Author's Roundtable I: Response from Emily Skidmore

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
I truly enjoyed the opportunity of reading Darieck Scott’s work, as I found it provocative and insightful. I particularly enjoyed the ways in which het seamlessly brought together a broad range of sources—from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to Samuel R. Delany’s pornographic novel, The Mad Man. These texts discuss a wide array of historical and cultural contexts and yet, as Scott so eloquently illustrates, are connected through their shared interrogations of power, blackness and abjection (categories that turn out to be mutually constitutive). I come to Scott’s work as a historian, and my own research focuses on turn-of-the-twentieth-century newspaper narratives produced around moments of “revelation” wherein the biological sex of an individual who was born female but lived as male was discovered. I seek to uncover the ways in which local communities made sense of such “queer bodies,” and thus I found in Scott’s discussions of spectacle and abjection particularly instructive, as these two concepts are central to my own work.

I was also taken with Scott’s imagining of the work of historical analysis. In the Introduction, Scott writes:
Again I want to emphasize that mine is not an historical or even an historicist project. In this book the tool of historicizing will be less important than the tools of theorizing and imagining—inventing by use of the stage set by history without attending too scrupulously to the particulars of historical incident. My aim here is not to seek the revelations of history, but to emphasize that key component of the work of historical excavation that involves the construction of the past: that is, to imaginatively work with—and re-work, and work over, and maybe, if we are lucky, work through—the material that history provides (MS p.12).
Now, perhaps it may seem all too predictable that I, as the historian at the table, might take issue with this method, and I do admit that when I first read this passage I was quite skeptical. After all, I’ve spent the past several years being taught over and over again (and, in turn, reiterating to my own students) that the particularities of a given historical incident are vital to understanding the event’s meaning and its wider significance. Yet, by the time I reached the end of the selected readings, I was mostly convinced. Indeed, I found this method to be especially effective in Chapter 5, in which Scott skillfully illuminates how histories of subjugation continue to circulate within erotic fantasies.

I also particularly liked the section of chapter three titled, “power and/as abjection: the black in black masculinity.” Perhaps because of my own research interest in embodiment, I was taken by Scott’s reading of the chain gang scene from Beloved as a scene of dismembering, wherein Paul D’s corporeality is divested of that which was its chief claim to power and value: active sexuality. Scott writes: “Where the black (male) body in its Fanonian incarnation is a surface upon which white psychic needs and desires are projected, here that body satisfies the white male body directly and physically, as sexual plaything; it is the white guard's corporeality which now is the focus of interaction between white and black.” (MS p.23). I thoroughly enjoyed Scott’s reading of Morrison vis-à-vis Fanon here, and found the insights brought forth to be smart and illuminating. However, I was a bit curious about Scott’s later contention that in this scene, “homosexuality is more the means by which domination and torture are effected between white and black men and, problematically, it is a measure of his abjection” (MS p.20). It seems to me that perhaps one danger in not attending too scrupulously to the particulars of historical incidents is projecting backwards modern identity categories, in the quoted passage, I question the imputed relationship between sex acts and sexual identities, particularly given the fact that homosexuality was not yet clearly defined as an identity category in the period in which Beloved takes place.

Of course, I realize that Scott’s reading of Beloved has more to do with Morrison’s choices in representing scenes of abjection than it does with the specificities of the actual experience of sexual violation of male slaves at the hands of white men. Indeed, I think that Scott’s larger point here in illuminating the potentially liberatory possibilities within the all-too-often ignored historical experiences of sexual violation and emasculation under slavery still stands, and, furthermore, is a provocative and important point. However, I wonder if, by describing Paul D’s experience as “something that might be called homosexuality,” Scott runs the risk of flattening the history of sexuality a bit. Indeed, while today’s readers might understand the chain gang scene in Beloved as an example of homosexuality, Paul D’s historical antecedents would not be likely to understood the experience in that way: as abjection and emasculation, yes, but as homosexuality, I’m not sure. This, perhaps, is a small point as Paul D’s experience on the chain gang is referred to as “homosexual” at only a few points throughout the chapter, and yet the paucity with which the term is deployed seems to me to suggest that it is, perhaps, not an unnecessary label. I wonder, in other words, what is gained by labeling Paul D’s experience as “something that might be called homosexuality”?


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