The subtitle of this special issue, the first of two on embodiment that we will edit for Feminist Media Histories, is “excavations.” The aim of the larger project is to explore those embodied women's histories—inflected by race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or generation—that have gone unexplored or remained in the shadows.

The potential of the concept of “excavations” for understanding feminist histories of media and embodiment is perhaps best revealed in Shirley Bruno's short film An Excavation of Us (2017), a counter-history of the Haitian Revolution told with and through the body of “Marie Jeanne,” both a cave named after the revolutionary fighter and the fighter herself. It begins with an indeterminate image of a darkened, hallowed cave, which soon resolves into a cavernous space flecked in black, white, and gray whose walls seem at turns to be made of stone or flesh, bone or sediment—animate and inanimate (fig. 1). It is a space of projections and etchings, of dubious animacies. As the camera assumes a subjective angle and we wade deeper and deeper in, the soundtrack features a persistent dripping, the resonant beat of water (like a drum), the sound of air breezing, of coughing, of wood against wood: the oars of a boat.

FIGURE 1.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 1.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

Bruno's film evokes Plato's cave, a metaphor for enlightenment and an originary analogy for the cinematic apparatus. In Plato's formulation, the viewer is immobilized in a darkened cave, while a light behind them projects shadows on the wall they face (fig. 2). The viewer takes the illusion as reality, and in Plato's view will remain in ignorance until they are freed from the underground dwelling and ascend to the “light” of existing reality. But in the film, we linger in the hollow in order to reveal another kind of embodied knowledge production. An Excavation of Us incorporates an afro-futurist penchant for imagining the past and future in the same breath, and uniting and collapsing the two through a kind of prophecy. In the film, which seems to draw aesthetic cues equally from Bradford Young's color palette in Arrival (2016), Kara Walker's shadow-dancing horrors, and the time shifting of Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962), the caverns become a metaphor for the interiors that caves and bodies hold and through which water and other elements pass. These spaces exist in a kind of primordial, elemental mix not dissimilar to the bog from which Toni Morrison's character Beloved is seethed, a space between land and water. Bruno's film also evokes Hortense Spillers's concept of ungendering, the scene of Black women's violated flesh, but also a “praxis and a theory” for unearthing suppressed histories (fig. 3). It plays in the murky splash zones of womanhood, the snailing, sonorous insides on which, and through which, Black women's bodily history is projected.

FIGURE 2.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 2.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 3.

The cave hosts an image of Marie Jeanne, dressed as a man holding a gun, in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 3.

The cave hosts an image of Marie Jeanne, dressed as a man holding a gun, in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

There is something intensely and immediately familiar about Bruno's film, like the inside of your eyelids, or the speckled, starlit dimness beneath a favorite childhood blanket, or the light of one's belly from the inside. It is the familiarity of cover, of moolaade, of a safe, damp place.1 It is the space one wants the cinema to be: an apparatus dripping with vitality, pregnant with meaning, resonantly alive, biological, and fully capable of rendering as shape the morphing of imagination. A place of second birth. It is also a space that weeps. The excavation that Bruno's film enacts begins in a distinctly brutal history: when a pregnant, enslaved woman's limbs were tied to a “four post” so she could be beaten, and “a hole was dug in the earth to accommodate her unborn child,” as Bruno reminds and Marie Jeanne remembers. This act of digging is the film's foundational act of excavation, and what ensues, it seems, could be shot from the very maternal insides, the very womb, that initially incited Marie Jeanne's rebellion.

In this sense, the excavations of Bruno's film are both bodily and geographical. In the film, the body itself, perhaps unwittingly, becomes a medium of history. Not only do the flesh-and-bone walls host projections of the past, but Bruno explicitly says that the histories of slavery that the French have written out of their books will be manifested in the body: “We are as much what we remember as what we forget; if we pretend otherwise, the bodies begin to speak” (fig. 4). The body thus becomes a place where repressed histories are written, as symptoms. It is a sympathetic parchment, like the resonant, mysterious, lit surface of the cave: “Although I [Marie-Jeanne] was not born a slave, the evidence of things seen traveled through me, traveled through my dark recesses, took up real estate in the walks and spaces, invading the cavities of our bodies, buried lashes and rivets onto the once clear surface of my skin.”

FIGURE 4.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 4.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

Such cinematic moments of radical interiority are zones typically left uncharted by cultures of dissemblance, where the right hand, the right breast, forget what the traumatized left ones knew. These moments redress a history of rape and severance that is forgotten and unmined. Progressively through Bruno's film, as Marie Jeanne passes into a “second birth” signified by the division of her silhouette into two images, she realizes that the channels through which the oared, colonialist white men once passed have dentata (fig. 5). Women's bodily history, she realizes, has “the power to seduce, poison, engulf, and charge with violence on an invading army; it can also bear the unborn children trapped in history, and the history trapped in them.” Thus the vaginal caverns that once hosted rape and later, perhaps, bore white-tinged children become sites for engulfing the white soldiers who trespass noisily. The very Black female bodies that the white soldiers would possess end up enclosing and overcoming them. These spaces become the realm of the unborn children who are both the manifestation of an unborn history and a legitimate progeny of the repressed: the ancestors reborn.

FIGURE 5.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 5.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

Bruno's film places us in 1791, coincidentally the year the social theorist Jeremy Bentham first published his treatise on the panopticon prison, which would become for Michel Foucault paradigmatic of the scopic regime of modernity.2 Rather than through the corporeal punishment of the ancient regime, the panopticon disciplined subjects through an “unseen seer” whose gaze became internalized by the prisoner. Yet, as Simone Browne argues, corporeal punishment was still used on enslaved Black people: “While Foucault argued that the decline of the spectacle of public torture as punishment might have marked ‘a slackening of the hold on the body,’ … when the body is black, the grip hardly loosened during slavery and continued post-Emancipation with, for example, the mob violence of lynching and other acts of racial terrorism” (fig. 6).3

FIGURE 6.

The cave projects an image reminiscent of the famous 1863 photograph of the whipped back of “Gordon” in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 6.

The cave projects an image reminiscent of the famous 1863 photograph of the whipped back of “Gordon” in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

An Excavation of Us takes the body and its spaces as a vehicle for the production of a feminist counter-history. As Marie Jeanne narrates the violent crimes against Black bodies that led to her revolutionary act and her eventual death, the shadows and wall etchings mutate into stories that remain untold, written by the bodies of those oppressed by the “light” of Western Enlightenment, rendering ironic the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Bruno's film also reminds us that “light” has been used to place Black bodies under surveillance, for instance in the form of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lamp laws, which mandated Black subjects to illuminate themselves at night. To remain in the cave is to remain in darkness and enact a form of flight that subverts a hegemonic optics.

Bruno's film teaches us much about the process of excavating our pasts and sheds crucial light on this issue of Feminist Media Histories. History is inseparable, it argues, from the bodies who live it. And when the historical record refuses to print the truth, “the bodies begin to speak.” Bruno's film encourages us to linger in the damp hollows of histories that the body registers rather than reading history on the page. The film also theorizes the quickness with which excavated historical bodies, when properly understood, can become pleasantly flooded—saturated thoroughly—by a clarifying, fluid darkness (figs. 7, 8, 9, 10). That is, it reveals and revels in a counter-colonial victory of feminist logics, in fluidity over stricture. It calls for a hallowing out of history, a mining of the insides it has repressed, to hear the echoes. Bruno's film also reveals that often histories centered in the body—histories of the places of the body's activation—are a vital corollary to histories built from documents. Like other recent Black feminist storytelling (for example Esi Edugyan's Washington Black [2018]), it insists that the history of the “us” we want to be—the inclusive us—is not a struggle between flesh and blood or Black and white but a story of glacial, even galactic proportions, an ecological history in which the natural world and the nonhuman are implicated.

FIGURE 7.

The fluid darkness engulfs the soldier in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 7.

The fluid darkness engulfs the soldier in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 8.

A similar darkness seems to encounter a figure embodying Western Enlightenment in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 8.

A similar darkness seems to encounter a figure embodying Western Enlightenment in An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 9.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 9.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 10.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

FIGURE 10.

Still from An Excavation of Us (dir. Shirley Bruno), 2017. Image courtesy Shirley Bruno.

Although this concept of excavation is perhaps best distilled in Bruno's film, Bruno is not alone in exploring the idea of excavation as a crucial historical act. The same is true in Dee Rees's stunning opening sequence in the film Mudbound (2017), which also meditates on historical excavation. Like the soldiers in Bruno's films who become engulfed and entrapped in the Black bodies they seek to possess, what starts as the simple act of digging their father's grave becomes for a pair of Southern white men a deadly battle—against the history of slave rebellion and the elements simultaneously—both of which threaten to engulf them. They discover a runaway's skull in the ground where they plan to bury their father and the rain begins to pour into the grave they are digging, threatening to drown them. Like the white colonialists in Bruno's film, the flood of history—the unrecorded, fugitive history of runaways—threatens to overcome them. As we describe below, this issue likewise engages in a series of historical excavations, mining the body and its places to reveal the folding of history onto flesh and the folding of flesh into history. It is a history that threatens the stability of the dominant and colonial narrative with darker, deeper truths.

FEMINIST THEORY AND EMBODIMENT

Feminist engagement with the question of embodiment has variously approached the Western philosophical concept of mind-body dualism, which has historically relegated the feminine to the biological body—inferior, weaker, more susceptible to emotion and irrational desire. Conversely, the masculine is associated with the mind, authoritative reason, and morality. The operations of the rational mind are constructed as dependent upon, but ultimately in control of, the body. The idea of bodily transcendence, the overcoming of a fallible and unprincipled corporeality, attests to the wider political implications of mind-body dualism on the construction and maintenance of gender, sexual, and racial hierarchies. Not only has biological essentialism relegated women to the domestic sphere and subordinate forms of labor, but it has also been used to justify chattel slavery and imperialism.

Feminist interventions have subverted mind-body dualism by privileging the social construction of gender and gender performativity, as demonstrated in the foundational work of Judith Butler. Elizabeth Grosz, for her part, argues for a conception of the body in which it is not reduced to the biological, or to “one sex or one race,” but rather enacts “embodied subjectivity” and “psychical corporeality.”4 Feminist theories of the body and embodiment have sought to overcome not only the dichotomy of mind and body, but also the subsequent proliferations of binary oppositions that it instigates, for instance nature-culture, object-subject, and human-animal. Correspondingly, the dependency upon Cartesian dualism and subsequent formation of the liberal humanist subject fostered a certain understanding of vision as disembodied and privileged within a hierarchy of senses. As it pertains to the visual regimes of modernity, mind-body dualism is exemplified in the hegemonic system of Cartesian perspectivalism, which constructs a monocular, immobile, disembodied mode of viewing. This system and its adoption in gaze theories within film studies has been challenged by, among others, Anne Friedberg, particularly in her theorization of the flâneuse, an embodied, mobile female observer who emerged in the new commercial spaces of urban environments during the late nineteenth century.5 Yet, while working to subvert hegemonic modes of seeing, feminist theorizations of embodiment have often failed to fully encounter racial embodiment, in particular Black women's experiences of gendered and racial embodiment.

With the advent of the digital turn, the idea of disembodiment through virtual reality or other forms of digital mediation has returned us to a dualism that once again promises (and demands) “freedom” from the corporeal, and with it, from our lived experiences of racial, gendered, and sexual difference. Donna Haraway proposed the figure of the cyborg as a merging of machine and organism in which “woman” is no longer defined purely by the biological, but through a radical weaving of the biological, the scientific, and the technological. Haraway argues for the abandonment of essentialist identities and movement toward a critical understanding of the “informatics of domination,” or the complex intersections of race, class, gender, and sexualities in the postindustrial era.6

While our encounters and interconnections with digital technologies encourage the construction of hybrid, fluid selves, N. Katherine Hayles reminds us that Cartesian dualism still informs our technological mediation, cautioning that even as “consciousness” is conceived as “information” and “body” encompasses different forms of organic or nonorganic substrate, we still must contend with our material, embodied experiences.7 Yet in this movement toward the “posthuman,” we recall, through the work of Sylvia Wynter, that the universality of “Man” (as liberal humanist subject) does not encompass all beings.8 Zakiyyah Iman Jackson argues forcefully that the movement to the “beyond” human “may actually reintroduce the Eurocentric transcendentalism this movement purports to disrupt, particularly with regard to the historical and ongoing distributive ordering of race.”9 By way of a Black feminist reconceptualization of the human, Wynter and Jackson propose an alternative optics informed by the bodies and histories the Cartesian model seeks to suppress.

Women's bodies have a long and complex relationship to the screen—as captured on the screen, as “final girls,” as subject to trafficking both on and off the screen, as censored excerpts removed from the screen for salaciousness, and as spectators in front of the screen in ways that posit a dangerously counter-hegemonic mode of looking.10 The essays in this issue trace these various histories, and in so doing theorize women's positionality in regard to media—the mutual grip that implicates women in media and media in the project of constructing womanhood.

Historically, discussions of media and embodiment have engaged with spectatorship, whether Jean-Louis Baudry's immobilized spectator in the darkened theater, Christian Metz's projecting eye, Laura Mulvey's male gaze, Michel Chion's “audio vision,” or Maryanne Doane's “voice in the cinema.”11 We are increasingly in a moment, however, where the apparatus has come unraveled through the dissemination (via streaming) of media onto devices and receptacles not resembling the foundational apparatus, and these new modes of looking prompt doubt about the regularity, universality, or normalcy of earlier viewing practices, especially during the early period of cinema's proliferation. And if the apparatus has come unraveled, so too have things come undone from the other, “human” end. Not only has the abovementioned shift put further in doubt the notion of a unified, immobile spectator per Mulvey and bell hooks, but the very notion of a uniform gendered subjectivity and of distinctive, finite gendered subject positions, let alone a stable spectatorial position, is brought squarely into question by reformulations of race and gender offered by Hortense Spillers and Judith Butler.12 Where before scholars debated whether male audiences could identify with female characters on-screen and whether woman could have the power of looking, current scholarship might cause us to impeach the very categories of male and female.13 The notion of fixed identities is increasingly supplanted by ever more porous notions of identity and selfhood, with a distinct effect on our understanding of media reception and spectatorship. These shifts have opened up, vastly and in crucial ways, our notion of what counts as media and who counts as watchers—and practitioners. Thus an increasing fluidity, but one not without its own distinct set of logics and rules, is a crucial part of the ways that spectatorship must be understood. It has also meant that we look for the “apparatus,” ideological and otherwise—and the matrix of domination—as it is imprinted on the subjects in the room even as we simultaneously look for it on the screen.14

Media presents a distinct set of challenges to embodiment as it is traditionally conceived by allowing for a deferral, a distancing, and a mediated insertion that challenges the centeredness of the subject in the body. We at once feel more and less in our bodies as we have experiences mediated by technology, which both amplifies and delimits bodily experiences and resonances.

Clear too are the ways in which technology enters into certain bodily experiences differently than it does others. Bodies that are multiply marked as different—by race and gender and sexuality and class and generation—find available a different set of mediated experiences and expectations of how media will be understood and used. Surveillance, for example, is certainly to be expected for Black and Brown bodies in ways that foreclose the possibilities of technology creating a sense of freedom, whereas technologies often augment and amplify the experiences of those for whom the logic of entrapment is not a central paradigm. Countering claims for digital transcendence, theorists such as Alondra Nelson, Anna Everett, and Lisa Nakamura have demonstrated the ways in which racial, sexual, and gendered identities are constructed and performed online, and remind us that racism and sexism are ever present in online spaces.15 Everett has examined the intersections of “cyberfeminism” and “cyberwomanism” (taken from Alice Walker's intervention upon white feminism) to examine the ways Black women have used online platforms for collective activism, especially for organizing the 1997 Million Women March.16 For Nakamura, the digital economy reinforces and extends inequalities through forms of exploitative material and immaterial labor, as well as through backlash against feminist activism, for instance in the circulation of the Twitter hashtag #ThisTweetCalledMyBack, which seeks to challenge racist, misogynistic, and transphobic online spaces.17 Tara McPherson and Safiya Umoja Noble elaborate the ways in which racism is embedded within programming code and algorithmic design.18 Noble in particular uses a Black feminist methodology to explore how online search engines perpetuate racism and sexism against Black girls and women, thereby countering the assumed neutrality of algorithmic computation.

We have had much theorization regarding the relationship between media, technology, and the body, such as in the foundational work of Vivian Sobchack. In her rejoinder to structural and psychoanalytic theories of the cinematic apparatus and spectatorship, Sobchack reminds us that spectatorship is always an embodied experience, one in which the viewer, in their lived, fleshy existence, is implicated in the film's “sensual address.”19 Rather than as pure abstraction, Sobchack challenges us to bring back the body, in all its senses, to the film experience. As she writes in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004), embodiment is “the lived body as, at once, both an objective subject and subjective object,” one that does not precede historical and cultural contingencies.20 The contributions to this special issue resonate with Sobchack's work in their attention to bodies within a discursive, institutional, and sociocultural nexus.

Rarely has the body's social construction in particular historical moments—the ways certain historical junctures vaunt or foreclose, as Linda Williams has put it, certain “viewing positions”—been considered.21 Though there has been significant work theorizing embodiment, less has been done to trace the ways in which women's bodies are enmeshed with other historical and ideological constructs. That is, few have examined the ways in which being in the body is historically contingent, and how mediation of the body is likewise inflected by historical juncture. The historical contingencies of the body's practice of vision—how bodily vision is both framed and constituted by historical forces—is work smartly begun by scholars like Anne Friedberg, Jacqueline Stewart, Mary Carbine, Jane Gaines, Gaylyn Studlar, Shelley Stamp, Kristen Whissel, and Charlene Regester. Their efforts operate at the juncture between reception and spectatorship studies, and explore looking as a product of one's situation in the space of projection, but also within the mesh of textual parameters projecting from the screen, and in a particular set of spatio-temporal ideological frameworks that the historical period offers.22 Important new work by Amy Herzog and Elena Gorfinkel has examined the connections between corporeality, media, and labor—connections also explored in this journal issue.23 Each author here frames their work in terms of the histories—sometimes personal, sometimes institutional—that inform the image, its spectatorship, and/or its production.

If looking across the history of women's bodies on and in front of screens reveals a complex set of negotiations of the terms of embodiment and spectatorship, of possession, exclusion, and desire, it also reveals the extent to which the lives, bodies, and voices of women of color have remained at the margins. References to women of color, both in scholarship and in the cinema, has often evacuated from those bodies the women's souls, minds, and hearts. While putting together this special issue, we as editors have been intensely conscious of the frontiers of intersectional critique in a moment when overt white supremacy and institutional imperatives to curate diversity collide in public discourse. Inequality of race, class, gender, and sexuality are not only decidedly, stubbornly, and with seeming structural permanence still here, but they have been cultivated discursively by trolls. The essays in this issue articulate new parameters and dimensions for intersectional critique, focusing not only on the raced, aged, and gendered bodies but also on the institutional and mediated apparatuses that construct them.

If academic analyses of Black women both on and off the screen have indulged in forms of specularity descended from the slave market, we might turn, we suggest, to the work of filmmakers whose presentation of Black women's forms and interiors are far richer and less evacuated. Kathleen Collins, both in her recently released written work and her made and unmade films, like A Summer Diary (date unknown), presents a dynamic view of the actively thinking Black female body, one in which thought, action, and conscious perseveration—withholding of action on a specific beat—are each the function and form of the Black female body.24 Further, her mapping of Black women's dream spaces builds on the work of Black Arts movement icons like Alice Childress and later theatrical trailblazers like Ntozake Shange in examining these dreams as taking place through the body—as extensions of the body—and through a kind of elaborated performative space.

Our issue looks at the interventions of Black studies and Black feminist theory within traditional feminist discourses on embodiment. Hortense Spillers's canonical essay “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987) becomes a key text for understanding gendered embodiment through the histories of the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. Spillers articulates the distinction between “body” and “flesh” as one between “captive and liberated subject-positions,” respectively. The flesh, as the product of unrelenting violence, leads to an “ungendering” in which “the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.” Spillers's return to the site of the Middle Passage upends gender division within the white patriarchal order, and focuses upon a mode of enfleshment that then becomes the basis of a “radically different female empowerment,” of a specifically Black feminist intervention.25

It is from what Spillers calls an “insurgent ground” that P. Kimberleigh Jordan excavates Black feminist performance through “Performing Black Subjectivity: Enfleshed Feminism in Homecoming and Amazing Grace,” a comparative study of Amazing Grace (2018) and Homecoming (2019), two films that feature live performances by Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé Knowles, respectively. Amazing Grace captures the two-day recording session for Franklin's 1972 album of the same name, and Homecoming documents Beyoncé's 2017 Coachella performance and the preparations and thinking behind it. While the two subjects are separated by a generation, Jordan weaves them together, using personal memories and theoretical analysis, as exemplary moments of “enfleshed Black subjectivity,” or “Black feminist performance … center[ed] on the experiences, aesthetic, and affect of Black women materialized through the flesh and reiterated before the camera.” Indeed, Jordan's descriptions of watching Franklin and Knowles speaks to a phenomenological experience of the cinema, in which her mother is felt and “re-memoried” through her intersubjective relationship with the screen images. The work is an excavation in the sense that Jordan is, like Bruno, entering into a past that is distinctly marked as Black and female through re-membering the projected bodies of these women as she, as viewer and critic, encounters them.

In “Ritual, Cult Spectatorship, and the Problem of Women's Flesh in Alejandro Jodorowsky's Midnight Movies,” Laura Jaramillo invokes Spillers's work to explore the representation of “feminine flesh” in Jodorowsky's early-1970s cult films. Their midnight screenings in New York inaugurated a ritualized mode of spectatorship wherein the male auteur abjects women's bodies in order to secure a male subjectivity brought to crisis by both the loss of the revolutionary moment and the transition to the postmodern era. Jaramillo cogently questions the gender politics of cult films viewed as “revolutionary” and consumed by spectators as part of the “counterculture.” Her intervention centers on pointing out the patriarchal spectatorship that often dominated the 1960s counterculture's image regimes and raises important questions about the ideological and spectatorial positioning that prevailed—even in progressive image making—at that moment. Her work is an excavation of that historical time and the corporeal othering that cinematic spectatorship then inspired. In ways that link neatly to Bruno's concept of feminist excavation in An Excavation of Us, Jaramillo puts forward a challenge to the dominant, masculinist cinematic politics and provides room for a feminist reading strategy that upends it.

In “Spirit, Writer: Nineteenth-Century Mediumship and the Feminist Practice of (De)inscription,” Sandra Huber locates an écriture féminine in the work of mediumship, or channeling the spirits of the dead, a labor performed primarily by women. Centering on the hallowed, excavated body of the medium, Huber examines the rise of mediumship during the nineteenth century, a period that saw scientific challenges to religious belief, the emergence of feminist activism in the United States, and the rise of communications technologies. Through her discussion of Geraldine Cummins, a medium who entered into a court case with her editor over authorship of The Scripts of Cleophas (1928), Huber argues that Cummins's role as “transmitter” should be read as a form of “de-inscription” within a wider shift in the definition of authorship that took place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In its challenge to a hegemonic conception of writing, Huber's work follows that of Sobchack, who advocates for the recognition of the “bodily originality of writing.”26 Huber questions traditional notions of embodiment by asking “who writes” when the medium is positioned between the spiritual and the material worlds, and when the hierarchy between writer and writing instruments (pen, paper, table) is undermined through the process of automatic writing. The history of mediumship, Huber argues, has significant implications for current debates surrounding artificial intelligence, code, and algorithmic knowledge. Of the contributions to the present issue, Huber's work is perhaps most connected to the notion of “excavations” in its insistence that we recognize when and how the female body speaks.

Jasmine Nadua Trice turns to Manila film culture in postcolonial Philippines to examine the relationship between the cinema and the production of “healthy bodies” during the transition from colony to independent nation. In “Epistemologies of the Body in Colonial Manila's Film Culture,” she draws upon film magazines, medical advertisements, and city planning design to detail the shift from film theaters being represented as unsanitary, dangerous spaces to being perceived as sites of bodily cleanliness. Her argument demonstrates the continuation of colonial disciplinary regimes centered around hygiene, segregation, and religion in the interwar period, where the biological metaphors of nation-state development mirrored that of the “birth” of cinema. These connections are never more evident than in her discussion of the prison city Bilibid, designed by the US architect Daniel Burnham, who also completed the architectural design for the “White City” of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Her work points to both the bodily and the spatial regimes enacted by the notion of cleanliness and presents a counter-history of cinema exhibition as read through the bodies of the spectators and the stars and through the institutional forces—discursive, architectural, visual—that conscribe them, evoking and imprinting the colonial in “capricious ways.” Trice's work excavates the structures of knowledge upon which discourses of cleanliness, stardom, and colonialism jointly rely and the ways in which the racialization of the mestizo body dually inscribed these shadow-and-light on-screen forms. Through her tripartite look at the space of the theater, the institutional paratextual discourse, and the advertisements encouraging cleanliness, a hollowed space betwixt and between emerges—and a set of framing historical realities comes into focus.

Colonial biopolitics, labor, and embodiment are also at the fore in Debashree Mukherjee's “Somewhere between Human, Nonhuman, and Woman: Shanta Apte's Theory of Exhaustion.” In her analysis of the career and writings of actress Shanta Apte, Mukherjee combines a theoretical discussion of labor and exhaustion with a history of the 1940s-era Indian film industry. Her archival excavations bring forward a set of voices that were marginalized to off-screen space but tell us much about the movie business, the invisible labor associated with it, and the underbelly of the star system. Mukherjee elaborates a “cine-ecology” to account for the multiple energies mobilized by the cinema, including “humans, electricity, celluloid, climate, paper, oil, and buildings,” to detail a complex tension between the human and nonhuman. Thus, she explores the energy economies beyond the human scale, excavating and theorizing various labor economies and their cinematic effects on- and off-screen. Apte's hunger strike protest, a form of “performative self-depletion,” is set against her stardom and the invisible labor she sought to materialize through her strike. Mukerjee makes significant connections between Apte's resistance and the mechanization of labor in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discourses on worker fatigue and dehumanization. Her conclusions offer generative links between Apte's writing and activism and our contemporary concerns regarding the future of the cinematic medium.

In “The Serena Show: Mapping Tensions Between Masculinized and Feminized Media Portrayals of Serena Williams and the Black Female Sporting Body,” Lauren Wilks traces media representations of the tennis legend. Wilks's careful and attuned mapping of the discursive apparatus that ideologically hems in Williams's image, just as the paparazzi hem in her body in real life, lends precision to our understanding of a remarkable career and the ways in which the Black athletic form, from Jack Johnson to the present, has been rigorously reframed in order to explain, couch, amplify, or diminish its power. Wilks argues that Williams's body is subject to surveillance in ways different from white female athletes' bodies. Through careful analysis of numerous newspaper and magazine illustrations, photographs, and articles on Williams, she demonstrates that prior to her marriage and motherhood, the discourses surrounding Williams characterized her as “masculine,” “naturally” athletic, hostile, and aggressive—a litany of stereotypes out of what Spillers calls the “American Grammar Book.” It was only after her marriage and the birth of her daughter, Wilks argues, that Williams became “gendered” feminine and allowed greater access to the tennis world and elite corporate sponsorships. The work builds from a significant archive of news coverage, and undertakes a methodical and incisive excavation of the racism of US media discourses. In its attention to how race and gender inflect the quality of this racism, Wilks's article makes a key intervention into our understanding of everyday mediated racial politics.

When we set out to write our introduction to this special issue of Feminist Media Histories, it was a very different time. Then, it was the moment of #MeToo. Now, our thoughts are nearly consumed by the rampant spread of COVID-19. Perhaps now any academic undertaking will need to consider the shift that COVID-19 has exerted in the substance and the process of “making” academic work and academic labor, from remote teaching to negotiating childcare to ongoing academic research and service commitments. But certainly a special issue about embodiment—and particularly feminist embodiment—necessarily must take into account the new ways that we all are now feeling in our bodies, where this fits into a broader historical trajectory of changes in bodily consciousness, and how certain bodies—the marginalized forms already rendered in shadow or silhouette—are further marginalized by this crisis. Perhaps the most profound lessons are about the enduring legacies of trauma suffered by the marginalized body, rather than about the changes that this particularly acute moment of bodily precarity and suffering has induced. ■

NOTES

1.

The term “moolaade” is invoked and theorized in Ousmane Sembene's film of the same name (2004), in which several young girls seek protection against female genital excision or mutilation. Sembene stated in interview: “In Moolaade, there are two values in conflict with each other: one is the traditional, which is the female genital excision. This goes a long way back. Before Jesus, before Mohammed, to the times of Herodotus. It's a tradition. It was instituted as a value in order to, in my opinion, continue the subjugation of women. … The other value, as old as human existence: the right to give protection to those who are weaker. When these two values meet, cross, multiply, clash, you see the symbolism of our society: modern elements and elements that form part of our cultural foundation.” Samba Gadjigo, “Interview with Ousmane Sembene,” in Ousmane Sembene: Interviews, ed. Annett Busch and Max Annas (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008), 190.

2.

Jeremy Bentham, “Panopticon”: or, the Inspection-House; containing the ideal of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection; and in Particular to Penitentiary-houses, Prisons, Houses of industry, Workhouses, Poor Houses, Manufacturies, Madhouses, Lazarettos, Hospitals, and Schools; with a plan of management adopted to the principle; in a series of letters, written in the year 1787, from Crechoff in White Russia, to a friend in England (Dublin: Thomas Byrne; London: T. Payne, 1791).

3.

Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 38.

4.

Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 21–22.

5.

Anne Friedberg, “The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flâneur/Flâneuse,” in Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 15–38.

6.

See Donna Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

7.

N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

8.

See Katherine McKittrick, ed., Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2015); Sylvia Wynter, “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, The Puzzle of Conscious Experience, of ‘Identity’ and What It's Like to Be ‘Black,’” in National Identity and Sociopolitical Change in Latin America, ed. Mercedes Durán-Cogan and Antonio Gómez-Moriana (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 30–66.

9.

Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement ‘Beyond the Human,’” in “Queer Inhumanisms,” ed. Mel Y. Chen and Dana Luciano, special issue, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, nos. 2/3 (2015): 215.

10.

See Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Janet Staiger, Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

11.

Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in the Cinema,” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 313; Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 50; Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18; Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Maryanne Doane, “Voice in the Cinema,” in Movies and Methods, vol. 2, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 565–75.

12.

bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115–31; Hortense Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64–81; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

13.

See for example Rhona J. Berenstein, Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender, Sexuality, and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

14.

On the “matrix of domination” see Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 221–38.

15.

See Alondra Nelson, “Introduction: Future Texts,” in “Afrofuturism,” ed. Alondra Nelson, special issue, Social Text 71, vol. 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 1–15.

16.

Anna Everett, “On Cyberfeminism and Cyberwomanism: High-Tech Mediations of Feminism's Discontents,” in “Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms,” ed. Kathleen McHugh and Vivian Sobchack, special issue, Signs 30, no. 1 (2004): 1278–86.

17.

Lisa Nakamura, “The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call Out Culture as Venture Community Management,” New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 86 (2015): 106–12.

18.

See Tara McPherson, “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century,” in Race after the Internet, ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2013), 21–37; Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: NYU Press, 2018).

19.

Vivian Sobchack, “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh,” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 55.

20.

Vivian Sobchack, “Introduction,” in Carnal Thoughts, 2.

21.

Linda Williams, Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997).

22.

Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Jacqueline Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Mary Carbine, “‘The Finest Outside the Loop’: Motion Picture Exhibition in Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1905–1928,” Camera Obscura 8, no. 2 (1990): 9–41; Jane Gaines, Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Gaylyn Studlar, This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age (New York: Columbia, 1996); Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Kristen Whissel, Picturing American Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Charlene Regester, “From the Buzzard's Roost: Black Movie-Going in Durham and Other North Carolina Cities during the Early Period of American Cinema,” Film History 17 (2005): 113–24.

23.

Amy Herzog, “In the Flesh: Space and Embodiment in the Pornographic Peep Show Arcade,” Velvet Light Trap, no. 62 (2008): 29–43; Elena Gorfinkel, “The Body's Failed Labor: Performance Work in Sexploitation Cinema,” Framework: Journal of Cinema and Media 53, no. 1 (2012): 79; Amy Herzog, “Star Vehicle: Labor and Corporeal Traffic in Under the Skin,” Jump Cut 57 (2016): https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc57.2016/-HerzogSkin/index.html.

24.

Kathleen Collins, Notes from a Black Woman's Diary: Selected Works of Kathleen Collins (New York: Harper Collins, 2019).

25.

Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 67, 80.

26.

Vivian Sobchack, “‘Susie Scribbles’: On Technology, Techne, and Writing Incarnate,” in Carnal Thoughts, 123.