Thursday, March 23, 2017


Since I read her book In the Wake: on Blackness and Being a few months ago I have been thinking a lot about Christina Sharpe’s terms “annotation” and “redaction,” which she develops in relation to representations of Black people (what Sharpe calls “Black portraiture”). After the current confrontation between Hannah Black et al and Schutz/Whitney Biennial curators, I am reminded of how powerful these terms of Sharpe’s are, which provide a corrective for the erasure of Black experience (represented by white dominated cultural production) and the appropriation of Black suffering (represented by white cultural production that takes as its point of departure Black experience/suffering). As Sharpe writes: “Annotation appears like that asterisk, which is itself an annotation mark, that marks the trans*formation into ontological blackness. As photographs of Black people circulate as portraits in a variety of publics, they are often accompanied by some sort of note or other metadata, whether that notation is in the photograph itself or as a response to a dehumaning photograph, in order that the image might travel with supplemental information that marks injury and, then, more than injury. We know that, as far as images of Black people are concerned, in their circulation they often don’t, in fact, do the imaging work that we expect of them. There are too many examples of this to name: from the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991, to the murder of Oscar Grant, to the brutal murders of twenty-one trans women in the United States as of November 2015, to all of the circulating images of and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to the ongoing deaths in transatlantic, trans-Mediterranean, and trans-continental crossings extending across the Black global diaspora. This is true even though and when we find images of Black suffering in various publics framed in and as calls to action or calls to feel with and for. Most often these images function as a hail to the non Black person in the Althusserian sense. That is, these images work to confirm the status, location, and already held opinions of spectacular Black bodies whose meanings then remain unchanged. We have been reminded by [Saidiya] Hartman and many others that the repetition of the visual, discursive, state, and other quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violence enacted on Black people does not lead to a cessation of violence, nor does it, across or within communities, lead primarily to sympathy or something like empathy. Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kind of ethical viewing and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and redaction offer?” Following Sharpe’s invaluable theoretical insights and terms in the passage from which I just quoted, I wonder if we might not consider Black’s et al’s letter in which they call for the “destruction” of Dana Schutz’s painting (whether by the painter herself or the institution sponsoring its exhibition) as both a call for redaction (for the painting to be “edited” out of harm’s way) and annotation (for words to perform a work of redress in the presence or absence of image-making which appropriates black experience/suffering in order to sustain the production of white jouissance (i.e., “empathy”) before the hyper-visibility of the wounded/destroyed Black body). Or, as Aria Dean puts it in the second of two incisive responses to Black’s et al’s letter: “censorship is the stifling of protest not the shunning of power to cause harm.” I too understand Black’s et al’s letter not as a call for “censorship,” but rather as an (as yet misunderstood and unanswered) “shunning of power” via the demand that a work of art be withdrawn from an anti-Black scopic field in order to be replaced by (a lack of) images and (the supplementarity of) words which might not only redress and mitigate Black suffering, and specifically the original harm of Till’s murder and mutilation reenacted if not redoubled by Schutz’s and the curators’ decision to show Open Casket, but the an/original harm of the destruction of Till’s visage/person, which, as Fred Moten writes in his essay “Black Mo’nin’,” demands that the viewer-listener-witness produce a response (what Moten calls interchangeably a “cut” and an “augmentation,” and which reveals itself viscerally through an involuntary turning away of the gaze) to the ethical-political performance of the showing of Till’s body to the (principally Black) world by his mother and the mass reproduction of this showing by an international media. Following the profound insights of Sharpe/Moten (articulated long before the Open Casket “controversy”), I concur with the call to destroy Schutz’s painting—to withdraw it from sight, if not from existence—as a ethical-political-aesthetic response to institutionalized anti-Black violence which the redaction (by means of the destruction of the painting) might enact.

*originally posted at Facebook, 3/22/2017


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