Marked, Remarked, but Untitled
Although Phelan is “carefully blind” to the limitations of invisibility and to the inadequacy of any dualistic schema (visibility vs. invisibility), her privileging of the force of the unmarked in identity formation is seductive. Phelan's argument persuades because it highlights the negatives in our self-produced films of subjectivity. For in the terrain where my identity forms, the invisible conditions the visible. The invisible engine of my psyche propels me to tilt my head when I think without my knowing why. Fragments of my subjectivity might have coalesced into a namable mass from the angle of my tilted head without me ever noticing such etiologic episodes. Oras Phelan expresses it, “Identity emerges in the failure of the body to express being fully and the failure of the signifier to convey meaning exactly.” Phelan cites Adrian Piper's performance of the problematics of “race” to exemplify the arbitrary relation between the body's visible markings and the self's choice of identity. A visual artist and philosopher, Piper identifies herself as an African American, but she has pale skin and could “pass as white.” In her 1989 performance piece Cor nered, Piper proposes her individual “racial” situation as a common scenario for her spectators, given the history of enforced or voluntary miscegenation resulting from the trauma of slavery in the United States. Piper unmoors the fixity of racial identification from the visible signifier of skin color. She asks her “white” spectators who happen to carry ancestral “black” genes if they would identify themselves as “black” or “white.”
In Phelan'sanalysis, Cornered demonstrates the unreliability of visible body features in grounding one's choice and perceptions of self-identity. For Phelan, Piper's question to her spectators exposes the relativity of racial designations: “The same physical features of a person's body may be read as ‘black’ in England, ‘white’ in Haiti, ‘colored’ in South Africa, and ‘mulatto’ in Brazil.” Since the link is entirely artificial between the signifier for racial identification (that is, physical markings) and its signified cross-culturally, Phelan deconstructs the myth of skin color intrinsic to the dominant ideology of race. As she states, “Race-identity involves recognizing something other than skin and physical inscriptions. One cannot simply ‘read’ race as skin-color.”
I am in sympathy with Phelan's analysis; nevertheless, I find an aporia in her rejection of the probable, if partial, visual foundation that informs racial identification and rationalizes the ideology of race. The aporia comes from the basis of Phelan'scritique against racialization: Adrian Piper's Cornered. The major crisis of meaning established by Piper's performance of identity involves a corporeal detail particular to the artist herself: Piper can “pass as white.” That is to say, Piper has barely discernible skin pigment (and physiognomic features) that would mark her as nonwhite; this visual factor contributes to her particular dilemma and to the privilege that she explores as her performance theme. Therefore, it is actually a superficial physiological trait—the skin color nearwhite or white—that enables Piper and, for that matter, Phelan to begin contemplating the artificiality of racial designation. Although I join Phelan and Piper in their protest against the simplistic equation between race and skin color, I wish to stress that skin color does register as visual information and carries social and psychic consequences. As the color white is naturalized to be the norm in this society, Piper is “liberated” by her pale skin color to become unmarked, thereby enjoying the freedom to intervene from within her ostensible position of privilege. If she wants to, Piper can choose “to pass as white.”
I ask, then, what kind of freedom or self-agency can I enjoy if, in contrast to Piper, I happen to have a visibly nonwhite skin color? What questions should I raise if I take pride in an opposite privilege from Piper's: a beautiful and readily discernible nonwhite skin color? To ask these questions is not to deny the insights of Phelan's critique or of Piper's performance, but to refocus our attention on the corporeal sources of social constructions. For social constructions such as race and gender acquire their truth effects precisely because they enlist our body's external features as evidence and grounding. Our admittedly incomplete perceptions of the body serve to reinforce the plausibility of those constructed ideas that regulate human typologies. If we desire to induce an implosion of the status quo so as to emancipate the oppressed values and the eclipsed human resources, we would do better not to dismiss the solidity of the Establishment, but to reconceptualize the anima and corpus of that solidity.
In my own partially blind view, there is a perceptible animus working in the solid body of dominant ideologies: the logic of the visible and the abhorrence of incongruous sights. The visual anomalies become harder to digest but also harder to overlook when they are paired with incredible voices. We must, then, acknowledge that, just as the invisible conditions the visible, the visible also guides and thus constricts the invisible. There is, in Michele Wallace's phrase, “a ‘Harlem’ of the mind.” We could of course pronounce both Harlem and the mind to be fabrications. But we also have the option to join in the fabrication assembly line and to manufacture our own discursive and imagistic cartographies of “Harlem” and “the mind.” Let us note the potential power of the visible as it exists in a continuum with the aural and the textual. To mark the norms, we have to remark and begin remarking on the surface—the plainly to be seen—taking Oscar Wilde's witty remark about the profundity of surface earnestly.
An all-nude performance enacted by four distinct bodies, SNNG's Unti tled Flesh provides me with a paragon to examine the surfaces of various softtissue containers. But the work's contribution to my book's pet ideology— the politics of marginality—does not end with the visible. Untitled Flesh begins with the exposure of the plainly to be seen—the naked skin; the performers frankly champion a return to the body as an art material, brushing elbows with Michelangelo's paint-dripped sleeves. In their visible diversity, however, the performing women disturb the blank but unified tranquillity of the vanishing point and multiply the ideal Renaissance body into “promiscuous” female bodies. Bythe principle of inclusive multiplicity, absorbing both the positive and negative values, the “promiscuous” artists insist that there is more to the “eye/I”—borrowing from Phelan's conflation. The Girls' project of investigating “multiple layers of nakedness” implies that they approach naked ness in various ways: as physiological materiality, historicized nudity, and internalized nakedness. Finding performative expressions for these multiple layers is SNNG's self-assigned task. The Girls have to scan the visible and render both visible and audible the anatomy of the unheard and invisible.