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  • Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, and: Soul: Black Power, Politics, and Pleasure
  • Fred Moten (bio)
Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. By Saidiya V. Hartman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; 296 pp. $19.95 cloth, $50.00 paper.
Soul: Black Power, Politics, and Pleasure. Edited by Monique Guillory and Richard C. Green. New York: New York University Press, 1998; 320 pp. $45.00 cloth, $19.00 paper.

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Between looking and being looked at, spectacle and spectatorship, enjoyment and being enjoyed, moves the economy of what Saidiya V. Hartman calls hypervisibility. Her extraordinary new book, Scenes of Subjection, allows us to think about this hypervisibility in relation to musical obscurity and to questions of tone and rhythm. Hartman opens us to the problematics of everyday ritual, the stagedness of the violently (and sometimes amelioratively) quotidian—the essential drama of black life, as Zora Neale Hurston might say. She shows how narrative always echoes and redoubles this dramatic interenactment of “contentment and abjection,” and she explores the massive discourse of the cut, of rememberment and redress, that we always hear in narratives where blackness marks simultaneously the performance of the object and the performance of humanity. She allows us to ask: What do objectification and humanization—both of which can be conceived in relation to certain notions of subjection—have to do with the essential historicity, the quintessential modernity, of black performance? This is a double ambivalence that requires, above all, some thinking about the opposition of spectacle and routine, violence and pleasure. This thinking is Hartman’s domain.

A critique of the subject animates Hartman’s book. The book bears the trace, therefore, of a movement we associate with Althusser and Foucault and, more recently, with Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. In their work, the call to subjectivity is understood also as a call to subjection and subjugation. Appeals for redress to the state or citizenship, as well as modes of radical performativity and/or subversive impersonation, are always already embedded in the structure they would escape. But Hartman also moves in another tradition that forces another kind of questioning. Is every critique of humanity also a necessary assertion of humanity? One way to look at this is as the question of Hegel—one [End Page 169] operating at the level of the content and form of the phenomenology of spirit. Another way to look at it, however, is as a certain prefigurative echo and disruption of Hegel that is encoded in the material relation of masters and slaves that provides, for Hegel, the “grounding figure” of that phenomenology. Hartman examines narratives of these material encounters and the modes of quotidian performance that they engender. In so doing she forces us to consider, again, the ways in which critiques of the human are always already assertions of the human, just as the movement into subjectivity is always already a movement into subjection. How the one ameliorates or redresses the other is a central question for Hartman.

The best person to consult on all of this is Frederick Douglass; the best place to consult him is in his narratives and, particularly, in the moments when he describes/echoes black (musical/dance) performance. But this is to move in the tradition of reading Douglass that conflates his story with the story of slavery/freedom. To make him thus emblematic is, in some way, to parallel that Hegelian self-projection by which the phenomenology of spirit, in its universality, is conflated with The Phenomenology of Spirit. In order to sidestep this problematic, Hartman both has to avoid and arrive at Douglass, must both return to and repress him.

Everything moves, for Hartman, after the fact of what opens her text, an opening decision not to reproduce what she calls Douglass’s “primal scene,” the horrific and spectacular beating of his Aunt Hester. Rather she chooses “to look elsewhere and consider those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned—slaves dancing in the quarters, the outrageous darky antics of the minstrel stage, the constitution...