- Omnipresent Negation:Hottentot Venus and Africa Rising
—Just because I consent to this life doesn't mean I choose it, she had said in Dutch.
—I beg your pardon?
—Just because I consent to this life doesn't mean I choose it, she had said in her broken English.—Barbara Chase-Riboud, Hottentot Venus
The life and times of the "Hottentot Venus," also known as "Sarah Baartman" and "Saartjie Baartman," continues to captivate scholars, poets, and artists.1 On the one hand, the very name Hottentot reminds us of the violent formation of a "biopower" that brought the "life and mechanisms" of particular populations into "the realm of explicit calculations," thus suturing the "threshold of modernity" with coloniality (Foucault 143).2 On the other hand, the scandalous history of the Hottentot Venus arrests us because the rationalities that brought this mode of embodiment into historical and anthropological existence for nineteenth-century European life and letters have not remained limited to their historical emergence. The Hottentot Venus was never, after all, simply a body that modernity moved beyond, but rather "a historical form of an ongoing" yet disjunctive crisis: the subjection of specific populations to global capital, racialization, metropolitan popular culture, and scientific knowledge (Best, Fugitive's Properties 16).3 In two commercials that ran in 2006 for Amp'd Mobile Wireless, for example, this crisis informs the rhetorical power of marketing as it is the idea of black women's anatomical difference that motivates narrativity in both commercials. In the most insidious commercial of the two, a black woman gyrates her buttocks while a white woman watches enviously. As the camera's scopophilic gaze attempts to conscript viewers into an alliance of loathing, the camera pans to the black woman's body. Cutting through layers of clothing and skin, the camera soon reveals the "truth" of black women's bodies: that underneath dermal layers exist not bones but a structure of industrial mechanisms—similar to sets of pistons—which control the movement of black women's buttocks. Desirous, angered, and covetous, the white woman continues to gaze. She soon realizes, however, that there is a solution to her problem: her Amp'd Phone. Hence, she points the phone at the black woman and presses a button that causes the black woman to pass out and her anatomy to overheat. The commercial [End Page 910] concludes with a triumphant white woman, a plea to buy Amp'd Phones, and fumes emanating from the black woman's body.4
Even as many viewers might find this commercial humorous and, at the very least, in bad taste rather than racist, the commercial illustrates the relationship between nineteenth-century raciologies and our contemporary "post-race" media. In our neoliberal moment, a moment in which claims against racism pose a threat to civil society, the commercial restages a peculiar preoccupation with black women's bodies with impunity.5 The commercial's absurd and fantastic form instantiates a disavowal that avows, nonetheless, a commitment to long-held racist notions informed by ideas about racialized gender and anatomical difference. The argument here is not that this commercial's performative capacity can be reduced to the historical context within which the Hottentot Venus materialized, but rather, that this commercial is as much about the post-race politics of our global present as it is about an abounding yet fragmented logic of white supremacist spectatorship that assumed specific historical forms on the Hottentot Venus.6
Indeed, the specter—the omnipresent negation—of the Hottentot Venus continues to haunt us. As Barbara Chase-Riboud notes, the Hottentot Venus:
is everywhere—in every textbook that deals with science, literature, or history: the invisible one—there by absence or negation. There by her definition of not being there. Yet she is there, a dark despised shadow behind our concept of Beauty, of Womanhood, of Sex, of Color . . . Her negation is omnipresent in our publicity and advertisements, our bathroom scales and our obsession with race, our daydreams and our nightmares.("Inventing")
As important as the figure of the Hottentot Venus is to our understanding of imperialism, racialization, and European modernity, information about the...