- The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography by Jennifer C. Nash
The Black Body in Ecstasy examines racialized pornography from the so-called Golden and Silver ages of erotic film (the 1970s and 1980s, respectively), and the myriad ways in which black subjects locate pleasure therein, both as characters in these films and as consumers watching them. Nash asserts that these pleasures may be unnerving, unsettling, or complicated, yet they are pleasures nevertheless. The thrills of looking and being looked at, for example, or of acting out racial fictions and then overturning them, reveal for Nash the extent to which “speaking sex is always speaking race” (72). These fraught forms of racial-sexual “ecstasy,” Nash argues, are “both deeply personal (aesthetic, erotic, sexual) and deeply social” (3). Through close readings of the [End Page 174] racial iconography of several pornographic films and briefer considerations of their cinematic contexts, Nash intervenes in two academic fields: feminist porn studies, and black feminism.
The more central of these two interventions is Nash’s “loving critique” of black feminism (8). Nash devotes her entire first chapter to black feminist representational thought, showing through a diverse cadre of scholars and artists that black feminist theory consistently frames the visual field as the site of racialized and sexualized scopic wounding. (The 19th- century exhibition of Saartjie Baartman looms as an originary site of injury for black feminism, Nash suggests, as do the 1850 slave daguerreotypes commissioned by Louis Agassiz and the auction block that preceded them.) Though Nash assembles a “vibrant and varied” group of thinkers — including Patricia Hill Collins, Hortense Spillers, Janell Hobson, Nicole Fleetwood, Renee Cox, and Carla Williams — these theorists nevertheless “collectively perform the black female body as an injured site, producing an archive that is structured by a ‘grammar’ of woundedness” (25). Such wounding calls for “recovery work,” Nash’s term for academic attempts to “salvage the black female body from the violence of the visual field” (47). Nash shows that the largest divergence among her fellow black feminists lies in their beliefs as to whether — and how — the black female body might repair or reclaim itself through the visual field.
Nash is careful to avoid suggesting that the paradigm of wounding and recovery is unnecessary or invaluable, yet she convincingly argues that the insistent preoccupation with that paradigm forecloses considerations of the possibilities of pleasure. Using pornography — viewed by many as the ultimate sight of racialized, sexualized wounding — as her site of exploration, Nash is able to argue for admittedly complex pleasures that take place within structures of domination. The black subject is not always trying to heal from a wound of looking, nor is she always eyeing critically the racial structures that contain her. Rather, she may relish the complicated pleasure of being looked at, whether or not that pleasure is shot through with pain. For Nash, if racial-sexual pleasures can be oppressive, they can also be empowering, providing us with “powerful vocabularies for naming what we desire” within power structures that might titillate even as they organize what we imagine to be possible (150).
Audre Lorde’s conception of the erotic has heretofore loomed large for those black feminists who would seek to discuss pleasure, yet readers hoping for an extensive consideration of the erotic in comparison to the ecstatic will not find it here (though Lorde’s erotic does receive passing mention). The reasons for this are easy enough to imagine: Lorde’s erotic is deeply personal, invested in repair and wholeness, and does not necessarily involve the sexual; whereas Nash’s ecstasy locates its pleasures in the nexus of the personal–societal and the racial–sexual, and it makes ready use of messy, painful bits. Further, Lorde bluntly condemned the pornographic, and perhaps her absence from Nash’s work is a form of respect. Yet for those black feminists already steeped in Lordeian thought, the familiar contours of the erotic might have helped to throw Nash’s conception of ecstasy into...