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Sara Baartman and the "Inclusive

Exclusions" of Neoliberalism
This essay examines three African-Americanfeminist textsElizabeth Alexander's "The Venus
Hottentot," Barbara Chase-Riboud's Hot t ent ot Venus, and Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus. In
their nuanced critiques of thesouereign pou;er of neoliberalism as both a sociopolitical and a
discursiue condition, that is, as what Foucault calls a biopolitics, these texts represent a
feminist cultural actiuism that challenges the hegemonicforms of neoliberalism and
transnational market relations. Despite their apparentfocus on African-American women's
bodies and their exploitation and instrumentahzation, what is additionally meaningful in
these texts is that the more recent history of globalization to u;hich women are subjected under
late capitalisma history u)ithin and on which these texts and their writers workis shoujn
to be coextensive (although not homologous) u;ith the history of imperialism that made it
possible in the jirst place to mark out a placefor a Sara Baartman (the so-called Hottentot
Venus) in nascent capitalist relations andforces of production and in the early colonization of
southern Africa. In their nonreferential literary representations of tu)entieth-century
neoliberalism, Alexander, Parks, and Chase-Riboud giue readers a marginal subject, "Sara
Baartman," ujho serues not simply as an icon of sexual difference between white and black, as
some critics haue argued, but as an economic placeholderfor these interrelated nineteenth- and
tujentieth-century economic and social histories.
[Meridians:feminism, race, transnationalism 2013, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 212-237]
2013 by Smith College. All ri ght s reserved.
If euerything were transparent, then no ideology u;ould be possible, and no domina-
tion either; euidently this is not our case.
Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (1981)
Not only have transnational feminist theorists and cultural critics evi-
denced a keen interest in Sara Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman who in 1810
was transported from the Cape Colony in South Africa and exhibited to the
public at Piccadilly Circus in London as the "Hottentot Venus," but African-
American feminist artists and writers (primarily women) have also taken
Baartman as their subject. If one wants to understand why some forms of
African-American feminist aesthetic practices have explored linguistic and
performative aspects of the social relations that theorists and critics have
examined in the case of Baartman, then one must be prepared to take on
these texts' function as social texts. Moreover, in doing so, one need be
mindful that these texts are constructed in particular contexts and serve,
among other things, the tasks of producing and promoting, to use Olakun-
le George's formulation, highly invested versions of history (George 1999,
71). It is my claim that transnational feminist criticism of literature, and of
culture in general, might benefit from looking at the versions of history
that literary production around Baartman has created, if only because this
helps us to understand the role of literature and other art-forms in con-
structing visions of collective action, solidarity, and social justice that are
so crucial to a transnational feminist imaginary."
I read literary texts by Elizabeth Alexander, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Barbara
Chase-Riboud comparatively in order to determine what their versions of
history and their investments are and why these versions, for important
reasons, turn to Baartman's encounter both with a colonial system that the
English began to install in the Cape Colony in 1806only one year before
the abolition of the slave trade and four years before Baartman's arrival in
Englandand with that other scene of colonization, the mtropole, with
which she is so often associated. This other scene engages an earlier
manifestation of the globalization of capitalism whereby policies concern-
ing the Khoekhoe's enslavement on the frontier and proletarianization in the
towns and industrial labor centers of the Cape Colony, as well as legislation
on the integration of "Britain's newest colony" into the empire, were being
drafted and debated (Abrahams 1996, ioi). As Zine Magubane explains, the
"old economic order at the Cape [was] based on enslavement, forced
captivity, and despotism," and this was to be replaced, so the English hoped,
by a "'voluntary' commodification of the self and a 'willing' capitulation to
the dominant logic of capital" (Magubane 2001,829).
Given this history, one that needs little rehearsing here since it has been
explored in some detail by Yvette Abrahams (1996), Sadiah Qureshi (2004),
and Mugabane (2001), among others, my investigation runs counter to that of
most critics^ on Sara Baartman, who see her as exemplary of the status of the
Hottentot (a derogatory name for the Khoekhoe people), as "the lowest rung
on the great chain of being[, as] the central nineteenth-century icon for
sexual difference between the European and the Black" (Gilman 1986,231,
quoted in Mugubane 2001,817), and as "a late-twentieth-century icon for the
violence done to women of African descent" (Strother 1999,37, quoted in
Mugabane 2001,817). Although it would seem that the desire on the part of
the African-American women writers I have selected to examine also is to
claim Baartman as a iconic figure for the transhistorical, racialized sexual
difference of women of African descent, this desire can be historicized, at
least in the literary cases that I interpret, as an actual instantiation of a
critique of sovereign power. This critique, in Aihwa Ong's particular explora-
tion of this concept, involves "overlapping sovereignties" in that, although
"the state retains formal sovereignty, corporations and multilateral agencies
frequently exert de facto control over the conditions of living, laboring, and
migration of populations" (Ong 2006,19). In their rather nuanced critiques of
sovereign power as both a sociopolitical and a discursive condition, that is, as
what Foucault calls a biopolitics, these texts represent a feminist cultural
activism that challenges the hegemonic forms of neoliberalism and transna-
tional market relations. Thus, despite their apparent focus on black women's
bodies and their exploitation and instrumentalization, what is additionally
meaningful in these texts is that the more recent history of globalization to
which women are subjected under late capitalisma history within and on
which, I want to suggest, these texts and their writers workis shown to be
coextensive (although not homologous) with the history of imperialism that
made it possible, in the first place, to mark out a place for a Sara Baartman in
nascent capitalist relations and forces of production and in the early coloniza-
tion of southern Africa.
Published between 1990 and 2003, the texts I examine serve as narratives
that offer up a space for comprehending and grasping in a nonteleological
214 MERIDIANS 11:2
fashion the possibilities of contemporary transnational feminism. The years
in which these texts saw publication also witnessed neoliberalism becoming
more and more entrenched globally as an economic dominant dependent on
a reconstitution of state powers. For their part, these newly constituted state
powers have consequences for how we examine traditional notions of state
sovereignty as linking territories in a naturalized and, despite their competi-
tion, seemingly neutral fashion. Like many other state formations, neolib-
eral state sovereignty is constructed and shaped by institutions, most of
which, such as the International Monetary Fund, are inter- or transnational
in scope. Moreover, the sovereign power invested in the state is one that is
marked by violence and by threats of violence, as Thomas Hansen and Finn
Stepputat have argued (Hansen and Stepputat 2005,3). In fact, this state of
violence, along with the power to determine which lives are disposable, is
what ultimately defines sovereignty.
Having opened this line of inquiry, we might ask: what does this have to
do with African-American feminist transnationalism, both socially and
literarily? We could glibly and therefore inadequately reply that it has
everything to do with it. But in order to venture a fuller account, we would
want to define "neoliberalism," which David Harvey has explained as:
a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human
well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial
freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by
strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of
the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropri-
ate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the
quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military,
defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure
private property rights and to guarantee by force if need be, the proper
functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exi st . . . then
they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these
tasks the state must not venture. (Harvey 2005, 2)
Later in this essay, I will have occasion to address what is meant by "human
well-being" and to question how the "human" is defined under neoliberal-
ism, but for now, to add to Harvey's explanation, I want to refer to Ong's
statements about this theory and place them alongside Harvey's. As she sees
it, "Neoliberalism is merely the most recent development of such techniques
that govern human life, that is, a governmentality that relies on market
knowledge and calculations for a politics of subjection and subject-making
that continually places in question the political existence of modern human
beings" (Ong 2006,13). Finally, as Jodi Dean considers it, "neoliberalism is a
philosophy viewing market exchange as a guide for all human action.
Redefining social and ethical life in accordance with economic criteria and
expectations, neoliberalism holds that human freedom is best achieved
through the operation of markets. Freedom (rather than justice or equality)
is the fundamental political value" (Dean 2009,51).
What I want to emphasize here about this political-economic theory and
practice qua ethics is that they have proven in the United States to be
devastating to poor and working-class African-American communities,
and this has been the case far more for poor African-American women,
who have been positioned in the rhetoric as manifestly unsuited for and
incapable of assimilation into the market relations fostered by neoliberal-
ism. Moreover, in neoliberalism's rhetoric, particularly against the figure
known as the "welfare queen," these same women are held responsible for
an entire community's perceived failure to integrate itself into late capital-
ism's market ethos. This became apparent in the languages of and policies,
from the 1980s on, related to race, gender, and class that justified (and
continue to promote) the dismantling and rearrangement of "divisions of
labour, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of
life and thought, [and] reproductive activities," which, from Ronald
Reagan's administration to Bill Clinton's to George W. Bush's, neoliberal-
ism has brought about (Harvey 2005,3).
The fragmentation associated with neoliberalism might be described as
a new form of alienation in the sense that what we are examining is akin to
but not, I here argue, the same as what Fredric Jameson characterizes as
"the nineteenth-century historical situation in which the emergence of the
ego or centered subject can be understood," a situation involving "the
dissolution of the older organic or hierarchical social groups, the universal
commodification of the labor-power of individuals and their confronta-
tions as equivalent units within the framework of the market, the anomie
of these new 'free' and isolated individual subjects to which the protective
development of a monadic armature alone comes as something of a
compensation" (Jameson 1981,153-54).' In their nonreferential literary
representations of this fragmentation and alienation, Alexander, Parks,
216 MERIDIANS 11:2
and Chase-Riboud give us a marginal subject, "Sara Baartman," who
serves not simply as an icon of sexual difference between white and black,
but as an economic placeholder for these interrelated nineteenth- and
twentieth-century economic and social histories.
Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot" (in Alexander 1990) is a narrative
poem that proceeds dialogically (as per the Bakhtinian model of dialogism*)
and that can be read for its historically determinant complex, which applies
to the other texts under study here, of discourses and philosophical sys-
temsfor example, science, colonialism, medicineall of which are
important to transnational feminism's focus on women's, particularly
postcolonial and poor "first world" women's, subjection to the dictates of
such epistemes as science and medicine. The poem's two voices are best
conceived not as characters or anthropomorphic figures with whom we
associate specific acts and attributes,^ but as subjects with whom we associ-
ate particular discourses and places within what Lacan calls the symbolic,
the system of signs that constitutes the social order. At issue in the poem is
an agon between the subject that the poem would have us associate with
Georges Cuvier, the nineteenth-century naturalist and anatomist, and Sara
Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus. In Alexander's poem, Cuvier
represents a space of mastery and a concomitant will to knowledge-power,
whereas Baartman represents a space reserved for that subject pressed into
service to aclvance the will associated with Cuvier. Writing about these two
historical figures, Anne Fausto-Sterling has suggested:
Cuvier most clearly concerned himself with establishing the priority of
European nationhood; he wished to control the hidden secrets of Africa
and of woman by exposing them to scientific daylight.... Hence he
delved beneath the surface, bringing the interior to light; he extracted
the hidden genitalia and defined the hidden Hottentot. Lying on his
dissection table, the wild Bartman became the tame, the savage
civilized. By exposing the clandestine power, the ruler prevailed.
(Fausto-Sterling 1995,42, quoted in Magubane 2001, 819)
Notwithstanding the questions of how compelling this argument might
beand it is not without its problems, which include most notably its
assumptions concerning Cuvier's motivesit is consonant with Alexan-
der's poem's thematic of the historical encounter and psycho-affective
exchange between Cuvier and Baartman.
Although it addresses the colonial dynamic between the two figures,
Alexander's poem says little about this dynamic as a set of actual social
relations emerging from imperialism in the nineteenth century. However,
rather than representing a silenced and tamed Baartman, Alexander's
poem endeavors to establish a counter-discourse on the part of a colonized
and enslaved Baartman. As in the Hegelian master-slave dialectic,
Baartman's knowledge vies with that associated with nineteenth-century
transnational science and medicine. For instance, at one point in the
poem, the visual sensoriumconstituted by Cuvier's eye gazing through a
microscopecaptures "small things in the world" (Alexander 1990, 6)
with "few. . . ever see[ing] what I see / through this microscope" (5). The
slave's avenging anger, as Frantz Fanon might say, counters this knowl-
edge and is brought forth as a voice from the dead, declaring:
If he were to let me rise up
from this table, I'd spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man's museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural. (Alexander 1990, 9-10)
Rising from the dead (and the poem's use of the subjunctive mood is worth
noting), Baartman's "spirit" leaves in its wake an anatomizing "science,"
whose unnatural black heart it displays to a multitude unlike the paradoxi-
cally limited audience available to Cuvier, whose plans include taking her
"genitalia / [which] will float inside a labeled / pickling jar in the Muse / de
l'Homme on a shelf/ above Broca's brain / 'the Venus Hottentot'" (Alexan-
der 1990, 6). Implicit in the poem's devices of metonymy and inversion is
the historical perspective of a colonial subject, a marginal one, pressed to
its limit. Instead of her being an atomized subject, what we find in the
Baartman of Alexander's poem is the making of a collective subject
constructed via a colonizing process (though this is not to say that Baart-
man represents all colonized subjects).
The bringing of a new collective subject into being is suggested in
several places in the poem where the Khoekhoe colonial subject does not
218 MERIDIANS 11:2
do what the colonizer expects of herwhich is to commodify the self, as
Magubane argues was historically the case. Instead, Baartman is figured
not so much as commodity but as consumer. In the poem, as a potential
consumer, Baartman avers:
I would return [from England] to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk
dresses and money to grow food,
rouges and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. (Alexander 1990, 7)
Shunning the processes and forces of production in which she was formerly
embedded and where flax and indigo, according to the poem, are cultivated
in an agrarian mode of production, Baartman is captivated by the lure of an
imperial process in which goods from abroad, or from the periphery, find
their way into the hands of bourgeois imperial subjects in the mtropole.
Although the poem focuses in this section on the commodified Baartman's
relation to other commodities and objects and thereby represents her as a
"thing" among other "things," we can discern a parallel between this
representation of a colonized subject as consumer and the actual, concrete
social history of taking raw materials from colonies, finishing them in an
imperial center, and returning them to a new consumer market in the
coloniesa process that needs to be recognized as importantly part and
parcel of the political economy of early nineteenth-century England.' I would
argue that this set of political-economic relations, although possible to miss
when reading the poem, is as central to the poem as is its meditation on the
power relations between Baartman as a colonial other or object and Cuvier
as an imperial self or subject.
At first glance, it would appear that Alexander's poem, then, would have
us believe that the Cuvier-Baartman relationship of self to other is one that
has primacy when we attempt to understand these historical figures together
and alone. With its concentration on the Cuvier-Baartman dynamic, the
poem would seem to suggest that the nineteenth-century capitalist forces of
production, in which colonies were both sources of raw materials and
markets for goods finished in the mtropole, are actually secondary to
historicizing Baartman's situation with respect to French scientific inquiry
and with respect to the Khoekhoe colonization and immiserization in the
British-ruled Cape Colony. As the poem would have it, the signal historical
narrative or version of history that it wants to establish is one in which an
African-American feminist identification with Baartman is secured by
representing her as an ancestral presence.^ The poem indicates this by
imagining a line of descent from Baartman to "imaginary / daughters, in
banana skirts / and ostrich-feather fans" (Alexander 1990,9).
With its allusion to Josephine Baker, the poem establishes a filiation
between Baartman, as a nineteenth-century racialized and gendered other,
and spectacle and Baker, with her twentieth-century performance of race
and gender. What the poem ends up doing by juxtaposing these figures is
to dehistoricize Baartman, to conflate a Khoekhoe woman in near-captive
exile with an African-American woman in voluntary exile, and to claim a
kinship relation between Baartman and all black American women. The
making of this ancestral presence is perhaps informed by the poem's
insistence that there be a reclaiming of the historical Baartman, a practice
of reclamation that was a significant feature of feminist criticism and
writing practices in the 1970s and 1980s, the latter of which were the very
years of the poem's composition.* The identification that Alexander's poem
solicits is one that runs counter to an identification informed by the idea of
solidarity (not filiation) across national, racial, ethnic, class, and sexual
lines at the same time as this identification acknowledges and negotiates
these differences, an idea that is an important feature of transnational,
anticapitalist scholarship, aesthetic production, and activism.
Yet despite all that I have said about its limitations, there is something
important in Alexander's poem for transnational feminist criticism and
activism. The most crucial is her re-imagining the potential agency of
African-American women as transnational subjects during the early days
of the institutionalization of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s. If the
reclamation project informing Alexander's text is taken as a feminist
practice, then that feminism is not so much about Baartman as an ances-
tral presence than it is about representing her as a figure that discursively
opens up a space granting us access to a usable past. Her positioning as
commodity and as consumer discloses a hidden transcript, to use James C.
Scott's term, of resistance to a reduction of African-American women's
lives to market relations (Scott 1992). Alexander's Baartman shows the
220 MERIDIANS 11:2
compatibility between black life as commodity under nineteenth-century
capitalist imperialism and black life under twentieth-century neoliberal-
ism as subjects engaged in market relations via consumerism. We might
ask: how can these two positions even be thought of together? What we
have witnessed in the intervening years from the nineteenth century to the
twentieth century is not so much a passage from commodity to consumer,
but the reconciliation of the earlier notion of the "speaking commodity"'
as an object-identity held by others with a more recent notion of black,
female life's refusal (for neoliberals, their constitutive failure) to accept
social life in terms of competition within markets as the summum bonum.
Alexander's text deploys an alterist discourse and gives its readers cause
to think about imperialism and neoliberalism; Barbara Chase-Rlboud's
historical novel Hottentot Venus (2003) constructs its fictionalized Saartjie
or Sara Baartman via a triple discursive articulation. The text carves out a
space for her as a legally consenting subject; a class position for her as a
Khoekhoe woman brought within the realm of an imperialist capitalism
and finding reason to note the similarities of the positioning of industrial
metropolitan workers in England and colonized labor in the Cape Colony;
and a place for her as a colonized native or subaltern, who belongs among
the dispossessed, but who has the additional position of being a gendered,
colonized subject. Before getting into a discussion of these positions, I
would like to consider for a moment the novel's use of history.
Harry Shaw has usefully described and analyzed three main ways in
which history has been employed in the genre of historical fiction. He
enumerates and accounts for them as follows:
First, history has provided an ideological screen onto which the
preoccupation of the present can be projected for clarification and
solution, or for disguised expression. I refer to this use as "history as
pastoral." Second, hi st ory. . . has acted as a source of dramatic energy
that vivifies a fictional story. Such dramatic energy can produce effects
that are melodramatic and insubstantial, but it can also produce
catharsis. Finally, and obviously, history has acted as the subject of
historical novels, in a variety of ways. These different uses of history
often coexist in a given novel. But the sense we make of a historical
novel, or any character or scene within it, depends upon our conception
of its purpose Though all of these uses of history may coexist in a
work, they are likely at any given moment to fall into a hierarchy in
which one of them predominates, and adequate interpretation depends
upon recognizing this hierarchy. (Shaw 1983, 52)
It is my sense that Hottentot Venus works with the first and last of these
methods, and it does this in such a way that the first serves as the "histori-
cal 'dominant'" of the work, to use the term that Shaw borrows from
Russian formalism (54). Although obviously taking history as its subject
matter, the novel would have its readers concentrate their efforts on
comprehending what perspective on history is most fitting when telling
the story of Sara Baartman. The text gives us multiple vantage points,
discourses, statements, decisions, and propositions that constitute its
narrative apparatus. To use Foucault's concept, the "dominant strategic
function" of this narrative apparatus is to display the heterogeneity needed
to account historically for Baartman and to assimilate that which, because
of what has been done to construct her historically and socially, cannot be
assimilated with ease (Foucault 1980,195).
Dedicated as it is to Nelson Mandela, Chase-Riboud's novel is more
obviously a transnational document than is Alexander's poem. The novel's
transnationalism is evident not only in the dedication, but in its epilogue set
in Cape Town, South Africa in 2002, the year that Baartman's remains were
repatriated from France to South Africa for interment there,'" and also in its
author's acknowledgments, which end with the words: "Forgive the African
debt, forgive the African debt, forgive the African debt" (Chase-Riboud 2003,
320). The social movement to relieve or forgive debt for highly indebted poor
countries began in the 1980s with pressure coming from international
nongovernmental organizations such as the Jubilee 2000 movement (Jubilee
Debt Campaign 2000). In Chase-Riboud's dedication and acknowledgments,
we find a view of history in which the past is used to reflect on the present.
More particularly, the author takes key moments in Baartman's life and
career and links them imaginatively with actual historical figures and
events to indicate how they feature in our present. For example, in the
instance of her infamous trial, Baartman's "managers" were brought
before the court to account for their indecent display of her while the case's
judges attempted to ascertain whether she "was being kept as a slave"
(Abrahams 1996, 89). Hottentot Venus makes of this trial an occasion to
introduce the Jamaican radical Robert Wedderburn, who says of himself:
222 MERIDIANS 11:2
I was a theologian, the son of an aristocratic Scottish planter and a slave
woman. I had dedicated my life to the radical cause of abolition and had
founded the African Association, which was famous for defending the
rights of slaves and freeing and repatriating as many as it could. The
association fought and campaigned against racism in England and the
horrors of slavery in the West Indi es. . . . I was a licensed, self-taught
Unitarian preacher who believed there should be an affinity between
black West Indians and the British working class, between London's
artisan class and the ultraradical party. (Chase-Riboud 2003,112-13)
An early internationalist, Wedderburn is the subject of a chapter in Peter
Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's highly influential study The Many-Headed
Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History o/the Revolutionary
Atlantic. Less well known than Sara Baartman, Wedderburn has been
described by Linebaugh and Rediker as "a strategically central actor in the
formation and dissemination of revolutionary traditions [and as] an intellec-
tual organic to the Atlantic proletariat" (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, 289).
His insertion into Chase-Riboud's text as one of the primary abolitionist
figures coming to aid Baartman shows the early transnational (in this case,
Atlantic) politics of resistance to capitalist expropriation and exploitation,
which, for Wedderburn, applied equally to the cotton fields as to the cotton
factories. Working with his autobiography The Horrors of Slavery (1824) and
with some of his other writings, Chase-Riboud paraphrases Wedderburn
and has him say to the fictional Baartman, "The English working class, the
Scottish peasantry, the black Haitian, the African slave, the Irish bond
servant, the American Indian are all one and the same" (Chase-Riboud 2003,
135). Wedderburn promotes solidarity-in-difference, and his vision of it
depends on both a popular and a revolutionary theory of historical change
and consciousness. This, then, appears to be the historical dominant into
which the text attempts to insert the fictional Baartman.
Assuming that she must be a slave, because otherwise there would be no
question that she would be capable of consenting to her display, the Wedder-
burn of the text is surprised to meet Baartman's resistance to his efforts to
ftee her from a supposed "involuntary servitude" (Chase-Riboud 2003,121).
Despite his desire to be instrumental in her liberation and to make cause
with the Khoekhoe woman, Wedderburn and the African Association are
eventually thwarted by evidence that she has freely entered into a contract
with her keepers." According to the fictionalized Baartman, Wedderburn
sees in her "a means to [his] goal of revolution, and rebellion, against the
English" (Chase-Riboud 2003,134). It is only years later, after her keepers
have abandoned her and sold her to a French animal-keeper, that Baartman
attempts (and unsuccessfully at that) to contact Wedderburn in order to
secure her liberty. If I have spent so much time on the fictionalized Baart-
man-Wedderburn relationshipwhich, as the novel presents it, is a compli-
cated affairI have done so to emphasize the text's view of the past, which
as represented in the person ofWedderburn includes both a radical trans-
Atlantic proletarian and an African diasporic history of resistance. However,
the chapters of the text given over to Wedderburn are not the only place
where Baartman encounters figures of resistance.
Concentrating equally on the Cape Colony, England, and France,
Hottentot Venus depicts Baartman as a near-picaresque character traveling
through these particular spaces of uneven development. Among the places
of interest to me, as I read the text's representation of the past, are her
travels in the Midlands, where Chase-Riboud has Baartman witness what
E. P. Thompson calls "the making of the English working class," a collec-
tive class subject that practices radical dissent, popular direct action, and
other acts deemed illegal by the state (Thompson 1966). Of this, the text
states, "All over the Midlands, we encountered riots, strikes and lockouts
because of the Luddites and the trade unions, who were trying to organize
the guilds and mill workers. More than once, we [Baartman and the
company with whom she travels] were barred from a town because of
police curfews, or an ordinance against any assembly of more than three
people" (Chase-Riboud 2003,170). At another point in the text, we learn
that Baartman's traveling troupe
appeared in the large cities of Northampton, Nottingham, Wakefield
and Leeds . . . The workers, the herders, the shepherds and peas-
ants . . . rebelled against their rich landlords and owners, for which they
were named the Luddites. Like the Khoekhoe, once they rose they were
quickly put down by the police and constables hired by the factory
owners. . . . Workers convicted of machine breaking were sentenced to
death under the [1812] Frame Breaking act of Parliament. After one
attack in Yorkshire which left a mill owner dead, over one hundred
workers were rounded up, seventeen of whom were hanged. (186)
224 MERIDIANS 11:2
The making of this collective subject says much about how capitalism held
sway over the Cape Colony as well as over those working-class subjects in
the mtropole, the other scene of colonialism. The text's terms are such
that, despite the incursion of capitalism, it would remind readers not to
forget that in England, as in the Cape Colony, an insurgent working class
developed forms of resistance to its exploitation. This is far more well-
known in the case of the Luddites, about whom the novel states, "The
revolts lasted two more years. . . . For a while, we believed the Luddites
might stage what Alice [the fictional Baartman's English working-class
servant] called a revolution. But eventually most of them were caught and
the last of their heroes, James Towle, executed" (Chase-Riboud 2003,187).
With this detail, one that conforms with Thompson's historical account
(Thompson 1966, 573-74), although the fictionalized Baartman's own
death came one year before the historical Towle's actual death, Chase-
Riboud's text would have us remember that state sovereignty is secured by
means of violence, whether legal or extralegal.
Moreover, such sovereign power can be read along the lines of distinction
that Giorgio Agambenin Homo Sacer: Sovereign Pou;er and Bare Lifedraws
between the "People" and "people," about which he states at some length:
Every interpretation of the political meaning of the term "people" must
begin with the singular fact that in modern European languages,
"people" . . . always indicates the poor, the disinherited, and the
excluded. One term thus names both the constitutive political subject
and the class that is, de facto, if not de jure, excluded from poli-
tics It is as if what we call "people" were in reality not a unitary
subject but a dialectical oscillation between two opposite poles: on the
one hand, the set of the People as a whole political body, and on the
other, the subset of the people as a fragmentary multiplicity of needy
and excluded bodies; or again, on the one hand, an inclusion that
claims to be total, and on the other, an exclusion that is clearly hope-
less; at one extreme, the total state of integrated and sovereign citizens,
and at the other, the preserve. . . of the wretched, the oppressed, and
the defeated. (Agamben 1988, j-yy)
This distinction between "people" as bare life and "People" as sovereign
power that Ong likewise describes as an inclusion of "People" as political
body separated from "people" as excluded body, is one that Chase-Riboud
pursues in her representation of Sara Baartman and in her identification of
Khoekhoe exploitation as having an equivalent in, but as being not quite
the same as, the exploitation of the English working class. Parsing the
difference between bare life and sovereign power, Agamben tells us, in a
manner that echoes the sentiment of Hottentot Venus, that "the species and
the individual as a simple living body become what is at stake in a society's
political strategies" (Agamben 1988, 3).
Although Agamben does not gender this "simple living body," we can
extend his argument and examine how Chase-Riboud allows her readers to
understand Baartman as an anterior figuration of what Gayatri Spivak calls
"the patriarchally defined subaltern woman" (Spivak 1999,68). This gen-
dered subaltern reveals how "humanist practices [have tended to] legitimize
bourgeois and patriarchal interests" (Bose 1997). Included among the
humanist practices explored in the text are those having to do with elaborat-
ing a position for that subject, a subject position that goes by the name of
individualismincluding an individualism in its feminist guise. One of the
proper names of individualism would be the "self" Marked out in Hottentot
Venus is the impossibility for a subaltern woman, within the prisms of
imperialism and patriarchy, to achieve such a subject position, largely
because within "patriarchal subject-formation" and within "imperialist
object-constitution, it is the place of the free will or agency of the sexed
subject as female that is successfully effaced" (Spivak 1999,235).
Bare life, as a "simple living body," in our time is the body on which
neoliberalism, as a set of political and economic strategies, does its work.
Under neoliberalism, there is a "commodification of everything" in prin-
ciple, and according to this principle, a price can be placed on "processes,
things, and social relations," which in turn can be traded and subjected to
legal contract (Harvey 2005,165). Here is where Suzan-Lori Parks's contro-
versial play Venus can be brought in, for it shows a total commodification of
the self, which is not the same as self-commodification, and the social
relations in which that self functions and is located. In some of the critical
literature. Parks is decried for having exploited Baartman and for having
represented her as complicit in her own undoing.'^ My view, however, is that
if Parks's Baartman is represented in such a manner, then one of the effects
of this representation is to compel viewers to consider whether binaristic,
particularly alterist, paradigms concerning relations between ruler and
ruled need reconsideringa point to which I will return.
226 MERIDIANS 11:2
At once the feature of a "freak show," of a "girlie show," and of scientific
inquiryall forms of commodification of bare lifethe play's Baartman
assumes three guises in the dramatis personae: "Miss Saartjie Baartman,
a.k.a. The Girl, and later The Venus Hottentot" (Parks 1997/2000). These
names suggest that the construction of this character is not as "person," but
as a set of discourses and subject positions. When in the Cape Colony, she is
referred to as Saartjie, "Little Sarah," and she is represented in the play's
directions initially as "The Girl," the servant-girl, until her unveiling in
London as "The Venus." A careful reader of the script will notice that
nowhere in the play does a "Miss Saartjie Baartman" actually appear. What
does appear in the play is a set of figures cast in languages that situate her
only as personae. Self-conscious in its mode of organization, the play
"begins" and "ends" with an announcement of "The Venus Hottentot's"
death and the cancellation of her show; bracketed between these are scenes
thirty-one to one, appearing in that order as a countdown with the end at the
beginning. In scene thirty-one, she is a servant girl who is convinced to go to
England to make "a mint"; in later scenes, she is presented as a performer
who is encouraged by "The Mother-Showman" to "pull out all thuh stops"
(Parks 1997/2000,17,34). It is obvious when looking at the structure of the
play with its figuration of its characters as multiple subjects (for example,
"The Mans Brother, later The Mother-Showman, later The Grade-School
Chum") that the play is posing questions concerning performance, theatri-
cality, publicity, obscurity, representation, and the relationship that each of
these has to power. It does this with anachronistic details (for example. The
Girl arrives in England on a jet airplane in 1810) and with heteroglossic and
polyphonic language, which calls attention to itself as language. Although
we rarely stop to reflect that we read and hear and speak language by means
of physical organsthe eye, the ear, the vocal apparatus, and the brainthe
performance of language by actors in a play such as Parks's should heighten
our awareness that language and thought are embodied. Lacking the
"realism" of Alexander's and Chase-Riboud's texts, Parks's text only edges
close to realism in its "footnotes," which appear in the "body" of the script
and which consist of "historical extracts" taken from newspaper advertise-
ments and scientific, literary, theatrical, and legal statements about Baart-
man. Far from faulting Parks for the tenor of the roles she assigns to
Baartman, we should recognize in them her critique of representation,
particularly the representation of a "black" and "female" body. Three bodies
are at work in Parks's playthe body of the text; the body of the actor playing
the three roles constituting Baartman; and the prosthetic body, the padded
posterior that the actor wears that calls attention to the idea that after flesh,
after physicality, is body, the social subject.
I have called Chase-Riboud's Baartman an anterior figuration of the
subaltern woman, and I want to suggest that Parks's Baartman formally
and conceptually comes to us from a posterior position as a subject-in-
language. We only recognize her as such after the names and the dis-
courses describing her are conventionalized to us through the play's
repetitive play of language. Yet I want to make clear that the play's formal
features are not my only interests. The theatricality of the 1810 court case,
in which Baartman was asked to declare whether she freely consented to
her exhibition and thus was not being enslaved by and acting under the
will of another person, that Parks displays in her play is important to
consider, but setting that aside, I want to spend time examining, in terms
of intimacy and affect, the play's theme of how one as either a "free
laborer" or an enslaved laborer is to survive "both socially and affec-
tively"that is, how one is to survive as a human being (Harvey 2005,170).
Surviving socially and affectively is crucially related to "conviviality," a
concept that is useful for moving beyond the alterist version of history that
so many familiar with the historical Baartman want to tell. Informing my
understanding of Parks's play is Achille Mbembe's account of the workings
of conviviality in the postcolony, and considering, as he does, the etymol-
ogy of the word, Mbembe has explained the "logic of'conviviality,' [as] the
dynamics of domesticity and familiarity, inscribing the dominant and the
dominated within the same episteme" (Mbembe 2001, no). What is particu-
larly striking to me about Mbembe's concept is that it facilitates an
understanding of the particular dynamics between the play's "Miss
Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. The Girl, and later The Venus Hottentot" and
"The Man, later The Baron Docteur" (a figure representing Alexander
Dunlop and Hendriks Cesar, the historical Baartman's initial keepers, and
Georges Cuvier). In The Venus's relationship to the composite figure
Dunlop-Cesar-Cuvier is her movement from servant to the former two to a
lover-scientific object to the latter, a movement that might strike us as odd
initially, but that becomes clearer when seen through the prism of Mbem-
be's concept. In his elaboration of "conviviality" in the context of postcolo-
niality, he advances the idea that:
228 MERIDIANS 11:2
Precisely because the postcolonial mode of domination is a regime that
involves not just control but conviviality, even connivanceas shown by
the constant compromises, the small tokens of fealty, the inherent
cautiousnessthe analyst must watch for the myriad ways ordinary
people guide, deceive, and toy with power instead of confronting it
directly.... At any given moment in the postcolonial historical trajectory,
the authoritarian mode can no longer be interpreted strictly in terms of
surveillance, or the politics of coercion. The practices of ordinary citizens
cannot always be read in terms of "opposition to the state," "deconstruct-
ing power," and "disengagement." In the postcolony, an intimate tyranny
links the rulers with the ruled (Mbembe 2001,128)
Seeing The Venus (no longer known as The Girl) as The Baron Docteur's
lover involves seeing the character's structural relationship to her lover, not
her identification (which is an act and not a structure) with/for him.
Mbembe allows us to discern a structure not of which she is unwitting, but
by means of which, in the play's terms, she complies with him or "embrac-
es" and "enfolds" him. This taking of the dominant within the episteme of
the dominatedlearning and considering the systems of rules informing
conceptual and actual possibilities not necessarily so as to reproduce
themis what "conviviality" means socially in Parks's play. If one is to
survive socially under neoliberalism, one needs not dignity alonebecause
neoliberalism's ideology of competitive individualism and personal
responsibility will see to the cultivation of an overweening sense of
selfbut support, as Harvey suggests (Harvey 2005,170).
The dismantling of social provisions and relationships that would
prevent people from giving way is what we find in Venus. Wanting to make a
mint and being passed along from "boss" to "boss," thereby making her a
laborer with a precarious economic position despite her desire to move
ahead. The Venus finds herself without alternative social and economic
supports. She has her lover, yes, but she remains unsatisfied. Among the
few words that she utters in the scenes set in the bedroom that she shares
with The Baron Docteur is the repeated question: "Do you love me?" or
simply, "Love me?" With this question qua demand. The Venus finds her
proof of love in the gifts of chocolates that her lover provides to her.
However, sated neither by the chocolates, a substitute, nor by her lover, the
seeming object of her need. The Venus languishes, telling the audience in
one of the play's later/earlier scenes, "Love helps in times of hardship"
(Parks 2000,155). This statement suggests her awareness that, despite
what has been given to her, she still lacks that something that would help
her to survive her own hardship.
My initial interpretation of The Venus's questions was that she suffers
from what could be called affective lack. Yet when thought of in terms of
neoliberalism, Parks's text directs our attention not only to what is
missing, but to what is actually taking place on the stagethe estrange-
ment of the self in a "world of flexible labor markets and short-term
contracts, chronic job insecurities, lost social protections, and often
debilitating labour" (Harvey 2005,170). In spite of its reminders to its
audience that the events on the stage take place in the early 1800s, Venus's
anachronisms, its flights toward the future, bridge the divide between and
the breaks separating nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The uniting of
periods does not efface historical difference, but it does tell us something
about the coexistence of temporalities. Moreover, it makes of "history" an
open signifier in that it is not only "what happened" that matters, but also
the "why" of past events and our accountability for them that matter, the
text seems to suggest. One of the flights that the play takes us on entails a
history and economy of affect.
Indicating to us that Baartman is an effect or a trace of history and
language, as indeed are any of us, Parks's play stages an absent presence
the dead reanimated. This reanimation is something on the order of a
"return of the repressed," and what has been returned to us is not a
resistant gendered subaltern, as in Chase-Riboud's novel, but a figure that
speaks the last lines: "Kiss me Kiss me Kiss me Kiss" (Parks 2000,162). The
fading away of the reanimated dead does not stop the circulation of
Baartman's story. In fact. The Venus's call for a kiss shows, even insists
upon, a desire to establish contact, to make material that which would
otherwise be imperceptible, and the call ends with an echo of a "me" with
the fourth repetition of "Kiss," a first-person that is withheld, a subject that
is not broken off necessarily, but that is still with us as the play comes to its
formal conclusion. This circulation of the affect "love" shapes an economy
in which there is no second person (the implied "you") without the first
("me"). If The Baron Docteurwho, in his prevarication with her, is
concerned with making a name for himself upon her dead body, literally
appears throughout the second half of the play as the object loving The
230 MERIDIANS 11:2
Venus, as the one who having received her love returns it, then the play at
the end evacuates the specificity of the "you," dislodging him from his
historical and grammatical positions and placing us in the circuitry that
the play establishes between the two characters.
Given this rerouting, what then are the conditions hindering "Miss
Saartjie Baartman's" affective survival? Two things immediately come forth
as candidates. Obviously, there is the question of asymmetrical power
relations concerning gender, race, ethnicity, and class; there is also a sense
that she has been made into an object to satisfy the ends of a competitive
subject epistemically, politically, economically, and socially. In the case of
the former, we have found a counter-response to the tendency to "flatten"
these relations in Mbembe's concept of "conviviality," and in the latter, we
have transnational feminism's wary regard of the idea that one person's
"ends," their (political, economic, and so on) security, must be sought in
another's insecurity.
This notion of survival and security returns me finally to what conjoins the
three texts that I have examined. One thing we find without much difficulty
when taking these texts together is that the aims of transnational feminist
activism include seeking justice for women by cross-culturally undertaking
social-justice work, a project in which I would include the realm of the
aesthetic. This justice work might best be conceived as involving "ethical
geographies" that are themselves informed by "a transnational sense of
moral responsibility" for the excluded (Ong 2006,21). In some versions of
transnational feminism, especially those having to do with diasporic and
borderland configurations, the relations of dominance that make for
exclusion organize feminist scholars', activists', and artists' understandings
of what we could call, to borrow from and to modify Arjun Appadurai's
terms, feminist "bioscapes" and "ethnoscapes" (Appadurai 1996) of women
that "highlight... the tensions between irregular and fluid shapes of
population flows and communities of imagination that cut across [static and]
conventional political and social boundaries" (Ong 1999, io-ii). This tension
between flow and stasis can be seen to function in the exemplary case of Sara
Baartman, insofar as she is represented in these African-American feminist
writers' texts, despite their seeming concern with the local, as an ineluctably
transnational figure who urges us to historicize and interpret her as such.
These texts also provide a critique of power that is concerned above all
with a biopolitics that concentrates its attention on that body of power
from which bare life is excluded. As I read them, the implications of these
texts for an African-American feminist transnationalism that wants both
to analyze and to engage the axiomatics of our time, most notably those of
neoliberalism, can be sought in Agamben's concept of the "homo sacer," or
sacred man, who represents a type of "inclusive exclusion." It is this
"inclusive exclusion" that sovereign power uses to constitute itself (for
example, it excludes whole groups of individuals from "political commu-
nity," while including others), even as these excluded groups "remain
internal and crucial to the construction of [late capitalist] society and
economy" (Hansen and Stepputat 2005,17)."' The internality of the
excluded, as a social as well as rhetorical catachresis, becomes a site for the
immanent critique of the inclusive exclusion of the historical Baartman
under imperial capitalism and of African-American women under neolib-
eralism. Analyzing the similar structural negativity, in the critical as well
as social senses of the term, of these subjects calls for a method that, if the
African-American transnational feminist critic is wise enough to deploy it,
reveals the contradictions of these social and economic orthodoxies in
order to use these sightings of contradiction as possibilities for emancipa-
tion. If we find anything in these literary depictions of Baartman that is
worth our sustained attention, when it comes to the relations between the
aesthetic and the political, it is their shared notion that nothing is trans-
parent, that there is dominationa domination, however, that has not
been without aesthetic or social counter.
I. Chandra Mohanty's account and analysis of transnational feminism have been
especially useful to the ways in which I frame African-American transnational
feminism; it is notable for its antiracism, and as Mohanty states, it is "an-
chored in decolonization and committed to an anticapitalist critique"
(Mohanty 2003, 3). Similarly, Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way
indicate that transnationalism as a category of analysis: "belongs to genealo-
gies of anti-imperial and decolonizing thought, ranging from anticolonial
Marxism to subaltern studies to Third World feminism and feminisms of
color. Transnationalism has been a diverse, contested, cross-disciplinary
intellectual movement that in some of its manifestations has been bound
together by a particular insight: in place of a long and deeply embedded
modernist tradition of taking the nation as the framework within which one
can study things (literatures, histories, and so forth), the nation itself has to
232 MERIDIANS 11:2
be a questionnot untrue and therefore trivial, but an ideology that changes
over time, and whose precise elaboration at any point has profound effects on
wars, economies, cultures, the movements of people, and relations of
domination" (Briggs, McCormick, and Way 2008, 628).
2. This work seeks to extend some of the theorization on Sara Baartman by
African-American feminists such as Collins 1990; hooks 1992; O'Grady
1992/1994; Hammonds 1997; Sharpley-Whiting 1999; Hobson 2005; and Sharpe
2010. My contribution to this body of literature is to bring forth the theoretical
implications, for black feminist transnationalism, of a strategic formation of
texts in which Baartman is featured as a proper name.
3. My aim in quoting Jameson is to make apparent the construction of an ideal
citizen-subject for a given economic order. However, one would need to
question Jameson's universalizing and his ignoring such matters as the
concurrent consolidation of enslaved and colonized subjects alongside the
"free" subjects of nineteenth-century capitalism. For a similar critique of
Jameson's suppression of multiplicity and difference, see Ahmad 1992.
4. Dialogism is in essence antagonistic; for instance, within a shared code, classes
struggle against and oppose each other. An example of this would be the uses of
the concept or code of "liberty" by the conservative eighteenth-century politician
Edmund Burke and by the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine.
5. See Fredric Jameson's distinction between characters and subjects (Jameson
6. In the English imperial model, mercantilist and manufacturing interests
worked along with those of the landed elite to transform plantation labor
relations such that colonies, particularly those formerly dependent on the
slave trade, became sites not only for the production of raw goods, but also had
the potential to become new markets for British manufacturers. Abolishing
the slave trade and slavery was seen as a way to create these new markets. See
Bunn 1980. For more on this in the latter part of the eighteenth century, see
Magubane 2001, 828-29. Interestingly, Olaudah Equiano's humanitarian,
antislavery text of 1788 calls for a similar opening of markets in Africa, an act
that in one fell swoop both would resolve the "poor black problem" in England
by means of transporting them to Africa to become consumers and carriers of
civilization to indigenous Africans and would work toward getting rid of the
market in slaves (Equiano 1788/1995,193-96).
7. Sadiah Qureshi notes a similar claim to kinship in the African-American artist
Lyle Ashton Harris's discussion of his photograph, Venus Hottentot 2000. About
his collaboration with the African-American artist Rene Cox, he states, "This
reclaiming of the image of the Hottentot Venus is a way of exploring my own
psychic identification with the image at the level of spectacle. I am playing
with what it means to be an African diasporic artist producing and selling
work in a culture that is by and large narcissistically mired in the debasement
and objectification of blackness. And yet, I see my work less as a didactic
critique and more as an interrogation of the ambivalence around the body"
(Harris 1996,150; quoted in Qureshi 2004, 249-50). Responding to this
statement, Qureshi pointedly adds, "The emphasis upon identifying with
Baartman as an ancestral self and her treatment as representative of the
negativity of modern depictions of black sexuality is typical of her modern
politicization" (250).
8. I would suggest that poetically Alexander attempts to do for Baartman what
the novelist Alice Walker did in the 1970s for the then relatively obscure
novelist of the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston, whom she claimed as a literary
foremother. See Walker 1975/1983.
9. See Moten 2003 for a complication, through an analysis of Frederick Doug-
lass's Aunt Hester, of Marx's ventriloquization of the commodity as it speaks
about its value.
10. Warner 2008 provides a transnationalist reading of the repatriation and
interment of Baartman's remains.
11. For more on the trial and on the question of whether Baartman consented to
her public exhibition, see Abrahams 1996 and Sharpe 2010.
12. The most notable criticisms along these lines are Fusco 1995; Young 1997; and
Garrett 2002.
13. The notion of "inclusive exclusivity" to which Hansen and Stepputat refer and
that I conjoin with Agamben's concept of "bare life" allows for a complicated
analysis of marginalized lives. It answers, in part, Ong's objection to what she
sees as Agamben's "universal division of humanity into those with rights and
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