- Beautifully Incomplete, Abject Objects: Studies of Racialized Gender, Desire, and the Power of the Aesthetic
I’ve had the books featured in this review stacked over one another like a curated assemblage on my writing table. The titles and graphics speak closely to each other, and their collective weight marks a ground-shifting engagement with aesthetics across ethnic studies, gender studies, and American studies. With Saidiya Hartman, Anne Cheng, and Amber Musser we have new studies by scholars who offer powerful analytics for thinking about racial being, subjection, and autonomy. Their books account for the contradiction and complexity in dynamics of power that work on the psyche and in the flesh. Sandra Ruiz’s and Leticia Alvarado’s works further the study of the aesthetic lives of racialized gender through performance studies meditations on the loops of time [End Page 169] and embodied acts that mark Latinx refusals of colonial legibility and erasure. Throughout, these texts emphasize the promise of relation, to deviance, to objects, to opacity, and to each other, as a politic.
The process of preparing for and writing this review has spanned the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black rebellion following the white supremacist killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and too many others. I also painfully witnessed the search for Vanessa Guillen, a missing Latina solider stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, whose dismembered body was eventually found on base. The questions of racialized enfleshment, gendering, respectability, and citizenship addressed in these recent studies resonated and were felt. These books tell stories and generate archives that not only provide critical contexts for the violence and upheaval we are witnessing but they also make mappings toward liberation in and through the aesthetic possible.
Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval performs a literary engagement with archives of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Black life in Philadelphia and New York amid the Great Migration. Building on the methodology of critical fabulation that she developed in “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman eschews the voice of the knowing analyst and embraces instead an inspired prose that emerges from an intoxication with and love for the misfits who appear in the diary entries of white women researchers and landlords, newspaper accounts, and the studies of figures like the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois as problems to be solved.1 Rather than attempt to fill in the gaps to theorize the absence of Black women and queers, or to “correct” these framings, she instead conjures the fullness of their lives through evocative storytelling and artistic, conceptual use of newspaper clippings and photographs.
Images of Black pleasure and subjection emerge unexpectedly and interrupt the narrative; sometimes a picture may fill out a story or take the reader down a back way. For example, the chapter on the queer erotics and body presentation of the legendary blues performer Gladys Bentley includes an almost full-page reproduction of a voluptuous photograph of the dancer Paul Meeres taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1931. Lying shirtless atop a spread of society newspapers with a soft smile and playful side glance, he appears fully immersed in the pleasure of his own embodiment, with his right hand cushioning his head and left hand resting on his chest. The camera frames his body in an angle that highlights his upper chest and muscled, tattooed arms. The photo, like most of the others included in the book, is...