Stockton, Kathryn Bond. Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where "Black" Meets "Queer.".
Kathryn Bond Stockton's book is a welcome contribution to studies of race and sexuality in literature and visual culture and especially to the field whose cutting-edge name echoes in its subtitle--black queer studies. The defining collection of essays that sealed that field's name comes from Duke University Press too; and, like Stockton's book, its cover features a nude black male body. While both the essays in Black Queer Studies (eds. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson ) and Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame assume the crisscrossing and intertwining of discourses on race and sexuality, the latter takes full advantage of its monograph length to focus intensely on the tropes, rhetoric, and often paradoxical imaginaries of abjection, shame, and humiliation. Stockton's book argues forcefully that there are no "purely black" or "queer" forms of debasement, only "blended forms of shame" (23). This well researched and provocatively designed study deploys a rich toolkit of literary and psychoanalytic theory, critical race and cultural studies, and semiotics and queer theory.
Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame explores "low" spaces of human interaction, or the meeting places for socially debased and degraded individuals and groups--black and queer people, or those marked by AIDS--in novels, film, photography, and popular culture venues like TV shows and news media. Stockton also shows that shame can be a thing of beauty in instances where abjection fosters self-scrutiny and uplift, where its certain manifestations are linked to desire and attraction, or where they enable production of knowledge and create possibilities for aesthetic expression, including "dark camp" (See, Conclusion). Her analyses of diverse, often purposefully divergent cultural texts privilege conceptual, thematic, and tropological synchronicities over chronology. Such an approach allows for "a circuitry of switchpoints" (4-5), a design that Stockton calls a "composite form" (23), one that helps to spark "point[s] of connection" between her two key signs--"black" and "queer" (5). The switchpoints help to organize the chapters around the moments of intense crossings of these key signs in relation to non-normative bodies whose diverse representations and productions Stockton studies throughout her book.
The introduction sets up the emergence of popular representations of "DL" or Down Low culture as the first of these switchpoints and argues for "probing the value of debasement as a central social action" (2). The richness of Stockton's primary and secondary sources is both inspiring and challenging. To manage it, she loops back and forth through historic contexts to demonstrate how shame forces us to examine the complex workings of abjection and debasement that underlie mainstream American culture's violent attractions to bodies of color and non-normative sexualities. This is also true, she shows, in the work of theorists, from Freud, Barthes, and Fanon to Lacan, Bataille, and Sontag, as well as in diverse American and European literary and visual representations. In chapter one, which links Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), Leslie Feingold's Stone Butch Blues (1993), and Jean Genet's Querelle (1947), Stockton explores "cloth wounds" or the workings and implication of sartorial shame on queer bodies, assuming that, like skin, "clothing raises the question of a surface to which shame attaches" (39). Moving from epidermal surfaces into the body, as it were, and across the bodies' economic and social attachments to other bodies and communal settings, Chapter Two continues the examination of unexpected critical conversations. Proposing a specific "debasement" of "critical theories" (79), it demonstrates the limits of Freudian thought for reading Toni Morrison's vision of black masculinity and femininity in Sula (1974). In a bold move that goes against some readings of Morrison's text as seemingly homophobic, Stockton argues that this writer's possibly riskiest engagement with anality undergirds Sula's focus on homosocial bonds between lower-class black women.
The following chapters link the pain and yearning inherent in racialized and gendered homoerotic desire as they move between the material and the metaphorical, the seen and unseen, the palpable and the purely imaginary in visual texts, from Robert Mapplethorpe's black nudes, through Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), to Roland Barthes's writings on photography. Stockton's readings of interracial anal rape in these texts (Chapter Three) dwell on the forces that drive homophobia and sexual violence, as well as pleasure. We then move to Cleaver's Soul on Ice (1968) and Mailer's "The White Negro" (1957), whose fascination with homosexual miscegenation brings them into a striking menage-a-trois with James Baldwin and his well-known novel Giovanni's Room (1956) in Chapter Four. The explorations of Morrison's Beloved (1987) in the context of AIDS and the film Fight Club (1999) in the remaining parts of the book (Chapter Five and Conclusion) continue to pair theoretical and metaphorical explorations with relevant, if sometimes unexpected, material visual contexts. For example, in Chapter Four Stockton juxtaposes Cleaver's "decomposing" (37, 161-62) musings on the white female pin-up in his prison cell with the image of Emmet Till's open coffin.
By claiming that virtually all "mental operations have bodily channels" (24)--such as a mouth, slit, wound, or anus--Stockton challenges, if not actually blackly queering, the body-mind dichotomy that has driven much of twentieth-century western thought. Her readings of literary and visual texts--especially of Morrison and Tarantino--demonstrate how shame lurks in the barely visible moments of racism, homophobia, or sexism that often punctuate traditional narrative strategies or signature cinematic tricks of the trade. Placing shame and debasement at the center of the analyses informed by black studies and queer theory, Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame challenges the "conceptions of oppression and subversion" (24) that have been central to scholarly debates in these fields. Its inclusion of lesbian texts and female queer bodies is a welcome reminder that one should not judge a field of study, or a book, solely by its seemingly masculinist, if not black-and-white, cover.
Like her material and argument, Stockton's prose is compelling and complex, at times even poetic. On occasion though, the writing reads as contrived and repetitive, especially when the reader feels as if holding on for dear life while navigating the author's riskier theoretical turns, attendant puns, or section titles (e.g., "Morrison Takes Freud Black to the Bottom," 88). The book's richness and the range of its primary material and apparatus will make it attractive to scholars and graduate students but inaccessible to undergraduates. Since not many college kids can handle Lacan and Butler on the same page, this may be just as well; those few who can, like the specialists, will certainly be seduced by Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame.
MAGDALENA J. ZABOROWSKA, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
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|Author:||Zaborowska, Magdalena J.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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