Skin Deep: Josephine Baker and the Colonial fetish

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Anne Anlin Cheng

Professor of English and the Center for African American Studies

Princeton University

Forthcoming in Camera Obscura (2008)

Skin Deep:

Josephine Baker and the Colonial fetish

In his 1898 essay “The Principle of Cladding, ” Adolf Loos, one of the founding fathers of modern architecture and a Viennese contemporary of Sigmund Freud, attributes the foundation of architecture not to solid material, as might be expected, but to mobile surfaces: fabric, even skin. He writes:

In the beginning was cladding [Bekleidung] …. The covering is the oldest

architectural detail. Originally it was made out of animal skins or textile

products. This meaning of the word [Decke] is still known today in the German

languages. Then the covering had to be put up somewhere if it were to afford enough shelter…Thus the walls were added….

Cladding is even older than structure.i

In this account, walls are of secondary concern and really come into being as an after-

thought. We might say that, for Loos, structure stands as the material embodiment of ghostlier demarcations.

Loos’s emphasis on architecture’s reputedly archaic origin will, however, prove to be something of a paradox for him. He will spend a great part of his career renouncing this connection. In much of his writings, he exhibits a profound aversion for any architectural gesture that would recall elements of the so-called “primitive”. In his other most well-known essay, pithily entitled “Ornament and Crime” (1908), Loos categorically rejects the notion of architectural details and coverings, vehemently labeling such preference as useless, pathological, degenerate, even criminal, comparing them to “the [childish and amoral] tattoos of the Papuan.”ii According to Loos, as “men” mature and evolve, they must also learn to relinquish the regressive pleasures of ornamentation. The march of progress is thus equated with the suppression and erasure of erotic material excess, deemed to be the exclusive and natural domains of sexual and savage primitives, such as “negroes, Arabs, rural peasants,” and, of course, “women and children.”iii This essay will become a foundational text in the development of modern architectural theory, providing the basis for a long trajectory of Modernist preoccupation with the idea of clean surfaces, culminating in Le Corbusier’s imperative call for the coat of whitewash, codified in his Law of Ripolin.iv For Loos and Le Corbusier, the ideal of architectural purity – defined as specifically the liberation from “primitive” and “feminine” inclinations – is inextricably bound to the twin ideals of culture and civilization. This version of architectural anthropology bears clear resemblance to Freud’s notion of human development and its conflation between ontogeny and phylogeny.v For Freud, Loos, and Le Corbusier half a generation later, “man” becomes civilized –and his surroundings modernized-- by renouncing primitive proclivities.

At the same time, Loos could never fully relinquish his fascination for what he saw as architecture’s originary drives. Even as he denigrates “primitive” tastes, he nonetheless also insists that architecture memorialize its original function as precisely a “primitive” cover and shelter: what José Quetglas calls Loos’s faith in an “architecture of the womb.”vi It would not surprise the reader then that the corpus of Loos’s architectural projects exhibits a kind of “splitting.” While his buildings are known for their sparse and anonymous facades, the interiors often reveal a shamelessly extravagant penchant for the sensual delights of textile coverings, hangings, and other extraneous details. There are, for example, the completely fur and silk-lined walls, floor, and ceiling of the bedroom he designed for his wife and himself. There we find the subject encased in a uterine dream of inverted animal skin.vii

It would almost be an understatement then to say that the “primitive object” constitutes both a source of intense attraction and acute allergy for Loos’s architectural bodies. This kind of ambivalence is, of course, profoundly characteristic of the discursive practice of Primitivism – and, for that matter, of Modernism and psychoanalysis. Some of the most exciting work done on the legacies of psychoanalysis has well demonstrated the entangled relationship between the inception of psychoanalysis and European colonial desire.viii What I want to point out here is that at the imbricated conjunction of colonialism, modernity, and psychoanalysis, we are also seeing a very peculiar vision of the human body and its exterior containment. Precisely at the culmination of decades of the systematic objectification of the racial “other” and after a century of fascination with classification and difference born out of Darwin and Gobineau, imaginations about the European body are paradoxically becoming increasingly mediated and haunted. For Freud, the formation of the ego will become more and more indebted to, and vexed by, a history of digested and undigested bodies. (The Freudian “ego,” after all, is never a solitary affair.) And for Loos, the very idea of structure itself embodies architecture’s internal ambivalence about the enterprise of delineating bodies. By deferring the priority of structure to an anterior vision of architecture as an enactment of skin-upon-the-skin, Loos simultaneously replaces and displaces the exterior integument of the “modern man.”

We are, in other words, in the terrain of fetishism in both the anthropological and psychological registers. The racial fetish, metonomized as animal or Papuan skin in Loos’s work, provides the pivot on which Modernist aesthetic values turn: essence versus veneer, plainness versus excess, utility versus waste, taste versus vulgarity. The staging of this racial fetish and its subsequent production of style, however, as I will suggest in what follows, will also produce a profound anxiety about the discrete otherness of objects that will continue to haunt both colonial discourse and its corrective, that is, contemporary liberal rhetoric. In spite of our moral certitude about the harms of the racial fetish, this notion remains a germane problem today, a persistence that says as much about the endurance of discrimination as about the limitations of the social cures fashioned to combat that prejudice. Racial fetishism, a phenomenon rooted in Western colonial history and its Primitivist imagination, continues to inform contemporary American racial dynamics in various ways, from egregious racial stereotyping in legal and popular commodity cultures alike to the different though equally troubling effects of identity politics whereby the assertion of an affirmative political or social identity so often seems to re-assert the stereotype it was meant to rectify in the first place. (Think, for example, of the “Model Minority” as an antidote to the “Yellow Peril” or the “Black Venus” as a corrective to the “Venus Hottentot.”) The truth is there exists a vexingly fine line between stereotype as a negative reductionist image and type as a positive category through which marginalized individuals or groups are refigured and recognized. The two terms exist more as a continuum than a mutually exclusive polarity, and the “performance” of either invariably carries with it all the ambiguities of that range. This is why the perceived antinomy between fetishism and authenticity is so frustrating because it fails to understand that the two forms of identification inevitably reproduce one another.

Moreover, when we re-introduce the sexual and psychoanalytic contexts back into this by-now colloquial term “racial fetish,” we begin to see how what we piously dismiss

not only still lingers but also registers a profound ambivalence in the very processes of confronting seemingly inassimilable difference, be it in the name of discrimination or affirmation. The often noted intersection between race and sex (and between racism and sexism) at the site/sight of fetishistic desire may not be as apparent as we believe. As we shall see, fetishism as a structure of psychical management originally outlined by Freud was neither stable nor wholly successful; it designates a mode of negotiating difference that in fact engenders rather than resolves the crisis of differentiation. As such -- that is, as a psychical structure that signals, rather than averts, the contagion between the known and the unknown, the material and the imagined, the visible and the invisible – fetishism may signal more than a symptom of colonial desire; it may in fact index a set of tenacious problems underlying what it means to “value” someone or something. If fetishism is meant to provide a smooth cover over the unsightly gap of unsightly difference, then what exactly are the (racial, sexual, and national) terms making up the “covers” and the “lacks” in the cross-cultural exchange between the European modern body and its others?

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