- Looking at the OverexposedVisuality and Race in Harnett’s Attention Company!
The last twenty years has seen a number of cultural critics investigating the relationship between race and visuality.1 Michelle Wallace, for example, closed the 1992 Black Popular Culture collection by addressing “the problem of visuality in African American culture” (335). Wallace attributes this problem—what she calls “the history of a mostly invisible black visuality” (335)—to the institutional limitations of a white-dominated art world that restrict or prohibit both the production of and discourse on black visuality. She finds it difficult, for instance, to imagine an African American’s relation to visual practice either as an artist or as a critic, if nearly all the depictions are negative. The historical legacy of negative images (African Americans as objects) plus the historical absence of positive images (African Americans as subjects), contributes to an absence of visual producers which, in turn, produces an absence of critical discourse on the visual.2 Thus, the existence of a mostly invisible black visuality, ironically enough, has little to do with a lack of exposure. In fact, Wallace finds the negative image of the black to be thoroughly overexposed.3 Consequently, she believes that one of the goals of contemporary cultural criticism should be to “begin to understand how regimes of visuality enforce racism, how they literally hold it in place” (Wallace, “Afterword” 344).
Like Wallace, Henry Louis Gates also discusses the problem of African American visuality in his introductions to two recent museum exhibition catalogues (“The Face” 11–14). But for Gates, the problem of African American visuality is more about the past than the present. Gates contends that “the hegemony of racist images that dominated the popular arts and infiltrated the fine arts” during the nineteenth century prompted the New Negro movement to use words, and “not the tactics of visual representation, as the tools … used to assert their self-image” (“The Face” xliv). Here, the negative visual representations of African Americans have not only stifled visual production, but they have literally generated textual bodies to take their place. In his introduction to the Black Male catalogue, Gates maintains that “tragically, every African American male who walks down any street in America carries with him the hidden heritage of this negative cultural and psychological legacy, the burden of being perceived through what … Barbara Johnson calls a stereotype—’an already-read text’—the already read text of debasedness and animality” (Preface 13). Like Wallace, Gates draws virtually the same conclusion: African American visuality is problematic largely because of the historical legacy of centuries of negative images. Where Wallace locates “the problem” in the cultural institutions that regulate and maintain the production of visual practice, Gates locates “the problem” in [End Page 723] the historical effects of a cultural conflation between the stereotyped images and the actual people they seek to reductively display.
Yet, as both Wallace and Gates discuss the enduring legacy of the production of negative images, and the vexed status that it has subsequently created for the relationship between African American discourse and visuality, there is scarcely any attention paid to how these images themselves might actually participate in the problem outside of their status as an already-read text. In fact, it remains unclear if the representational modalities of images have any bearing whatsoever on what Wallace claims as a “vital” problem for African American discourse. While Wallace hopes to address this problem, her notion of visuality seems confined to “who produces and reproduces vision,” and oddly leaves out interrogating the very material condition for the production of vision in the first place: the image. Similarly, Gates reduces almost the entire history of the relationship between race and representation in American art (1710–1940) to the steady production of images that by and large always exist as “already-read” texts. Although the iconoclasm implicit within such criticism is understandable given the vast corpus of stereotypical images of African Americans within American culture, the implications and limitations of this iconoclasm on African American cultural criticism’s relationship to the problem it seeks to understand warrants further thought as to how African American visuality might...