We encounter flesh through interpretation. There is no such thing as an unmediated relationship with flesh. Flesh is inseparable from matrices of discourse, materiality, power, and relationships, and the theorists in this entry provide beginnings to the necessary interpretive work of understanding flesh’s multiple existence. As Biko Mandela Gray writes of flesh’s unruliness in his recent book: “Flesh weaves together contradictions, leaving them unresolved. It is both the site of Christological incarnation and the site of sinfulness. . . . Flesh is nothing and everything. It is nothing because it is everything” (61). As an overdetermined site, because flesh is everything, we need theoretical frames to help us make sense of, or at least approach, the contradictions. This entry outlines three theorists of flesh whose work provides nuance to political theology’s role in tending to embodied and embroiled existence: Hortense Spillers’s body and flesh distinction, Anne Cheng’s notion of ornamentalism, and Jack Halberstam’s theorization of queer failure.
Spillers: White Body, Black Flesh
Hortense Spillers is a prolific scholar whose work encompasses Black studies, feminist studies, literary studies, and psychoanalytic theory. Her own work addresses multiple audiences, including white feminists, male Black studies scholars, and scholars of the English literature canon. Her theory has become a touchstone for scholars who have produced cutting-edge theoretical work in areas such as queerness (Musser; Davis and BSE Collective), race and racialization (Nash; Sharpe), technology (Atanasoski and Vora), subjectivity (Weheliye), and the prison state (Dillon). Scholars repeatedly evoke her distinction between the body and flesh, although with differing levels of explanation and engagement. Her most frequently cited essay delineates how Black flesh is produced through the construction of the white body, a process that is violently racialized, gendered, and economic.
Spillers’s work arises out of multiple and overlapping political spaces: the academic moment when Black studies and feminist studies were unevenly and tumultuously becoming institutionalized, the social responses to civil rights and women’s rights movements, and the national context of post-war debates about how to address the “War on Poverty.” While working in the Johnson Administration, future New York Senator Patrick Moynihan published the so-called Moynihan Report, infamously concluding that Black families could not achieve economic success in the United States due to a “pathological” family structure where Black men were not in charge. According to the report, Black families would become strong, economically successful citizens and overcome the war on poverty through creating patriarchal, heterosexual family structures with a male head-of-household; thus, the predominance of Black female-headed households was the national problem.
Spillers’s searing critique of the report concedes that a lack of fatherhood is, indeed, a significant feature of the structure of Black families — the “American Grammar” of the essay’s subtitle. However, Spillers corrects Moynihan by explaining that the original missing fathers of Black families are the white men in plantation societies, along with the complicity of their white wives. White male sexual violence against enslaved Black women provided “[t]he denied genetic link” that separates reproduction from the concept of family; this severance “becomes the chief strategy of an undenied ownership” of further enslaved children (221). Whereas Moynihan berated Black men for being absent fathers, Spillers names white absent “fatherhood” as nationally normative: “the blank space where his proper name would fit” on a birth certificate (221). These legal and informal structures created a cascade of subsequent inherited and created violence. In a sense, Moynihan was right to point to the history of enslavement as intimately shaping the foundations of U.S. racial dynamics; however, he was wrong in where he laid the blame, explicitly demonizing Black women and implicitly exonerating white men and, to a different extent, white women.
This distinction between modes of reproduction, mothering, and the realm of white domesticity layers Spillers’s discussion on body and flesh, providing the context for her claim that Black flesh is ungendered. She writes that “‘gendering’ takes place within the confines of the domestic” (214). The white body is gendered female through its proximity to a patriarchal domestic realm, which is shaped by “cultural fictions that are grounded in the specificity of proper names, more exactly, a patronymic” (214). The patriarchal power that transmits surnames through legally recognized marriages and the children she produces is the social realm of gendered whiteness. Black flesh, excluded from patronymic inheritance of social inheritance evidenced by “the blank space where his proper name would fit,” is excluded from conventions of delineating gender.
Spillers’s theorization of “body” and “flesh” relies on their mutual, although uneven, relationship to each other. Thus, body and flesh are not abstract entities; rather, the white body constructs itself through repeated attempts at domination over the physical, social, and religious materiality of Black flesh. Perhaps the most often-cited passage from Spillers is:
But I would make a distinction in this case between “body” and “flesh” and impose that distinction as the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions. In that sense, before the “body” there is the “flesh,” that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse or the reflexes of iconography.Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 206
The white body occupies the “liberated subject-position,” and Black flesh resides in the “captive subject-position,” putting the two terms in a definitional relationship of power inequality. The liberated position of whiteness becomes the norm—the invisible iconographic position that points toward symbolic meaning—built on the “zero degree of social conceptualization” of Black flesh.
Spillers’s theory of the white body and Black flesh remains critical to political theology as dual reminders that racialization and gendering are always relational processes, and that circuits of power dictate interpretations of flesh. Although critical theory and political theology are increasingly acknowledging whiteness as a racialized position, Spillers’s distinction rejects the false presumption that some groups are racialized while others stand outside or beyond racialization. She reveals the brutality through which the power of whiteness persists. Further, the body/flesh distinction structurally names the ongoing histories of capitalism, enslavement, property, and family structures that people in the United States inherit and navigate.
Gendered racialization, and the racialized gendering, of flesh take different routes, methods, and histories in the United States. One approach to flesh does not fit all. Anne Anlin Cheng, a scholar of American literature, psychoanalytic theory, and race, gender, and sexuality, addressed modalities of flesh in her first and second books through flesh’s relationships to melancholic racialization, filmic and theater performances, and architecture. In this section, though, I focus on her third book, Ornamentalism (2019). In it, Cheng argues that Asian and Asian American women are racialized not by reference to skin alone. Rather, we in the West interpret Asiatic flesh through a grid of ideological commitments that stem from colonialism combined with expectations of sartorial accoutrement. Citing Spillers, Cheng argues that theorists must account for distinctions in how society interprets, judges, and values flesh; there are critical nuances found through specific histories of violence, colonialism, and desire. Cheng draws our attention to the fact that although we tend to delineate identity groups into categories such as Black women, brown women, and white women—categorizations based on associations of color and flesh—we do not employ the parallel term of yellow women. Cheng evokes the figure of the “yellow woman” to explore theorists’ and popular culture’s interpretations of Asiatic flesh and examine the “queasiness” we have upon hearing this ugly term for “someone too aestheticized to suffer injury but so aestheticized that she invites injury” (x-xi).
Cheng combines the theoretical concepts of Orientalism and the Ornament, specifically “the long expansive Western philosophic debates about moral and social value engendered by the ornament,” to present the concept of Ornamentalism (3). With the neologism, Cheng points out how the two terms are already mutually reliant. In Orientalist discourse, those in the West argue for colonial superiority, in part, by positioning themselves as too rational to need ornamentation, even while simultaneously desiring and fetishizing it. Relatedly, imperial forces used the ornamentation of Asian women to classify the Other as beautiful, fragile, and in need of saving. The flesh of Asian and Asian American women in Western images and imaginations is inseparable from external yet always present supplements, such as clothing, tea sets, jewelry, specific cuisines, and stereotyped embodied postures. Cheng explains: “We thus cannot talk about yellow female flesh without also engaging a history of material-aesthetic productions. The yellow woman’s history is entwined with the production and fates of silk, ceramics, celluloid, machinery, and other forms of animated objectness” (xi-xii).
Cheng points to example after example in her book, ranging from court cases that used the dresses Chinese immigrant women wore in the early twentieth century to legally designate them as “lewd,” to the portrayal of “Asianness” in a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition using dresses, vases, drapes, and urns to repeatedly demonstrate how the flesh of the yellow woman is not just adjacent to material thingness but is read through and as thingness. Cheng explains that the repetition of porcelain in the Met exhibit “revives this long, expansive history about human imbrication with racialized and manufactured materials, fueling the fraught amalgamation between inorganic commodity and Asiatic female flesh” (94). Economic structures and our pursuit of commodity drive the production of both Black flesh and Asiatic female flesh. Yet Cheng’s question—“Why is the telos of Asiatic objecthood the cyborg while the telos of black objecthood is the monster?”—unearths differences deeply embedded in Western practices of desire, ownership, and physicality toward racially gendered flesh.
Cheng’s book begins and ends with Spillers, where Cheng posits that despite the specific racialization of the yellow woman, ornamentalism nonetheless connects to the broader reality of minoritized flesh as thingness. She concludes:
How, then, could we not think about aesthetics in the face of violence? For the black woman, ornamentalism can name a particular mode of being that applies pressure on the fantasy of corporeal integrity. It is precisely when flesh has been defiled and radically severed from its own sense of humanity that the path back requires mediation. The flesh that passes through objecthood needs ‘ornament’ as a way back to itself.Cheng, Ornamentalism 154
Cheng’s insistence—that flesh that has been dehumanized needs an external supplement beyond the biology of “mere” flesh to be recognized—is not valorizing survival, although survival is crucial; rather, her work calls on feminist and cultural studies scholars to recognize the almost imperceptible structures of gendered Orientalism that use the language of desire, appreciation, and delicacy to maintain the “thingness” of the “yellow woman.” Only when we begin to notice again and again, in place after place, how scholars, legal courts, and consumers of media pervasively interpret Asian and Asian American women in the West through synthetic flesh, through the ornament as flesh, can we begin to question our underlying ideas about the status of flesh and the work we expect it to do. Cheng thus offers a coalitional call that conceptualizes racialized flesh as distinct and resists collapsing Asian and Asian American femininity into a generic “woman of color” category.
Jack Halberstam: Queer Failure
Cheng ends her work naming the “fantasy of organic flesh” that haunts feminist attempts to consider flesh inseparable from synthetic and relational intervention and interpretation (153). We might be tempted to locate the “fantasy of organic flesh” with whiteness, Europeanness, or the ideal of an autonomous subject. I end with Jack Halberstam’s work on flesh as a site that disrupts liberal feminist ideals of agency, autonomy, and mastery to reinforce that our search for uninterpreted flesh remains fantasy. Halberstam argues for a politics of negativity, resistance, and undoing that focuses on passive flesh and queers reproductive logics by refusing them. Like both Spillers and Cheng, Halberstam is an English professor, and has authored numerous books on gender and sexuality, queerness and transness, popular and sub-cultures, temporality, and media. I focus here on Halberstam’s question in The Queer Art of Failure (2011) of how flesh that is gendered female might disrupt familial psychoanalytic oedipal dynamics that structurally perpetuate colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism. Although Halberstam routinely discusses queerness in reference to gender and sexual minoritized spaces and practices, here Halberstam uses queerness to indicate the breakdown and transgression of heterosexual, reproductive, normative family structures.
Halberstam discusses inspiration for the project in theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Saba Mahmood, including a citation of Roderick Ferguson’s use of Hortense Spillers “in order to think about a shadow archive of resistance, one that does not speak in the language of action and momentum but instead articulates itself in terms of evacuation, refusal, passivity, unbecoming, unbeing” (129). To ask feminist questions of the flesh through “refusal, passivity, unbecoming, and unbeing” requires reconfiguring definitions of feminism and relationships to flesh. Gendered flesh shaped through masochism, self-harm, vulnerability, and unhappiness does not valorize traditional goals of the coherent, national, economic body. To dwell in sites that refuse a liberal goal of feminist agency complicates how we categorize flesh’s place in discussions of liberation, celebration, and mastery. Halberstam asks us to consider flesh as a site of refusal, using examples from novels, performance art, and collage that point out the violent unhappiness of colonialism (Jamaica Kincaid), that critique wartime nationalistic violence (Yoko Ono), and that find meaning made through fragmentation (J. A. Nicholls).
I conclude with Halberstam’s example from the novel The Piano Teacher to examine the character’s self-imposed mutilation of gendered, racialized flesh as a commentary against Austrian nationalism. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elfride Jelenik, the daughter of a Czech Jewish father and a Roman Catholic Austrian mother, uses flesh’s unbecoming through cutting, binding, and starving as a site of social-political commentary. After taking the reader through the piano teacher Erika’s catalogue of masochistic, sadistic, and self-harm behaviors directed toward her own flesh, activities that most readers would not mistake as liberatory or agential, Halberstam concludes:
Erika’s passivity is a way of refusing to be a channel for a persistent strain of fascist nationalism, and her masochism or self-violation indicates her desire to kill within herself the versions of fascism that are folded into being—through taste, through emotional responses, through love of country, love of music, love of her mother.Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure 135
Erika’s flesh is mediated through her culture; her flesh carries and conveys the fascism of her nation. To queer society’s intent for the flesh, the reproduction of these traits in subsequent generations, means to disrupt the transmission of the flesh. Failing as a “productive,” capitalist, fascist, and/or colonial citizen, and exposing the horrifying assumptions built into these systems can occur through destruction of the media that conveys the message.
Halberstam’s theorization of anti-social uses of flesh provides political theologians another mode of considering how individual and structural forces intertwine, what it means to unflaggingly pursue goals of measurable success (whatever that success may entail), and whose flesh is available to be understood by whom. Spillers, Cheng, and Halberstam provide us with tools to approach the histories of violence, economics, relationships, desires, and contestation that infuse our experiences with flesh in its multiplicity. Flesh is never neutral.
Leticia Alvarado, Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).
Alvarado’s book uses performance studies and psychoanalytic theory to theorize a mode of resisting the respectability politics that are often expected from or forced upon Latinx communities in the United States. Considering minoritized flesh as unwieldy or abject, Alvarado examines artistic sites that do not allow whiteness to set the terms of play.
Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Cheng theorizes how the concepts of Orientalism and Ornamentation/the Ornament combine to produce a specific history of racialization of Asian and Asian American women in the West that is not based on bare flesh, but rather on objectness read as personness.
Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
Halberstam writes about gender, sexuality, race, and failure, looking at sites such as Hollywood films, homoerotic neo-Nazi art, and queer performance artists to theorize how flesh is disruptive. Halberstam draws on concepts in psychoanalytic theory, such as phallic dynamics and Oedipal drama, to queer them in accessible “low theory” ways. Halberstam’s book was an early influence on queer theorists’ use of failure.
Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
A collection of sixteen essays that address psychoanalysis, English’s “standard” literary canon, and feminism. Besides “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” the next most cited essay is “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” which introduces the idea of Black women as vestibular, as a site of passage between places but never valued as a site themselves.
Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
Weheliye’s work brings together Black feminist theorists such as Spillers and Sylvia Wynter with Giorgio Agamben’s notion of bare life and Michele Foucault’s biopolitics. His reading puts in conversation topics generally addressed in separate realms of scholarship, such as Black Studies and Holocaust Studies, to think about specific modes of production and valuations of flesh.