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  • Deepening the Surface: Raengo’s On the Sleeve of the Visual
  • Stephen F. Kearse (bio)
Allesandra Raengo, On the Sleeve of the Visual. Dartmouth College Press, 2013. 232 pp. $29.95 (paper). ISBN 978-1-58465-974-7

The black body has played an important role in organizing how race is conceived, assessed and used, especially in relation to capital. Investigating how exactly the black body is ontologically schematized and what makes this schema valuable, in On the Sleeve of the Visual Alessandra Raengo problematizes its epidermis, the locus and reservoir of “face value.” Face value is intrinsic to a visual ontology that is characterized by the “possibility, the belief and the desire to read value (but also reference, truth, and meaning) on the image’s face” (4-5). The black body in particular is an important site of inquiry because it historically and contemporarily plays a crucial role in sustaining the connection between face and value. In fact, for the visual ontology that Raengo accounts for - “photochemical imagination” - the black body’s significance is primary: no other object has offered this visual ontology (and its accompanying political economies) more sustenance. By teasing out this visual ontology’s internal logic and external consequences, Raengo is able to simultaneously accomplish four tremendous tasks: she convincingly articulates what is a racial image and what makes it possible without reifying racial categories; she reveals race’s role in enabling the “reliability” and later the profitably of the photographic image; she locates strategies of resistance within and even through the photochemical imagination; and she makes the film Precious watchable.

The photochemical imagination is developed in the first chapter through an analysis of an NAACP photograph that sharply deviates from the typical aesthetics of anti-lynching images. Whereas most lynching photographs fixate on the violated body of the black victim, this image refers to the victim through a shadow that is superimposed onto the mass of White attendees (participants). For Raengo, the usefulness of this image lies in its formal properties rather than its relation to an event. Because of this peculiar superimposition of the shadow, it becomes apparent that the photograph is an artifact, a product of social relations, despite the way that race overrides the shadow’s opacity and racializes the shadow’s referent. Raengo contends that the artifactual nature of the photograph allows us to think through the artifactual nature of race. In other words, if a shadow can or must become a black body, so can an actual black body. Raengo’s interest is in the processes that drive this transformation.

Avoiding weak descriptors like “ideology” or “social construction, “ Raengo takes this shadow’s corporealization seriously, connecting its reification into a black body to the photochemical imagination’s investment in indexicality. The connection, she contends, is the fact that photography and race are both conceived “as indexes in the sense of traces” (27), meaning that both enable “legibility” by offering a way of reading the “traces” in plain sight. Stated differently: photography and race organize the visual field in a way that makes it possible to see value on the surface; in her terms, they fold the real onto visual representation, positing the latter as the former. Crucially, these forms of organization and seeing are “mutually energizing” (27): through the photochemical imagination that understands photography as a reproducer of the real, photography lends race a materiality, an authenticity; and race, through the black body and that same photochemical imagination, lends photography a facticity, an authority. Through the shadow in this NAACP photograph, Raengo seeks to intervene in this heinous cycle.

She chooses the concept of indexicality as her site of intervention, highlighting the index’s capacity to work as trace - as it does for race and photography - as well as shifter, never leading to one singular referent. Building from the work of Mary Ann Doane, Raengo argues that as shifter, the index works deictically rather than referentially. It is a “hollowed-out sign” (30) that asserts nothing, yet “signifies a remaining gap between sign and object” (30). Thus, “while the NAACP shadow is obviously the indexical trace of a body that has cast it, it is not the indexical trace of...

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