Congrats! You found my secret blog. 

Welcome to my discrete ongoing collection of essays, proposals, visual associations, and ideas in various stages of development. None are “finished.” I’m interested in what a shifting document can offer. I’ll return to them — editing, redacting, and expanding. 

Browse below ︎︎︎

The (poetry / potential / power of the) compositional overlap (2020-24)

Collectivity & Flatness: Tracking Site and Sight through Marriot & Spillers (2021-24)

Black Gazes, Photographic Practices, Darkroom Logics: A Glossary of Terms (2022-24) (Loading) 

Christina Sharpe’s omni-disciplinary book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being shook my orientation in the world and my visual cortex. A brief overview: Sharpe proposes the term “the wake” to describe the afterlives of Transatlantic slavery and its cultural reverberations. In her argument, she investigates media, poetry, literature, theory, and personal experiences in tandem to unpack the situation of existing “in the wake.” She stretches the word “wake” into all of its possible positions: the wake of a boat on water; the wake as a funerary procession; the recoil of a gun, declaring: “To be in the wake is to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfold- ing” (Sharpe, 13-14).  

The text is brilliant, as are her punctuating lines of inquiry into images throughout the book. I was particularly moved by two images that Sharpe interrogates — both photographs of young children being transported to safety after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, taken by Joe Raedle for Getty Images.

Sharpe responds to the above image:  

“She is alive. Her eyes are open. She is lying on a black stretcher; her head is on a cold pack, there is an uncovered wound over and under her right eye and a piece of paper stuck to her bottom lip, and she is wearing what seems to be a hospital gown. She is looking at or past the camera; her look reaches out to me. Affixed to her forehead is a piece of transparent tape with the word Ship written on it.

Who put it there? Does it matter? 
What is the look in her eyes? What do I do with it?”

(Sharpe 2016, 44)

When considering the perceived onto-epistemological role of images in our lives and a broader social consciousness — photos that claim to tell us what we know, that tell us what has happened, and who was there; that promise to hold feeling, knowledge, being, and time — the question Does it matter? appears radical. In our epistemological image-economy, of course, it matters; by the same metric, I would argue that the circumstance of the image doesn’t matter at all, as the image is still seen, consumed, and explored regardless of the particularities of its coming into being.

The questions Does it matter? and also What do I do with it? push me to call into question the force of photography not only as a site of knowledge but also as a practice of looking. Dawoud Bey calls to looking practices in his 2012 series The Birmingham Project, in which he visited the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. In 1963, prominent black church was bombed by a four KKK members. Four young girls perished in the bombing, ranging from ages 11-14: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. 20 other young black people were injured, and two young black boys were murdered in the aftermath. In the project, Bey photographed duos — old alongside young — from Birmingham in a church setting. The younger subjects reflect the age of a victim in the racist attack. The older subjects reflect the age that an affected witness or victim would be today.  

Bey says on the power of the diptych form:

“The diptych for me has more to do with this idea that we tend to think of the photograph as being something that embodies a single moment. And for a long time I’ve wanted to disrupt that notion of a single moment by having multiple moments coexist in within the shape of a single piece.”

The force of these double photographs in The Birmingham Project is to suspend temporality. The portraits — each holding an imagined extension of those lives lost in the Baptist Church bombing, and its wake — don’t document the past or the contemporary moment alone. Instead, they hold within them 50 years of dealing with this tragedy. His images are of the wake, expressed through his documentation of subjects — real and imagined, present and absent — who have inherited circumstances beyond their control; who are bound to a constant navigation of history and its grip on the logics of the contemporary world. It’s in the interstices between each diptych in The Birmingham Project that a certain mist becomes palpable — a melange of broken temporalites, gratuituous violences, classifications and events, imaginaries in every direction, aeresolized and suspended in the air. 

The precise poetry of the diptych form is revealed by what is not documented. The interstice between overlapping compositions posseses the power to illumiate the inherent and the unseen (our Weather, as Sharpe might call it), as fog in a car’s highbeams. This power is not limited to Bey’s meticulous work in response to the single terror of the 16th Street Bombings. Diptychs occur in the wild, too. 

These images are of the wake.

To call back to Sharpe, what is to be done with this overlap? In the unplanned “diptychs” presented here, each image is presented in the wake of its own individual disaster. If Bey’s images recall and hold the ongoing disaster in the wake of the singular event of the 16th Street Bombings, what is the shared and ongoing disaster held by these images of semi-disparate origin? Through the devastating, fortuitous diptychs, time collapses and appears to recycle itself, and the subject of the diptychs remains just beyond reach. Perhaps these compositions, and the endless combinations that could occur in their shape, claim to know not the subjects of
the images themselves — or the whole circumstance of each happening — but the more extensive condition of the anti-black world.

As an artist, I wonder how the photographic — a theater of the real that also possesses the ability to implode space, time, history, and notions of truth through the simple act of juxtaposition — might be used sneakily, even cunningly: towards illegibility and unlearning; imagining non-sensical and fabulated relations and events; shifting the terms of history.

Ultimately, if our goal is to escape the eternal and ongoing modes of the production of an anti-black world — an escape which, ultimately, is not fully possible in real-world terms — might a refusal of temporal and spatial logic offer us imaginative paths to exit? Might photographic logics and their careful undoing be a key to the spatial, the temporal, the chronological, the sensation of knowing — and therefore the logical?

The organic manifestations of overlapping compositions offer a call from the dark. They declare overlapping conditions — across time and space, class, race, gender, and tradition. They utter an argument for solidarity; empathy; resistance — through aesthetics. Images, objects, and even histories reflecting each other are reminders: yes, the anti-black machine is churning, but the work we aim to do has nature and inertia; poetry, power, and potential. The mind need not be the only muscle. ︎

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

“IMAGINE an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.


To see is to retain — to behold. Once vision may have been given — that which seems inherent in the infant’s eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify sights, an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual towards death by its increasing inability to see.”

STAN BRAKHAGE Metaphors on Vision1

          For the first several months of our lives, we see only light. Or, rather, we cannot see in the way that you are seeing as you read this paper. From birth until about four months, our optic mechanics are not developed enough to translate the visual world into colors; instead, we see in black, white, and scales of grey until our rods learn to identify color.2 The same goes for objects: infants see the world first as light and shadow, then as distant blobs, and finally as distinguishable objects. They also, in their youth, understand best in proximity, seeing most clearly 8-15 inches away from the objects or subjects upon which they gaze. This advantages children to see their parents or caregivers, as they lean into cribs or breastfeed their children, before they can truly see, by the adult metrics of understanding, anything else in the world. But, before those 8-15 inches come into focus, we perceive the world in grayed, morphing auras of light and dark.

            We might understand from an infant’s visual development that we must learn to see. Only after we have mastered those delicate optic mechanics may we learn to see socially. With focus, the visual world takes on universes of meaning; that set of light and dark becomes articulated into mother and father; those modes of identification expand into man and woman; racial category; hierarchies of value; and eventually, they become a marked distinction between self and other. There is a moment when the world, as perceived from a child’s eyes, slips from being an amorphous, unidentifiable, alogical zone where no object, subject, permanence, color, or proximity is distinguishable, into being a world of and about binaries: self and other, man and woman, inside and outside, good and bad, safe and dangerous. As people far past that delicate moment of coming into our visual capabilities, and as participants and students of that social world — which takes the Manichean dramatics of binaried looking from the personal to the global, and reinforces them into social meaning — it becomes our duty to identify and reconsider which elements of our sight truly contribute to individual universes of meaning, and which ones participate in a global theatrics of binary, hierarchy, and ultimately, of the visual politics of violence.

            As an image-maker, I consider unlearning those binaried politics of the social, visual world integral to the ethics of my work. One space in which I feel especially capable to examine and better understand visual politics is in the darkroom, where the logics of light and visuality in the normal world are flipped on their head. Here, in the black and white darkroom, where images are born, they must first be flipped upside-down. Light produces the darkest points in an image, and darkness, in turn, produces the whitest points in an image. Images are quite literally inverted on multiple planes. Darkness becomes a necessary condition; light becomes a material which has the capacity to spill and overflow. It is in this split from the logics of the visual world that I find a crack, from which a new method of thinking and understanding might flow. Over the course of this glossary, we will jump from different kinds of media — performances, and photographs, and installations, each which employ logics of photographic viewing. We will occasionally return to the darkroom, written here as a literary architecture in which we might be able to use the power of darkness, inversion, and the illogical to better understand those artworks’ contributions towards the notion of a black gaze. I will write in the logic of the darkroom to produce my own definitions of the terms gaze, affective labor, refusal, hapticity, and black gaze. You can identify sections in the paper that occur in the darkroom by their visually inverted nature.

            A note on language: Blackness or black experiences, in this glossary, are not tethered to visual assessments of blackness such as skin tone, hair texture, or bone structure, as these definitions of blackness rely too heavily on the construction of blackness as a scientific and eugenic project. Although I will focus heavily on what I will refer to as “black experiences,” I also do not posit that blackness should be defined by a certain set of predetermined experiences. Instead, I will refer to blackness through the lens what Kevin Quashie’s calls preparedness. In his unpacking of aliveness as relation, he states that aliveness is a “term of relation where the focus is on one’s preparedness for encounter rather than on the encounter itself.”3 This concept, in combination with the notion of gratuitous violence, produces my mapping of blackness as one’s preparedness to encounter gratuitous violence as a consequence of their raced existence. I hope this will separate blackness from a particular visual association or experiential “authenticity” while maintaining the specificity needed to articulate the conditions of a black gaze. I will actively note when I am using another author’s definition of blackness rather than my own.

gaze | ɡāz |
verb [no object, with adverbial of direction]
look steadily and intently, especially in admiration, surprise, or thought: he could only gaze at her in astonishment.4

4 The New Oxford American dictionary (Second Edition). “Gaze.” New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Rather than occupying or replicating fully the qualities of three-dimensional space, seeing eyes are tasked with forming a characteristically flat simulation of three-dimensional space. By looking, we are effectively image-ing the world — rather than fully encountering it as a dimensional reality. Nearsightedness, farsightedness, the optic capacity of infants, and even blindness expose the fissure between the perceived world and the actual world. We can see inaccurately; therefore, seeing alone cannot accurately articulate our dimensional reality. Our moment of encountering the world through sight is not what makes it dimensional or actual. Sight cannot not reflect, represent, capture, or produce the actual world.

Instead, on the precisely flat zone of our irises, we render the world in three or four dimensions, but represented on a two-dimensional plane. We must understand a particular order of seeing to be able to image / visually encounter the world as a dimensional space. This order of sight includes understanding proximity through focus, foreground and background; brightness through color, lightness, and darkness; shape through shadow and reflection. Beyond the comprehension of space around us (perception and visual proprioception), seeing imbues the world with meaning, or “classif[ied] sights,” as Stan Brakhage calls them. This logic translates easily into photographic practice and visual analysis, where are able to take advantage of the image as an image; where we can understand the mechanism of a camera to produce inaccuracies that we might be hesitant to identify in our own, natural processes of seeing.

I invite you to imagine the particular influence of sight over our understanding, making, and encountering of the world as gazing. While seeing space does not constitute its actuality, the gaze has the power to transfer social formations of meaning — whether that be role, category, or quality — into reality, projected upon the subject of one’s gaze

A prime example of the immense power of the gaze to shape reality, especially in the overlap of social hierarchy, category, and human experience, is Frantz Fanon’s encounter with a little boy who vocally named him as the other on a train. This moment of being gazed upon triggers a series of bodily, mental, and chemical reactions that change the physics of Fanon’s bodily world. “Look, a negro! [...] I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects [...] the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye,” 5 (Fanon 82). Just as the mechanics of both sight and photography function by flattening the perceivable world into an image which we then understand dimensionally, the mechanics of the boy’s overpowering gaze work to flatten Fanon into a dialectic: he is both both the subject of a gaze and an “object in the midst of other objects.”6 He is also transformed via this flattening from a person to a set of schema: his body (“corporeal schema”), his race (“racial epidermal schema”), and his ancestors (“racial historical schema”7). This flattening reduced Fanon to a figment of the visual plane; simply an object in the eye of the viewer, rather than a dimension being capable of producing meaning on his own.

5 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks; (London: Pluto Press, 1986), p.82.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid. p.84.

gaze | ɡāz | (redefined)
verb [requires a subject (any scale), and implies an outward direction]

  1. To encounter the physical world, visually, through the context and implications of the social world.
  2. To harness the power of sight towards producing universes of information that spill beyond one’s own vision and into the lives / worlds of others. / affecting the lives of others.  

In the summer of 2017, a drama exploded onto the scene of the recently re-opened Whitney Museum of American Art on the occasion of the Whitney Biennial. The subject of protest? Dana Schutz’ abstract painting of a famous, disturbing image of a lynched Emmett Till, the young black boy violently mutilated by a group of white men after being falsely accused of approaching a white woman in a sexual manner.8 He was 14 years old when he was murdered in 1955 in Money, Minnesota.9

His killing rendered his body unrecognizable not only as himself but also within the bounds of the human form. Like Fanon, Till became a subject, or a victim, of a categorizing, violent gaze which identified him as both other and less than. And, just as Fanon describes “burst[ing] apart”10 under the weight of being gazed upon, the image of Till’s corpse displayed the ways in which he was quite literally “burst apart”11 as a consequence being gazed upon. His mother commissioned a portrait of Till in his casket, left open, to be published in newspapers as proof of the gratuitous, unimaginable truths of the violence perpetrated against him. 62 years later, when the Whitney opened their 2017 biennial, a new work by abstract painter Dana Schutz was the point of commotion: Schutz, a white woman, had re-represented the portrait of Till initially commissioned by his grieving mother in inches-thick globs of expensive oil paint. In response, protestors gathered in and around the museum. There, they labeled Schutz’s work a “black death spectacle.”

In my understanding, “black death spectacle” precisely identifies the power of the gaze, as well as gazes that conflict with one another. Till’s mother commissioned the famous portrait of her son to produce a particular, widespread gaze upon him; to propel the image of his body into particular modes of social meaning. By gazing upon his body through the photograph, propped in a casket and wearing a suit, a viewer might understand the immense love and care that his mother felt for her son; at the same time, they would understand the absolute gratuitousness and absurdity of the structures of social violence that act upon, target, and consume the lives of black folk. A viewer might begin to grasp, if not through their own experiences, the immense precarity often appendaged to the condition of black life.1213

An element of the original photograph that reinforces this dialectic is the precise focus: even though the camera was well-calibrated, Till still appears to obviously have been “burst apart,” and is difficult to identify despite the precision of the camera’s focus. (I am not including the original image in this paper, but you can find the image online with a quick Google search.) The intentions of Mamie Till’s gaze proved powerful: the image, in its shocking nature, went on to become a “powerful catalyst for the civil rights movement”14 as the dynamics of gaze produced by Till’s mother was taken on by many onlookers.

Schutz’s painting interrupts the intention and the gaze of Till’s mother. Instead of producing a gaze that might simultaneously measure the care and violence that Till encountered in his short life, Schutz’s abstraction produces a gaze that trivializes his death. In by abstracting the image of his death, she at once softens the (intended) blow of the image, and also magnifies it by declaring that his unimaginable killing is worth abstracting — worth becoming almost entirely unidentifiable. In an interview just after the protests against her work began, Schutz declared: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother.”15 To produce or allude to a kinship between her own experience and Till’s, or between her and Till’s mother, transfigures the specter of racial terror that contributed to Till’s death into the general material of motherhood, and also into a portal through which Schutz is allowed to play visually in the gratuitous experience of others. Her gaze, as a white abstract painter dealing with such violent, violated material that is not her own, becomes an act of violence itself.

af·fec·tive la·bor | aˈfektiv ˈlābər | noun

“Affective labor is theorized as an important subcategory of immaterial labor. It is the labor of human contact and interaction, which involves the production and manipulation of affects.”16

Schutz’s “Open Casket” and the debate around the “black death spectacle” it produced extend seamlessly into understanding the connections between the gaze and affective labor. Affective labor, rather than producing a tangible good or service, is the work of producing “relationships and emotional responses.” In the context of the growing market for affective laborers, the affect produced is often “'a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement or passion.’”17 Although it produces intangible, emotional products, affective labor is “usually corporeal and mixes with material forms of labor.”

This is to say that while its products are not tangible or visible, the work of affective labor occurs in (and is about) the body — either the body of the laborer or of the affected audience. In this sense, affective laborers may take on performances of emotion or affect as their labor. Even beyond the marketplace, where affective labor manifests as “breast feeding consultants and wedding planners,”19 performances towards productions of affect — especially unrecognized or uncompensated performances — take on the role of unmarketable affective labor. Of course, outside of the zone of compensation, bodily acts remain the site and subject of affective labor; a haunting reality in the wake of slavery. The body is also the point of connection between the gaze and affective labor: under the weight of the gaze and its simultaneous identification and production of social hierarchy / social order, the gazed- upon take on the burden of performances towards affective production.


af·fec·tive la·bor | aˈfektiv ˈlābər | (redefined) noun

Affective labor is the performance, emotional, social, and corporeal, produced and required by the theatrics of the gaze.

As the boy on the train gazed upon Fanon and identified him as “a Negro,”20 Fanon was tasked with grappling with the implications of that role and the particular affective performance it required of him. “And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me.”21 Fanon, upon encountering visual subjectivity, takes on the experience and the labor of “‘being for others;’”22 being in relation as a laborious performance, "for not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”23

Gazing as an establishment of relation and difference towards a social order also allow room for modes of protest as affective labor. A performance that interrupts the gaze enacts a redirected, reimagined affective labor, serving instead those subjected to violent gazes rather than to appease those whose gazes are rooted in practices of violence. When Parker Bright, the black artist whose protest of “Open Casket” went viral, stood “for several hours”24 in front of “Open Casket” wearing a shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” written on the back “making it difficult (but not impossible) for others to view the painting,” he was indeed “being for others”25 as a facet of impermeable architecture in the room. Yet, his being was in the interest of protecting the intentions of Mamie Till’s gaze — not in the interest of adhering to the desires, expressed through looking, of those who might be fascinated with the violence of Till’s murder. Bright’s intervention enacted what I’m calling a restorative or restitutive affective labor.

re·fus·al | rəˈfyo͞ozəl | noun [usually with infinitive]

an act or an instance of refusing; the state of being refused: he became tired of his friend's refusal to see him.26

Bright’s protest alludes to practices of refusal, although it more closely embodies what bell hooks calls an “oppositional gaze,” or “a site of resistance for colonized black people globally.”27 She continues:

Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that ‘looks’ to document,28 one that is oppositional. In the resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating ‘awareness’ politicizes ‘looking’ relations — one learns to look a certain way in order to resist. (hooks, 248)

While hooks speaks specifically about black women’s gazing practices in the context of film, Bright’s interruption of gazing by obfuscating visual access to “Open Casket” indeed “politicizes ‘looking’ relations [...] in order to resist.”29 In its oppositional nature, Bright’s protest cannot fully engender practices of refusal, as refusal is not an act of rejection or retort, as opposition is, but instead a complete departure from particular modes, requirements, and implications of meaning. However, refusal is not synonymous with passivity.