- Rethinking the Politics of Visibility through the Black Femme Function
In The Witches Flight Kara Keeling undertakes an interrogation of the "lingering logics of racism and the complex ways in which 'race,' 'gender,' and 'sexuality' have come to both inform and deform various anticapitalist movements toward Black Liberation" (1). In the name of such an interrogation, the book (or "litany" as the introduction tells us) "heads towards" an examination of "the black lesbian butch-femme as an exemplary, though imperfect, effort to forge ways of living that enable the survival of expressions of life that, to invoke Audre Lorde, were never meant to survive" (1). The fact that we are still heading towards the black lesbian-butch femme as the book draws to an end is testament to both her elusiveness in visual culture and to what is thought provoking but problematic in this work. The series of invocations that the book comprises will prove somewhat hard to pin down for those who are not already among the faithful. But, in her introduction Keeling exhorts her reader to "work" with her, and doing so leads to a canny rethinking of the spell of U.S. visual culture.
Two historical "coincidences" reveal "the importance of a politics of visibility to struggles against racism in the United States and the related struggles against sexism and homophobia" (9). First, "the invention of cinema in the early twentieth century (sic)" with DuBois's announcement of the "problem of the twentieth century" as "the problem of the color line" (1); and, second, the rise of television news as a force in US public life alongside the civil rights struggle. Both of these point us to "a fundamental convergence between black identity, processes of hegemony, and cinema" (89), and to the ways in which the struggles against racism have deployed an "inevitably reformist" politics of visibility (10) that reproduces the "hegemony of (neo) colonial discourse" (27). For the most part, this founding premise must be taken at face value as Keeling moves on rather tersely to her central argument: films not only "reflect" or "impose" on, but also organize, the real.
Keeling draws on Gilles Deleuze's conception of the cinematic, arguing that cinema creates reality, and that reality is cinematic because the "labor (affectivity) required to make sense of the images that cinematic machines select, cut, frame and circulate is the same kind of labor required to live in and make sense of the world organized by the cinematic" (43). As such, a cinematic image is more than a representation but less than a thing: it designates a "specific perceptual schema" (12) that functions to make common spectators' senses via their "affective labor" (Marcia Landy quoted on 96). This labor produces sociality under capitalism by reproducing reality according to local and official common sense(s). Affective labor, increasingly necessary to survival, is biopolitical and cinematic processes are central to the "consolidation of biopower" (97). "In order to survive, living images offer up their lives as contributions to capitalist power via affectivity, becoming like slaves whose productive labor is useful primarily to another's acquisition of wealth" (25).
In this rather fraught analogy, Keeling follows what has become accepted thinking in film studies (common sense, so to speak): in trying to understand the relationship between cinema and social reality it is the reception of film images and not only the profit focus of media/capital that needs to be understood. Cinematic perception (and here, as with other key topics, Keeling does not point the reader to the major thinkers or texts in the field) consists of a meeting of present perception and past memory-images in which the present is confirmed through the past. When collective images and experiences combine with perception and affectivity ("habituated motor responses" (15)) clichés will dominate our subjective and shared common sense(s).
Keeling argues, following Gramsci, that common sense documents historical becoming. It traverses the difference between the past and...