Object Lessons

Essex Hemphill and Melvin Dixon occupy prominent positions in my canon. I read them as complementary figures engaged with black nationalism. While Hemphill shouted at and with black nationalists, trying to find a noisy rapprochement (loud orgasms as political chants), Dixon engaged with the quieter, though no less powerful, culture of nostalgia. As an aside, I should mention that I continue to mourn because we have no complete collection of Hemphill’s poetry. I like Ceremonies, his collected prose and poetry, but Earth Life and Conditions tell complex narratives as individual collections.

I like the noisy Hemphill. After all, what’s not to like about orgasms? But I am more often compelled by the quieter Essex who, in Adrienne Rich’s terms, re-visions poetry and the social world, forcing us to move away from easy positions. In part, this musing continues my post on the relationship between subject and object, history and objectification, pleasure and recovery. I am compelled by the same revisionary impulse I noted in Kobena Mercer’s work, one which draws, in part, from Laura Mulvey’s revision of her groundbreaking essay on women as objects. I abstain, in this less formal format, from recounting their arguments. Suffice to say, they perform the necessary work of questioning their earlier positions, refusing to sediment in the name of a necessary politics.

Theories of objectification trouble me with their less-than-subtle uses of psycho-social theory. Subtlety need not frame theoretical endeavors, but I continue to be amazed by the smart scholars who reproduce undergraduate theses without question. At a certain point, citing John Berger’s dictum about women being looked at must become insufficient, if one wants to retain the title scholar. Here, I want to invoke my “master text,” the document that allows for this particular act of reading Hemphill. (I am reminded here of Dixon’s position that he was tired of individuals citing “theorists” to prove a point. I envision a more dynamic, perhaps we might say, dialectical process between theory and poetry. My reading might bear it out.) To my master text:

In “The Sartorial Superego,” psychoanalytic critic Joan Copjec critiques what she terms the “historicist construction.” She argues,

Psychoanalysis requires history; it can only begin by gathering the facts. What it renounces is what we can now term the “historicist construction.” Historicism is faulted not because it is, in fact, not possible to recreate historical experience . . . but because this construction operates with the belief that it is experience that must be recreated, that the truthful and logical statements we make about a historical period are empirical generalizations about the ways in which people thought. (59)

That we now have increasingly sophisticated ways to understand history does not necessarily mean that we have a better grasp of past individuals’ psychic lives. The distinction is especially crucial for those of us who study history and literature through a psycho-social frame. It has less to do, I think, with anachronistic thinking as a problem, an issue that historians continue to debate, and more to do with the very problematic ways in which we continue to dehistoricize the psyche in the service of a politicized history. Now, to be clear, I am not advocating a depoliticized history. I follow Nietzsche’s claim that history must be useful. I am arguing, however, that even a politicized history should not efface subtlety, especially not by conflating the social frame, what we might term “experience,” with a psychic life.

Hemphill’s “Object Lessons” forcefully articulates this lesson, even as it abjures what might be considered the fraught language of psychoanalysis. In full, it reads,

If I am comfortable
on the pedestal
you are looking at,
if I am indolent and content
to lay here on my stomach,
my determinations
indulged and glistening
in baby oil and sweat,
if I want to be here, a pet,
to be touched, a toy,
if I choose
to be liked in this way,
if I desire to be object,
to be sexuality
in this object way,
by one or two at a time,
for a night or a thousand days,
for money or power,
for the awesome orgasms
to be had, to be coveted,
or for my own selfish wantonness,
for the feeling of being
pleasure, being touched.
The pedestal was here,
so I climbed up.
I located myself.
I appropriated this context.
It was my fantasy,
my desire to do so
and I lie here
on my stomach.
Why are you looking?
What do you wanna
do about it?

A close reading of this poem should have us reconsider entrenched, and often unproductive, discussions about objectification. It’s easy, for example, to hear the voice in this poem as one of Mapplethorpe’s black nudes. I have often translated the context to consider how African warriors in colonial photography might have understood their relationship to the camera. Certainly, I think theorists who claim colonial photographs injured subjects are wide off the mark. Hemphill’s psychic rumination provides an, arguably, much more ambivalent view of the relationship between subject and object, pleasure and unpleasure (here, Freud must be invoked).

Of course, the compacted conditionals without a definite predicate refuse any easy reading about the model’s will or agency. “I” dissolves and reforms as “pet,” “toy,” “object,” “sexuality,” seemingly becoming more abstract as the poem proceeds. Indeed, following “sexuality,” the “I” will not return again until the series of indicative statements. We might ask what it might mean to lose the “I,” to understand it as “sexuality.” While a standard reading of race and sexuality in America would suggest that the queer is always “sexuality,” always “body,” I want to push this reading a little bit, to suggest that Hemphill welcomes this process. There might be, the poem suggests, a certain pleasure in abstraction and loss, in orgasm and objectification.

How, then, however, to deal with the accidental and coincidental that marks the poem’s later lines:

The pedestal was here,
so I climbed up.
I located myself.
I appropriated this context.
It was my fantasy,
my desire to do so
and I lie here
on my stomach.

Here, the poem seems to enact a certain aggressive narrative that tries to recapture agency: the accident of the pedestal’s presence is recoded as a process of locating the self. But what might it mean to locate the self? Is the self lost? If so, how? Is there something a little defensive about the persona’s insistence that he “appropriated this context?” Perhaps. Tone is more than a little unclear, which, in part, is the poem’s point.

But, it seems to me, ambivalence might register more of my desire than Hemphill’s. In part, I seem to want his persona to resist objectification; I want his “fantasy,” his “desire” to line up with a certain politics of resistance. There is, of course, no shame in my wanting this. It merely constitutes the relationship between writer and reader as one of desire. I might attempt to be a little too clever, to say that he justifies his objectification as a coping strategy. However, such a reading seems inconsistent with the poem. Again, it superimposes my own desire.

Hemphill is, of course, much too smart a reader of his own work not to realize the bind he creates. Indeed, the final lines of the poem actively solicit the reader’s desire: “Why are you looking? / What do you wanna / do about it?” Against a position that creates the reader, historic and temporal, as the subject who knows better, Hemphill indicts the reader in this circuit of desire. Black gay viewers of Mapplethorpe’s black nudes, as Mercer argues, find themselves drawn into a desiring frame that can’t help but (re)objectify the black models.

One can read these final lines as invitation and threat, the provocation of “Why are you looking?” mitigated by “What do you wanna / do about it?” For me, these final lines have little to do with saving the objectified model who does not know any better. At the same time, they are not necessarily celebratory lines. By no means can we read the poem as an uncritical psychic account of desire. That we must react is clear; the poem demands it. How we should react is less clear.

My sense is that many of the theories of objectification we have inherited would foreclose the more ambivalent and disturbing aspects of this poem in favor of a neater narrative trajectory than the one I have sketched. They would read the last lines, for instance, as a call to “save” the model from his masochistic pleasures, to teach him to re-assert the “I.” (In response to the argument that the speaker’s sex is unmarked, I insist this work is semi-formal. A more formal argument would take on the question of gender in a more substantial way.)

Now, it might be asked, why write this sort of academic analysis? I can do no better than to cite Melvin Dixon, who claimed, “We alone are responsible for the preservation and future of our literature” (“I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name”). Bernie’s recently concluded series articulates one powerful way in which we might think about queer histories. Here, I draw on the resources of my training and discipline to contribute to the ongoing project of sustaining queer textual production in dialogue with and in the service of a political project.