David Marriott – On Black Men

David Marriott, On Black Men, NY: Columbia UP, 2000.


“Love and Hatred of Body through Looking”

In the first two chapters of On Black Men, David Marriott asks how the black men’s dreamwork, where the memory of the past and the hope of the future intermingle and produce the reality, can be retrieved from the situation that their reality is “already a part of dreaming” (viii). With the analysis of the historical events and literatures around them, flavored with psychoanalytic interpretation, Marriott is trying to examine the racialized culture in the US, especially through the events where the black skin and the photography meet. In the first chapter, he looks into the spectacles of lynching African-American in the first half of the twentieth century in the US and the meaning of photographic records of them: “the curious coincidence between the work of photography and the work of lynching” (3). The second chapter goes more deeply into the relations between the black body and the looking, the psychological complexity between scopophilia and necrophilia, or the camera as a devouring eye.

I confronted several questions while reading these chapters. One of them is about the violence. Does the act of looking (or gazing) itself always presuppose the violence? If it does so, why are the lynch photographs of African-American men problematic here? There might be so many evidences that the photographic gaze is eventually reflecting the violence of photographer – Abu Ghraib prison abuse, pornographic or erotic-exotic pictures of minors in Third world, and so on. But why lynch photographs of black men? Why do photographs of dead black men and their white executioners are violent?

It seems that multiple acts of looking are operating in the lynching photographs: the act of taking a picture of the event through the camera (maybe by the white men); the act of looking to the camera in the photograph (by the executioners); the act of looking the photographs by black men (through newspapers etc.). Although, of course, the act of photographing might be fundamentally assumed as a violent intervention to the event, it is more stunning to see the pictures of lynching, not only because of black men’s bodies burned and dangling in the trees but also because of the white executioners and bystanders, including smiling children, who are gazing us – the spectators, white or black, of the photographs – back. Now, the act of lynching is just “part of a racial imaginary, a primal scene of racist culture,” and taking the picture of the event is “the final act in a popular melodrama” (10). Though the public torture or execution as a spectacle, as Foucault announced in his Discipline and Punish, has been disappeared in modern European context, the ritual aspect of lynching, engendering fear in the public mind and resolving the repressed desire by displacing it, still remained in the modern US. What makes the racial violence and hatred culture in the US might have been the interaction or the mirroring between these acts of looking – distributing and consuming, in other words, circulating, gaze of others (or selves).

How the circulation of gaze, the exchange of fantasy and trauma which “act as distorted mirrors” (21) is possible? What is the mechanism of it? Marriott seems to find the answers from the writings such as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and James Baldwin’s stories, borrowing their psychoanalytic understanding of being a black men and suffering from the fact of it. According to Marriott following Fanon, “the problem is that white phobic anxiety about black men takes the form of a fetishistic investment in their sexuality” and “the violated body of the black men comes to be used as a defense against the anxiety, or hatred, that body appears to generate” (12). Thus the anxiety and hatred engendered from genophobia were invested in the violence to the black body, and, in turn, the violated body formulates the imago – the fantasy of black men’s reflected self-image as well as white men’s re-reflected sexuality. If that is the case, I think we cannot escape the trap of image in the sense that it gives a spectacular excitement of looking and at the same time that it is penetrating the subject body, suffered or enjoyed.

At this point, I encountered another question related with the equivocal character of photographs or the ambivalence of looking and being looked. If the act of looking is violent and if the effect of the image (of body) being looked at is more crucial in eternalizing the violence, is the circulation of the images contributing to the justification of violence itself? As the case of Jeffrey Dahmer – which reminds me of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses – shows, his drive to kill and his necrophilic fantasy for colored people could be explained as just a unique way of loving them. In the same way, Mapplethorpe’s violent photographs were, from Kobena Mercer’s point of view, “a response to the frustration aroused by his own fetishistic investment in that ‘forbidden totem of colonial fantasy’: the black phallus” (28).

Even though we understand the way how the act of looking is related with devouring and the reason why the act of loving is related with the act of knowing and owning the object of desire, it is hard to evaluate the role of photography and camera in the “perverse aestheticism” (29) – since, at least for me, it seems to be generated from the mutual destruction of the subject and the object as well as the photographer and the spectator. If we acknowledge the inevitability of the mirror stage advocated by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, do we have to surrender ourselves to the violent power of image? If the power does not belong to the image itself, is it the effect of the circulation or mediation of it? Before the technology of mass-produced camera and the popular use of photograph, could we imagine this violence at all? That is the final question I encountered but need to speculate more on. 

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