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  • Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer by Michelle Ann Stephens
  • Jared Sexton
Michelle Ann Stephens, Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, 282pp.
ISBN 978-0-8223-5677-6

For the past decade, Michelle Ann Stephens has pursued a rich and challenging examination of the twentieth-century political cultures and cultural politics of the African diaspora. The first major work in that project was her Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962 (2005), which addresses itself to the life and labors of Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and C. L. R. James. That inaugural text tracked the historical emergence of an internationalist political program for black self-determination in the conjoint struggles against the living legacies of racial slavery, European colonialism, and American imperialism; a program “constituted by both radical and reactionary impulses” (38), the latter presenting themselves principally regarding matters of gender and sexuality in the imagined communities of African-derived peoples in the New World. Stephens continued over the next several years to develop these arguments through efforts on two notable dossiers: as coeditor of “Reconceptualizations of the African Diaspora,” a special issue of Radical History Review 103 (2009), and as author of an article, “What Is This Black in Black Diaspora,” in “Blackness Unbound: Interrogating Transnational Blackness,” a special issue of Small Axe [End Page 151] 13:2 (2009), that adumbrates the critical inquiry laid out in great detail in Skin Acts by way of its close readings of the careers of Bert Williams, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, and Bob Marley. The arc from then to now represents both a continuation and refinement of scholarly attention to the emergent “dialogue between studies of racial and sexual formation” (11), a dialogue approached herein with an emphasis on black masculinities and black male bodies as sites of struggle and possibility, as complex processes and practices betrayed by the appearance, and the apparent simplicity, of stereotype. For Stephens, any rethinking and refashioning of the African diaspora in general—which bear on prospects for existence in the modern world as such—is inextricable from a black feminist rethinking and refashioning of black masculinity in particular.

Stephens has several clustered points of reference in the present endeavor. First and foremost, a selection of contemporary black feminist thought, including especially the signal contributions of Hortense Spillers on what she terms a “psychoanalytics of black culture” and of Sylvia Wynter on the historical ascendance of physiognomy over anatomy during and since the European Enlightenment. These theorists prove foundational for Skin Acts because together they focalize its twin concerns, namely, to demonstrate the relevance of a revised psychoanalytic theory for the study of black life in the broadest terms and to historicize cultural understandings of the body in order to forge a more adequate understanding of the stakes of black performance for post-emancipation societies throughout the hemisphere. Second, and in that vein, a range of psychoanalytic thought that, while giving passing attention to one of the seminal texts of the Freudian archive (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality from 1905), strives to maintain a productive triangulation of the teachings of Jacques Lacan, the innovations of Lacan’s former student and critic Didier Anzieu, and the formulations of Lacan’s well-known English-language feminist interlocutor Kaja Silverman, with occasional points of clarification drawn from philosophers Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek, among others. Third, and pursuant to the principle claims of the book, various cultural histories of the skin, spanning the period from medieval Europe to the present, including the essential role of empire in such developments. Claudia Benthien’s Skin (2004), Steven Conner’s The Book of Skin (2004), and Vanita Seth’s Europe’s Indians (2010) are the principal sources for Stephens’s delineation of an epochal shift from pre-modern appraisals of a “grotesque body” that is mutable, permeable, and ambiguous to a modern understanding of an “epidermal body” that is sealed off, hardened, and overdetermined by logics of racial and sexual difference. And finally, works central to contemporary performance theory—including writings by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari...


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pp. 151-155
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