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4/18/11 - "Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination" review by Ariane Cruz, Ph.D.

Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (New York: New York University Press, 2010)

by Darieck Scott

Review by: Ariane Cruz, Ph.D.

Ariane Cruz, Ph.D., was a 2010-2011 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation was entitled "Berries Bittersweet: Visual Representations of Black Female Sexuality in Contemporary American Pornography".

Extravagant Abjection Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary ImaginationDarieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (2010) theorizes the relationship between blackness, (black male-ness) and abjection. Arguing for what he terms blackness in/and abjection, Scott contends not only that blackness, invented from a history of abjection, is abjection itself, but also that abjection offers the black body unique, and heretofore un-theorized opportunities for black power—“the power of abject blackness.” The text is thus foundational as a project of redefining the relationship between power and blackness.

Drawing heavily from the psychoanalytic theory of Julia Kristeva and Herbert Marcuse, Extravagant Abjection is also deeply indebted to and the work of Franz Fanon, from whom Scott draws the recurring metaphor of the “tensed muscles,” a physical and psychic manifest of the colonized unconsciousness that describes the black, or blackend, male body’s readiness to flinch in both expectation of impending violence, and in defense /resistance of this same violence. In addition to their function as a response to bodily pain, existing or expected, we must also read the metaphor of the tensed muscles to suggest a state of sexual arousal. Hence the muscles clenched as a result of sexual pleasure and/or pain mirror the ambivalence of the state of blackness in/of abjection itself. That is, the apparent paradox of pleasure from pain parallels that of power from abjection. The metaphor of the tenses muscles then speaks to the critical relationship Scott limns between sexuality, blackness, and abjection, but also gestures to the salient link between power and pleasure—the experience of pleasure.

From reading literary representations of black male rape in novels such as Morrison’s Beloved, Scott sketches the black male’s possibilities of accessing pleasure, power and resistance in pain, violence and humiliation. Through the lens of black male rape, Scott argues that sexualized violence is constitutive of black masculinity and rape is the historical affliction that makes legible black identity; however, there is black power (though seemingly “counterintuitive” and utterly paradoxical) to be accessed and produced via this experience of trauma.

Scott’s of theorization of the metaphor of the “bottom” as a meditation on the positionality of the black male abject, illuminates to my own recent work on BDSM. In Scott’s work, like in the discourse on BDSM, the bottom is revealed to be not just a fluid position, but also a position of command, power, and of course, pleasure. Scott, however, theorizes the racial politics of the bottom in a way that the often de-racialized literature on BDSM fails to. The physical, metaphorical, and physic space of the bottom becomes central to his project of mapping blackness in/an abjection. The blackend bottom facilitates a reading of how power may be located and produced in positionalities typically associated with debasement, humiliation and violence. As such, the bottom thus becomes another salient condition of blackness in/and abjection.

Scott’s book is challenging itself as it works to catechize, contest, and broaden prevailing conceptions about what black power is and how it is annexed and demonstrated, as well as map and mislay the constitutive legacies of sexual violence, domination and humiliation with black male-ness. Yet the density of his language and complexity of his thought is lightened by many moments of beautiful writing, where the reader can hear Scott’s fiction writing alter ego. Scott’s book will prove invaluable to any serious student of black masculinity. It also makes strong interventions into the fields of black sexuality studies, philosophy, phenomenology, African Diasporas studies, literary studies, and queer studies.