In Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, Nicole Fleetwood writes about the troubling reliance on visual narratives to represent the African American experience, which are often hailed as “true.” These practices operate as if visual representation alone can “resolve the problem of the black body in the field of vision” (5). Fleetwood emphasizes the complexity of seeing, feeling, and recognizing black subjectivity. She focuses on the changing conditions of race and draws our attention to how black interiority continues to be seen. She proposes an analytic shift from the terrain of the politics of representation that typically privileges corrective remedies for the excesses of blackness, and questions whether we can use bodies that are always troubling in a visual discursive system, as an entry-point to do political work.
Fleetwood explores visual culture as a site in order to recognize how we come to know about the black body and meanings attached to it. She is interested in “how the labeling or making of black troubles the production, reception, and interpretation of cultural production and practices” (15). Her work investigates the “psychic and affective” spaces of seeing and “doing black” (15). For Fleetwood, black subjectivity is made in the crucible of visuality/visual culture, which explains why we cannot determine what the subject looks like or what politics the subject may require in advance. Fleetwood references the work of Judith Butler, David Marriott, Franz Fanon, Peggy Phelan, and others to trouble and disrupt our dependence on the visual as a discursive narrative of an authentic black experience. She convincingly argues that blackness “is not rooted in a history, person, or thing, although it has many histories and many associations with people and things” (6). She adds that blackness “attaches to bodies and narratives coded as such but it always [End Page 471] exceeds these attachments” (6). Fleetwood uses four categories to probe within spaces between subject and object: non-iconicity, troubling vision, excess flesh, and visible seams.
In the first chapter, “’One Shot’: Charles Harris and Photographic Non-Iconicity,” Fleetwood employs her theory of non-iconicity in the making of black subjectivity by examining the photography of Charles “Teenie” Harris. She considers Harris’s photography of everyday life an “indexical practice that offers a counterpoint to the dominant iconic images of blacks, especially mid-twentieth century documentation of the civil rights era and black freedom struggles” (28). Her intention is to highlight “localized, everyday scenes and moments of the mundane and ephemera” to step outside of a frame of iconicity that continually dominates visual culture (34). According to Fleetwood, representational practices produce normative discourses, partly relying on black iconic signs (and black male cultural producers). Iconic signs fix meaning to bodies and invoke affective responses by attaching normative values and meanings to certain images. Therefore, she proposes “noniconicity” as a way to transition from singularity and the significance placed on certain instantiations of blackness to represent. Harris’s practice of indexing photographs highlights the “impossibility” of developing an authentic and complete portrayal of black life. “The image base does not create blackness as a singular totalizing narrative,” Fleetwood argues, “but entertains the notion of play, incompleteness, and resistance to the archive as primary source for tapping into historical evidence of black everyday experience” (60). Theorizing the non-iconic effectively resists an overarching narrative of the black experience while exposing the temporality and specificity of the moment.
Fleetwood also explores iconicity in the spaces where mass culture and black popular culture intersect: in hip hop fashion advertising. In the fourth chapter, she analyzes the stylized body of the black male icon in popular culture in order to show how “the black male body becomes the iconic figure for a consumer culture rooted in urban music, black masculine aesthetics, and nationalism” (29). Through the incorporation of traditional American(a) symbols with authentic black masculinity, hip hop fashion advertising produces “a character who is at once an ultra-stylish thug and the ultimate American citizen” (154). The success of hip hop fashion labels like Russell Simmons’s Phat Farm and Sean “P-Diddy...