Catastrophe’s Glow: Euaffectics and the 21st Century African American Documentary Impulse

by Maurice Stevens

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This discussion takes up in cursory and opening ways a question of basic concern vis-à-vis contemporary African American filmic cultural production: how might we understand the contemporary documentary impulse that enlivens and undergirds much of contemporary African American film and visual cultural production in the United States? I have elsewhere suggested that the production of recuperative visions through documentary has played a crucial role in articulating an image of African American humanity in a social context built upon and reiterative of discourses of Black inhumanity.[1] That discussion was concerned with the costs associated with making claims on the recuperated Black humanity articulated in visual texts of the 1980s and 90s. More specifically, I worried that these costs (capitulating to deeply constrained performances of Blackness vis-à-vis sexuality, gender, and political perspective, for example) were not only unacceptable, but that they worked by simply posing a counter-narrative of Black subjectivity that was, at base, shaped by an imposition of whiteness. While such visual and identificatory strategies did offer a kind of bulwark against the crushing objecthood inherent to being a Blackskin subject in the United States, I argued that they offered few possibilities for what I called the trans(per)formance of subjectivity

The filmic practices I examine in this piece are practices born of the embodied technological and social possibilities (and constraints) of the present moment. While perhaps motivated by a similar basic desire—to recuperate an embodied Black humanity as a viable site of identification for the Black spectator and actor—these texts function in rather novel ways that I am here calling imaginal gesture. By way of conjuring one point of entry to this topic and invoking a terrain of representation and performance concerned with, and emergent from, historical and contemporary traumatic events, I have chosen three visual objects that in some way represent and/or respond to trauma at three different scales that are at once discreet and also entangled: the social, the communal, and the individual.

I have been arguing for some time now that trauma is not simply a term that describes catastrophic or overwhelming events, devastated bodies, ruined networks of connection, and/or crises of representation—though you will, of course, find its name being called and its explanatory power being hailed in such conversations. I think it crucial that we shift our understanding of trauma from imagining it as a descriptor, a concept describing particular kinds of events, to understanding it as actually making the subjects and the very subjectivity we often understand to inhabit sites and states of rupture. The form of critical trauma theory that I espouse, and that informs this discussion, insists that what is important at this juncture is not only what trauma sometimes describes, but what trauma does, what it makes, and how it functions as a biopolitical apparatus mediating affective intensities (the “glow” that often cleaves to, and then cleaves from, sites of catastrophe, or shock, or the simple ruination of the self), and justifying the material practices that take shape in its name. 

I wonder about how African American documentary practice engages moments of historical trauma in African American history in ways that produce affect communities by sculpting what are, in the end, shifting geographies of African American memory, forgetting, disavowal, and imagining. By affect communities, I do not mean to suggest groups of people who have the same feelings (although we in these communities often imagine others sharing our feelings by dint of shared identity or membership in the community we thus imagine). Instead, I want to offer the notion of the affect community as that community of subjects that emerge in the context of biopolitical apparatuses that offer an often constrained set of pathways for the mediation of intensity (in this case, subsequent to events named as “trauma” or “traumatic”). Members of an affect community imagine themselves to share feeling or sentiment and are brought into an arrangement of indirect identification with other members of the affect community. We fear together, we mourn together, we grieve together, even as our togetherness has been produced by concepts like trauma and all the sensations, ideas, and practices that cohere around it like steel shavings finding the poles of a magnetic field. 

I am not interested in old fights that ask, how does this representation, or that production of representational objects, transform mere representation into real action?; or, to what degree does this cultural object, as opposed to another, evoke or elicit a shift from passive spectatorship to activity? Although the acts of documenting and testifying have been so politically, ontologically, and even cosmologically important to and for African Americans, even at times a life-saving act, I am not going to name some authentic or inauthentic cultural practice.  I want, rather, to bring before us some cultural objects so we can wonder together about how we might understand their work and how we are worked by them, without positing a position for them, or fixing them to a particular location in relation to these binaries. 

Allow me to swerve again by sharing that I’m simply responding to what my work seems to be asking of me at this moment, by directing my attention to the ways our own hopeful desires and political stakes are complexly invoked to both make new, from the field of the possible, and to make anew the regimes that constrain us. 

But what does trauma have to do with African American visual production?

Let me start, then, with some documentary and documenting imaging practices that demonstrate two theoretical concepts increasingly important in my analysis of visual culture, and in my understanding of the biopolitical function of “trauma.”[2] The first, traumatic iconography, refers to the representation of socially and culturally troubling events. The second, photobiologics, pertains to how the logics of racial signification, of photographic “realism,” and of trauma, all function together, giving cultural notions the force of natural fact and thereby making difference an overdetermined sign of cultural incommensurability and absolute alterity. At base, traumatic iconography describes a mode of visual representation that seems to appear most vividly in the depiction of overwhelming events. The very essence of the traumatic event is the challenge it poses to representation—the finger it pokes in the eye of our remembering. Because its psychic enormity produces shifting lacunae in the field of representation, the traumatic event ripples outward, eliciting a degree of suspicion about the veracity of its representation. By virtue of having been traumatized, and bereft of adequate signifiers, the author of a trauma narrative is automatically unreliable. Such authors are objects of our disbelief. At once suspect and foreign, their pain cannot pass into representation easily or unscathed. Moreover, any visual representation of the overwhelming event or the suffering of its subjects is limited by the viewer’s capacity for identification. Thus, the image of an overwhelming event cannot provide indexical representations of its traumatic features; those bloating facts remain submerged amidst the murk, or buried beneath the wreckage of what’s now past, and worthy, therefore, of only cursory or sidelong examinations.[3] At the same time, the mere existence of the image as artifact disallows simple metaphoric or symbolic representation. The image of a traumatic event must, therefore, function as an icon; an artifact standing in for the event which itself eludes representation. Thus, without ceremony, traumatic iconography performs two kinds of important cultural work.

First, it functions to provide evidence for the occurrence of events whose immensity washes over our capacity for representation. The material devastation, the haunted eyes, the spectacle of mundane objects appearing in unimaginable scenes, all insist that something, indeed, happened, even while there remains an excess that writes/presses itself back onto the viewer. 

Traumatic iconography performs its second function by mediating our relationship with the materiality of events depicted in these images. The spectacular nature of what they depict alienates the viewer before the surge of the unbelievable. What is important here is that Katrina-related imaging practices (as one example), because indexical, carried, submerged within their depths, narratives supported by a force of truth floating at the surface of these images and indexed by the image content. Traumatic iconography ruled the imaging practices associated with catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina, and photobiologics gave their grammar a compelling force. 

All of this is in part to say that documentary making and what Janet Walker and Bhaskar Sarkar would frame as the apparatus of documentary testimony has been of deep importance in and for African Americans across the 21st century.[4] Documentary testimony has served as a mode of hosting memory and history when it has been systematically excluded from dominant historical narratives charting the experiences of proper citizen-subjects in the United States; as a corrective to the misrepresented histories of African American individuals and communities; as a call for recognition and to elicit response; and as a way to perform what is so deeply important for those who have been radically disalienated. At base, testimony allows us to simply and clearly and undeniably proclaim against the always already context of racial terror, against being objects of property, against being without will and possibility, except that granted by the very grammar that presses the Black out towards the constitutive edge—to proclaim against all that force, simply, that we are human, that we have stories, that we experience, that we have interiority, and that we suffer, even while, within the prison of the visual, within the territorialization of this scopic regime, Black does not.

I’d like to turn now to some wonderings that have been emergent for me as I extend these ways of questioning to three cultural objects I have come into contact with over the past few years that represent, in different but connected scales, framings of the dilemma faced by/in Blackness, and that do so through an engagement with trauma through imaginal gesture that is quite striking. Namely, Cee Lo Green’s Grammy nominated “Fuck You,” Kanye West’s short film and video “Runaway,” and a video object that lives on the web that is part of the genre called “R.I.P. Vids.”  

Released in August of 2010, Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” directed by Matt Stawski, jumped rapidly to national and international acclaim with an official release as “Forget You” in October. Early in 2011, “Forget You” won a Grammy award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. In his October 8th interview with the Guardian UK’s music correspondent Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Cee Lo Green identifies himself as a hater of R&B and goes on to suggest that on one hand his “semi-autobiographical” song features his own “I don’t care” attitude by saying “take me the way I am, or fuck you!” and on the other, that it’s really important to him that people know that he doesn’t care, something he describes as the song’s essential irony.[5]

I find myself interested in something else that feels a bit like irony that’s embedded, perhaps, in the song’s remastering as “Forget You,” a form that was both suitable for live performance at the Grammy Awards, and for Gwenneth Paltrow to sing on the wildly popular television show “Glee.” I find myself wondering at the kind of forgetting or screen remembering evident in the official video of “Forget You” and in the putting on of Green’s already displaced retort “Fuck Forget you!” by Paltrow.

The video opens, indeed announces itself, with an extra-diagetic drum roll and title text across a mid-range establishing shot of a coffee shop called “Cadillac Jack’s Diner.” Craning down from medium height and across the street toward the diner where three back-up singers await, the point of view stops around eye level, moves with and then past the beckoning trio and then cuts to the interior of the Diner where we are met with a young Cee Lo entering the space with his parents singing the opening lyrics of the song. Throughout the song, Cee Lo as the adult “Lady Killer,” and other characters, both singularly and at times together, lip-sync and sing the song that is both diegetic and extra-diegetic to the mise-en-scene of the video. This double-ness is emphasized by highly stylized text that sometimes identifies characters as “heart breakers” or “young Cee Lo Green,” and at other times functions as time stamps marking sections of the narrative as “the high school years,” “the college years,” and so on. In place of the ubiquitous video signature jump-cut, “Forget You” uses wipes, rapid pans across 180 degrees, lighting and mood changes, and temporal shifts. These techniques give one the sense that the narrative is unfolding in an imaginary space. The classic soul feel to the music, the lush color saturation, and the costuming of the performers convey the sense of the diner having a temporal tone of 60s Motown. 

As I watch the video, I very quickly find myself associating to usually grainy black and white photos and videos of 1960s diners that circulate in American popular culture with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the often violent struggles that played out in the process of integrating diners and colleges—not to mention the social protocol that resisted the display of conspicuous consumption among many African Americans. 

“Forget You,” displays all of these things. The diner appears to be an all Black space hosting working, middle, and upper middle class patrons. Cee Lo’s portrayal of the college student appearing to tutor one of the “heartbreakers” in Music History, calls to mind what it excludes as well. Namely, all the social activism that made attending many colleges possible for African-Americans, and the fact that Motown itself emerged as a necessity for the systematic production and distribution of music by African Americans under the auspices of a black owned production company. I read “Fuck Forget You” then, as the representation of an imaginary space of possibility that rests upon and that both requires and obscures, a forgetting of some of the more unsettling features of African American social life in the sixties. A disavowal that becomes possible, in part, because of the video’s intermingling of temporalities. “Fuck Forget You” makes an imaginal gesture that writes back onto the scale of the social, and into history, an alterity. 

Another work that I believe engages in a kind of deferral of unsettling realities through imaginal gesture is Kanye West’s 2010 short film “Runaway.” Here too, we are presented with a semi-autobiographical fictional account of the ups and downs of the artist’s career. In this narrative, following a comet strike, West discovers a wounded phoenix stranded in “our world.” After nursing her back to health and introducing her to humanity’s important features (innocence, rhythm, civility, sexuality, etc.), he brings her out into the world of his social circle. It is during this performance of the title track, this highly formal banquet scene, as Black elite are served by white women, and ballet dancers teeter off of syncopated rhythms into stationary statuesque poses, that we are presented with highly symbolic imagery and what West calls “Kubric and Falliniesque” camera angles.[6] This scene visually and sonically blends elements of high art alongside hip-hop, wind instruments amidst bass beats and main claps, and ballet and modern movement styles. While the film suggests West’s awareness of being consumed by his own career and the meanings others make of him, the very iconographic imagery the film relies upon to achieve its status as what he calls an “art film” chains its possibilities to a history and present from which West wishes to, but cannot, run away. From colonial pasts, to the cannibalism of the market, to the muscular strain that becomes difficult to sustain as a viewer in the film’s slow pan that binds the dancers in the motionless movement of stress positions, the spectator is continually pulled back into what the film wishes to screen but cannot: the global catastrophe of colonialism, enslavement, and their legacies.

Filmed in Prague and nearly spilling over with allusions to high and low art traditions, historical legacies, and popular cultural iconography, “Runaway” presents an imaginary that, like that presented in “Forget You,” is not supported by the historical materialities on which it is built. It is an imaginary space that feels like both a wish and an accomplishment, given the constraints demanded by the photobiologics of the scopic regime. 

Finally, I would like to turn to some work that has been brought to my attention by a PhD student in OSU’s Department of Dance, Mair Culbreth, who is undertaking a generative project that looks at how particular dance forms resist the ways in which cultural protocol are embodied through movement entrainment. She is particularly interested in thinking through performativity beyond discursive scales and how innovative dancers are informed by their own experience of the body in ways that produce material disidentifications within the context of everyday social relations. It was she who brought “turf dancing” to my attention.  I find these practices significant because they are being filmed and disseminated over the Internet and thereby enter the space of both ephemeral and archived visual cultural practice in the form of what are called “R.I.P. vids”—memorials not entirely unlike the graffiti pieces that are often produced as memorials. In this instance, however, there is a relatively spontaneous gathering to dance in a space where someone has died. Though not all TURF dancing is intended to memorialize someone, much of it does this work, and in as much as it is context for movement recuperation and even archival practice, it can also be understood as an ephemeral practice of memory management. For now, though, let’s reflect on a piece called “R.I.P. June.” I choose it because it also captures what, in this instance, is a kind of communal participation that is unusual in turf dancing intended as memorial. 


Does it make sense to consider “imaginal gestures” like “R.I.P. June,” to be doing something that Green’s visual production cannot, or can only partially do? Certainly, dancing in public spaces in ways that exhibit multiple movement traditions: pop-locking, stripper dancing, miming, mutation dancing, shaolin, transformers, American Jazz, and other forms of machinic movement—is not entirely novel; many of you will be familiar with krumping. But I wonder if the potential of interoceptive awareness to affect the world, to leave kinesthetic impressions on the social even while constrained within it, might not apply here in our engagement with this visual object. In moving in public spaces wherein their subjection is always almost complete, these young black men and women defy gravity, become machines that interact with and transform themselves, move in ways that sometimes unsettle gendered expectations, and reflect appropriated training in ballet and mime. Indeed, rather than covering over, or forgetting through screening, these dancers publically display, stage, and enable the momentary eruption of affect; and I wonder if this work in the public sphere calls to itself, if only for a few moments, a conversation of movement among the citizenry, an imaginal gesture, a movement alongside euaffective surveillance and control, that makes its own expression at the very heart of death, loss, and catastrophe’s luminescent glow. 

[1] Maurice Stevens, Troubling Beginnings: Trans(per)forming African-American History and Identity (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[2] Maurice Stevens, “From the Deluge: Traumatic Iconography and Emergent Visions of Nation in Katrina’s Wake,” Special Issue: Forum on Photography and Race, ed. Leigh Raiford and Elizabeth Abel, English Language Notes 44.2 (Fall/Winter 2006), 217-225.

[3] One is reminded of the process of checking damaged homes for bodies and the practice of painting a code on the exterior of the house indicating the number of bodies to be found inside. These were notoriously inaccurate, and New Orleans residents often return to their damaged homes to find, quite unexpectedly and horrifically, loved ones presumed escaped, lying beneath household debris or floated into unexpected corners of the home in unexpected bodily positions.  

[4] Bhaskar Sarkar and Janet Walker, Documentary Testimonies: Global Archives of Suffering (New York: Routeledge, 2009).


[6] See Kanye’s interview with MTV’s Sway, October 23, 2011.

Maurice Stevens is Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University and Adjunct Faculty in Depth Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. Stevens holds a Masters and Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness, and his research has explored the formation and representation of identity in and through visual culture and political performance. His current work focuses on critical trauma theory, popular cultural performance, affect, and embodiment.