Kathryn Bond Stockton, Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer."Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006.
Kathryn Bond Stockton's Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer" takes shame as a productive site of inquiry about identities that are produced by repeated public debasement, even though, as Stockton says, "debasement should not be seen as a theme in this book" (8). Not wanting to view Blackness and queerness as simple or fixed notions (as indicated by the quotation marks in Stockton's title), Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame seeks rather to explore "switchpoints between black and queer, queer and black" (5) in order to discover the value of shame for critical cultural analysis. Stockton writes:
Exploring "black" and "queer" in connection with the unlikely category of shame allows Stockton to bring together terms and texts that are not frequently in dialogue with each other. She considers the "dark camp" of Toni Morrison's Beloved in the context of "cloth wounds and skin wounds" in David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club (206, 216). She finds concern with Blackness in the unlikely interstitial spaces of canonical queer texts that do not feature characters of African descent, such as Jean Genet's 1953 Querelle, Radclyffe Hall's 1928 The Well of Loneliness, and Leslie Feinberg's 1993 Stone Butch Blues. In these texts, Stockton argues innovatively that clothing becomes the vector for negotiating the shame and debasement of non-normative genders and sexualities much as black skin has become both a marker and vector for racial debasement. She claims:
Debasement is a fully indispensable informant. It is a key to understanding the ties, bold and subtle, between two signs that would seem linguistically, historically separate. The strangeness of queerness would not seem particularly destined to meet the darkness of blackness, except in the bodies of dark queer folk. We will see this is not so. Shame is an equal-opportunity meeting place for these signs. In fact, I believe we cannot grasp certain complicated cultural, historical entanglements between "black" and "queer" without, at the same time, interrogating shame--its beautiful, generative, sorrowful debasements that make bottom pleasures so dark and so strange. (8)
Drawing a correlation between skin and cloth allows Stockton to explore the ways in which wounding is enacted upon and then reappropriated by those subjected to it in relationship to the categories of shame and debasement. Stockton explores the characters in these novels as "martyrs to their clothes" to reveal how "shame can adhere to forms of beauty" (41). Those whose only "sin is their skin" might bristle at the idea that clothing could be made equivalent to the complex social codings of race. Nonetheless, Kathryn Bond Stockton's book suggests the possibilities and pitfalls for theorizing beyond conventional understandings of race and gender. On the one hand, Stockton's desire "to probe the value of debasement as a central social action" allows a necessary inquiry into the ways in which "'black' and 'gay' at the level of signs" are locked into what she terms "a bottom" enactment of the complicated politics of shame (2). This allows her a provocative and original engagement with texts by Toni Morrison, Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, Radclyffe Hall, James Baldwin, and Roland Barthes. On the other hand, by accepting "debasement" as the predominant category through which to view "the crossing of signs" between Black and gay, Stockton locks her inquiry into widely accepted concepts of "black" and "queer" (as evidenced by her reliance on the New York Times Magazine in her opening discussion of "the Down Low"). This has the unfortunate effect of severely limiting Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame's potential level of engagement with the actual texts, histories, and contexts where "black" and queer" have met socially, historically and culturally.
Cloth and skin touch on each other's meanings since each is a surface--with intense, complex, and variable codings attached to it--that may be the object of prejudice, violence, attraction, and invective. Each may be physically marked with a wound (torn cloth, torn skin) and each can elicit psychic wounds (self-loathing, for example) because of the shame it seems to carry. Each can also, in certain contexts, elicit pride--or sexual attraction and aesthetic delight. That is, there is beauty. (40)
The book's most valuable contribution is its challenge to conventional understandings of terms such as "value," "shame," "abjection," "wounding," and "contamination," which it puts in relation to wider critical discussions. For example, Stockton relates Roland Barthes's notion of the punctum from Camera Lucida to the notion of "aesthetic wounding" found in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction and in images from Robert Mapplethorpe's 1988 collection Black Book, and so contests the parameters that Barthes's vision of the image allows. Stockton can thus explore the "rhetoric of violence that is inherent in the act of looking yet is often overlooked in critical discussions of visual culture that do not consider race as a necessary category of inquiry (123). Stockton makes another unlikely connection between what she labels the "bottom" politics and "anal economics in the history of Black neighborhoods," citing the way in which she claims Toni Morrison "dares to value debasement" in her 1973 novel Sula. In doing so, Stockton argues that Morrison's work not only celebrates the "bottom values" of debasement but also "debases Freud" (67, 72). Consequently, Stockton is able to read the "value" in the "bottom" politics of Freud's multiple investments in anality at the same time that she can read the critique of Freud inherent in Morrison's nuanced account of life on "the bottom" of the social, economic, and cultural scale for African American residents in Sula, who live in a segregated section of town known as "the Bottom." Stockton writes: "To debase Freud, in relation to the Bottom, as we will see, is to credit his accounts of feces as coins but to make more sorrowful what he clearly felt some necessity to celebrate: namely, how the bottom is lost, left behind, as one becomes more 'civilized'" (73). In another particularly provocative pairing, Stockton deploys cultural categories from Eldridge Cleaver's controversial 1968 racial polemic Soul on Ice to declare that Todd Haynes's 2002 film Far From Heaven "succeeds in suggesting something already implicit and hiding in Cleaver's sexual semiotics" (215). Exploring Far From Heaven in relationship to the categories that Cleaver defines for sexual subjectivity in Soul on Ice, Stockton concludes: "The film makes its highly intentional bridge between blacks and queers by having the woman who personifies clothes (artifice, surface) be the one to notice--finally, dramatically--the wound of black skin" (214). Stockton thus highlights Far From Heaven's challenged to a deracialized notion of "camp" and explores what is potentially useful as well as problematic in a largely forgotten text that approaches the same material as the film from a closer historical vantage point.
Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer" raises the obvious question about the positioning of "shame" and "debasement" at the center of a study that also invokes, however deeply qualified, terms like "black" and "queer," terms that have also existed historically as markers of liberation and emancipatory possibility. Stockton herself asks the question: "Is the conception of valuable shame something only a queer would consider (a white queer at that?)" (9). What role do cultural politics and an intellectual culture that continue to marginalize people of African descent play in the choice to highlight the question of shame and debasement in relation to these categories? Indeed, the question is even present in the jacket art of the book, which prominently positions the J.B. Higgins photograph "Andre"--a nude, aesthetically well proportioned young Black man with his head bowed--as a visual tease on the front cover and the Eurocentric intellectual tease on the back cover, that the book reads its texts "with and against major theorists, including Georges Bataille, Sigmund Freud, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Leo Bersani." Is it possible for such a study to explore the symbolic economy of shame in relation to the "switchpoints of 'black' and 'queer'" without simply replicating the historical and cultural politics that created these switchpoints in the first place?
This question is further highlighted by the very brief but significant inclusion of the work of two writers who self-identify as "Black queers," Robert Reid-Pharr and Gary Fisher (whose posthumously collected writings Gary in Your Pocket were also published by Series Q at Duke University Press). Fisher's observation that "I haven't read Hegel yet . . . I'm afraid to know" stands beside his declaration, "I want to be a slave, a sex slave and a slave beneath another man's (a white man or a big man, preferably a big white man) power" (140). This statement posits the "switchpoints between black and queer, queer and black" at the critical intersection of knowledge and power, the full force of which Stockton's study tantalizingly suggests but fails to fully engage. What would it mean to read Fisher's desire to "be a slave, a sex slave" in relation to a liberatory politics of social transformation? In Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, his defense of "freaks" and "sexual courage," Herukhuti insists that fundamental to his own practice of SM is a recognition of "the way race and gender intertwine to make Black men both slaves and slavemasters, givers of pain and receivers of pain in this society" (166). Stockton excerpts Reid-Pharr's exploration of his desire for "an ugly, poor, white trash southerner," published in the marvelously complicated 2001 essay collection Black Gay Male, in relationship to his declaration that "I still have to resist the impulse to flinch when someone refers to me as a queer and to positively run for cover when someone refers to me as a black queer." Stockton cites Reid-Pharr in order to read these claims in the context of the debased categories of identity (21). Reid-Pharr and Fisher's invocation of power, dominance, and knowledge in connection with shame raises the question of the role dominance and power play in Stockton's valuing of shame as an analytic category. Stockton's study turns on the term "switchpoints" as a critical conduit of symbolic exchange between the terms "black" and "queer," an imaginary moment of "social communion--through acts of debasement and the crossing of signs" (2). "Switchpoints" serve as vectors of intersectionality for the symbolic "baggage" of "queer," "black," and "shame," but the term enacts a balance of exchange that both Fisher and Reid-Pharr suggest rarely exists either in moments of literal social communion or in the social imaginary of the textual.
Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer" begins its discussion of "switchpoints" with a minor but narratively significant African American character in John Cameron Mitchell's 2001 film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This focus on a minor character in a "major" independent film again raises the question of what it means to examine the "switchpoints" between "black" and "queer" texts where Black queer aesthetics and Black sexual subjectivities are not the major focus. In examining "the black man's momentary passage through the text" of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Stockton offers a definition of "switchpoints":
To find the switchpoint between the terms "black" and "queer" within the conceptual space of "debasement," Stockton moves towards theoretical texts whose interests lie primarily outside of African American studies or critical race theory and also decidedly away from texts that explore racial subjectivity in moments where shame or debasement have a liberatory or emancipatory potential. Stockton locates her "critical genealogy of influential thinkers thinking through shame . . . Bataille, Kristeva, Taussig, Bersani, and Sedgwick--the latter most centrally--along with Edelman, Litvak, Kennedy, Muñoz, Holland, and also Reid-Pharr" (6). Though Stockton hopes to challenge at various moments the hierarchal divide between the creative and critical enterprises by, for example, a strategy "to emphasize Morrison's parity with Freud as a theorist," the fact that most scholars in her critical genealogy have given little attention to fields such as African American studies or critical race studies creates a pattern in which African Americans such as Morrison and Baldwin provide the occasional creative material for the study but little of the critical content. Thus Stockton can make innovative connections to texts that have not been thought about in African American studies or in critical race theory, as in her discussion of fabric in Querelle where, she claims, clothing becomes "an elegant, self-embracing shame--one that will dramatically show up as blackened skin" (58). It also allows her to make such connections between texts and fields, as when she invokes Barthes to discuss the moment of visuality surrounding the rape of an African American character in Pulp Fiction as a "pulp punctum" (141). However, her choice to engage with these texts in this way also create significant limitations on the scope of her conceptual framework and tends, unfortunately, to replicate the historical erasure of those who have existed precisely at the juncture of the signs "black" and "queer."
By switchpoint here, I mean the point at which one sign's rich accumulations--those surrounding "American black"--lend themselves to another--"East German queer" . . . . That is . . . numerous meanings attached to "black" switch onto new tracks and signify in the field of "queerness". . . . I think of a switchpoint, at least in part, in railroad terms, according to which a "switch" is "a movable section of railroad track" that is "used in transferring a train from one set of tracks to another"; or, in electrical terms: "a device used to open, close or divert an electric current"; or, in a general sense of a switch as "a shift or transference, especially if sudden or unexpected" . . . . Largely, I will use the term to refer to a point of connection between two signs (or two rather separate connotative fields) where something from one flows toward (is diverted in the direction of) the other, lending its connotative spread and signifying force to the other, illuminating it and intensifying it, but also sometimes shifting it or adulterating it. (4-5)
One wonders about the ways in which Kathryn Bond Stockton's notion of the "switchpoints between black and queer, queer and black" could be brought to bear on the histories of African diasporic sexualities that lie beyond the critical theory that fails to acknowledge them and studies like Stockton's that seem only capable of acknowledging the shadow of their reflection in representation by people who are, by and large, neither Black nor queer. Do notions such as "switchpoints" or a practice of reading white critical theorists against the grain move us beyond the politics of refusal and erasure that have effectively kept these histories from our critical scrutiny? For instance, though Afro-British soccer star Justin Fashanu was the first Black soccer player in Britain to be paid in excess of one million dollars to play professional soccer and remains to this day the only European soccer player to come out as gay while still playing professionally ("Why"), he has largely been forgotten in both European history and sports history as well as within queer history and the history of the African diaspora. This is due to the complicated intersections of racial memory, shame, accusation, and erasure connected with Fashanu's 1998 suicide by hanging following sensationalized accusations of sexual assault against a seventeen year old boy. John Fashanu, Justin Fashanu's only brother, who was also a professional soccer player, was typical in his stance towards his brother's coming out and his premature death in its characteristic enactment of a politics of refusal and erasure. Claiming that he hadn't spoken to his brother in over seven years, John Fashanu insisted: "It doesn't interest me one iota what he does" ("Fashanu May Have Fled"). John Fashanu, who indicated that Justin's behavior had put him beyond the pale of not only family loyalty but also public representation, had publicly disowned his brother when he initially came out, labeling him "a complete outcast" ("John Fashanu"). While Justin Fashanu's life and creative output were defined by shame, his death was marked by erasure. Stockton opens Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer" with the "real world" controversy surrounding Black men on the so-called "Down Low" (1). Stockton argues that the controversy highlighted the "the strained relations between 'black' and 'gay' at the level of signs, even as ongoing struggles for rights and a health epidemic of epic proportions continued to connect black and gay people" (2). Her invocation of the AIDS crisis and the ongoing struggle for human rights that connects "'black' and 'gay' at the level of signs" highlights the potential deadly consequences of shame for those who live under those signs, but can Stockton's "switchpoint" methodology offer something that can make sense of the refusal and erasure that continues to construct the lives of "dark queer folk"?
Besides considering the ways in which James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room reworks white characters into a racialized economy to explore decomposition as a site of attraction, Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer" pays little attention to the cultural production of artists or critics who literally and historically locate themselves and their work at the nexus of "Black" and "queer." There are only too brief discussions of the works of Black queer artists and theorists Robert Reid-Pharr, Gary Fisher, Sharon Patricia Holland, Isaac Julien, Kobena Mercer, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. The book suffers from this exclusion and ultimately seems more concerned with the category of shame in the "switchpoints between black and queer, queer and black" for what it tells about whiteness and normativity, as evidenced by the book's concluding line: "Apparently, even straight white folks need beautiful bottoms" (221). People of African descent have long been made to be aware of their use-value for the symbolic economy of Western culture, as Hortense Spillers famously writes in "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book": "My country needs me, and if I was not here, I would have to be invented" (257). But what is the use-value and what are the consequences of the categories of shame and debasement for African people? How have they used these conditions to construct a culture of consequence for themselves? Stockton chooses to focus on debasement because of "its relation…to the concept of value" (7). She also "asks the reader to keep close at hand" the terms "abjection" and "humiliation," and she interestingly defines abjection as having the sense of being cast or thrown away, while she wants humiliation to be understood in relation to "religious mortification" (7,8). Both of these terms as she defines them suggest a productive quality that lies outside of traditional modes of valuation that may have more significance to cultures that have been denied access to "value" as such. Recent studies have considered the ways in which abjection has historically been constitutive for African Americans' aesthetic, cultural, and identity production. Elizabeth Alexander's incisive essay, "'Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?': Reading the Rodney King Video(s)," and Saidiya V. Hartman's definitional study of slavery, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, consider the ways African American cultural production remakes what Alexander labels "the 'fact' of abject blackness" into "a cultural memory [carried] on the flesh" (110, 91). Hartman argues in Scenes of Subjection that "the performance of blackness is inseparable from the brute force that brands, rapes, and tears open the flesh in the racial inscription of the body. In other words, the seeming obstinacy or the 'giveness' of 'blackness' registers the 'fixing' of the body by terror and dominance and in the way in which that fixing has been constitutive" (58). Studies like these can potentially deepen the understanding of abjection as a base material of culture-making beyond the ways in which it is invoked in the works examined in Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer."
Ultimately, the value of Stockton's work lies in the seemingly unlikely connections it is able to make. Stockton's chapter "Prophylactics and Brains: Slavery in the Cybernetic Age of AIDS" explores Toni Morrison's 1988 novel Beloved in relation to cultural discourse around AIDS. It focuses on obvious cultural artifacts, such as Robert Mapplethorpe's 1986 photograph collection Black Book and Morrison's play about the murder of Emmett Till, as well as on the discourse of viral contamination in cyber culture that propagates at the birth of the AIDS crisis and the birth of Morrison's novel. Stockton writes:
Stockton's ability to bring Morrison's work in conversation with cyber culture and the language of viral contamination adds much to our critical understanding of cultural transmission and the ways in which death and the dead become sites for negotiating "dangerous transmissions" and of the interpenetration between memory and the brain, the body and its surface, while negotiating the question of reproduction in ways that answer to the cybernetic age as well as the historical past. For me, this chapter, with its concepts of the "viral gothic" and "threatening reproduction," was haunted by the spectre of Julius Eastman, the African American classical composer who scandalized the world of avant-garde music in the seventies and eighties with his unconventional performances and compositions such as "Gay Guerilla," "Evil Nigger," and "Crazy Nigger," only to die in 1990 in anonymous poverty and complete obscurity in an upstate New York hospital. Rarely recorded, and only incompletely archived, the vast majority of Eastman's compositions were lost in the 1980s when he was evicted from his New York City apartment and became homeless, his possessions first seized and then disposed of by the Sheriff's Department. Despite Eastman's previous notoriety, Kyle Gann notes that Eastman was dead six months before anyone bothered to write an obituary for him. Eastman's composition "Evil Nigger" is written to be performed by multiple pianos and its enigmatic, building repetition is haunted thematically as well as sonically by its reiteration of the sense of "dangerous transmissions" and "threatening reproduction" of which Stockton speaks.
I want to read Beloved as it is never read--as a novel born in 1987, in the cybernetic age of AIDS. Its melancholy pairing of untimely deaths with dangerous transmissions (between the living and the living dead) is the major issue I wish to consider. This is not to read Beloved as an AIDS book--not exactly so--but to claim kinship to 1987 in its conception of a viral gothic. That is, Beloved, perhaps not accidentally, forges a model of viral memory. (180)
Once when Nina Simone introduced her controversial 1963 protest song against racial segregation and racist violence, "Mississippi Goddam," she pronounced it a "show tune whose show has not been written yet." Simone's ability to pronounce the unpronounceable contributed to the sublime nature of her performance and this sublimity, moreover, lies at the critical nexus of "black" and "queer" along with what Kathryn Bond Stockton marks as "shame." When called upon in 1980 to justify his controversial naming of his "Nigger Series," Julius Eastman similarly responded with the typically enigmatic statement: "There are 99 names for Allah and there are 52 niggers." Eastman thus maintained a sense of the "holy" in what Stockton explores as "nigger jokes" in the work of Morrison, Quentin Tarantino, and others (73). What is missing from Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer" is precisely this sense that is most present in the work of Black queers who exist at "switchpoints between black and queer, queer and black"--not the celebration of debasement, but the counterpoint of the holy.
Department of English
University of Florida
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