In her first book Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects, Christina Sharpe is concerned with black representation, the gaze, and subjective and objective positioning. Her primary argument regards black bodies made to perpetually bear the marks of, and the knowledge of, race, slavery, and post-slavery subjection. As Sharpe notes, Frederick Douglass famously stated subjection is a process wherein “the slave is [made] a subject, subjected by others; [while] the slaveholder is a subject but he is the author of his own subjection” (1), and it is this analysis of subjection that Sharpe, like Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman before her, relies on to trace slavery’s contemporary residue. For the black body specifically to continually wear “unfreedom” is disconcerting when considering subjection is a formative history that all postmodern subjects share (15). In other words, Sharpe is critically concerned with the manners in which black bodies—through what she calls “the sadomasochism of everyday black life”—are made, through actual and ideological work, to maintain unfreedom for the black subject so as to signify “placeholders of freedom for those who would claim freedom as their rightful yield” (4).
Owing much to Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection (1997), Sharpe traces what she refers to as “monstrous intimacies,” meaning those “known and unknown performances and inhabited horrors, desires, and positions produced, reproduced, circulated, and transmitted, that are breathed in like air and often unacknowledged to be monstrous” (3). Through her international, cross-disciplinary project comprising among its critical lenses literary studies, history, performance studies, and art history, Sharpe examines specific artistic, cultural productions that explore monstrous intimacies constituting familial, national, institutional, and historical narratives that take black suffering as the inviolate foundation against which all progress can and must be measured. To this end Sharpe examines the literature of Gayl Jones and Bessie Head, British filmmaker Issac Julien’s The Attendant, and the art of African American artist Kara Walker to explore the ways in which master narratives of subjection (intimate raced, sexual(ized) violences and their attendant shame and trauma) are read or reinscribed as narratives of consent, pleasure, and/or indifference and are thereby transgenerationally transmitted. Thus, Sharpe’s purpose in Monstrous Intimacies is to account for the incomplete movement from slavery to freedom and the psychic weight brought to bear (unevenly) on the post-slavery black subject “positioned within everyday intimate brutalities who is said to have survived or to be surviving the past of slavery, that is not yet past, bearing something like freedom” (26).
This purpose informs every chapter, as Sharpe structures her text by tracing the actual and ideological work the black body is made to do in signifying unfreedom in the post-slavery era so as to shore up freedom for those who claim it as their rightful yield. At the same time, Sharpe is keen to reveal the manner in which each respective author/artist in her study attempts to rewrite, or to look askance at, the dominant reading assumed to be revealed in, and attributed to, such narratives of subjection. Tracing this precarious positioning is complicated, because while Sharpe is reticent to read such artistic creativity as liberatory (considering the context of production within the sadomasochism of everyday black life), she also seems to be suggesting that such gestures are ways in which post-slavery subjects can intervene in representations of subjection and their everyday consequences. [End Page 496]
Sharpe begins tracing these two threads of analysis in her first chapter, “Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Reading the ‘Days that Were Pages of Hysteria,’” in which she provides an illuminating, provocative reading of Jones’s neo-slavery novel Corregidora (1975) that reveals the interpellation of the master’s desire in the enslaved psyche. In Corregidora this interpellation is demonstrated through the demands of the formerly enslaved on their descendants to perpetually bear witness through reproduction. However, what is ultimately inherent in this will to reproduction is, as Sharpe argues, a desire to transform the primal scene of subjection into a reclamation of power for the enslaved. In her second chapter, “Bessie Head, Saartje Baartman...