If in the first installment of this special dual issue of Feminist Media Histories, we entered the hollows of Marie Jeanne’s cave, enacting an excavation of the hidden and suppressed histories of the Haitian Revolution as told in Shirley Bruno’s short film An Excavation of Us (2017), this second issue approaches habitation, or the way in which we in-habit space—marginal, sub-merged, de-centered—in order to put forth feminist counter-histories of the body and embodiment. This volume recognizes that the term “habitation” gives a sense of the “lived in,” but one that is not completely “natural,” comfortable, or given. With embodied habitation, the body becomes not only a place where selfhood becomes fleshed, but an extension of the external world’s spatial logics, which must be adapted to in order to be made livable. This process of habitation signifies adapting to both the space of the body and the spaces that surround it. It signifies the process of possessing the body’s familiar, claimed contours and its “blank” spaces as well as its places of alienation and uncanny alien flesh. In various ways, our contributors contend with the habitation of spaces wherein they locate the possibilities for a world otherwise, enacting feminist methodological and theoretical interventions that challenge dominant paradigms of knowledge production. In this sense, absence—a state of non-presence in which those marked by gendered, racial, and sexual difference are often rendered—becomes a portentous space, one in which to reimagine public spheres and construct new relationalities.
The essays in this issue relate to habitation on two axes: first, space, and second, absence. Examinations of space and place in media studies have often centered on film exhibition and its antecedents, with explorations of the screen, the auditorium, or the device as a kind of extension of the mind.1 Both historians and theorists have engaged with those architectural and showman-initiated wendings through the grand palaces of exhibition into loci of the otherworldly—into celestial portals. However, the purpose in much of the feminist work that has surrounded media space has departed sharply from showcasing the authorship of the male architects of this space or the showmen (like Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel) who created distinctive spectacles for the cinema’s imagined and idealized white patrons. It has sometimes ended up, illuminatingly, in the lived spaces of the everyday spectator who is not white and middle class, and not the cinema’s imagined ideal.2
This special issue, following the work of Katherine McKittrick and Sylvia Wynter, is invested in uncovering the media geographies that have been branded “ungeographic and/or philosophically undeveloped” (fig. 1).3 These are spaces and places that are, as Delores Hayden has conceived, “vernacular” geographic zones: “stoops and porches…shrines, casitas, and spaces of street games” in which “a world of shared meanings builds up, couched in the language of small semi-private and semi-public territories between dwelling and the street.”4 We and the authors represented herein are interested in both these spaces and the more “interior” terrains thought unworthy of mapping—and in their media corollaries (fig. 2).
By contrast with white dominant geography and cartographies, Wynter has pointed to alternative geographic modes and methods not founded in the project of “human hierarchies” or stemming from the desire for “socioeconomic possession.”5 In other words, McKittrick and Wynter point to a geography not based on “Man” and his domination (fig. 3). In place of these geographies of domination, McKittrick, following Wynter, intones the need for a “demonic” notion of space, a term she uses dually. The first use she imports from physics, where it connotes a point “outside the space-time orientation of the homuncular observer.” The second use is derived from The Tempest, to denote “a geographical, ontological, and historical lack”—that of Caliban’s potential mate, the Black woman that The Tempest cannot imagine.6 Thus McKittrick’s notion of the “demonic grounds” enjoins us to examine the spaces—in our case, of mediated history—from a perspective that eschews the pseudo-objectivity of the ground-stealing mapmaker known as “Man” and that takes deliberate note of both the grounds and the bodies marked as absent or left deliberately undescribed. Whether exploring the generative absence/presence of women and femmes in the history of the Zoot Suit Riots, the spatial and temporal dimensions of a film serial mapped onto diasporic memory, womxn’s struggles to carve out space within local comedy club circuits, or the re-motivation of the “dead” space of the mall into an affective palimpsest, several of the authors in this volume reactivate our notions of space and spatial relations in ways that think beyond geographies of domination.
This leads us to the second axis of examination in this volume: absence. The history of media is often rendered as a history of representation, but perhaps given the force of repression along its long arc, it is more accurately described as a history of absence, of censorship, of silencing. Absence is perhaps the most tantalizing and effective force in media production—and more broadly in the life of expression. Michel Foucault taught us long ago that repression is itself productive—that in the case of sexuality, it produced a proliferation of discourses. While seeming to restrict sexuality, repression actually increased the expression of sexuality though it moved it into another realm—namely, language.7 Similarly, Christian Metz highlights fascinatingly how the “barriers” of censorship are converted neatly into “eddies”—and thus the force of expression is not muted, only spread out, made elaborate—recombined: “Censorship is not linear.…It is not a line which divides the territory into two spatially distinct areas. It belongs to another topology, that of refractions: it is a point of deflection, a modifying principle.”8 But both absence and presence in media representation have most often followed the lines of power. The deeper question of what repression born of historical oppressions (and their attendant colonial projects) produces is worthy of further and closer consideration.
Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” (2008) also puts forth a means of reading absences through her approach to the archives of slavery. In encountering the “Black Venus,” enslaved Black women who appear only as testament to the violence enacted on their bodies, Hartman explores a possibility of “narrating counter-histories of slavery,” one that acknowledges what remains impossible to narrate, but also enacts a retrieval of the past for the living. The silences of the archive yield a “critical fabulation,” a retelling of the event that undermines the “received or authorized account, and [imagines] what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done.”9 Hartman’s refusal to “fill in the gaps,” her commitment to working within and against the archive and to reimagining the lives of those absented from dominant narratives, is reflected in several contributions to this special issue.
The ghost may also become a figure of absence, in the form of hauntings that press upon the present and the future. For Avery Gordon, the ghostly presence is the sign of “a repressed or unresolved social violence [making] itself known.” Haunting is a way in which the past, such as chattel slavery and other forms of institutional violence, reveals itself in the present, and also holds within it the “something-to-be-done.” These hauntings guide the various interventions in this issue, and the urgency they express regarding attending to past transgressions by heeding the calls of our “ghosts.” For Avery, the “something-to-be-done” also incurs a certain temporality, at once insistent, but also measured, a state she describes as one of the “abolitionist imaginary,” of the “ongoing work of emancipation.”10 Gordon offers a way to imagine how the past inhabits and informs the present, and calls us to attend to the critical work of constructing possible futures.
McKittrick, along with Evelynn Hammonds and before her Michele Wallace, suggest another, corollary way to read perceived absences. Hammonds and Wallace theorize and reconsider absence, at least in the case of Black women, as a “Black w/hole”: a vacuum that appears empty but is actually quite the opposite. Scientifically, a black hole may be difficult to read but it is not empty. It is a place where gravity is so dense that matter is forced into re-expression, as Wallace puts it: “They are unimaginably dense stars.” She continues: “What most people see of Black women is the void because to many the dark contents mean no contents whatsoever.” She insists not only on the Black w/hole concept as reversing the visibility problem associated with Black womanhood, but further that it addresses a problem of stratification. Just as a black hole is not a thing—it is a “process”—the Black w/hole not only renders Black women visible, it redresses the “nature of classification, interpretation and analysis” to which Black women are subjected.11 Accordingly it is a zone of Black lives lived in excess of white maps and in spite of the violent stamping out white feet have sought to achieve.
The writers in this volume are likewise taking on spaces and places associated with the voids of history to bring to light the histories of bodies marginalized. Whether exploring the absent yet palpable abortions in classical Hollywood cinema, the absence both behind and braided into media representations of Black women’s hair and sexuality, or the hysterical male push to absent the vibrator from a field-defining electronics trade show, the authors in this volume teach us about what is written onto the “Black hole” of absence. They instruct us as to how absence, when theorized in the manner of the Black feminist Black (w)hole, itself operates as a medium adjacent to representation and as a profoundly eloquent tool of elucidation—a dense space of meaning and formation. It is ample ground, indeed.
A.E. Stevenson’s “A Sleight of Hair: Chaotic Strands of Embodiment in Sanaa Hamri’s Something New” considers the limitations of the postfeminist rom-com in representing Black women’s subjectivities. Examining Something New (2006), a film that merges the “romantic comedy” and Black cinematic praxis, Stevenson turns our attention to Black women’s hair, which introduces “chaos” as a disruptive force into the genre’s usual linear progression of cis-white heteronormativity. Drawing on reviews of the film and on Evelynn Hammonds’s and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s work, Stevenson builds upon the notion of the “Black w/hole” to reflect on the Black woman’s missing place in media representations and the continued strangeness and strain that attends representations of such intimate normalcies as Black women’s hair. Stevenson recognizes how Hamri’s film provides a place for unprecedented representations of Black women, and asserts its significance in film history as the “first major studio release whose producer, director, screenwriter, and star were all Black women.”
Stephanie Brown’s “Open Mic?: The Gendered Gatekeeping of Authenticity in Spaces of Live Stand-Up Comedy” examines the embodied performances of womxn comedians within the spaces of local stand-up comedy venues. Bringing attention to the various forms of discrimination womxn comedians experience on the local circuit, Brown argues that these forms of exclusion are grounded in the neoliberal project of authenticity, or a genuine or truthful presentation of self, a tenet of stand-up comedic performance that is often the exclusive realm of white men. Womxn comedians are frequently marginalized and risk being received as “excessive” or “fake.” Through interviews, Brown examines the intimacies between comedian and audience created within the confines of the comedy club, directing us to strategic performances of gendered and sexual identities that necessarily work to render womxn comedians legible within patriarchal spaces.
In “Embodying the Background: Connecting Pachucas and Movie Theaters in Filmic and Literary Depictions of the Zoot Suit Riots,” Veronica Paredes returns to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when Mexican American and other men of color were violently assaulted by white off-duty servicemen on the streets of Los Angeles. Circumventing traditional readings of the historical event that either ignore the role played by women or codify them through stereotype, Paredes offers a feminist intervention by arguing that the women and femmes who exist at the margins of the historical narrative of the Zoot Suit Riots are central to our understanding “of the racial, gendered, and sexual assumptions that shape popular historical understandings of public space in Los Angeles during World War II.” In particular, Paredes uses the movie theater as a site where the positioning of women, femmes, and pachucas reveals the spatialization of racial, gendered, and sexual identities in the city. Through close readings of the films Zoot Suit (1981) and American Me (1992), Fernando Alegría’s short story “¿A qué lado de la cortina?” (On Which Side of the Curtain?, 1956), and Chester Himes’s novel If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), Paredes directs us to the significance of women occupying the narrative margins for elaborating discourses of gendered, sexual, and racial difference.
In “Videotape and Vibrators: An Industry History of Techno-Sexuality,” Li Cornfeld examines the history of the Consumer Technology Association, the Consumer Electronics Show (CTA’s annual expo), and their relationship with the pornography and sex tech industries. The apparent dichotomy between cis male heteronormative pornography and “sex tech” is illustrated by CTA’s revocation, then reinstatement, of its 2018 Innovation Award to Lora DiCarlo, a company that produced a cutting-edge vibrator for women. Cornfeld traces both industries’ complex relationship to CTA and the CES from the rise of home video distribution in the 1970s to the emergence of virtual reality and other “embodied, interactive user engagement” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She argues that “sexual technologies” have always been at the forefront of technological innovation, and that presently they index the movement between the production of “home media consumption” and “erotic technologies that engage and stimulate the body of the user.” She then ties these recent debates, indicative of neoliberal regimes of bodily management and self-care, back to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century development of the vibrator and the discourses that allowed it to be marketed as a domestic item and a product for physical health and mental well-being.
In “Abortion’s Coded Visibility: The Failed Censorship and Box Office Success of Leave Her to Heaven,” Megan Minarich examines the representation of abortion in the Production Code–era film Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Drawing upon extensive archival research, Minarich argues that although Joseph Breen, then head censor of the Production Code Administration, allowed an on-screen abortion to be shown because it is never named as such in the film’s spoken lines and therefore could plausibly be understood as a miscarriage, audiences at the time certainly recognized the difference between abortion and miscarriage, knew exactly what Gene Tierney’s character was doing, and even reported enjoying the scene. Minarich’s essay also delves into popular discourses surrounding abortion, contraception, and reproductive health circulating at the time of the film’s release. The author skillfully reads the on-screen “signs” of abortion, exploring the telltale textual elaborations that stood in for what could not be shown. Further, she finds this incongruity between the film’s censorship and its reception exemplary of the weakening of the PCA’s regulation of films treating taboo topics generally, and contraception and abortion specifically.
Kim-Anh Schreiber’s “Untraceable Origins, Generations of Loss: Tih-Minh’s Echoing Afterlives” traces the afterlife of Louis Feuillade’s Tih-Minh (1919), a film serial about a half-Vietnamese woman who becomes the center of international intrigue. While examining Tih-Minh as a fragmented document, Schreiber explores her own personal history and that of the Vietnamese diaspora. Following Giuliana Bruno’s “kinetic analytic,” a method to examine archival absences and voids, and Jennifer M. Bean’s “imagination of wonder,” an “imaginative stance suffused with skepticism and curiosity,” Schreiber creates a geographics to explore both Tih-Minh the character and Tih-Minh the serial as “character and document” exemplified by “fragmentation, loss, colonialism, migration, and erasure.” Through close analysis of extant copies of the serial and their various circulations and interpretations, Schreiber maps the manifold transitions faced by the character Tih-Minh—her kidnapping, amnesia, and reprogramming—which form a palimpsest for tracing various histories of colonialism and transnational migration. In her methodological attention to the “fragmentation and unruly temporalities” of her archive, and the temporal and spatial dynamics of the serial, Schreiber mines archival absences to illuminate the memory and subjectivity of Vietnamese women as inscribed through media, which remain “marginalized within the fields of film and media studies,” not to mention critical race studies and gender studies.
In “I Think We’re Alone Now: Dead Malls and the Queerly Unconsummated,” Erin Nunoda examines the production of new relationalities within representations of abandoned malls. Using the work of Cecil Robert, a YouTube content producer whose videos feature photographs of “dead” malls accompanied by soundtracks featuring digitally altered popular songs, Nunoda argues that a sense of “being alone together” is produced within the now-absent spaces of such malls, announced by the still images of their emptied interiors and the hollowed-out music. The shopping mall as a postwar suburban architecture of consumer capitalism, designed to create and enforce social, economic, and racial hierarchies, may become in its various states of decline reembodied by the presence of those who were originally excluded from its utopian imperatives. Through Robert’s videos, Nunoda explores the possibility of a queer ghostliness in which the vacated mall offers a meditation on the material politics of death, the possibility of reimagined public spheres, and a critical interrogation of the heteronormative ideologies of nature. Nunoda’s work, by way of queer theory, interrogates the heteronormative, whether through her critique of the architectural design of the mall or through the imagining of new forms of relationality (“being alone together”).
We write this in a time of remarkable reimagining of urban landscapes, while we find ourselves evacuated and socially distanced yet relentlessly policed in old and new ways. Perhaps to us, the spaces of this now-world seem eerily as if our bodies, lives, and selves have been cast somewhere into the spacelessness of online. This evacuation of place and the attendant vacuums of this moment perhaps provide an opportunity for the essential radical cartographic work that we have long needed to do. The mass protests prompted by the violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amaud Aubrey, Jacob Blake, Daniel Prude, Tony McDade, and the too-numerous lives brutalized and lost through state-sanctioned violence have led to re-mappings of public space by way of Black activism on a global scale. Indeed, Black Lives Matter has become one of the largest human rights movements in history, heeding the call for the “something-to-be-done”—for radical redistributions of power—and, with it, space (fig. 4).
The re-occupation and re-imagining of urban spaces, through direct action such as protests, the felling of monuments, and the creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza in democracy’s sometimes-cradle, Washington, DC, constitute the new geographies necessary for our survival. In a reality where the ground seems to shift every day and struggles have new (often remote) frontiers weekly, we are in desperate need of a new set of “maps” to govern our movement and help us find allies and shelter, throughways and undercommons. As protestors ask insistently, “Whose streets?” and “Black Lives Matter” is inscribed, painted over, and rewritten on intersections across the country, we are reminded of the defining importance of public place and public witness, even in the largely evacuated landscapes of the United States. And we are reminded—in the wake of absence—of the acts of erasure, often lethal and state sanctioned, that have robbed so many Black people not only of place but of breath. A way forward from this moment requires maps—not of conquered lands but of dynamic cartographies that bend across the skin and reveal the human, pre-human and post-Anthropocene landscapes both without and within. It is only through hearing the silenced histories of people and spaces that domination willed out of visibility—or existence—that we can begin to chart a course beyond our abated present.
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. See also Ben Hall, Best Remaining Seats: The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1961); Charlotte Herzog, “The Movie Palace and the Theatrical Sources of Its Architectural Style,” Cinema Journal 20, no. 2 (1981): 15–37.
We are thinking here of the fascinating and contextualizing work done by Mary Carbine in “The Finest Outside the Loop: Motion Picture Exhibition in Chicago’s Black Metropolis, 1905–1928,” Camera Obscura 8, vol. 2, no. 23 (1990): 8–41; and of the work of Charlene Regester and Jacqueline Stewart, who use quite different methods to rebuild and imagine Black experiences of the movies. 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; Jacqueline Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Katherine McKittrick, DemonicGrounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xii. See also Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism,” boundary 2 12, no. 3 / 13, no. 1 (Spring–Autumn 1984): 19–70.
Delores Hayden, The Power of Place (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 35.
McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, xvii.
McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, xxv.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 1:18.
Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 258.
Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” small axe 26 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 4, 11.
Avery Gordon, “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity,” borderlands 10, no. 2 (2011): 2, 8.
Michele Wallace, Invisibility Blues (New York: Verso, 1990), 218.