Thursday, June 26, 2008

"African" Eyegiene: Of Ethnic Mannequins and Ethnic Subjects

Allegories are my thing. I love them--really love them. Here, in the advertisement to your right, one encounters an allegory of epic proportions--some odd parable of cuisine, race, physiognomy, myth (Narcissus?), folds together in a minor spectacle. Does the illustration show a man in wonder, in love, in desire for himself; or, more likely, for the chocolate. And are we then to ignore the synecdoche of chocolate for African, African for chocolate that lingers there on the fringes of our pscyhe. Will he melt in my mouth? Will I melt for his mouth, or, for that matter, for the chocolate. An allegorical circuit of desire inhabits the space of this striking representation. Here, then, at the intersection of race and autoerotic libidinal desire rests the mystery of cultural studies, the question for those of us that travail in this field of odd arts and uncanny artifacts: do we, in speaking to these mysteries, unfold new knowledge? Or, do we, in the process, of our "wisdom," weave new densities of spectatorial exploitation.  I tried to wrestle with this oddity in my meditations on Lupe Vélez, and I still wonder if I am not, some weird, affected, "intellectual," version of TMZ, but for ethnic studies, for cultural studies, some odd prolix version of the paparazzi, showing hot pictures for fun and profit.

Juxtapose that painted scene, author unknown, (I only know that Félix Potin is a European food manufacturer and distributor), with this one, of Josephine Baker, from Yale's Beinecke collection. Baker was "real," not painted, and profited handsomely from her brilliant performed spectacles.

Ostensibly we are confronted at once with two examples of "Black" or "African" subjectivity, but the "reality" factor of photography throws us conundrums that the painted advertisement does not. In the photo, Baker is a "captured" object, but she is also, at once, a performing actor--the pomade in her hair, the sentience in her agile, avid gaze reveal an agency that belies the passivity of her nude form. More on this in the book, Eyegiene, coming from UT Press when I get off this blog and start writing in earnest!

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