A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
Without a word, Ulysses Jenkins’ Vulnerable (2000), a five-minute, self-described video “psychodrama,” foregrounds the degree to which Western societies have molded themselves around mythic images and narratives of black zombification and dereliction.1 Without a word, the visual-aural impulses of Jenkins’ video remain irreducible to this unchanging story. They thereby rupture its long hold on the West’s cultural imagination.
Vulnerable’s compressed optic rhythms are driven and punctuated by the recurrent diffusion of molten warps, dissolves, and disfigurational smears of color, texture and shape.2 These effects are dispersive velocities that elasticize and explode, densify and denude the appearances of its two characters during their chance encounter one night on the Los Angeles subway. One is a young, fit Black man (Kori Newkirk); the other is a middle-aged, doughy white man (Ransome Wideout) who tends to slouch.
Each character, compelled by the social image of blackness as abjection, perceives himself under the gaze, which in this case, is to say under the gun, of the other. Each is a replicant-combatant in yet another tableau of U.S. racialized roleplay down to the cringes and side-eye neurotic tics. Neither dialogue nor theatrical “emoting” engineer the spectator’s response to this video. Calculating glances, averted eyes and other unanticipated looks however, unleash worlds of perceptual possibility.
With a single, furtive meeting of eyes while they wait on the subway platform, each character becomes separately ensconced in a private interlude of murderous suspicion which is projected onto the other on sight. Each character is thereafter conjoined to the other in the video’s back-and-forth interpenetrating of their distinct phantasms. Each projection feeds from Western racialist fables. Each character envisions himself the quarry of the predatory other.
As he has intermittently since the late 1970s, Jenkins theorizes the inextricability of antiblack mythology from the concrete cultural outcomes of Black negation. His career is marked by aesthetic exploration of how any lived experience of blackness is endlessly re-constituted by the control, commoditization and circulation of the images and the terms of its representation.
At no point does Vulnerable exit this vicious circle. But its recurrent manipulations of phantasmal imagery puncture accepted notions of this circle’s inevitable repetition. Vulnerable’s video-phantasmal texture implies that no subject “hailed” into racialization is bound to accept, let alone get lost inside that pre-scripted role. Its optic warping of every racial projection proposes a dis-inscriptional response to racialization’s imposition.
Vulnerable presents a nonverbal study of how a visual orchestration of impulsive gazes, glances and gestures indexes hierarchical violences unique to this American system. Its tracking of looks—neutral, anticipatory, reactive—discloses an inner economy of psychic labor extractable from any Black existence in the moment it emerges visibly within an antiblack orbit of perception. Vulnerable animates the abductive instant of Black existence being forced into the cognitively-dead “zone of nonbeing” that, according to Frantz Fanon, blackness always occupies within the dominant sphere.
The visualization of each character’s phantasms divulges its host as prey, either to the fixed narrative of black monstrosity, or to the ever-expanding record of punitive consequence dealt those who take insufficient account of the undiminished power of old fables to wreck Black existence.
Each character is following, as if led along in some somnambulistic trance. On sight of the other, each is taken out of his purpose and catalyzed in another design. Each character’s focus narrows to the point of closure or exclusivity. Each is drawn into obsessional pursuit of (or escape from) this other by a representational “mass of images,” the title of Vulnerable’s most direct thematic precursor.3
While each phantasmal scene demands thematic analysis as “just another rendering of the same old problem,” to borrow the title of yet another late 70’s Jenkins video, such investigation is derailed by the visually-molten character of any such scene’s transmission. Its optic flooding articulates that “the problem” so “rendered” vastly exceeds its re-inscription in the same representational system.
So (dis)possessed by the historical image of white violence upon the mythicimage of the bestial “super-predator,” the Black character is reduced to fugitivity and visualizes himself on the constant run. So (dis)possessed by that mythic image, the White character is reduced to aggression in proprietary defensiveness of “what is his.”
In Vulnerable’s final images, the white character observes his Black counterpart rise and exit the train. After quickly scanning the empty train for possible witnesses, he follows the Black man toward the platform elevator. The Black man turns around and realizes he is being tracked. The white man, seeing that he’s been noticed by the Black man, never breaks stride. He is reporting for self-appointed patrol duty, policing a world he experiences as his own.4
The cultural preemption of individual desire can be read as the vulnerability to which the video’s title refers. It is the social frameworks of disciplinary and spectacular control. I see it as Jenkins’ return to a crime scene he’s investigated several times. This crime is the luring and disarming of black desire by the ambient force of what Sylvia Wynter coins as the uninterrupted “overrepresentation” of the Western world’s white “referent-we,” an exclusionary domain of what it is to be “human.”5
To be drawn into this “we” is on some level to identify with antiblackness. It’s a snare that sets into motion the video’s more concretely-elaborated, cat-and-mouse scenography of racialized predation and precarity.
Part of the difference opened by Vulnerable’s desertion of language and its diffusion of images is its visual washout of Jenkins’ longtime “signature” of the griot’s preceptory function. “You’re just a mass of images/you’ve gotten to know/From years and years of TV shows.” This incantatory repetition of the “lesson” from Mass of Images (1978), is “replaced” in Vulnerable by the latter’s tour of each character’s interiorization of that mediatic violence and each character’s visible vaporization. It is a repeated visual motif that displaces the griot’s thousand words.
This is one of four essays from the twentieth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- The video connects seemingly ‘distant’ currents of radical black thought and art. The late writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins shared a similar attitude as Jenkins about mythic images and the narratives of black dereliction. As Collins noted, “he [a white person] imposes his notion of evil onto us [Black people]. It is why we experience intense discomfort…when we walk into any social situation with white people… It is physical in its intensity, and it comes out of the knowledge that we are the projection. That whatever they could not handle in their psyche has been projected onto us.” “Kathleen Collins, Master Class, 1984,” Vimeo, Milestone Channel, 1984, video, 9:31, https://vimeo.com/203379245 (my emphasis). Also, philosopher Tommy Curry’s analyses of how such cultural projection forecloses the very idea of independent Black male futurity resonates powerfully with Jenkins’ video as each digs deep into Fanonian provenances. See Tommy J. Curry, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Philadelphia, Rome, Tokyo: Temple University Press, 2017), 34.
- Such visually-fluid velocities are imparted a temporal dissonance of counterpoint “flotation” by the trance-groove of the soundtrack’s vocal of the same title, as performed by Jenkins’ band. Othervisions Art Band, “Vulnerable” on their cd, “find a hap. e. meal,” 1997.
- See Mass of Images (Ulysses Jenkins, 1978).
- “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it,” asks W.E.B. Du Bois in the 1920 essay, “The Souls of White Folk.” “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth, forever and ever, Amen!” W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” in Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999), 18.
- Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257-337. The “draw” or “lure” of Black existence to the self-centralized power of the Western “we,” to which Wynter returns so frequently, is productively likened to the “dream of equality” as “disguised wish for hierarchy” that culminates, for legal scholar Anthony Farley, in the slave’s incessant reproduction of itself as slave. See Anthony Farley “Perfecting Slavery,” Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 36 (2005): 225-256.