Selfie and Identity at Kara Walker’s A SUBTLETY

Kara Walker, A Subtlety

Nearly every year, I teach an MA course at Brooklyn College whose unofficial title might as well be “Literary Theory for High School Teachers.” Late last semester, during a review session, I wrote the work SELFIE on the board and demanded QUICK GIVE ME A MARXIST READING.

And the class came through brilliantly, producing the exact ‘self(ie) is a fetish, secondary to the technological apparatus, such that the self is the apparatus of the technology’ etc etc interpretation I wanted, moving the standard misogynist critique of the selfie into a wholesale critique of the liberal humanist subject.1

I swear to you that all that was on my mind yesterday, at Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” a selfie factory if ever there was one. You’ve seen pictures of the sugar sphinx, and if you were able to go, you no doubt saw what I did: people–the same kind of jackasses who take pictures of themselves ‘holding up’ the Tower of Pisa–arranging their hands to mime cupping the sphinx’s nipples.2  At The Root, Yesha Callahan provides the definitive critique:

History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.

Cait Munro at joins in, and calls the photos representative of the “intellectual lowest common denominator,” “infantile,” and “lighthearted.”

And that’s all true, but.

If the selfie and its little brother — the stupid portrait — are the best representatives of the self-as-fetish, then the sexualized joking with the Sphinx is this fetish self intensified, denying this self’s entanglement in the long history of racism, sugar extraction, and, especially, those things we often think of as most privately ours, our palate and our sexual tastes. The joke’s on them, then, because these stupid selfies are just public confessions of that self’s being little but an apparatus for perpetuating injustice, even when that self thinks it’s just having fun. With that, these jackasses become the missing element of the sculpture to demonstrate, for all of us, why it’s there at all. And so on.

The joke’s on them for a couple more reasons. First, Kara Walker’s work is often, even primarily, about the suppurating sexual, racialized violence in the guts of America. See “Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching” at the Brooklyn Museum, for example, or this image below, from a show at Sikkema and Jenkins last May that, I’ll hazard, most of the Walker selfie-takers didn’t bother to seek out:


The joke’s on them, then, because they’re just rubes who don’t know art.


To reframe the point I just made: these jackasses just showing themselves as the kind of people who don’t go to see art all that often and, especially, as the kind of people who don’t know Kara Walker’s work well enough to know the sphinx tempts the crowd to contribute to making exactly the kind of work Walker normally does. Jack. ass. es. Had they been more familiar with her work, they’d know that by pretending to pinch the sphinx’s nipples or to stick their tongues in her vagina, by pretending, in short, to assault this defenseless yet gigantic woman, they’re just behaving like the creeps and racists that rampage through Walker’s work. They complete Walker’s Sphinx, because without that assault, we don’t have the kind of art that Walker normally makesedit – what I mean to say here, because I want to make this as clear as possible, is that Walker, by design, has ensured that many of the visitors would make themselves living examples of exactly the kind of pervasive racism that her work rightly excoriates.

Obviously I can’t leave that there. My not taking my portrait with the sculpture is my way to demonstrate that I’m better. than. all. this. It’s a way to declare my sophistication as a consumer of art, my disgust at these people for their racist insensitivity and for their stupidity about art, and, you know, my good wishes for racial justice.

Pretending to be better than the middle-aged dad in a Replacements Shirt.

Pretending to be better than the middle-aged dad in a Replacements Shirt.

It’s a way to let everyone know that I read Bitter Sugar as an undergrad. It was assigned, but, reader, I read it, and I want to let you know that it moved me: it’s probably about then that I stopped drinking anything but the kind of soda sold at food co-ops, which should count for something! And, in 2000, I had a friend who, during the Domino Sugar strike, had her toe broken when a truck loading scabs into the factory rolled over it. From a distance, while in a medieval lit seminar at Columbia, I thought she was very brave! Very brave indeed! And so on, on to supercilious so on.

All of this is to say that I’m not off the hook. My supposedly personal refusal to complete the sculpture, my dedication to treating it primarily or even only as a massive, aesthetic object, also wraps me up on the racist history and the racist present Walker’s condemning. I’m the good liberal, the Art Fan, even the Fan of Walker, who has to know, now, that the only way out is to do more than the good liberal subject should.


1 I have in mind this pithy formation from Christopher Wise, “Saying ‘Yes’ to Africa: Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx,” Research in African Literatures 33 (2002), 130 [124-42]: “To understand the subject’s objective construction (i.e., how I became an ‘I’), I need only reverse the process, enabling me to realize that the autonomy of my subjective identity may be illusory. The seeming autonomy of the subject, sealed off from the world of objects, occurs in part because the object that I myself once created projects an illusory independence upon the subject. I only feel myself to be an autonomous and independent agent.” Thanks Chris for introducing me to literary theory!

2 And you maybe saw what Jamileh King did, writing at Colorlines, “an audience that’s mostly white.” Which is true, absolutely true, but without taking anything away from King’s important article, I also want to register that I saw a lot more black women at the show than I typically see at any given NYC high culture event. That was at once heartening and also, of course, a depressing reminder of the presumptive whiteness of American “high culture.”


F for Fake

F is For Failure is this post’s preferred title, but it’s already been taken, a mere couple hundred times. It’s also unfair. The film succeeds, like this:

As Finnegans Wake was for Joyce, F for Fake was for Welles a playful repository of public history intertwined with private in-jokes as well as duplicitous meanings, an elaborate blend of sense and nonsense that carries us along regardless of what’s actually being said. For someone whose public and private identities became so separate that they wound up operating routinely in separate households and sometimes on separate continents, exposure and concealment sometimes figured as reverse sides of the same coin, and Welles’s desire to hide inside his own text here becomes a special kind of narcissism.

It succeeds like this, which is to say, it succeeds in its own way, but it might have been something far more subversive. The editorial playfulness, the reflections on authenticity and fraudulence, the market, surveillance and sex, and the entanglement of all these in the hidden figure of capital (played here by Howard Hughes), all that couldn’t have been more prescient of postmodernism. All of what I remember about Mark Leyner is here, in this film.

But that 1990s postmodernism is done with, and good riddance. Were someone to make this film, now, I’d like F for Fake to be a far more serious enemy of culture. Let my filmmakers clear out the girl-watching opening and the whole invented sequence at the end with Picasso–both the invention of Oja Kodar (herself presciently engaged in postmodern feminism)–and be interested in the right subject. Let it remember that our Hungarian art forger,  Elmyr de Hory (born Elemér Albert Hoffmann), was gay and Jewish, definitely imprisoned for both by the Nazis, and that his parents may or may not have survived the Holocaust. And, making his way through America and Europe, imprisoned for a time in Franco’s Spain, de Hory gets by, his forged “new” paintings by the great prewar European artists–Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani–finding their way into collections worldwide.

J for Gay.

The believer in authenticity will always be victimized by those who just don’t care. And who better to be the enemy of authenticity than a gay European Jew, the last lover (maybe?) of a great white Minnesotan giant with the improbable name of Mark Forgy? Who would make a better enemy to Europe’s dream of itself, to its Great Named Men of Modernism, to its Iberian dream of Gothic Purity, to its dream of Christian Virility, who better than this fraud out of Central Europe? Who better than this true fraud who never signed his forgeries?

T for Troll.

All this is may be getting us back into the territory of Lee Edelman: good. The Nazis thought Jews were an infestation, a drain on the nation and its masculine order, the enemies of its authenticity and future. And along comes de Hory, it almost seems, to willingly step into that role, but, and this is of paramount importance, to use that charge against them. If we read de Hory correctly, we have to know, of course, that there’s no there there, that the Nazi dream of lost authenticity is, like any dream of authenticity, a fraud.

But this doesn’t get us back to postmodernism, because there is another authenticity, practiced by de Hory, who’s so much better than a Troll.

F for Fan.

de Hory’s perfect imitation of European Culture witnesses to his perfect knowledge, acquired and practiced not through credentials, not through “natural” right, not through knowing the right people or being the right people, but through style and love. This is the authenticity not of the name but of the fan, the only authenticity that matters, and the enemy, in its pleasure, its serious delight, of all “natural” pretensions to heritage.

For more from me on fandom, see here.

An Early Modern Child’s Drawing, in Melusine


While looking for a suitable illustration to help teach Geoffrey of Auxerre’s version of the Melusine story (n35 here for more), I ran across this, in Jean d’Arras’ prose Roman de Melusine, BnF fr. 1485:

That’s GREAT. I’m pretty sure this drawing’s escaped (for now) the attention of Erik Kwakkel, that indefatigable emissary for medieval manuscripts, though he has blogged on doodles, and even children’s doodles.
Please let me know if you’ve seen this before, and where. Google searches for child drawing Melusine or l’enfant dessin Melusine get me nothing useful. For now, we’ll just observe that this drawing, dating from, I guess, the late 16th or early 17th century, is all too appropriate in a story so concerned with lineage.
And, uh, dinosaurs and maces.
(parenthetically, because I’m far outside my expertise here, but I’ve been asked to explain why I think this is a child’s drawing. My stupid response is just that it looks like one. More considered, and even less expertly, I’d say that the elongation of limbs coupled with the enlargement of areas to accommodate detail (in this case, in clothing) that can’t be rendered finely with a child’s typically gross motor skills coupled (tripled?) with the complete indifference to the image’s interaction with the text just says child to me. But it could be Paul Klee too! If this touches on your field, hazard a guess in comments, please.)

Medieval Monsters, Fun, and Delusions of Importance

Screenshot from 2013-08-14 13-15-34

Creation of Adam, quadrupeds looking on. Initial framed by Wildman and Mermaid. Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale (Paris,  Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5212 réserve, 6v. Before 1403)

Medieval monster scholarship tends to be dour. Monsters, it says, embody anxiety. They imply what we are by showing us what we believe we’re not. And if monster scholarship is fun, it tends to be fun because it believes itself to be dallying in the forbidden. This is the fun of breaking the law, breaking the law, which means it’s not getting rid of anxiety but rather playing anxiety’s flip slid, and dancing to it, ecstatically.


“Resistance to social constraints”! “Unthinkable Dangers”! Some examples, not exactly up to date, but recent treatments for the most part say much the same: just search for medieval monsters anxiety on Google Books.

But only special pleading, I think, could turn the Wild Man and the Mermaid of that Creation scene into a scene of worry. It doesn’t respond so well to the language of, say, 50s B-Horror movie posters (“thrill to the…!” “can you escape from the…!” &c).

Why frame the scene with a wildman and a mermaid? Are they, say:

  • defining the borders of the thinkable?
  • grotesque incarnations of the incognizable formlessness of the Real?
  • the crawling chaos of our own selves, imputed to the abject other?
  • the materialized form of the disgusting call to multiply coupled with Adam’s implicit autoeroticization/impossible autoreproduction, since if the wildman has sex with the mermaid, what happens? (huh?)
  • figures of the East itself, the site of Eden, and a call to colonize it and to tame or enjoy its bounty?
  • the uncategorizable not-All that remains when the whole field of life collapses into the binary, hierarchical categories of human and animal? 

Obviously, such things can be done, obviously. No surprise, I myself would probably go with the last one. Doing it like this lets the world know that we’re not just being frivolous, that we’re not just noodling about because we like to write, but rather that we’re asking what we might call “dangerous questions in today’s conventional world” (language that always comes off as pretentious. delusional. or self-congratulatory when applied to writing in the humanities. For example).1

I think the mermaid and wild man are fun. Maybe just fun. Maybe mostly just fun. Of course we can do more: we can follow the history of other illustrations like these in whatever direction in culture or time, so we can have more fun looking at them.

And of course we can continue to write about monsters, even these ones, as materialized forms of various cultural anxieties. That kind of work has been done well by people I’m happy to have as friends, and it’s been done by me too: I’m addressing this, I suppose, to mes semblables, mes frères. Certain medieval monsters really are primarily about the dominant culture’s anxiety over the impossibility of ever coming up with a working definition of being Christian, male, human, whatever. And of course it’s worth it to do scholarship that afflicts the powerful and comforts the afflicted, so long as that’s what’s actually being done. At least, it’s no small benefit that scholarship that goes after the rich, misogyny, racism, gender anxiety, and so on, has increased our fun by giving us more texts to read and teach, material that often works with our students better than the usual set of Great Masters.

With all that in mind, I’d also strongly recommend not forgetting the monsters children draw. Speaking as someone who was once a child, I’m sure kids draw monsters mostly because monsters are fun to draw. Unhappy children draw them because they’re unhappy, too, but not all children are unhappy, and even unhappy children aren’t unhappy all the time.

I’d recommend trying to write about monsters, or whatever, like children draw them. I don’t know how that would work, not yet. I’m definitely not sure how to do non-serious scholarship about fun, especially since so much scholarship is so concerned with being rigorous (an awful, awful word), but I’d invite anyone who’s doing scholarship to try.

If we need justification, maybe it’s this: believing in the world-political importance of what we’re doing as humanities scholars is a good way to believe that we’ve done all we need to do once we’ve done our scholarly work. It’s a good way to delude ourselves into a good conscience. If we remember that what we’re doing as scholars is mostly fun, maybe we’ll be more inclined to be serious about the things so many of us purport to care about.

1. An easy way to know if something is actually dangerous to the “sickeningly conventional and thoroughly corporatized” whatever: is ALEC passing laws against it? Can you go to jail for it? Will your career, if you have one, be ruined? Will liberals tsk-tsk you?

Here follows a short and not-at-all-exhaustive list of serious and dangerous activities: voting; political speech where you’re likely to meet disagreement from people with money; exposing the surveillance state; exposing the police state; exposing industrial slaughterhouses and fracking; saving public schools and public space in general; fighting against sexual harassment in conventions, conferences, and whole academic fields. For even more serious: swap out “exposing” for “fighting.”

A short and not-at-all-exhaustive list of not particularly dangerous activities: owning guns (you’re a danger to everyone around you, and chiefly yourself, but not to the status quo, nor, especially, to the surveillance state); writing philosophy; going to academic conferences in the humanities and speaking to your peers

Data entry errors of the damned.



Finally, the medieval vernacular translation of the Bible by ANTICHRIST that we’ve all been awaiting. With assistance, no surprise, from the Saracens.

From here. BnF fr. 6447. The Chronicles, History of the Bible, Lives of the Saints, and Sermons of…Maurice de Sully. Not Antichrist.

Cf. Bible Errata, particularly for the King James Version, eg, Psalm 14:1, “the fool hath said in his heart there is a God”

Elizabeth of Schönau – the paths of God; also: Rabbits

While looking for Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, ms. 0020, I found a manuscript of Jacques Bauchant’s French translation of the visions of Elizabeth of Schönau (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 1792, c 1370-75). It’s graced with a gorgeous and strange image:

Click to enlarge. The text is “Des visions Madame sainte Elizabeth des voies et du mont de Dieu du mistere et de la signifiance de ce,” while the BnF’s catalog copy explains further:

Au f. 5: peinture malheureusement abîmée, figurant la vision de sainte Elisabeth; la sainte étendue sur un lit contemple la montagne sur laquelle trône le Seigneur, vers qui s’acheminent divers petits personnages, marchant sur des bandes de couleur différentes, symbolisant les “voies de Dieu”

 At folio 5, a sadly damaged painting, picturing the vision of St. Elizabeth: the saint lies on a bed contemplating the mountain on which the Savior is enthroned, towards which several little figures are making their way, walking on bands of different colors, symbolizing the “ways of God”

As an animals guy, I’ve of course primarily interested in the rabbits in their mountain warrens, even on the slope leading to God. It just isn’t a proper mountain without some nonhuman life, but that inclusion, necessary as it is for realism, also muddles any lonely anthropocentric visioning. There’s no world worth having without, say, rabbits and grass and little holes. There are no rabbits in the original, nor any, so far as I can tell at a quick glance, in the translation. Love it.