledged, metaphorical modes that deserve (that have EARNED) the right to be centered, acknowledged, recognized, grappled with more deeply and serious AS the sonic.

Response

Response to Infamous Bodies

Liberal humanist versions of black feminism depend on strategies of legibility and legitimation. These versions rely on the need for individuals to be recognized by and within dominant power structures as rights-bearing, sovereign subjects. Consent, agency, and autonomy are assumed to be the fundaments of freedom. This leads to particular tactics, such as the historical recovery projects that rewrite the complicated lives of black women, representing them instead as triumphalist stories of overcoming adversity, of individual strength and genius. The status of recognition by the dominant body politic takes the place of what could be fundamental alterations to the fabric of historical memory.

I join Pinto in countering the liberal humanist politics of “corrective” narratives. I share a critique of notions of legibility and the narrative obscuration it demands. Such tactics dull the otherwise thorny ambiguities of these women’s lives, where consent, agency, and autonomy are not as clear cut as such liberal humanist narratives would have them. In Black Utopias I argue that Sojourner Truth, as part of a culture of black women preachers in the 1830s and 1840s, must be understood in more complicated terms than liberal black studies and feminisms would proffer—particularly when considering her bonded relationship to her owner and other dominating men, her relationship to her children, and her rejection of a heteronormative domestic life.

In challenging the liberal humanist model of the rights-bearing individual, Pinto posits instead the “vulnerable subject,” in order to displace the ideal of the self-volitional individual as the necessary model citizen for whom the social contract is conceived. This positionality also unseats the ways in which certain black feminisms situate injury and trauma as the common bonds around which to organize. A type of personal agency exists, but through sociopolitical, cultural, and economic contingencies. Pinto picks wonderfully complex figures with which to explore the mechanics of corrective representational strategy at its fracture points. Each of the individual women who organize her chapters—Phyliss Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Mary Seacole (dreadfully underacknowledged) Saartjie Bartman, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta—enjoyed a notoriety in their own time, and there are multifaceted meanings to their fame. I would emphasize, and perhaps explore further, that their forms of celebrity continue to accrue meaning in subsequent eras, and have meanings specific within particular sociohistorical conjunctures. The meanings of their fame rearticulate over time, and I would argue that fame itself means something different now than it did in past eras.

Each of these women’s lives demonstrate the limits of the concepts of inclusion, consent, rights discourse, and the social contract. Considering the particular kind of fame drawn around Phyllis Wheatley is an opportunity to think about the politics of representation and the myth of inclusion. Wheatley was famous for not just her genius, her gift, but also, and perhaps penultimately, for her educability. Wheatley was used to represent if not the negro race, then to demonstrate and prove the race’s educability, a major point of debate within arguments for and against slavery. Contrary to the ideal subject of a capitalist liberal humanism, Wheatley was considered a skilled poet not of her own initiative or wherewithal, but through grooming and training. With the right guidance, then, negros could at least mimic their masters. Pinto’s readings of Saartjie Baartman and Sally Hemings offer rich and textured analyses of the limits of consent as a category for black women. In both cases Pinto challenges notions of romantic love as somehow a deciding factor in whether or not the women consented. Indeed, consent is not a useful category for women for whom consent was not applicable.

I can follow Pinto in her choice of subjects, and her critique of corrective history. But the fundament of Pinto’s project is shaped by a tendency in US cultural studies that strips it of its class analysis, and I find this troubling. Throughout the book Pinto uses the familiar language of cultural studies:

This project insists on the significance of cultural production and reception . . . as a mode that labors alongside law and civic participation in the public sphere to make the “drama” that constitutes and reconstitutes the afterlives of rights.

This description could apply to the many studies influenced by British Cultural Studies scholars, particularly Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, with his students at the Birmingham Center, as well as the work on culture by US labor historian Robin Kelley. British cultural studies, and to an extent its US variant, challenged a Marxist economic fundamentalism, arguing that we consider culture as critical site of contestation. But as with most US cultural studies, Pinto attempts to deracinate cultural studies from its essential materialism. She continues:

This “drama” displaces a primary critique that locates celebrity culture squarely within the realm of Marxist theory. Infamous Bodies critically and curiously explores what capitalism’s seeming products—celebrity and commodity culture—afforded through and opened up for black women’s embodiment.

In arguing for its efficacy, Pinto implies that capitalism becomes a home, a conduit, for a conditional kind of agency for black women, for whom “law and rights” have never worked. In trying to extract cultural studies from its basis in a critique of capital, Pinto’s study points to a larger problem found in cultural studies as it manifested in the United States. British Cultural Studies was an important revision of Marxism, but was never a refutation of materialism. But in the United States, to quote Charisse Burden Stelly, a deep investment in capitalism and an entrenched Cold War commitment to its preservation created a current of cultural studies that ignored the class critique embedded in the British discipline, for which it was an ethical commitment.

Although I love a counterintuitive argument, celebrity and fame, or infamy, would not be the rubrics I would use to explore the “problem of rights,” not without more attention to what Pinto briefly acknowledges as celebrity’s “inarguable intimacy with capitalism.” (though Pinto does not take anticapitalism as her object of critique, rather Marx becomes her strawman, an undefined Marxism her mark). As many scholarly works demonstrate, we don’t need Marxism to have a healthy critique of capitalism or a class analysis. But an attention to materialism is urgent and essential in our current historical moment of violent inequity.

You cannot shed liberal humanism and keep capitalism, for they are yoked. Liberal humanism is part of how capitalism is articulated. I would also wonder at the ways modern forms of celebrity differ from the forms of notoriety explored throughout Infamous Bodies. Modern celebrity is bound up, constituted by liberal humanism: the reification of the possessive individual, the model of freedom based in competitive aspiration, wealth, and privilege. Yes, an old-school, white-boy Marxism is insufficient to examine our current world. Even as labor in many parts of the world remains power’s distributive center, capitalism’s multiplicities have turned all parts of our bodies, our thoughts and desires, into potential marketing opportunities. We are now in a world where everything and everybody must brand themselves, a very unfortunate choice of words when it comes to black women.

Pinto’s work also reveals a bifurcation in US Black Studies. Anti-capitalist strains in early black studies was all but subsumed, as Black Studies joined and became naturalized within the academy. Instead, a conservative lineage of class striving was shored up, one in which a figure such as Paul Robeson was all but forgotten (now lovingly remembered by Shana Redmond in Everything Man). But such black studies, that holds capitalism to account, has a long and resilient genealogy. Such a genealogy of black feminism can be traced, from the Combahee River Collective through the works of such scholars as Angela Davis, Hazel Carby, Ruthie Gilmore, and Stephanie Smallwood.

Pinto works with great nuance in many of her chapters, and I appreciate this challenge to a reductive argument. It is only in the last section that, as it turns to contemporary celebrity, this nuance in the text is lost. What Pinto calls no more than fitful reproach, or bad faith, is a critique that would acknowledge the ways a liberal feminist embrace of celebrity culture, represented here by Oprah, Beyoncé, Megan Markle, and the like, reproduces pernicious myths associated with a particularly acquisitive individualism in which success is defined by individual wealth. Empowerment becomes synonymous with financial savvy or some sort of charisma. The concepts of autonomy, agency, and legibility Pinto so carefully dismantles in the previous chapters rises up. We see how a very different moment in capitalism has shaped celebrity and made it more important than ever as its signature for the ruses of meritocracy and class aspiration. This ardent individualism blocks the ability for a more collective form of historical memory, one that would chart social movements rather than the success stories of black women who rose above “adversity” (racism, sexism, etc.) through hard work and natural (or enhanced) beauty.

This is in no way to deny pleasure, sexual desire, material joy, or effulgent, bejeweled excess. In fact, it is to claim not just desire, but its fulfillment, as a principle. Culture is not about labor but about the ineffable quality of sweat for pleasure, not profit. But in a world where everything is for sale, it is easy for this sweat to be packaged and sold back to us. Or for us to package our sweat and sell it, in packaging garnished with the iconography of radical opposition (raised fists and the like).

I agree with Pinto that “desire itself is the scene of the political.” But I don’t agree that celebrities like Beyoncé (or Opra, or Megan Markle or any of the others Pinto lists) “holds the space of desire, and the yearning to be desired.” Desire here, and yearning, rely on the idea of lack, and want, so central to acquisitive individualism. We need to think more carefully about what we mean by desire. Desire is too often considered as ahistorical phenomena, inherent to the body, authenticating. But forms of desire are not unchanging or universal. They are contingent on particular conditions; produced in particular ways through epistemological frameworks that congeal into ontological truths. What we desire, and how, are not pre-settings. Capitalist systems, which also change over time, canalize desire, and actually rely upon particular versions of desire, as acquisitive, possessive, as lack, and eternal want. What would make a diamond desirable, if it wasn’t its market value?

What if desire was not about acquisition and yearning, but about fulfillment and gratification? About mutual responsibility? Socialist utopianists argued for the “education of desire,” that we could learn to desire in different ways. Charles Fourier argued that the central problem in European social systems was the suppression of passions, and that the answer to the world’s ills was that it be organized around the fulfillment of all passions. But this fulfillment was also about collective obligation, to deem others’ pleasures as important as our own. As Audre Lorde makes clear in “Uses of the Erotic,” recognizing our collective needs, and wants, is just the beginning; such recognition she argues should then give rise to a culture of caring for each other as well as a politics that demands the dismantling of dominant power structures.

My biggest worry is that Pinto’s argument, which offers capitalism such indulgence, is out of step with the strong currents of thought and political desire I see in my students, and in the social movements now enlivening us all. I now hear abolitionist, explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, pro-sex positive, anti-heteronormative, anti-patriarchal critiques as part of a wide public parlance, and there is much less need for (heteronormative) royalty, or celebrity as a space for desire or political expression. There is a growing understanding that commodity culture does not provide a retreat or respite from a lack of legal and social recognition. I am heartened by this turn to a movement-oriented, rather than individualist-driven, politic. The turn here is not to a politics of inclusion, to law and policy, but away from it. It is a creative turn, one which embraces culture, and pleasure, as essentially political.

  • Samantha Pinto

    Reply

    Black Studies/Consumer Culture

    I wanted to just respond to this urgent push on the limits of my book and of celebrity studies’ relationship with class with a nod to someone who, I think, does this balance so well: Tsitsi Jaji. Her book, Africa in Stereo, has a fantastic chapter on Black African women “consumers” of musical culture that focuses on magazines of the mid-century: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199936373.001.0001/acprof-9780199936373
    It’s so smart, it takes feminized consumer culture seriously as an avenue of political engagement, response, and action, and it doesn’t dismiss either capitalism or its feminine subjects as easy targets of analysis or false consciousness. Sharon Marcus’s brilliant The Drama of Celebrity is another book that take “the drama of the audience”– a feminized audience of fan early fan culture– seriously as a feminist political subject without shutting down avenues of future critique of class and capitalism: https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691177595/the-drama-of-celebrity
    I would also point to a book like Matthew Tinkcom’s classic Working Like a Homosexual in film studies for a labor/media culture/queer studies analysis: https://www.dukeupress.edu/working-like-a-homosexual
    Celebrity is surely a mode of capitalism that forecloses many avenues but, within modernity, also operates as something like religion– which as we know from Black Studies in theology & religion, including the wonderful forum on Reckson’s Realist Ecstasy on Syndicate with many scholars of the field (Ashon Crawley, Erica Edwards), is so much more than the opiate of the masses even as it provides refuge and alibi to the superstructure of capitalist doctrine: https://syndicate.network/symposia/literature/realist-ecstasy-religion-race-and-performance-in-american-literature/
    Early Black women’s celebrity deserved/deserves more attention to capitalist frameworks and to class analysis– I wish that my book was the one to offer that, but instead it reproduces much of the silence around capitalism and class in place of analysis. I urge you to get Jayna Brown’s newest book, Black Utopias, which takes expressive cultural forms that participate in the marketplace of capitalism and imagines them otherwise and for other worlds.: https://www.dukeupress.edu/black-utopias

    • Samantha Pinto

      Reply

      (And more to come on last day of Symposium)

      My long response to everyone is on the last day of the Symposium, where I talk more about Shane Vogel’s work on this nexus and Aria Halliday’s upcoming book!

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