WEEP, LAUGH, DANCE: THE BODY AS CULTURAL MATRIX AND EMBODIED EXPERIENCE
EDITED BY MICHAL CALO
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), the formerly enslaved Baby Suggs Holy sermonizes to her informal congregation: “[I]n this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” The reviews in this special section take up scholarship that explores the meaning of the material body as a site of an expanding cultural matrix as well as one of embodied experience—of weeping, laughing, dancing. These texts work between the past, present, and future, taking up a wide range of methodologies, approaches, and theories to address urgent questions about the relationships between the body, art, activism, subjectivity, space, and being: How can we rethink what constitutes human beings and human bodies? What forms can embodied resistance take? What spaces facilitate liberatory praxis, bodily autonomy, and alternative modes of being?
The section’s opening works, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2020) by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson and The Sense of Brown (2020) by José Esteban Muñoz attempt to theorize modes of being Black and brown beyond racial and national categories, and against the violence that these categories entail. Jackson’s rich and dense first monograph, reviewed by Michal Calo, puts into conversation traditional humanist philosophy and Black diasporic cultural production to destabilize the category of the human, reimagine the relationship between Blackness and animality, and signal toward different ways of being (non)human. Drawing on Black feminist scholarship to offer an important negotiation between Black and animal studies, Jackson critiques pleas for Black inclusion in liberal humanism’s category of the human, instead focusing on theories, art, and praxis that undermine the coherence of the human altogether. The following book in the section also deals with the construction of category. Unfinished at the time of Muñoz’s premature death in 2013, The Sense of Brown, reviewed by kt shorb,explores brownness as a fluid way of being rather than a fixed identity category. Muñoz both critiques the harm and precarity that characterize a shared sense of brownness, and simultaneously highlights the “brown worlding” of a diverse range of artists in a nuanced analysis that draws force from the queer utopianism and hope interwoven into his previous foundational works.
From what Jess Saldaña termed as Muñoz’s “love letter to brownness,” the section turns to adrienne maree brown’s “orgasmic yes” in Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (2019), reviewed by Keerti Arora. Focusing primarily on Black women, brown reimagines embodied pleasure as imbricated with resistance, liberation, and agency, presenting both a personal journey and a cogent cultural analysis. This Black feminist queer study looks both to the streets and the bedroom in its pursuit of pleasure, presenting different constellations of being and feeling outside of white heteronormativity and beyond sexual taboos. Presenting a different if related critique of heteronormativity, Jane Ward’s Tragedy of Heterosexuality (2020) humorously flips perspectival expectations by reading heterosexuality through a queer lens, offering queer allyship to heterosexual people who are beholden to straight, patriarchal cultural hegemony. As Jakapat Koohapremkit’s review highlights, Ward denaturalizes heterosexuality and opens it up to close queer examination by repurposing the traditional logics and methodologies of anthropological and sociological studies that so often sought to examine the foreign and strange. As heterosexuality is othered both critically and cartoonishly, its faulty social construction is laid bare.
The final work reviewed in this section proceeds to a more specific site of cultural alterity. Coyote Shook reviews Grace Hale’s Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture (2020), which provides a historical and cultural analysis of the rise of alternative and indie music in the Deep South of the 1970 and ‘80s. Leaning into rather than eschewing her own personal involvement and attachment to the music scene of Athens, Georgia, Hale provides an intimate critical study that highlights the crosscurrents between race, sexuality, gender, and class. Simultaneously, Cool Town situates music history within a larger sociopolitical national framework, moving from the post-civil rights movement to the rise of neoliberalism, the conservatism that characterized the Reagan era, and the outbreak of HIV/AIDS.
The works included in this section form a somewhat idiosyncratic or unusual archive; yet, viewed together, they illuminate the diverse and various scholarly fields, methodologies, cultural foci, and objects of study that converge around the material and constructed meanings of the body. In productive flux between the local and the diasporic, from the specific to the shared, and across different cultural and temporal horizons, the studies reviewed in this section compel us to reimagine the histories and futures of our bodies and embodied experiences and their always incipient potential to shape the here and now.