Author's Roundtable I: Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection
Guest Writer: Dan Tracy

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
The extent to which the abject might be recuperated for some kind of political potential has been an occasional focus of queer studies; Darieck Scott’s forthcoming book specifies that question, and raises its stakes considerably, by asking it of “black abjection,” or the history of debasement under slavery and Jim Crow. Scott argues that two responses have dominated black literary and critical focus on this topic. The first, typified by the work of Frantz Fanon and the writers of the Black Arts movement, demands a recuperation and celebration of abjected blackness before an ultimate turn away from it. For Fanon, especially, “blackness is constituted by a history of abjection, and is itself a form of abjection” (Scott 6). The second response comes from late 20th-century neo-slave narratives, texts that try more deeply to historicize slavery in order to question the idea of an abject history. In these narratives, slaves engage in forms of resistance that complicate our sense of the power relations evoked in narratives of abjection.

Both of these solutions attempt to overcome abjection, or, in the case of the neo-slave narratives, to refute its sufficiency as historical description. Scott, by contrast, in introducing his book on Monday evening, provoked us by asking whether retaining abjection might be the more politically effective move. Although he finds neo-slave narratives compelling, he notes that the black abject continues to hold a powerful grip on the contemporary imagination despite its historical deficits. Reading (often against the grain) Fanon, James Weldon Johnson, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and Samuel Delany, Scott suggests that a strain of latent power (and, in Delany, explicit erotic pleasure) undergirds the figuring of black abjection. If one is racialized through abjection, he suggested, then this racialization “offers capabilities, not just debilities.”

In Fanon’s corpus, Scott emphasizes, the metaphor of “tensed muscles” repeats to figure the moment of abjection, signaling this latent power for political response. Moments of male-on-male rape from Baraka and Morrison signal the pitfalls of the Black Arts and neo-slave narrative responses to black abjection but also suggest abjection’s potential. The danger Scott locates is the shared imperative of both projects to celebrate a black male subject who embodies normative masculinity: a subject both homophobic and misogynistic. Yet these moments of rape also figure a loss of sexual subjectivity that could allow for the development of a different kind of male subject. Here, Scott acknowledges his debts to Hortense J. Spillers’s feminist argument that the devastation caused to gender roles among black slaves by the middle passage was an opportunity, carrying the potential for longer-lasting changes to gender norms. Likewise, he argues that the moment of black abjection opens up a range of potential responses that need not be limited to a revivified patriarchal masculinity. The final chapter of his book, on Samuel Delany’s literary pornographic novel The Mad Man, argues that its turn to a fantasy of black abjection creates another possibility: pleasure, through the resignification of racist violence in erotic contexts that the black protagonist (who searches out white sexual partners who will humiliate him) finds surprisingly liberating.

Much of the discussion in response to Scott’s work centered on the potential political and methodological problems it raises. Richard T. Rodriguez suggested the importance of Scott’s work in rethinking the usual disempowered take that figures the sexual bottom as both emasculated and feminized. Particularly in the context of the chapter on Delany, Marc D. Perry, in his response, asked if this recuperation of the abject risked fetishizing violence. He also wondered if a writer like Fanon, often critiqued as masculinist, could be incorporated into this project without reproducing his problematic relationship to gender. Emily Skidmore, in turn, wondered if calling the male-on-male rape in Morrison’s Beloved “homosexual” might flatten out the history of sexuality. She also called attention to the diversity of Scott’s archive, asking whether the abjection he discusses is specific to African-American experience or indicative of African diaspora more broadly.

Two of Scott’s responses struck me as especially suggestive of his project’s emphasis and aims. First, he clarified that he was not offering the recovery of abjection as the only—or even the best—resource for a political response to racial inequality. Instead, he draws attention to it precisely because most anti-racist work misses it entirely. Second, Scott at one moment rather boldly defended the possible distortions of the history of abjection in any contemporary political or literary recovery (especially, in this case, Delany’s novel), arguing that while it is a position of privilege that allows us to transform that history rather than live it, we are also inheritors of that history and how it is imagined. Thus, he suggests, we are entitled to use that history of abjection in any way that will help to mitigate its legacy of psychological and social hurt.


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Sharon Irish said...

Thanks for this very helpful commentary. I am sorry I missed this event. Dan Tracy's remarks remind me of discussions that we had with Alison Bailey in the Critical Studies of Whiteness reading group several years back. Abjection and privilege are no doubt intertwined in complex ways. Bailey's article in _Hypatia_ (1998), "Locating Traitorous Identities: Toward a View of Privilege-Cognizant White Character," posited that race and gender roles are performative and embodied, thus providing the option of moving away from expected, normalized behaviors. Traitorous identities "might serve as sites for liberatory knowledge." She cited Maria Lugones's articulation of strategies to cultivate a "traitorous character," including leaving "those locations and texts in which they feel at home." Abjection is by definition risky and decentering, but perhaps Scott suggested that it was also temporary and could be resisted by moving away from it after acknowledging it. --Sharon Irish

Robert Rushing said...

I do have a critique of Scott's project (although I like the counter-intuitive idea of reclaiming abjection as a form of power) after the talk last night, really rooted in what I saw as a disjunction, although perhaps a minor one, between what I read and what I heard.

At times in his presentation, Scott suggested that he was offering what amounted to "just" a descriptive account. As Dan says, in this view abjection is not "the only—or even the best—resource." Scott said, more than once, that he was calling attention to it because it was there, and because many other critics failed to even perceive that it was there. Agreed. But the readings belie any kind of mere descriptivism of the abject in Scott, or even the idea that he's proposing it as a "minor resource." His writing were clearly invested in the idea of abjection, fascinated by it, perhaps as a kind of necessary step in dealing with the multiple legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, but perhaps for other reasons as well. Several people in the audience suggested that a real, full-blown endorsement of abjection was interesting, but rather terrifying politically (should African-American women also be exploring the legacies and fantasies of enslavement and rape? one audience member asked). I thought the "mere description" was something of a dodge. The readings left me with the impression that Scott felt that the recovery and exploration of abjection was a pretty excellent "resource for a political response to racial inequality"—good enough to write a book about.

Which leads to Sharon's final point: perhaps that was exactly Scott's suggestion—that abjection was in some fashion provisional. To be used, and then discarded. But I don't think so—again, my impression was that Scott found abjection and its ties to the formation of racial identity, truly compelling—not just because it is there, or even for its use value, but for its power to fascinate and repel at the same time. (But perhaps we all feel this way about our objects—or abjects—of study.)

Darieck Scott said...

Just a quick response to Robert’s comments:
Thanks for pointing out this apparent disjunction. I don’t think I wanted to convey that my project is only descriptive—-though in part it certainly is investigatory and aimed at some kind of descriptive end, I am arguing, I hope fairly clearly, that, as you say, I do think there are rich resources to be found in representations of ancestral (or contemporary, for that matter) racialized abjection. (That said, I don’t feel capable at this point of precisely forecasting or describing exactly how those resources I’ve tried to identify can or ought to be used, beyond the way the texts I discuss, especially Delany’s, do.)

The stance I took at some points in the discussion which emphasized the descriptive rather than the political usefulness of the racialized abject perhaps was rhetorically stronger than it should have been, in part because I perceived that a few of the questions were moving too strongly in the direction of assuming the project is politically prescriptive, which it is not. (To restate, I think, rather, it is descriptive and politically suggestive or politically provocative—i.e., trying to open up an avenue of consideration and possible, mostly as-yet-unmapped, strategies.) Some of the questioners’ apparently found the idea of abjection having political uses to be “terrifying,” as you say (and of course this terror is understandable—-nothing about the abject isn’t-—but to take such a stance also repeats the very “don’t go there” strategy which I’m pointing out is generally taken by a Black Power-influenced politics and analysis), and that terror or concern or simple disagreement led them to hear the idea my project is proposing (again, that there might be something that can be used as a resource or to be learned from representations of ancestral racialized abjection), as an endorsement of abjection itself as a political strategy. As against that view (if I properly understood the questioners’ position, which perhaps I didn’t), I thought it was important to emphasize the descriptive aspects of the project.

Rob Rushing said...

Awesome—I don't know how often the authors actually come back to see the reactions here on Kritik, but it should become a commonplace if it isn't already. I think this actually gets at the enormous difficulty we have at distinguishing in actual practice between the descriptive and the proscriptive: they appear to be easily separable in theory, but once one actually begins to speak, they often begin to bleed together.

On a totally different note, I checked my undergrad copy of Beloved to see if I'd picked up on the male-on-male sexual violence in the Paul D/chain-gang/"breakfast" scene. I was quite attuned to pretty much any possible "dirty" reading, but no, that one passed me by.