Reading and Feeling after Scenes of Subjection | Issue 27.1

Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks

It is important to remember that blackness is defined here in terms of social relationality rather than identity; thus blackness incorporates subjects normatively defined as black, the relations among blacks, whites, and others, and the practices that produce racial difference. Blackness marks a social relationship of dominance and abjection and potentially one of redress and emancipation; it is a contested figure at the very center of social struggle.
— Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (1997, 56 – 57)

For the 2016 meeting of the American Studies Association, we co-editors of this special issue convened a roundtable discussion entitled “Stealing Away: Black Embodiment and Shelter in Light of Scenes of Subjection.”1 We aimed to curate a public forum to discuss and engage the enduring brilliance of Saidiya Hartman’s groundbreaking work, Scenes of Subjection: Terror,  Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), whose twentieth anniversary inspired the roundtable as well as this publication, “Sentiment & Sentience.” The roundtable discussion was specifically organized around a series of visual provocations, offered in advance by participants, in order to index how Hartman’s work continues to inform scholarship across such fields as Performance Studies, Black Studies, Art History, and Black Feminist Theory. Framed by many of the central questions put forth in Scenes of Subjection, participants offered a range of objects for consideration, from Oliver Jackson’s 1986 painting later used as the book’s cover image, to the contemporary art of Martine Syms and her performance-art piece Notes on Gesture (2015) and David Hammons’ Blind Reality (1986), to single photographs from nineteenth-century archives such as the Edward L. Wilson’s 1884–85 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial exposition album and the Baker Exhibit (1898). The range of provocation discussed by participants grounded our conversation in the historical, aesthetic, and performative trajectories of the text. Following Scenes of Subjection, the visual offered a place to consider the complicated entanglements of racialized and gendered performances.

Scenes of Subjection’s publication marked a moment in which the language of blackness and performance entered our critical vocabularies anew. The interarticulation of the two continue to rearrange our theoretical, historical, and aesthetic relationship to the brutal continuities between bondage and freedom, and while freedom’s perpetual deferral is ever shifting and mutating to meet the contexts of anti-black violence, Scenes of Subjection remains a crucial interlocutor for those of us traversing these entanglements. At the same time, Hartman’s commitment to opacity, concealment, and the protection of those individuals she encounters in the archive enacts the work of dedication. This is doubled back upon us as scholars, who, following Hartman’s lead, are dedicated to a set of questions that often change in content but not form. In this extended line of dedication, we find the work of study and collective thinking as practices of perpetual return to not only those scenes in which subjection is actualized, but also to the corporeal and affective designations that make such scenes possible.

In this spirit, “Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance since Scenes of Subjection” emerges from a sense that those of us engaging the theoretical frameworks of blackness and performance, both inside and outside of performance studies, are developing new sets of questions around Hartman’s work and the larger genealogies of thought from which she both emerged and helped engender. This issue is simultaneously dedicated to a text that has shaped our intellectual trajectories and to a scholar whose work continues to forge a path through the unthinkable spaces of history, the archive, and the abyss. The collection of essays herein consider Scenes of Subjection in relation to blackness and performance as Hartman articulates both in the expanded field–as categories and practices that relish in the visible and opaque, spectacular and quotidian, sensorial and cerebral.

When Scenes of Subjection first saw the light of day in 1997, Performance Studies was working to expand its protocol in relation to its objects of study, thus developing a relationship to Black Studies and its attendant theoretical questions.2 One of the constitutive logics of performance has been its relationship to temporality – the ‘presentism’ of performance and its studies had been a topic of concern (and critique) within the field since its founding in 1979.3 At the heart of the discourses surrounding performance and its contested yet requisite presence is a concern over the discipline’s proper temporal ‘place’ in relation to other interdisciplinary fields. For one, a turn to the body as the main subject and object of study is a turn to what the body does in both its everyday and staged performances. This focus on the embodied practices of performance were aimed to also reconstitute the value of the ‘live’ as a modality of possible study and critique. In other words, the field’s intervention was also at once about demarcating liveness and presence as valuable contributions to interdisciplinary study writ large.

Scenes of Subjection opened up avenues for interdisciplinary scholars to reconsider the work of “liveness” in relation to the work of the historian herself, thus providing the condition of possibility to think of the clash between present and past, historian and historical event, and body and document (Haley 2017; Womack 2017). For one, encounters with the archive mandated a different kind of attention to performance. In light of this, how does one mobilize a notion of time in regards to the always already past-tenseness of archives and the once-live context of a given performance? (Roach 1996; Taylor 2003). In Hartman’s account we are offered an account of the relationship between blackness and performance that works against the grain of narrow logics of temporality itself.

For Hartman, blackness and performance meet in the proving grounds of slavery and its afterlives as an ongoing condition of black life prior to and after the non-event of emancipation, and the various consolidations of pain and pleasure that become enforced through liberal modes of attenuation (Cunningham 2017). Hartman’s work elaborates the contours of unease in which the past feels far too close to the present. This feeling of a temporal glitch is often performed in the ways Scenes gets described as an allegory of the present (Wilderson 2017). For example, Hartman’s phrase “afterlives of slavery” can be found in studies that trespass centuries, contexts, geographies, and scales. The modes of response that emerge from within such a structure of domination are generative precisely because they find resonances within contemporary scenes of black subjection and their subversions.

Hartman’s work embodies the exacting precision of what possibilities both emerge and actualize out of a method of ‘doing’ history through the excesses of archival work–looking to the moments and modalities where a nonrecuperative understanding of the black body might take form (Young 2017). Part and parcel of this work is a deep undertaking of the ways that Hartman allows us to think about how black modes of being are delimited by a series of historical permissions and prohibitions. This historical undertaking shapes Scenes of Subjection’s relationship to Performance Studies in that, for one, the work embodies critical debates and engagements with historiographical inquiry – most notably for us, the relationship between the historian and the complex presence of the historical subject in archival objects. This temporal confusion – between past and articulated present – is particularly generative in relation to performance. Hartman’s work dynamically accounts for the contested temporality of performance itself, as she enables an approach to time that enacts the past in the very present at hand.

Scenes of Subjection offers its readers a past that arrives at the very moment of what Performance Studies has called presence or “liveness.” Every live performance in Hartman’s account activates its approximate past, thus marking the simultaneous arrival and deferral of both past and present throughout the book. Hartman’s discussion of the whip and stealing away might embody the contemporaneous arrival/deferral of both past and present, as both come to suggest anticipatory gestures that are not rehearsals of the very scenes of subjection Hartman warns against, but are rather continually arriving at moments of slavery’s afterlives. In light of this particular temporal demarcation of performance, we read Scenes of Subjection as a series of anticipatory gestures. Approaching Hartman’s work as an anticipatory gesture activates and resists overwriting the proximity between historical and contemporary inquiry. The anticipatory gesture does not attempt to collapse the past with the present (or future), but rather aims to provide a method of possibility, a series of questions, a path to awareness that can serve as preparation. Thus, the anticipatory gestures throughout the book offer up the tenuous possibilities of past and present’s arrival/deferral as a constitutive logic of black performance and black corporeality.

As Hartman elucidates, the relationship between blackness and performance is mediated through sets of prohibitions and permissions that are grounded within liberal humanist frameworks.4 Because of this, any notion of black corporeality and its affective registers often escape and exceed the very performances through which they are rendered visible. The appearance and embodiment of blackness does not reveal a fixed, essential, or evidentiary ‘certainty’ of the black body, but rather folds back onto the stability of the category of performance itself. This insight is best articulated by Hartman’s assertion that “performances implicitly raise questions about the status of what is being performed–the power of whiteness or the black’s good time, a nonsensical slave song, or recollections of dislocation”(1997, 56). She goes on:

The “givenness” of blackness results from the brutal corporealization of the body and the fixation of its constituent parts as indexes of truth and racial meaning. The construction of black bodies as phobogenic objects estranged in a corporeal malediction and the apparent biological certainly of this malediction attest to the power of the performative to produce the very subject which it appears to express. (1997, 57–58)

The status of performance’s object is thrown into crisis at the same time as the performative produces the very subject it assumes to express. Hartman’s invocation of performance offers one example of how black corporeality operates in the wake of pain and pleasure’s insidious entanglements. For us, Hartman’s discussion of stealing away amidst the specter of the whip inaugurates this special issue’s engagement and extension of Hartman’s theorizations of blackness, performance, and embodiment.

The whip makes evident the transformation of an experience with violence into the always already present threat of violence under freedom. The whip “was not to be abandoned; rather, it was to be internalized,” this marking an emphasis on propriety, conscience, and policing as methods activated towards achieving corporeal normativity (Hartman 1997, 140). While the whip itself no longer physically registers its brutal imprints on black flesh itself, its power is primarily turned inward toward the affective registers that then discipline the flesh into proper methods of embodiment. This emphasis on discipline as a process of self-fashioning is always already an act of failure because black corporeality is always designed as outside the limits of the proper, conscience, and normativity.

While the whip’s power is turned inward as a disciplinary mechanism, the act of stealing away faces outward, toward the external possibilities of escape. The act of stealing away is a “play upon this originary act of theft that yields the possibilities of transport as one was literally and figuratively carried away by one’s desire” (Hartman 1997, 66). Stealing away figures as a “redemptive figuration...contravening the object status of chattel, transforming pleasure, and investing in the body as a site of sensual activity, sociality, and possibility, and last, redressing the pained body”(Hartman 1997, 66). Hartman takes care not to suggest that the body is somehow wholly recuperated from the pains enacted upon it, but rather suggests that sensuality, sociality, and possibility are modalities that might arise out of these practices. Though always abating the threat of capture and pain, stealing away manifests in a turn outward where feeling and being in one’s body is not entirely eradicated from the field of possibility. Stealing away was the physical activation of a fleshly lapse, where the sensorial apparatus of feeling motivates a recursiveness of one’s fugitive status (Brown 2017; Mameni 2017; Richardson 2017).

The whip and stealing away constitute two of many critical trajectories engendered by Hartman’s text, and the symbolic weight these examples have accumulated operate as a point of generative departure for the essays collected in this special issue. The dominative resonances of the whip and the practices of fugitive freedom that constitute stealing away are re-routed and re-contextualized to offer a contemporary range of scenes in each essay. Scenes of Subjection presents a set of problems and possibilities for our authors, the fault lines of which are reflected in whether the text is engaged as method or as content, as questions or as materials, as theory or as history. While some authors choose one of these lines of flight, others engage in the generativity that emerges out of blurring these dichotomies and their disciplinary mandates. The articles collected here reflect on Scenes of Subjection’s two decades of influence and indispensability, serving as yet another form of dedication that looks towards the future and readings still to come.


1. The panel included: Kemi Adeyemi (University of Washington, Seattle); Sampada Aranke (San Francisco Art Institute); Sarah Jane Cervenak (University of North Carolina, Greensboro); Nijah Cunningham (Princeton University); Nikolas Oscar Sparks (Duke University); and Autumn Womack (University of Pittsburgh). J. Kameron Carter (Duke University) and Jed Murr (University of Washington, Bothell) were scheduled to participate, but could not attend. While their brilliance and generosity were greatly missed, their respective contributions to ongoing conversations were fully felt.

2. We are not suggesting that Saidiya Hartman is the founder of black performance theory. Instead, we would suggest that Scenes of Subjection was published at a time when performance studies as a field was coming to terms with black performance. To this end, we think of Hartman as adjacent to such early theorists of black performance theory as Brenda Gottschild, E. Patrick Johnson, Coco Fusco, Eric Lott, and Joseph Roach.

3. It should be said here that the key texts detailed here as “Performance Studies texts” are in fact more suitably/comfortably legible in other disciplines. If genealogies, as we believe, are manufactured and made through practices of study that are aligned through sociality, then our version of Performance Studies is decidedly developed out of the contexts of our research as scholars whose works activate the intersection of Black Studies, Visual Culture, and Performance.

4. As editors of this special issue, we find it important to acknowledge the way that the term “flesh” circulates in the essays that appear here. Flesh as it is utilized by many of the authors is developed out of Hortense Spillers’ invocation of the term to describe a way of being prior to the consolidation of the body. While it is clear that Hartman adopts the term in Scenes of Subjection, we believe that the rate at which many of our authors use the term in their essays is indicative of a contemporary reading practice that deserves further consideration (Spillers 1987).



. Brown, Andrew. 2017. “Performing Blackness in the ‘Rainbow Nation’: Athi-Patra Ruga’s The Future White Women of Azania.” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 67–80.
. Cunningham, Nijah. 2017. “The Nonarrival of Black Freedom (c. 12.6.84).” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 112–120.
. Haley, Sarah. 2017. “This is Your Afterlife: Gender, Slavery, and Televisual Subjection.” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 35–44.
. Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
. Mameni, Sara. 2017. “Dermopolitics and the Erotics of the Muslin Body in Pain.” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 96–103.
. Richardson, Jared. 2017. “Black Organ and Optics: Gazing at Viscera in the Work of Doreen Garner.” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 81–95.
. Roach, Joseph. 1996. Cities of the Dead: Circus-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press.
. Spillers, Hortense J. 1987. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17 (Summer 1987): 65–81.
. Taylor, Diana. 2003. Archive and the Repertoire: Cultural Memory and Performance in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.
. Wilderson, Frank. 2017. “Reciprocity and Rape: Blackness and the Paradox of Sexual Violence.” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 104–111.
. Womack, Autumn. 2017. “Object Lesson(s).” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 59–66.
. Young, Olivia. 2017. “Retracing the Contours of Her Figure...Slippages Begin to Appear: Reckoningthe Limits of the Archive with Senam Okwudzeto’s Large Reclining Nude.” In Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance Since Scenes of Subjection, edited by Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 27 (1): 7–12.

Women & Performance