Looking for some ways of thinking about collections of objects of which one takes a less than purely sympathetic view–the one being me and the objects being my salt and pepper shakers–I came across “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” an insightful article by Tavia Nyong’o (Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 [Fall 2002]: 371-3910. The “racial kitsch” Nyong’o focuses on includes stereotypical representations of African Americans like the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose shakers I discussed in my last post.
Speaking of negative responses to such objects, she says, “Racist kitsch is pretty disgusting. … Through disgust, we reassert our dignity and attain distance from the pleasure that the stereotype urges upon us. . . .Our disgust tells us that we are not the audience solicited by the object.” So far so good; I can see how my negative responses to these ugly stereotypes allows me to excuse myself from the intended audience–but then, still, why do I collect them and keep them around me?
Some theorists Nyong’o refers to probably would think I shouldn’t; she reports that Robin Chandler identifies racist kitsch as simply “visual terrorism,” and that Michael Harris suggests that, because such kitsch “is linked to, and a product of, white imagination,” the “attempt to invert and reconstruct another’s dreams inevitably keeps one tied to and preoccupied with that other rather than the self.” As the kind of person who would most likely be identified as being “white,” I can’t easily claim to actually be separate from the white imagination that has so othered those of a different complexion; and yet I do feel–and do very much want to feel– other than that specific sort of racist white imagination. Even so, if these theorists are right, my collection, which I like to proclaim represents my ironic response to the ugly stereotypes it contains–my preservation of them in the context of a deep awareness of how they represents values I don’t share–fails to ironize successfully. In what Nyong’o might call my “oppositional curating” of the collection, I am confirming the power of the stereotypes even while and by means of the act of viewing them through my lens of critique and irony. They win just by continuing to be what they are and therefore even and especially in my insistence on attacking what they are and continue to be because they continue to have the power to attract my ire and thus need to be attacked.
Nyong’o herself builds on that idea by offering an even more extreme version of it:
What would be the consequence if an examination of such strategies of oppositional curating and ownership unexpectedly revealed that one key characteristic of the racist figure was its ability to retain, even under the powerfully revisionary gaze of disgust, the capacity to act as a scapegoat or effigy? Could it be the case that our oppositional gaze and attendant practices depend upon the effigy’s characteristic talent for absorbing blame, and thus, that they perpetuate our dependence upon scapegoating and its attendant cruelties?
In other words: responding to the African American stereotyping of my Aunt Jemima shakers by blaming them for the racism they express is merely confirming the conventional assumption that what is African American is that which can be safely blamed and attacked. The object continues to successfully represent the racist stereotype even in my act of using it in an attempt to attack such stereotypes–indeed, does so as as a result my presumption in choosing to so act against it. As Nyong’o says, then, “oppositional spectatorship to the figure of racist kitsch cannot overcome its ability to reproduce scapegoating, because these practices of opposition inevitably reinscribe the object as a target for hatred and scorn, and in doing so, draw other people into the suffering orbit of the ceramic doll.” Hating the figure is just another version, and thus a recapitulation, of hating the people the figure purports to represent and invites derisive, hateful responses to.
But Nyong’o also suggests another possibility. She says,
At bottom, the shame of racist kitsch resides in the idea that ‘I am thought of as less than human.’ And yet, the very shame that floods through at that thought, a shame that, were we not human, we would have no capacity to feel, is our best internal evidence that the thought is wrong and vulgar: I feel (shame), therefore I am (human).
She argues, then, for “acknowledging the permanence of our shame, and its usefulness . . .to locate, within the transformations of our shame, a way out of scapegoating.” In a weird way, then, she invites an identification with objects of racial kitsch as that which, by claiming to represent people like her, evokes in her a sense of shame for being so represented that itself marks her difference from what shames her–for it itself, a hard ceramic object, can feel no shame.
It can feel no shame in part because it is a hard object, its material hardness successfully evoking or inventing the hardness of what it represents: a kind of semi-human that is too little actually human to suffer, to feel pain, that is hard enough to withstand the ill treatment necessary at first for these enslaved and then for those who have been and still are all too often viewed as racially inferior: “The shiny, hard, and brittle surfaces of racist ceramic figurines reflect back upon the psychology of scapegoating black children. . . . blackness as a hardened form of subjectivity.” As understood in terms of “this racial simile, a black skin is as hard as stone; not skin at all, but a mask, with perhaps nothing behind it. This in- vulnerability provides an alibi for racist violence.”
I have a lot more to say doubt this symbolic hardness, and how it might apply to novelty salt and pepper shakers more generally. Continued in my next post.