Licking, Race and Gender

whipped 11.1.09 [305]

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing George Lewis (Columbia University) speak at the NYU Department of Music. George is the author of an an award-winning book on the AACM and an inspiring composer and creative musician, and I always find myself thinking differently about things after hearing him. His presentation was titled “I’m Glad You Asked That Question”: In Search of Benjamin Patterson. He did find Benjamin Patterson, and on the way Lewis told stories about the way we tell stories—not just about who is in and who is out, but the different ways people are included in histories. Patterson, he said, is mentioned in many stories told by Fluxus artists but the official histories rarely address his work in a substantive manner…. He is hiding in plain sight. I’m afraid I instantly knew what he meant because at the start of the talk I thought I didn’t know anything by Ben Patterson, until Lewis mentioned his inclusion in the recent MoMA exhibition. In fact, I’d seen quite a few pictures, like these of the Variations for Double Bass (1964).

One of the pieces Lewis mentioned was ‘Licking Piece’, also from 1964. The instructions read, in part:

cover shapely female with whipped cream


Have a think about what you might expect to see given those instructions, and then have a look at this photo documentation and full instructions. Think before you peek.

Done that?

A number of thoughts spring to my mind, to do with gender, race, and interpreting scores. The instructions do not say that the ‘shapely female’ (what species?!) needs to be naked, but the woman in the documented performance is (or appears to be). Admittedly, the idea of licking cream off someone’s clothes is somehow yuckier than the sensual experience of licking cream off skin. Nor do the instructions say anything about who should be doing the licking. The picture appears to show men doing the cream spraying; presumably they did the licking too. For that matter, the instructions do not specifically say to lick the cream off the woman: it just says ‘lick’. Perhaps one could just lick one’s lips or have an ice-cream at that point. So, there’s a whole bunch of questions about how that score could be interpreted.

To be honest, my first reaction to the picture was to groan inwardly. What is so new about the objectification of a woman’s body? I mean, this is a bunch of men covering a naked woman with white goo: just the usual gendered power dynamic. Like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), it prompts thought about power relationships between the performers involved, between audience and performers (at least it does for me). Does it make a difference that Ono gave the first performance of Cut Piece sitting still while audience members took turns cutting pieces of cloth from of her clothes with scissors, whereas Patterson is not the one being creamed and licked? Is that a significant issue? While Ono did suggest that Cut Piece could be performed by a man interacting with the audience, Patterson doesn’t appear to have specified that possible variation which could alter the power dynamics. It would make for an interesting thought experiment though. In any case, this piece doesn’t seem as challenging a commentary on women’s bodies as, say, Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965).

Where this performance of ‘Licking Piece’ was socially radical was in its racial diversity, in the intersection of race and gender politics. The performance surely challenged racial mores, given that many states still had anti-miscegenation laws in place in 1964. New York, where the performance took place, seems never to have had anti-miscegenation laws, but that doesn’t mean that intimate interracial interactions were unremarkable (even in 2008, only 3.9% of all marriages in the US involved partners considered different races), and performers and audiences would hardly have been ignorant of the racial politics in the country as a whole.

Anti-miscegenation laws protected the idea of whiteness. Most states focused on marriage to those classified as white and didn’t proscribe marriage between people from the various groups classified as not-white. That the concern was with whiteness is also evident from considering the history of rape and lynching: the race of the alleged perpetrator and alleged victim mattered (and still does). Many black women slaves, like Harriet Jacobs, were raped by their white owners, with few, if any, repercussions for the white rapist, whereas long after slavery ended African American men were violently murdered, lynched, for alleged wrongs to white women. The tragic case of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered for offending a white woman shop proprietor in Mississippi, came to national attention in 1955, nine years before this performance. Even when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1957 there were still state laws governing interracial relationships. The 1963 March on Washington included a black father holding a banner for the Interracial Marriage Club of Washington, photographed with his two daughters (institutional access to the Black Studies Center ProQuest archive may be required to view), and stories on challenges to anti-miscegenation laws appeared regularly in newspapers. On Dec. 9, 1964, the Daily Defender ran an article describing miscegenation laws as ‘the touchiest issue in all the legal literature of civil rights.’ Florida’s law against interracial cohabitation had recently been struck down following the prosecution of a Honduran man and a white woman for ‘habitually . . . (occupying) in the nighttime the same room’; the finding ruled that their ‘Constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law had been abridged’. The same article mentions the case of Mildred Loving, a woman with African and Native American ancestors, and her white husband, Richard Perry Loving, who had begun their challenge to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1963. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision overturned the last of the US’s anti-miscegenation laws. So, it doesn’t seem to adequate to consider only the gender politics of this piece. A naked white woman consenting to be covered in whipped cream and licked by a racially-diverse group of men and that being able to happen without prosecution or backlash was certainly radical, and perhaps more radical in that particular combination of people than with reversed genders.

If performed today, I think ‘Licking Piece’ could still raise all sorts of questions about boundaries (personal and social/cultural), about the transformation of all the performers and their reflection on the decisions they make during the performance, and about power dynamics between performers and between performers and audience. Given that the first performance happened when the fight for equality for interracial couples was in the news, perhaps it’s time to reimagine this piece now that the fight for equality for same-sex couples is in the news. In 40 years perhaps someone will look at a picture of three men covering a naked man with cream and preparing to lick it off, and groan inwardly about the oh-so-boring politics of that image.

Update: For a fascinating analysis of a more recent gendered & raced interaction that points out that the ‘Little Helpless White Lady’ and ‘Big Ole Scary Black Man’ scripts are still with us, see Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ discussion (also posted on 27 Jan) of Governor Jan Brewer pointing her finger in the face of President Barack Obama: ‘A Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces’.

Photo credit: whipped 11.1.09 [305] by timlewisnm, on Flickr.

Performativity and Marginalization

An SF bridge at night

An SF bridge at night

It’s been just over a week since I got home from the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in San Francisco and I am well on the road to recovery from the plague that everyone caught. The trip was worth a feverish cold. I had a blast catching up with colleagues, meeting new people, hearing new ideas and fresh interpretations, and trying out my own (more about that in my next post). The fabulous Laurie Stras and I stayed in a hotel a short walk from the main venue, and passed by the Occupy San Francisco encampment at least twice a day. Friday night was a special treat, as I actually escaped from the small circuit between hotel and conference centre. The LGBT Study Group held an evening session in the Castro District—the area where Harvey Milk lived and worked and agitated—and Rachel Cowgill and I lucked out bumping into Byron Adams who not only knows the area well but also took us for an impromptu tour with sad stories, affectionate stories, and hilarious asides. The walk worked up an appetite which we satisfied with delicious fried egg sandwiches in a diner that had been there since Harvey Milk’s time.

The session was “Trans/gendering the Voice: Julia Serano in Conversation with Stephan Pennington”, and it was really stimulating. I am already rethinking the way I will teach the construction of gender on my return to the classroom. Many feminists will challenge gender dimorphism (the concept that there are only two genders and they have distinct body shapes) and gender essentialism (the idea that we are the way we are because of our body/sex—males are masculine, females are feminine, and we have no option but to behave the way we do) by raising examples of people who are intersex or transgender, but Serano pointed out that it’s dehumanizing to always/only be the exception that proves the rule. (I don’t remember if Serano mentioned this, but it’s often tokenistic, too, since people who are intersex and/or transgender are mentioned in that one class to make the basic point and then might be forgotten about for the rest of the course.) And it is basically lazy, since people who are cis-gender (that is, not transgender) are just as socially, culturally, medically, physically constructed. That point I am definitely taking on board.

Serano had a really interesting take on the slogan version of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Serano noted that the whole book often gets reduced to ‘gender is performance’, which then implies that gender is something one can put on and take off. Serano went on to note that she is the same person inside now that she was before she transitioned and thus Serano queried the idea that there is no core identity. I can see this problem: the over-simplified slogan can lead to the idea that gender is as straightforward as getting dressed in the morning. Performativity is different from performance. It is through performativity, through daily interaction with our gendered society, daily repetition of certain behaviours (which might include behaviors that flout social convention), that the very subject—my self, a thinking, feeling, acting agent, which I think is what Serano meant by core identity—comes into being. What’s more, according to Butler, we continue to come into being on a daily basis because we are never fixed. Not one of us stays the same through our entire lives, although the changes may be tiny and barely noticeable on a day to day scale. Our social system and our culture don’t remain static either, even if the changes are miniscule evolutions rather than revolutions. (Although sometimes there are revolutionary changes—civil rights, and the political-legal-social-cultural recognition of same sex unions, to take just two examples.) So, I need to do more thinking about this. I’m not quite ready to ditch performativity in the way I understood Butler to mean it. I will keep chewing this one over, though.

Alas, I didn’t manage to catch the whole session—not just because of the fried egg sandwich, there was also a long wait for transport down to Castro—but other snippets that came up after I arrived included the continuity of the voice—which ties in nicely with Serano’s core identity—and Pennington’s discussion of steps he takes to be perceived as non-threatening, such as wearing a bow tie, and stepping off the sidewalk when passing a woman he thinks might feel threatened by his presence. I was talking to a friend about that last one and it turns out he does it too and hadn’t even realized he did it. (Incidentally, that’s an example of gender performativity in the Butlerian sense—regular repetition of a gesture without necessarily knowing one does it at all.) I found myself wondering whether any other axes of difference intersect with that gendered action.

So, all in all, a very productive session which I’m clearly going to be thinking about for a long time yet. Thanks so much, Julia Serano and Stephan Pennington!

New Project and Big Questions

So, I have officially started work on Sex in the Early Modern City: Music and Eroticism in Rome, my Marie Curie fellowship project. I’m going to be working on this for the next three years, and it’s a completely brand new project. Exciting times! A new research project, a new website, a new blog, a new role, in new-to-me institutions and soon in a new-to-me city too.

For the next few years, I will be developing and answering questions that, in hindsight, I have been avoiding exploring or tentatively exploring for years–begun in my doctoral research, bobbing below the surface in my first publication (far below the surface, as they are not actually addressed in the article; it was a short piece and I was, frankly, too chicken to take them on, although they cropped up in private discussions while I was writing the piece), growing in my teaching (especially in my courses on Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Music, 1500-1800 and the interdisciplinary doctoral master class I developed on Body, Gender, Sexuality, and coming more to the fore in the book I am co-editing with Linda Carroll and Katherine McIver. These are questions like: was there such a thing as sexuality in the 16th and 17th century? If so, how did it work? If sexuality is constitutive of subjectivity, as Judith Butler argues it is for the present, then was it constitutive of early modern subjectivity? (And what does that look like, anyway?) What was the role of music in shaping sexuality (if/in whatever form(s) it existed) and subjectivity (if/in whatever form(s) it existed)? And my faculty sponsor at UCLA, Olivia Bloechl, pointed out my proposed work poses another one: how does music relate to the sexuality of a specific patron? The relationship of music to life is one of the central questions of music biography, although it is more often posed in relation to the composer rather than to the patron, performer or audience of a piece of music. So, it’s not exactly a new question, but it’s not one I had thought about in quite that way before.

There is a lot of work on the history of sexuality, and a good deal of it addresses 16th- and 17th-century Italy. Guido Ruggiero’s recent work on Machiavelli and his discussion of sexual consensus realities I find intriguing; that’s on my list. I recently joined the H-Hist-Sex discussion group and came across an upcoming book which will be high on my reading list when it’s published next month, Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History by Barry Reay and Kim Phillips. This will all help me engage with whether there was such a thing as sexuality in the past and if so, how did it work. Foucault thought sexuality as an institution was really a 19th and 20th century thing, but that has been called into question. Laura Macy’s article (which I love and use in some of my courses), “Speaking of Sex: Metaphor and Performance in the Italian Madrigal,” Journal of Musicology, 14/1 (1996): 1-34, is a great one for music students as it demonstrates that there certainly was a discourse around sex. (There’s plenty of work on the historical medical, juridical, and theological discourses of sex, as well as a thriving body of scholarship looking at sex in early modern literature, art and music.) One distinction often drawn is between acts and identities. Some people want to say there is a historical specificity to homosexuality (you know, those gays you get these days, well, they didn’t really exist back then; there were just same sex acts, and that’s different from homosexuality as a defining point of identity) and sometimes the same people then claim that heterosexuality, and perhaps especially the institution of heterosexual marriage is virtually unchanged (you know, it’s always been like that). There’s more at stake in that debate than how one represents history.

As for the relationship of music to a person’s life, Suzanne Cusick’s magnificent book Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court has a particularly wonderful chapter on Caccini’s Primo libro and subjectivity which shows one way to clear that disciplinary thorn bush. My UCC colleague Chris Morris recommended Martha Feldman’s Opera and Sovreignty: Transforming Myths in Eighteenth Century Italy, and Olivia suggested Judith Tick’s Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music. Also, it could be that music patronage was a way to deal with the public image as anything else, and in fact there was a public dimension to sex at the time: people didn’t have the same levels of privacy we expect now, and communities could be involved in attempting to regulate an individual’s sexual activity. So, perhaps that’s another possible avenue to consider.

I’m only just beginning to fully appreciate the relationship between self-fashioning and the birth of the modern subject. I’m looking forward to building my reading list for this; a quick scan of the UCLA library catalogue shows there’s no shortage of material. In terms of musicology, Susan McClary’s Modal Subjectivities: Self-fashioning in the Italian Madrigal is directly relevant. The subjectivities seemed quite modern and familiar to me and I wondered when I read it whether that is because they just were (early modern, after all, suggests a high degree of continuity)–well, that is the core of McClary’s argument, that the madrigal was grappling with modern subjectivity in the years before Descartes–or whether there were other subjectivities there that are less familiar and therefore harder to recognise somehow. Although on reflection, normally the unfamiliar stands out. But still, I need to think about that a lot more…..