Modernism has proliferated.
In overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has rejected the notion that Americans have a constitutional right to privacy, opening the door to states’ policing of the bodies of women and others who can become pregnant. While it has been widely noted that the rolling back of reproductive rights will affect Black and Brown women disproportionately, less attention has been paid to what this means for their experience of privacy. As some scholars have suggested, privacy feels definitionally impossible for women of color, insofar as racial visibility in public spaces leads often to surveillance and harm.
In the urgency of what sounds initially like an auteur’s command, the fictional “Director” of Adrienne Kennedy’s 1973 play-within-a-play, An Evening with Dead Essex, discloses the unnegotiable terms of his own captivity before the phantasmal image.
It is in the frequent repetition of a one-word imperative from the Director—to “flash”—that its operational binding (as the instruction by which to advance photographic images in a slide projector) can be perceived to shred. The demand is at once a managerial spur for his actors to make headway in grasping their subject matter, and an abyssal first step in the momentum of the collective going-under necessitated by its deepest realization.
Alice Mitchell’s 1892 murder of her lover Freda Ward rocked their well-to-do Memphis community and scandalized the nation. The masculine Mitchell slashed Ward’s throat in broad daylight when Ward decided not to marry Mitchell. Lisa Duggan has provided the richest account of the murder to date and has exhaustively detailed the way that it was sensationalized in the period press as “a Very Unnatural Crime,” representing “a new narrative-in-formation—a cultural marker of the emergence of a partially cross-gender-identified lesbian.”
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), Toni Morrison calls for “studies of the technical ways in which an Africanist character is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness. . . . Such studies,” she continues, “will reveal the process of establishing others in order to know them, to display knowledge of the other so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos.” In demonstrating the reflexive role that Africanist personae play in white American literature—the manner by which white people construct blackness as a screen for the projections that enable, through simultaneous disavowal and enforcement, their identifications as white—“Such studies will reveal the process by which it is made possible to explore and penetrate one’s own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other” (Morrison, Playing, 53).
Denis Côté’s 2017 film Ta peau si lisse opens on the domestic routines of bodybuilders. One man (bald, bearded, tanned) spreads moisturizer on his thighs, calves, and pectoral muscles before putting on jeans and selecting from an array of nearly identical, bright-colored T-shirts and running shoes. Another man (younger, paler, and sporting a buzzcut) weighs, then microwaves, portions of ground beef and white rice. In the next scene, he lifts weights in a basement.
I teach American literature in the public university system of Missouri, the state whose admission to the union as a slave state caused a national crisis, the state where Dred Scott was judged to have “no rights the white man is bound to respect,” the state where Michael Brown’s murder turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement.
At the culmination of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, the Factory Worker (commonly called “the Tramp”) breaks his long silence and sings. The moment is justly famous, as if audiences had been waiting decades to hear the voice of the downtrodden Worker. The Worker, however, does not quite attain to the voice, or the song, that he and his companion, the Gamin, had planned. The Worker has just lost his lyrics, which the Gamin has written on his shirt cuffs. These cuffs fly off his wrists at the start of his dance before the café crowd. “Sing! Nevermind the words,” urges the Gamin in an intertitle.
He wanted to leave nothing out. Given the film image’s powers of simultaneous arrest and dispersal, he may have believed it the surest means of preserving while imparting some measure of the densities and speeds generated across the spectrum of happenings, impasses, and transfigurations that marked what he and a few allies were engineering at San Francisco State that spring of 1967. The lambent play of sound and image might diffuse some of the private intensities driving their rupture of the knowledge-reproduction operations of the University—and might therefore document some slight tremor in the market systems of which it was part.
Excursions into irreconcilable and therefore alluring dimensions of innovative Black writing, filmmaking, and analysis.