Collectivity and Flatness: Tracking Site and Sight through Spillers and Marriott

Hortense Spillers and David Marriott write about distinct topics in their respective texts, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity. While Marriott’s subject of study is loosely located around notions of the image and imago — the development of notions of race and hierarchy through publicized documentations of black folk that become a part of the collective unconscious and go on to haunt our modern grapplings with the notion and image of black existence — Spillers dialectic arguments surround the body/flesh and family of the enslaved by tracking the subtle, simultaneous dynamics of their formation and existence in the context of the raced world (both historical and contemporary). These arguments appear discrete primarily because they occur at such different sites: the body/flesh (here used in their most rudimentary forms to describe the locus of one’s experience) and the image (that creation which needs the body to exist; that which is made of and about the body towards an epistemological mission) are divorced not only because of their form and function, but as a consequence of their histories: bodies were carried across the Atlantic Ocean and retain the impressions of their trauma, while images, on their own, did not and cannot.

However, somewhere in the liminal space between Spillers’ and Marriott’s theories, the body and the image meet each other. Namely, their points of connection occur at notions of collectivity, haunting, and flatness. Spillers speaks towards a “collective function” (Spillers 203) and from a “collective past” (210) while Marriott grapples with the imago as a site of collective understanding. Spillers plots the flattened terrain and evaluation of the enslaved body through the lens of a slave ship’s hull to be entangled with the fungibility of the slave; Marriott’s grappling with the image is implied to occur on the flat plane of the screen, page, or poster where images appear. From these overlaps, the black body/flesh and the image of blackness are brought together: their shared qualities further reveal the problem of perception: as an act, it is unable to hold the essence of being. Further, the intersections of their two theoretical positions build a dialectic of site/sight.

“Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” begins with the personal: “I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.” (Spillers 203). However, Spillers self-address is quickly thrust into the realm of what others might call her; in that relocation, it takes on the form of the collective: “‘Peaches’ and ‘Brown Sugar,’ ‘Sapphire' and ‘Earth Mother,’ ‘Aunty,’ ‘Granny,’ God's ‘Holy Fool,’ a ‘Miss Ebony First,’ or ‘Black Woman at the Podium’: I describe a locus of confounded identities” (203). The poetry of this introduction to her theoretical landscape does more than simply break our expectations of an academic text via its roots in the poetic and personal — it attends to the notions of collective appearance, experience, and knowledge that exist at the site of a black body, as it is both experienced and addressed.

From where does this collectivity stem? This notion of the multiple where one might expect the individual is scratched at by Spillers’ engagement with misnomers — all of those names, trickled down from the font of cultural production and its subsequent fictions, are pulled from the conception of what she (Spillers, a black woman and a black person) is imagined to be. Those misnomers are directly connected to the imago that Spillers conjures — that of a black woman whose character and image appear in the various plots of the world, from the intimacy of “Brown Sugar” to the pageantry of “Miss Ebony First,” to the playful truth of “Black Woman at the Podium,” (if Spillers wer

Collectivity, in Spillers’ argument, has been formed in the wake of the conditions of captivity, and is inseparable from the fungibility of the slave in the context of the occupation of space during Middle Passage. A slave, she argues, was not understood by the particularities of his/her being, such as gender, age or even individual size, but instead by the generalized space which each slave occupied in the hull of a ship. She employs the mathematics of the flattened dimensions of the slave: “‘Every man slave is to be allowed fix feet by one foot four inches for room, every woman five feet ten by one foot four, every boy five feet by one foot two, and every girl four feet six by one foot,’” (214). Here, it is not the individual characteristics of each slave used for the accounting of space, but instead some numbers ostensibly pulled from the median of a range of heights and widths. It is this meticulous equating which makes clear the methods by which slaves, regardless of biological sex, age, condition, or size become interchangeable with one another, — so much so that “‘five female [slaves could be] reckoned as four males, and three boys or girls as equal to two grown persons,’” (214). The equations of this fungibility go beyond undoing the gender of the described enslaved people — they determine that, as interchangeable objects, all black bodies must somehow speak for one another. Further, those misnomers, a present manifestation of those interchangeable bodies on the ship, are born/e from “deep in the collective past,” (210). The collective to which Spillers calls is historical and eternal, social and personal, but above all, formed against the blueprint of a ship’s floor in square-footages, is categorically flat.

Beyond the hull of the ship, collectivity is found in images: the imago is a locus of collectivity through and from images. In the context of psychoanalysis, the imago refers to the unconscious and pre-formulated mental image of someone. Here, and in Marriott’s text, the imago takes on a social meaning: the collective unconscious image of something, someone, or a particular condition. David Marriott engages the imago of blackness; he refers to the “black imago” (Marriott 4) which is aligned with the “disquieting phantomality [or ghostliness] of the black body.” When encountering a black imago, “white [spectators are] haunted by the image of Africans which they themselves have created as the ghost of ahuman naturality [in other words, the quality of non-human being],” (4, emphasis mine). Images of black people are so aligned with death and dying that their imagos are inseparable from one another. To be imaged or imagined as black is to take on a ghostly quality and conjure those narratives of death enacted at the hands of white slave-traders and masters during and after Middle Passage. Like Spillers’ collective bodies, this ghostly imago, which reappears upon encounter with black people and images of them, is also one-dimensional, like the images through which it manifests — found in flashes across CCTVs, in print, and on digital screens (and in the immaterial realm of the unconscious or the imaginary). Just as images (and the imagos to which they are connected) are omnipresent, they are intangible and wholly imaginary. Those initial “terrors of colonial slavery” which haunt public images of black people and reappear in documentations of their deaths (see: televised frames of Rodney King’s beating or the livestream of the shooting of Philando Castille, accessed in real time from phone and computer screens) “remain unseen, lastingly virtual, ungraspable,” (5). All we — the viewers of images (and mourners of the violence and death employed and experienced across the Atlantic Ocean) — have is the imago: that which we are told has happened; that which is eternally rediscovered and re-employed in the universe of black images. In their inherent and active recollection of the sometimes fatal violence of captivity and transport, the nascent point of the black imago can also be found in what Spillers calls “deep in the collective past,” (Spillers 210).

The black imago and the black body/flesh, both formed from collective notions of the past and flat in their conceptualization, fail to get at the truth of black existence or embodiment. However, they address the dynamics of the black person in conversation with the world: how blackness is conceptualized even before it is projected onto bodies in the an anti-black world; how, in turn, the concept of blackness as it is perceived to be embodied conjures death and violence from a collective past. In that sense, black individuals, as they are perceived by friends, lovers, or passersby, are always at the whim of the collective notion of their existence. Those rectangles of occupied space are projected through an onlooker’s eyes and onto black flesh (as it exists, via Spillers, in contradiction to the dimensional interiority of the theorized body and towards the tracking of harm). This forms, alongside the notion of blackness as flatness, a dialectic of sight (the act of one looking at and naming a black person as black) and site (the locus of violence upon the body, or the flat floor of a slave ship): upon being seen, the body and flesh of a black subject recall, through the universe of the black imago, the violence and fungibility which was formed by the square footage occupied by enslaved people in forced transit from one continent to another. From the ratiocination of sight and site, we can begin to understand the problem with perception: where can aliveness be found if the sight of black skin conjures sites of violence? These terms in the context of one another offer us a foundation for further questioning: I imagine a discourse about the larger failures of image and language to describe black experiences. From the consequences of sight and site, I also imagine a location or production of jouissance in the context of the death and violence engaged with the black imago, and consequently, the black flesh onto which it is projected. If the residue of gratuitous violence, both in its presence in the everyday and in its historicity, is all we have on the flat surface of the image or the flesh, how might we find joy in the unseen quality of our dimensional realities? Further, what are the nuances of that haunting which follows the black imago into the present — and might those nuance provide a guide towards reimagining embodiment and being?

Works Cited:

“Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, by Hortense J. Spillers, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003, pp. 203–229.

Marriott, David. Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity. Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Reynolds, Crystal Mikell. “A Brief History of the Miss Ebony Pageant at Indiana State University: 1970 to the Present.” Indiana State University , Indiana State University , 2018, miss-ebony-by-dr-crystal-reynolds-2018.pdf.

a tradition of black beauty pageants