BY Hannah Black
THEME LEADER National Gallery of Victoria
SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.
British artist and writer Hannah Black reflects on the body in today’s socio-political landscape.
The body is a concept so unimpeachably, apparently real that it’s trivial. No serious person concerns themself with it in their serious work, though everyone is as entangled in flesh as everyone else. This universal entanglement in an initially undifferentiated flesh is the radical Christian concept that institutional Christianity could not uphold; it is part of the psychic apparatus that, Sylvia Wynter observes, was eventually, imperfectly secularised into race. Perhaps because bodies are unworthy subjects, mostly women are tasked with their care and analysis, though a keen understanding of bodies’ mechanical workings can sometimes attain the level of science. The mostly men who guard this realm of clean intuition (or knowledge, which abandoned intuition as a child) do not themselves have bodies – they treat the body they do not have with cold interest. Now it is excreting – sometimes that can be funny. Now it is sick, and that is inconvenient. Now it is aroused, and someone should deal with that.
Invited to write wildly, I wanted to return to a desire I had a couple of years ago to write against the body, to suggest that the category or concept of body could be done away with, or momentarily suspended, or replaced with a more temporal or sensory idea. ‘This is the place where I experience the world’, I said back then, gesturing to the organisation of head, limbs, face, breasts, shoulders and so on, which everyone who knows me customarily thinks of as me, apart from in their dreams, when they sometimes see me clothed in another person’s body, and in my dreams, when I am pure perspective and don’t see myself at all.
I felt already, then, the wrongness of the idea, snuggled inside its frantic theoretical rigour. I felt that it was made of longing more than anything else. At the same time,
I wanted to offer it to a future in which it might make sense, which is weird because I hate posterity. I wanted to offer it up to a future in which it would seem gauche and obvious. I think it could be possible for the body to at least come loose from its abstractions, to be, at least, unremarkable, as it is sometimes here and now.
I began with Hortense Spillers’s argument, which I found via Frank B. Wilderson III, that the enslaved person is, on an abstract level, un-gendered and therefore does not, in an abstract sense, have a body. According to Spillers, this has something to do with being a black woman in America.1 I don’t live in America now, but I liked this idea when I first came across it, and not only because of its interesting observations about what capitalism does not only to really existing bodies but also to The Body. I liked Spillers’s black nobody partly because of the moment in an unrelated BBC interview with Maya Angelou where the interviewer says, ‘You’re a big woman, you’re six foot’, and Angelou cries out, ‘I can’t help that!’ (I am just two inches shorter than Angelou, and I was sure I knew how she felt, especially when she added that she always felt little at home which, she implied, was the size at which she felt loved.) I liked Spillers’s idea, as I half-understood it, because of all the things I can’t help about myself.
Now I go back to the essay to look for the body I wasn’t sure I had/wanted to lose. Hortense Spillers’s ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’ is a canonical investigation into blackness/gender, giving a history of how race, gender and capitalist accumulation fuse together in the slave.2 Gender is de-‘patriarchalised’ in the slave, whose being is enumerated rather than described, in ships’ records and bills of trade, as a commodity. The patriarchal is over-coded by capitalist social relations.
LaKeyma King has critiqued Spillers for giving too little room to how patriarchal gender relations, and their attendant violence, remain operative in the lives of black women, as if gender could be swept away, shrugged off, inverted, just because it lives in the shadow of another violence. After King, I would like to note that the idea that gender violence operates differently in and through blackness is not to say that it doesn’t exist at all: black women, like all women, are subject to patriarchal as well as white supremacist and capitalist pressures. Only whiteness is the special modern case in which gender is apparently universalised through being decoupled from other forms of difference, even as it grounds these differences as violence. Perhaps the gender-normative power of white women has been too much taken for granted; transatlantic slavery and the colonial were just as instrumental in producing a new, absent figure, the white woman, alongside the conceptually neutered being of the slave.
This being of the slave, as a ‘zero degree of social conceptualization’, is, according to Spillers, what enables European philosophy – the standpoint of the slave owner – to think of Being as an abstract category at all.3 To make this large claim for the figure of the slave, as a primary analytical tool for thinking not only around black liberation but also the emergence of capitalist society and its attendant forms of subjectivity, Spillers makes the even larger one that the slave does not have a body, only flesh.4 This cancelled flesh is an indeterminate zone between human and animal, between living and dead labour, between object and subject.
From this perspective, blackness is a question of the white psyche (pretty much coextensive with capitalism) as much as of black struggle, and it concerns the structuring conditions of contemporary life. That’s why Fred Moten, for example, sees blackness as a ‘para-ontological’ condition.5 For Moten, the cut made by capitalism into the social is not a distinction between private/public or home/world, but self/other, the Aries/Libra axis if you’re into that. The modern individual self is this cut, this hole in a fabric that isn’t exactly collective social being, because it didn’t know itself in opposition to the hole before the hole was made. Perhaps I’m introducing an overly prelapsarian note into my reading of Moten. It might be that there was never anything but the hole, and our attempts to get out of it.
The slave’s negated flesh is a psychic comfort and an infrastructural support for the untruth of universal rights. After the abolition of slavery – an abolition that most theorists of blackness handle with some scepticism, noticing its various eerie continuations in the disproportionate imprisonment, impoverishment and ghettoisation of black people all over the world – blackness kept its black mark, because the uneasy border distinctions it swallows and contains (human/animal; thing/person) are capitalist fault lines. The Body is in part the invention of capitalism, imprinted with transatlantic slavery, but capitalism also abolishes The Body, or smears it across oceans and times.
Spillers acknowledges that enslaved people were not entirely free of gender categorisations: slaves were branded, stored, shipped and sold differently as male and female, though also as Christian and non-Christian, child and adult, house and field. But she contends that gendering takes place in the domestic sphere. In this her argument converges, to an extent, with that of Marxist feminists who have attempted to map gender onto the distinctions between public/private and productive/reproductive, which are essential to capitalism’s functioning. The worker has to go home and tend to her own needs, paid for with her wages; the slave’s needs are a direct cost to the capitalist. Because, according to Marx, value can only be produced through bosses driving down wages relative to production, the slave’s labour is not directly value-producing. The slave is a machine to extract value from nature.
If gender, in capitalist societies, is something to do with waged/unwaged work, then the slave, who belongs to the sphere of productive work as a tool rather than as a worker, is outside gender. If gender is the outside of labour, then labour is the outside of gender. Of course reality is less structurally perfect than this, to the point that the structural perfection of the argument gets in the argument’s way.
The body, in Spillers’s essay, is not a given category but ‘a metonymic figure for an entire repertoire of human and social arrangements’, a mass of flesh that can be contingently imbued with the concept of body, and veiled in an illegible script of scars: ‘These indecipherable markings on the captive body render a kind of hieroglyphics of the flesh whose severe disjunctions come to be hidden to the cultural seeing by skin color’.6 Bodies exist, but they are an intermittent state hovering between flesh and skin. Bodies exist, but they are something to do with kinship, a social inscription that is denied to enslaved people. Slaves’ right to family (this right itself perhaps quite different from the kinship relations in which they might have been embedded in another time and place) is abolished along with their freedom. Bodies exist, but they are something to do with gender, another form of social inscription that the slave is not allowed to fully bear, which has to do with the foundations of kinship: reproduction and parenting. Slaves are also denied the bad gender-distinguishing experience of being subject to different forms of violence: sadistic, libidinal and coercive forms of violence are blended on the ship or plantation, where men and women are equally vulnerable. Here, gender abolition is not an escape from patriarchy, but an entry into use/exchange, a becoming-commodity, as if the commodity were a new, annihilating gender category, cancelling out or radically altering previous bodily denominations.
Dear reader, I know nothing about your body, least of all how it carries the strange history of race. For Spillers as for other black radical theorists, blackness is a social form, materialised through living, whose important characteristics emerge with transatlantic slavery. It is not simply a question of slavery as a work practice, but of how it gets made concrete as people, as black people. The formal abolition of transatlantic slavery has not ended the situation of blackness, our shared situation, which remains a structuring condition of embodiment under capitalism: not only the embodiment of those people known as black, but also that of everyone else who lives in capitalist countries structured around anti-blackness, which, according to Spillers is America, and according to, say, Frank B. Wilderson III, is everywhere.
Juridically, blackness was and to an extent remains the site of a curious hybrid of property and person, perhaps close to the condition of animals. Black people are seen as people who should not be subjected to unusual cruelty, as that might reflect badly on their superiors, but nor can they be presumed to have the kind of inner life that demands of others a real ethics. (Is whiteness/masculinity just a weirdly externalised and generalised interiority?) At the level of exchange, blackness carries the history of the slave, who exists as a commodity. At the level of use, blackness is the zone where a person can become a machine or tool to extract value from nature (cotton, sugar, rubber, slang, music, hairstyles and so on); thus, a generally socially recognised ‘private life’ or ‘family life’ into which to withdraw from work is not always deemed necessary.
The slave ship is the metonym or zero-level of Spillers’s account of the social, and not the plantation; i.e. the gender neutrality of the slave is to be found in her commodity status, and not in her use as a machine or tool. In Marx’s account of the commodity, he offers the term ‘commodity-body’ as an alternative to ‘use-value’:
[A commodity] cannot express its value in its own body or in its own use-value, but it can relate itself to another use-value or commodity-body as an immediately existent value … The use-value of a commodity only exists at all for another commodity insofar as it serves in this fashion for the form of appearance of its value.7
The body/use of the body only appears through exchange; i.e. through an abstracted, massified and materialised quantity of labour time. The worker gives her vitality (her lifetime and its abstraction as time) to the commodity, but vitality is a property belonging to those bodies who belong to themselves. On a concrete level, the slave shares the biological condition of the worker; e.g. breathes, shits, thinks. But the commodity’s vitality is abstract, non-biological and non-lifelike: it is animated only by the wage relation. The body is made of time. The two gigantic abstractions confront each other, Godzilla versus King Kong, grappling to become each other: Time and Body.
In common-sense philosophy, there’s a body on the one hand, and a mind/soul on the other, but who wants to be immortal if it means living in two or more pieces? (Now bodily integrity is the promise of science, which began by cutting people into pieces, and has to pay a long penance.) In a studio visit with Andrea Fraser circa 2014, I explained my idea of body abolition, and she said, ‘Why do you want to have such a hostile relationship to something that is obviously very important to you?’ The question was good: tears sprang to my eyes. ‘You’re very intense’, she said.
I was impressed and scared by this diagnosis because I recognised her as intense, too. I don’t know what intensity is but I know it when I see it. The problem was semantic, but also emotional: I didn’t know then how to bear my unbearable body, which felt so big it cancelled out the sun, so small it was on the verge of vanishing. And so I told myself I didn’t really have one, and that I was not really born from my mother, and would never die.
I want to be here with you on this page, right now, in the knowledge that my body is nothing to you, and so, because I can’t be loved here, when I read this back I will hate it. Forget posterity, please let’s forget it: I want to be so spiritually disposable that my thoughts are no longer mine five minutes after I have them. I want my body to be iron and rock and soil and flesh and light, some other things too. I want I want I want. I am sitting at a desk writing this, the trees outside the window are just starting to sprout baby leaves, a cloudy uncertain green hovers there. I need to pee, and I’m hungry. Is that my body, or just the empty places in it: the bladder that fills up with liquid, and the stomach that wants to be fed?
At the time I came across Spillers’s idea of a black nobody who is only flesh, I was reading a lot of Marxist theory, texts in which my body disappeared. I wondered if a similar feat of magic happened to the worker’s body, too, which vanished into the evanescence of labour power. Workers die in factories, women die of men, I wrote. Of course women die in factories, too. For example, when the Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka collapsed, the dead were mostly young women forced to work in a structure they knew was unsafe. As for who dies of men – anyone can. But I know very well that identity operates not only materially but also canonically: sure, I’m a woman, but am I really a woman? No, often something less (when I’m ugly? when I think I know something?) or something more (‘more than your lover’, like in the Aaliyah song). Am I really black? I have had, for much of my life, the temptation to put the question outside me, to push it away: you decide, I’ll be whatever you decide! This is because the question is outside me anyway. The baby is born into a world of language and violence, and it’s this world that points a finger at the baby’s body and makes some historical observations about the newborn flesh. Abolishing the body might be a matter of only abolishing this accusing, identifying finger … but later in life this finger becomes the desire or imagined desire of others, the hatred or imagined hatred, the invisible buttresses that writing (or any public performance of the self) comes up against. So the body becomes the desire to have a body, as much as it is the obligation, the pointing finger.
Is death the bedrock beyond which the body can’t be reimagined? But what kind of fucked-up thing proves itself only by its absence? (Gravity? Love?) I wanted to say that the abolition of the body would render death merely chronological … Had
I ended up with religion? To avoid the gods, I started wondering if the question was just etymological. Looking for bodies in texts, I found them already broken into parts and wandering around looking for … souls?
The body is a time machine. It moves through the world with a past, present and future, organising time into those three categories as it goes. When it stops working, time stops working with it. Death might become merely chronological, yes, but the body is already a chronometric device. The flesh, though, spreads across the ocean, and blurs the lines between night and day. The body as described by Spillers is a broken time: it comes and goes in flashes of light, moments of violence, lashes of the whip; it is a private secret (I am somebody) kept at the back of the mind and away from white people; it is a public disgrace. It is reduced to a bag of flesh, the bag itself (the skin) inscribed with a language of hurt made illegible in the bodiless body of blackness. Between the skin and the flesh, the body is still an uncertain category.
Commissioned for the forthcoming publication by Chus Martínez (Institut Kunst HGK FHNW, Basel) (ed.), The Wild Book of Inventions, Sternberg Press, Berlin, to be released late 2017.
1. Hortense J. Spillers, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 64–81.
5. Fred Moten, ‘The case of blackness’, Criticism, vol. 50, no. 2, Spring 2008, p. 179.
7. Karl Marx, ‘The commodity’, in Albert Dragstedt (ed.), Value: Studies By Karl Marx, New Park Publications, London, 1976, pp. 7–40.