‘Anarchic Vision’: Ocular Constructions of Race and the Challenge of Ethics

Dorota Glowacka


Figure 1: Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card)1


What happens when the look is returned – when black people own the look and startle whites into knowledge of their whiteness? 

— Ann E. Kaplan 2

The impetus for the following discussion is an incident that occurred a few years ago, when I was teaching basic English at one of the community colleges in Toronto. Desperate for ideas to encourage my students to write, I put up huge pieces of colour cardboard on the classroom wall and asked them to jot down associations they had with particular colours. The first colours I used were orange and red, and the class enjoyed bringing up images of warmth, violence, and vitality. Next, just for a change of tone, I thumb-tacked the colour black; only then, in the split second between hanging up the board and turning around to face my students, did I suddenly become aware of the colour politics in that classroom. About half my students were black, many of them immigrants with poor knowledge of English. It was a moment of brutal epiphany, compounded with a shock at my own lack of foresight. I had no choice but to deal with the lapse in my ethical vigilance; I initiated a discussion about the ideological connotations of blackness, based on excerpts from the movie Malcolm, but my feeling of unease persisted. The haunting memory of that discomfort has pervaded my work, including the following reflections on the possibility of an encounter between bell hooks, a black cultural critic who, by her own admission, argues from the oppositional space on the margin of the mainstream culture, and Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher who speaks from the position of white male privilege.3 The urgency of this inquiry also derives from my uncertainty as to how I should situate myself in that very discourse as a woman and a recent immigrant to Canada from Eastern Europe. I am not a visible minority, but I often contemplate my ‘audible’ difference, the caesura of my hyphenated Canadian identity, punctuated by my accent. And yet am I not also inexorably ‘sealed in my whiteness,’ to use Frantz Fanon’s phrase?

Vis-à-vis hooks’ text, if I substitute her ‘we,’ a strategic pronoun of inclusion that designates a community of black women, with ‘they,’ I perpetuate the ‘othering’ of the African-American other; yet if I use ‘one’ or similar circumventions, I neutralize her specific difference. As a white woman, I cannot include myself in hooks’ collective category, and I wish to respect the boundary she draws around her community of ‘black folk’. It is at the nexus of these ethical and linguistic perplexities that I would like to argue that Levinas’ ethics of absolute giving to the other can facilitate the dismantling of Western modernity’s visual constructions of race. At the same time, I will read hooks’ work as a necessary corrective to the proliferating theories of otherness that have proven insufficiently attentive to the multiplicity and specificity of racial, ethnic or sexual difference.4 Aware of poststructuralist critique of the Western privileging of vision and visuality, hooks has complained that these interventions do not account for those who have been rendered invisible and who, as a consequence, have striven for visibility on terms other than those accorded them by the mainstream culture.5

How we look, what we see, and how we are looked at is a central problematic for hooks, whether in her film criticism, in which she calls for radical black female spectatorship; her art criticism, where she advocates counter-hegemonic production and reception of visual arts; or in her commentaries on gender and race, in which she demonstrates that racist and sexist oppression is a function of how our identities are constituted in relation to being subjects and objects of gaze. Her insistence on the need to scrutinize the ways in which we see resonates in her recent writings, in which she has sought to formulate an ethics of love, intended to serve as a foundation for a sound, well functioning, and caring community.6 Since Western binary constructions of otherness, the articulation of whiteness and blackness in particular, have emerged within the economies of visuality and resulted in exclusionary practices within the discourse of truth and knowledge, hooks formulates her critique of racist culture as a challenge to these economies. While insisting on the understanding of race as a complex cultural formation rather than as a ‘visible truth’, she also struggles to reclaim the black woman’s visibility in the realm of representation, from which she has been erased through the practices of racism and sexism.

In her book American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender, Robyn Wiegman argues that visuality is the central aspect of Western knowledge that has contributed to the articulation of race and, subsequently, to the emergence of racialized discourse. The Western production of the African subject as sub-human is related to the epistemologies of vision which reduce that subject to an object and property through the logic of corporeal inscription. The perceived subordinate particularity of the other, such as skin color, hair texture, shape and size of lips, nose and buttocks, legitimates the visual paradigm within which only these characteristics are recognized. The conceptions of race which ground racist ideologies in North America are shaped by the adversarial topos of blackness and whiteness, thus establishing an epidermal hierarchy within which the dark racial body is unclean, evil and sexually perverse, while the white body subsists as the norm, the standard of purity, and the real and natural color of human skin.7 As colour becomes a signifier of differences between humans, the epidermal differentiations begin to apply also to those whose alleged differences are ‘deeper’ than skin, extending beyond the visible ‘truth’ of race. The rendering of the invisible visible by the racist discourse of ‘one drop of blood’ allows for a repressive stereotyping of those individuals whose difference escapes the eye at the first sight, and who might seek to evade the ‘truth’ of their racial belonging by ‘passing’.8

In a memorable episode of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe, a slave woman at the Sweet Home plantation, overhears the white schoolteacher’s lecturing his students and asking them to list in separate columns a black person’s animal and human characteristics:

He was talking to his pupils and I heard him say, ‘Which one are you doing?’ And one of the boys said, ‘Sethe’ . . .I heard him say, ‘No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right’. I commenced to walk backwards, didn’t even look behind me to find out where I was headed. When I bumped up against a tree my scalp was prickly (1988: 193).

This exercise in comparative anatomy is an act of cultural training during which the eye is taught how to see and what to see. To succeed, the schoolteacher must rely on the discourse of the body as the natural locus of difference. The classification of visible body parts enables the white racist viewer to relegate the African subject to an inferior place in the chain of being and, by the same token, to ascertain his own superiority. In Black Skin White Masks, Frantz Fanon describes a similar experience of bodily fragmentation perpetrated by the white man’s ‘burning’ gaze. When a white boy exclaims, ‘Look, a Negro! . . . Look at the nigger! Mama, a Negro!’ Fanon experiences it as an assault on his corporeal schema, which, as he says, instantly crumbles and gives way to a hierarchical, epidermal ordering that transforms him into a slave of his appearance (Fanon, 1967: 112). Fanon quotes from Sir Alan Burns treatise Colour Prejudice:

It [colour prejudice] is nothing more than the unreasoning hatred of one race for another, the contempt of the stronger and richer peoples for those whom they consider inferior to themselves, and the bitter resentment of those who are kept in subjection and so frequently insulted. As colour is the most obvious manifestation of race it has been made a criterion by which men are judged, irrespective of their social or educational attainments. (Fanon, 1967: 118)9

Fixed and objectified by ‘white eyes, the only real eyes’ (Fanon, 1967: 16), a black person is defined with respect to the hegemonic and allegedly autonomous standard of whiteness. Such an act of injurious misrecognition through epidermal ordering aims to annihilate the subjectivity, individuality, indeed, the inalienable right to be, of the person who finds himself within the purview of the racist gaze. It therefore cancels the ethical, as understood by Levinas.

Emmanuel Levinas speaks of ethics as moral responsibility for the well-being of another: ‘With the appearance of the human – and this is my entire philosophy – there is something more important than my life, and that is the life of the other’ (‘Paradox of Morality’). For Levinas, Western epistemology emphasizes self-knowledge and thus destroys the living relation with an existent. The episteme of the Enlightenment calls for the translucence of the other who is reduced to an object and absorbed by consciousness in the form of a concept. Yet Levinas insists that the other person’s alterity always exceeds what I can possibly know or understand about him or her, overflowing the boundaries of my world. The fact that the other always remains heterogeneous to the structures of consciousness commands respect for that irreducible otherness. Prior to viewing the other as a threat to my well-being or as an object intended for my use, I relate to the other on the ethical plane, allowing it to appear on its own terms, which may not at all correspond to mine. Indeed, for Levinas subjectivity itself is constituted through bearing witness to the existence of another, and it is constantly put into question by the force of that ethical obligation.

Levinas elucidates the paramount significance of light for the structure of ego cogito already in his early work, Time and the Other, first published in 1947. He writes: ‘Light is that through which something is other than myself, but already as if it came from me. The illuminated object is something one encounters, but from the very fact that it is illuminated, one encounters it as if it came from us’ (Levinas, 1987: 64). Self-reflexivity, specular recognition, is tantamount to the appropriation of existence by the same. According to Levinas, vision, which has structured the relation between self and other in the West, is synonymous with the arrogation of the other’s freedom. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes, ‘Inasmuch as the access to beings concerns vision, it dominates those beings, exercises a power over them’ (Levinas, 1961: 194). In ontology, phenomena are disclosed to the eye when they are illuminated within the horizon of Being. As Levinas explains in Existence and Existents, vision and light enable both sensible and intellectual apprehension of entities; subsequently, light is the condition of all beings because they only acquire meaning as phenomena in the visible sphere. Illumination discloses the world as the terrain available for exploration, making it possible for consciousness to appropriate external objects for the inward structures of cognition. Light makes it possible for ego cogito to synthesize the world as a totality of beings (Levinas, 2001). Vision seeks to remove alterity from its unique realm beyond essence and to transpose it into familiar concepts; it is an imperialist enterprise in which the other is seized to satiate the self’s appetite for knowledge. In Cathryn Vasseleu’s apt paraphrase, for Levinas, ‘lucidity of things and ideas is primarily the egoism of finding oneself in the light’ (Vasseleu, 1998: 78). Observation and the resulting comprehension reduce alterity to ‘whatness’, and as Levinas says in Otherwise Than Being, ‘The question what is put by him who looks…. The what is already wholly enveloped with being, has eyes only for being’ (Levinas, 1981: 24). The luminosity of being disperses the opacity that envelops and protects the other, enabling the self to reunite with the other, to penetrate its surfaces and consume it. At the same time, through maintaining the other as the object for contemplation, sight disallows proximity, which Levinas defines as the immediacy of the sensible through which the other affects me. In this luminous sphere, the existent’s infinity with respect to the totality of being reverts to immanence, as he ‘has a silhouette but has lost a face’ (Levinas, 1961: 44).

For Levinas, the face is the mark of the other’s transcendence; it exceeds his or her phenomenological existence and cannot be reduced to representation.10 The face is ‘an invitation to the fine risk of approach qua approach, to the exposure of one to the other’ (Levinas, 1981: 94); the face, therefore, does not really appear in perception as an amalgamation of facial features. It is ‘naked’, in the sense of being stripped of visual characteristics, and it cannot be disclosed or ‘seen’ because it signifies in itself, without becoming a content of consciousness. The meaning of the face, for Levinas, is then unrelated to the significations bestowed on a person by his or her situation at the conjunction of gender, race, class, and other possible social determinants. As he often repeats, the face escapes vision and therefore knowing; rather than showing itself, the face speaks, addressing me as its interlocutor. On the plane of the ethical relation, where my orientation toward the other is founded upon unreciprocal generosity, gaze loses its avidity, and the disclosure of beings is not primordial because it presupposes the exigency of justice. In this way, ethics is refractory with respect to totalizing and objectifying vision, and it bestows on me a ‘vision’ bereft of images that absorb the other’s alterity, an ethical vision which, for Levinas, is synonymous with ethical speech. The ethical essence of language is an attitude of listening, a responsiveness to the voice through which the other expresses his or her needs. Saying, the ethical condition of speech, is the fact of my response-ability, my readiness to answer before the face, opening up the ethical relation which has been blocked by the look.

Despite Levinas’ denigration of the gaze, the provenance of the ‘face’ as a rhetorical figure is visual, even if he constantly transmutes it into speech. The ambiguity of the visual in Levinasian ethics is also indicated in his oft repeated phrase, ‘Il me regarde‘: the fact that the other is always my primary concern, prior to the solicitude for my own well-being, means that ‘[c]ontrary to Gyges who sees without being seen, here I am seen without seeing’ (Levinas: 2000, 196). In the ethical relation, the other cannot be reduced to the status of the object in which he is ‘illumined by my alien light’ but instead ‘shines forth with his own light and speaks for himself (Levinas, 1961:14). Contrary to the conditions of visibility that guide the Western man’s ways of seeing, a being that is not placed within the sphere of my light can present itself and begin to signify on its own terms. Analogously to his description of the face, Levinas says, ‘[t]he eyes [of the other] break through the mask – the language of the eyes, impossible to dissemble. The eye does not shine – it speaks’ (1961: 199). In this evocative sentence, to the Western metaphors that equate vision with knowledge, of which Descartes’ ‘mind’s eye’ is most notorious, Levinas juxtaposes an unusual metaphor of the other’s ‘speaking eye’.

In Otherwise Than Being, the work that focuses on the formation of subjectivity in the ethical relation, Levinas resorts to another syncretic figure of speech. When substituting for the other to the point of assuming the onus of the other’s deeds, a responsible self is constituted as ‘the listening eye’. This displacement of the eye through the use of a mixed, even monstrous and definitely unaccustomed synecdoche serves to evict the I from the site it occupies under the sun, from its panopticonic position of knowledge.11 It also establishes the primacy of Saying, which underlies the Said in which the other is thematized. In disclosure – where identities are illuminated – the other manifests its visible surface to sight; its radical alterity, however, remains impenetrable to the eye, and it perseveres in the sphere of visibility only in the form of a non-phenomenal trace which disturbs my tranquility and certitude. Although the other is always subjected to the questioning look that reassembles and synchronizes, its alterity has already receded into diachrony that cannot be recuperated in representation. The tension apparent in Levinas’ discussion of the face – its trembling between the visual reference and the Judaic prohibition of sight – exposes the fault lines in the construction of the Western ocular regime since the radical invisibility of the other, i.e. my inability to seize her in representation, is no longer predicated on the economy of what can be seen or discovered by the master’s eye.

Significantly, bell hooks often describes her project as ‘resisting representation’,12 with its concomitant task of constructing ‘oppositional gaze.’ In Black Looks, she contends that ‘We experience our collective crisis as African-American people within the realm of the image’ (hooks: 1992); to address this crisis, it is necessary to learn how to look at blackness with ‘new eyes’. hooks writes from the perspective of someone who, from childhood, has ‘struggled to break from the impositions of images that don’t represent me accurately or well. Even though this is a drag, it too is part of the struggle, part of the process of decolonization’ (1998: 1). hooks often recalls her personal experience of ‘the look’ as a strategy of white domination: she relates it to the experience of slavery, when white slave owners punished slaves for looking. Within racist power relations, black people have been denied the right to gaze, which, through the mechanisms of interiorized racism, has adversely affected black parenting; hooks recalls how, as a child, she was punished for hard confrontational looking by the adults in her family. Recognizing that the basic right to look is crucial for self-affirmation and a sense of subjective agency, she wants to reclaim the look for the black woman and transform it into both a tool of personal resistance and a means to forge a communal, perhaps trans-racial space in which ‘mutual gazing’ would be possible. With this in mind, she criticizes the paucity of critical thinking about visual politics in African-American articulations of black experience, which she mostly attributes to African-Americans’ loyalty to the idea of black solidarity. She advocates that a powerful arena in which this lack should be redressed is art practice, which, as in the case of abstract expressionist art such as Norman Lewis’, need not necessarily be overtly political art. African-Americans’ struggle for freedom from racist oppression necessitates affirmation of creative expression – of freedom in the sphere of visual arts.13

If, as hooks tirelessly argues, domination and oppression are exerted through the control of images and their production, black liberation must be carried out as a project of decolonizing black imagination, as a battle over images, and a disturbance in the realm of representation. hooks’ call for oppositional black aesthetics is therefore an ethical call to action: black people who do not make a critical intervention into the regimes of visuality that enforce racism are themselves held accountable for the erasure of black voices. Art validates black experience and allows for the deconstruction of racist images of blackness and whiteness. Likewise, writing on black art, which forces the presence of marginalized black artists into public consciousness, is an act of critical resistance that can lead to changes within existing visual politics. At this point, I would like to focus on two examples of artwork by African-American female artists, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, whom hooks often references for their ability to ‘challenge folks who think that by merely looking they can see’ (1995: 36). At the same time, since I have also found these two works particularly compelling, I would like to reflect on my own ways of looking at them.

Fig. 2: Lorna Simpson, ‘The Waterbearer’, Courtesy: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Fig. 3: Carrie Mae Weems, ‘Mirror/Mirror’

The first image is Simpson’s ‘The Waterbearer’ (fig. 2). For hooks, this photograph poetically documents the life of a woman who has not be allowed to tell her story. As a result, she has chosen to turn her back on those who would not hear her and to create an alternate space of testimony: ‘Simpson’s work offers us bodies that bear witness,’ which convey the sense of ‘the impossibility to name accurately that which has been distorted, erased, altered to suit the needs of others’ (hooks, 1995: 100). The woman in the photograph refuses to return the viewer’s look and instead she looks into a space where the viewer cannot trespass. For hooks, this image has the power to force the African-American gaze to register beyond surface appearances and to transport it ‘beyond the colonizing gaze’ (hooks, 1992: 39). While learning from hooks why it is crucial to undo the coercive images imposed by the white colonizer, I believe that, for me, it is imperative to ask: why, as a white woman, am I riveted to this image, enraptured and intimidated at the same time by the grace and stillness of this figure? Is it because the striking, sensuous whiteness of the woman’s dress and the gift of water pouring out of the jugs baptize me into the awareness that I need to respect the space and the silence of this stranger who prohibits me to stare her down? The whiteness of the robe confronts my whiteness in unexpected ways, as a blank – and now starkly visible – surface that resists my objectifying inscription and makes me aware of the absolute impenetrability of this image. The invisibility of the stranger’s face evokes the inviolable singularity of her look: I can never see what she sees, I cannot appropriate her gaze, see with her eyes. The territory perused by her look is hidden from the light that illuminates my world, inaccessible to exploration. The white tunic deflects my look and allows the woman to gather her beauty into herself, although at the same time the image offers me a gift of being able to touch the surface of her skin with my eye and to trace her silhouette; perhaps it is a promise of seeing ‘otherwise’. Against the dark background, the image brings out a different light, which, in Levinas’ words, ‘is not thematic but resounds for the eye that listens with a resonance unique in its kind, a resonance of silence’ (1981: 30).

The next work I will address is Carrie Mae Weems’ ‘Mirror/Mirror’ (fig. 3), from the controversial series of images entitled Ain’t Joking (1986-1987), in which the artist referenced white supremacist iconography in an attempt to exorcize the power of racist ways of looking. hooks argues that Weems challenges ‘conventional perceptions created by our attachment to fixed ways of looking that lead to blind spots’ (1996: 175). Similarly to Fanon’s experience of disindividuation in the confrontation with the white gaze, the mirror that a black woman looks into becomes the locus of misrecognition and self-alienation. Instead of self-reflection and positive self-identification, the surface of the mirror only registers a radical disjunction between the viewer and her image, like a slash in the title ‘Mirror/Mirror’.14 The image also exposes the fact that the mirror and its reflective surface are false in the first place: at a closer look, one notices that it is only a frame that the black woman is holding.15 hooks comments that this work forces her to interrogate her own notions of beauty; in a racist society, the image that the mirror throws back at a black woman is a white face that immobilizes her in the standards of beauty with which she cannot identify. The mechanisms of both black and white females’ socialization into white supremacist ways of thinking are evoked by a reference to a popular fairy tale. As hooks explains, for a black woman, the color politics of the white supremacist society, as symbolized in the chromatic juxtapositions in this photograph, can only yield an aesthetics that ‘wound[s] us, beauty that hurts’ (hooks, 1990: 112). Yet, once again, how is the white female viewer to situate herself vis-à-vis this powerful and incredibly disturbing image? The woman’s naked shoulder conveys the sense of vulnerability to the penetrating white look, while, subtly, her straightened-out hair is indicative of her interiorization of the white standard of beauty. It is hard and uncomfortable to acknowledge complicity with the hateful gaze from the mirror, so frigidly staring down a black woman. If, as hooks says, the black viewer is confronted with her own, socially imposed, desire to conform to the white norm, the white viewer feels suddenly insecure in her own sense of beauty and self-worth, evicted from the aesthetic comfort zone by the uncanny encounter with what she is forced to recognize as her own reflection. In effect, the white viewer is displaced from her privileged position in front of the mirror and thrown back into her white skin that now contrasts unfavourably with the luminous skin of a black woman. In front of this image, the white viewer is forced to question her ‘natural’ right to look, suddenly uncertain who indeed does the looking; in hooks’ words, ‘the colonizing gaze shifts itself’. Provoked by the figure that holds in front of me the mirror of my prejudice, in front of an image that demonstrates such resilience to appropriation, I have to react; to paraphrase Levinas again, ‘I do not contemplate a face, I respond to it (1961, 88): the epiphany of the face becomes an invitation to speak. Interestingly, when Carrie Mae Weems’ work was exhibited at the Dalhousie University Art Gallery in Halifax several years ago, it was the local black community that protested against it, resulting in student sit-ins in the art gallery and a political crisis at the university. Although the purview of this paper does not allow me to delve into the far-reaching implications of this incident, it indeed indicates a need to examine the ethico-political dimension of the supposedly neutral space of the white cube of the gallery.16

In her film criticism hooks often observes that ‘[o]ur eyes grow accustomed to images that reflect nothing of ourselves’ (1992: 125) and can only produce disaffection. In the era of mass media consumption of black images, the critical look must also confront and subvert the commodification of blackness and the seduction of simulacral visibility, in which unique cultural and historical signification of black experience is compromised: visibility itself does not guarantee that the images are inherently progressive. In her essay ‘Eating the Other,’ hooks is concerned about the recent fashion, especially in the field of advertising, for dark ethnic bodies – which she sees as the cannibalization of the other that, while compensating for their previous invisibility, reduces them to an atavistic fantasy and spectacle (hooks, 1992: 21-39). The overexposure of black bodies, as in the case of popular hip-hop video clips, can lead to further stereotyping, thus reproducing the old forms of racist oppression. She also cautions against covert negative inscriptions of blackness; for example, she draws attention to the representations of black death in popular films such as The Bodyguard or Crooklyn, which unwittingly reinforce the valorization of black death as worthless and undeserving of grief (undated: 3). Even the recent representativeness of ‘black’ film makers and their productions is by no means unproblematic: forcing one individual to speak on behalf of an entire marginalized group only entrenches the perceived marginality of that group.

hooks refuses constructions of race in terms of black authenticity since they ignore the fact that blackness is a culturally determined, ideological construct. Mockingly asking that ‘the real black person please stand up’ (hooks: 1992, 13), she calls for rewriting of the metaphors of blackness and whiteness beyond a mere inversion of stereotypes, as in the practices of black nationalism and the dominant black aesthetics founded upon the slogan of ‘black is beautiful.’ She is even more suspicious of attempts to erase color differences in the name of common humanity, as proposed by the different shades of political liberalism, since they covertly naturalize whiteness.17 By contrast, in hooks’ idiom, ‘blackness’ is deployed strategically as a marker of everyday black experience rather than as an essentializing signifier of victimization and invisibility. In her critical analyses, ‘blackness’ is a fluid, open category that becomes synonymous both with the experience of exile, pain, and struggle and, in an affirmative sense, with freedom and emancipatory ethos that disrupts the status quo. As she says in her essay ‘The Aesthetics of Blackness,’ identifying oneself as black means both being the subject of racist abuse and being part of the culture that has struggled against such abuse (hooks, 1990: 103-13). hooks’ lyrical childhood memoir Bone Black is punctuated with a refrain ‘Black is a woman’s color’, which transforms blackness into the color of her everyday experience as well as her feminine jouissance. Whenever she writes in her journal, blackness is the space she creates with her words and which she enters as her own, intimate territory: ‘This is my home. The dark, bone black inner cave where I am making a world for myself’ (hooks, 1996: 183). At the same time, ‘whiteness’ is suspected to be white supremacists’ fantasy that they represent a superior standard to black people. After all, in her childhood memories of growing up in a segregated South, hooks can only associate whiteness with terror and with faces staring her down in hate. She recalls, in her memoirWounds of Passion, ‘Whiteness is always on the other side of the tracks. When white bodies cross the tracks, when they enter those dark dense spaces of blackness, it is always only a warning, a sign of danger. When blackness stretches itself across town, beyond the tracks, it is always and only to serve – a sign of submission’ (hooks, 1997: 46).18

In the context of hooks’ radical rewriting of the sedimented, racially motivated connotations of blackness and whiteness, it is interesting to note that Levinas sometimes refers to the ethical way of looking otherwise than within the horizon of being as black or nocturnal vision (the practice in which he is probably indebted to his life-long friend Maurice Blanchot), offering a fascinating transvaluation of the received notions of darkness and light. For Levinas, the darkness of the night connotes the state of absolute dispossession that is prior to the claim of belonging, while light allows us to appropriate entities. Although this intervention into received connotations of darkness and light, with their concomitant associations of black and white, may not be revolutionary, one should note Levinas’ effort to articulate blackness other than in terms of the negation of light, that is, outside the binary logic of the dominant of vision and its corresponding axiological systems. On the other hand, it also reveals a need to engage in critical thinking about social significations of whiteness and the way it still remains a neutral and therefore essentialist category.

Considering the oppressive, racist legacy of whiteness, it is debatable whether any kind of reclamation of whiteness as an affirmative, ethical category, analogous to hooks’ revisioning of ‘blackness,’ is possible or desirable at all. With her usual perspicuity, hooks cautions against the recent attempts by white academics to substitute oppressive whiteness by ‘a newly reclaimed, radical whiteness portrayed as liberatory’. For hooks, such endeavors hardly change the fact that whiteness remains the starting point for any revisioning of race relations, a comment I take to heart when engaging with literature, art and critical theory by African-American writers and artists (1996: 173). Suffice it to say, hooks’ work poignantly exposes the dearth of critical thinking about whiteness. Interventions such as Adrian Piper’s performances, at the intersection of race and gender, especially her ‘Mythical Being’ series in which she cross-dresses as a white male, serve as reactants that suddenly make visible the fictionally constructed nature of whiteness. In a very different way, and on the other side of the racial divide, so do controversial video clips and now a feature film 8 Mile by a white rapper Eminem (Marshall Mathers).

hooks insists on the urgent task of critically intervening into the cultural production of the color hierarchy which has entrenched white privilege. She argues, for instance, that the pattern of white people offering privileges to light-skinned black people has been mirrored in black social relations as the black envy of light-skinned black females. Considering that, as hooks painfully reminds us, the light skin in racially mixed people is often the heritage of rape of black women by white masters – the colour caste system is the legacy of abominable racial and sexist violence (2001: 32-54). The skin color hierarchies are covertly reinforced in popular culture, Hollywood productions in particular, even in those that openly advocate acceptance of interracial dialogue and relationships. Some memorable examples include the opening sequence in Spike Lee’s The Jungle Fever, which shows a group of black women comparing their skin shades, or more recently, a light-skinned Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning performance in Monster Ball. As hooks cautions, since racist valorizations of skin have been largely internalized by black people themselves, there is an increased need to forge black viewers’ ‘ontological resistance to the white gaze’ (1998: 1) and to reinvent skin outside the constricting politics of epidermalization. That is why, akin to her re-imagining of blackness, hooks evokes skin poetically, as ‘a dark room, a space of shadows,’ no longer a mere surface of racist inscription but an inhabitable, sensuous sphere of self-affirmation. Within the racist visual politics, human skin serves as the index of difference which facilitates hierarchies of worth accorded to human beings by those in the position of domination. The perception of skin as colour-coded according to an established value system corresponds to hierarchical ordering within the space of visibility. hooks’ poetic locutions seek to reclaim skin from injurious, visual metaphors and to relocate it to the region of both sensibility and ethics.

Skin is the border that separates me from the strangers within the space we inhabit together. In that sense, it is a protective layer that safeguards the boundaries of my inner territory. Skin is also a sensitive membrane, a vulnerable organ through which I come into contact with others and which is immediately affected by their actions. Skin is therefore never entirely my own since I experience it as an envelope that protects me and makes possible the contact with the outside world only in the context of encounters with others. Skin is the site of the pleasure and enjoyment I derive from being with others, but it also makes me susceptible to violence and pain. Indeed, skin often bears the indelible marks of traumatic encounters: a recurrent image in Beloved is the scar tissue in the shape of a cherry blossom tree on Sethe’s back, which is the literal inscription of violence on her body. In the novel In Another Place, Not Here, by Canadian-Caribbean writer Dionne Brand, Elizete, a black woman from the Caribbeans, struggles to free herself from the memories of the past when she had to work in the sugar cane field and suffered daily abuse at the hands of her husband. She is constantly thrown back into relieving the trauma by the sight of the thick scars on her shins (Brand, 1997). Incidentally, in both novels, the harbinger of the female protagonist’s change towards self-affirmation and the overcoming of trauma and shame is the moment when they let their lovers touch and caress the scars. Skin is therefore also the place of genuine human contact, and as hooks often recollects, the person who fostered and encouraged her interest in art was a white art teacher in her elementary school, who, unlike others who recoiled from contact with black skin, never hesitated to touch the children’s black hands.

Levinas locates skin in the area of sensibility and foregrounds it as the tender and sensitive area of exposure to the other. ‘To be in one’s skin is an extreme way of being affected’ (1981: 89). Having the other in my skin signifies therefore the constitution of subjectivity in the ethical relation. The fact that the ethical self is enveloped in its skin means that it is unable to escape responsibility. In making a gift of my own skin to another, my identity is constituted as bearing witness to his or her existence. Since skin allows the other to affect me, it is a corporeal locus of the ethical relation, a site where my responsibility to the other is enacted as proximity, although Levinasian ‘skin’ is by no means reducible to the physicality of the bodily envelope.19 Ethics is ‘exposedness of skin prior to my intention’, which causes me to turn myself inside out into ‘a concave without a convex’ (Levinas, 1981: 49). Within the sensible, the eye is also a living tissue, vulnerable and naked; as Levinas says in his essay ‘Language and Proximity,’ ‘the visible caresses the eye’ (1993: 118). Saying, the ethical essence of language, is likewise located in the sensible since it consists in ‘denuding oneself of one’s skin,’ in uncovering oneself and exposing the raw nerve endings to what affects me from the outside. To reiterate, in the ethical relation I am ‘skin’, vulnerable and susceptible to being affected by the other who, in turn, manifests itself to me as a face. At the same time, ‘[t]he skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute’ (Levinas,1961: 86).20 It is important to note that, in these skewed metaphors, always grounded in a synesthetic transformation of vision into voice and listening, light and visibility are opposed to vulnerability rather than to opacity or inscrutability.

Although Levinas consistently questions the privilege of sight, to say that he condemns looking in order to accord primacy to the ear would belie the emphasis he places on the sensible, which is experienced through all the senses, prior to the constitution of identity in consciousness. The stratum of sensibility is accessed in enjoyment, in the sphere of material existence and feelings, which is prior to the constitution of meaning, although it is my ability to be affected by others that allows for the parameters of my world to unfold from my sense experience. I prefer therefore to think of Levinas’ critique of vision as a powerful intervention into the ways sight has been constructed in the West rather than merely in terms of the prohibition of sight; as an idiosyncratic, even disturbing interruption of our customary ways of seeing. Like hooks’, his is a ‘critical look’ which forces me to recognize the other’s unique power, outside the symmetry of Hegelian ‘recognition’ in which the other, the not-I, is always returned to the same. Levinas’ insistence on the primacy of radical alterity, which challenges my right to be a master, shatters the hierarchical structures of dominant visual economies. I would argue that his attempt to shift the power of seeing from the side of a dispassionate observer, who absorbs the other in knowledge and decides his or her fate and place under the sun, to the pole of the other who always ‘regards me’, is a de-colonizing gesture of recognizing everyone’s inalienable right to look, and it opens up a realm where those who have been denied that right may emerge into visibility on their own terms: ‘[Ethics] also signifies the dawning of a manifestation in which it can indeed shine forth and show itself [when] its signifying is not exhausted in the effusion and the dissimulation of light’ (Levinas, 1981: 65). On the other hand, reading Levinas alongside hooks reveals that his critique of the hegemony of vision, although empowering the other and laying ground for the other to ‘talk back’, does not draw distinctions between different cultural significations of invisibility and therefore is still insufficient to truly bring those who want to be seen ‘otherwise’ into visibility.

In Yearning, hooks announces: ‘This is an intervention. I am writing to you. I am speaking from a place in the margins where I am different, where I see things differently. I am talking about what I see’ (1990: 152). hooks’ model of ethical accountability entails assuming responsibility for the ways we see the world. She argues for ‘situated’ looking, which is synonymous with an ethical and revolutionary ‘doing’, with an act of resistance which calls into question ‘the white male’s capacity to gaze, define, and know’ (hooks, 1992: 127). hooks’ re-visioning of aesthetics is a challenge to the dominant specular regime, a “talking back” that bears witness to black experience. Her own ‘oppositional gaze’ expresses yearning for positive visibility by those who have been airbrushed from Western metanarratives. Although the critical look offers images that disturb, even hurt, such as Weems’ work or films like Boys in the Hood, it is an ethical look, responsive to others and willing to take a risk. hooks herself has assumed that risk repeatedly, exposing herself to ostracism in white and black communities alike.

I have approached my topic with a strange sense of displacement from the texts I am writing about; yet, in different ways, both hooks and Levinas were telling me to confront my discomfort, to pay attention to this feeling. My initial anxiety has not subsided, but I do not feel uninvited into either text. I feel called forth to step into the space on the margin, the margin which hooks defines not as a place to which the victim of oppression has been relegated by the dominant culture, but as a site of radical, transformative openness and possibility (1990: 153). In this space I will have to begin to see ‘otherwise’, to look with a ‘listening eye’, always uncertain, yet still turned toward her or him who may not wish to return my look.

hooks and Levinas both speak from the position of their deep commitment to ethics, calling into question the disembodied subject of ethics and resisting essentializing discourses of identity politics. Although in very different ways, for both, ethics is an epidermal ethics that challenges Western epistemologies within which skin has been constructed as a sealed envelope that protects the boundaries of my ego, grafted on the hatred of the other’s skin. Both recognize the singularity and uniqueness of one’s skin, its irreducibility to epidermal stereotyping, whereby skin becomes the locus of welcoming openness, of non-appropriative contact, and the possibility of ethical speech. In this way, they attend to the singularity of the human other, insisting on the ethical need to engage with concrete, suffering human beings and to come to their aid. The fundamental notions of disinterestedness and gratuity in relations with others are indeed ‘the miracle of ethics before the light’ (Levinas, 1981: 44). I believe that Levinas’ ethics of responsibility for the other has the potential to shatter the mirror which, for centuries, has reflected the image of undisturbed white privilege; in this way, it enables the white viewer to appreciate and respect hooks’ project of reclaiming blackness. Engaging with hooks’ texts, on the other hand, reveals a striking insufficiency of an ethics that disallows the articulation of the multiplicity of differences along the axes of race, gender or class, indicating that Levinas’ ethics of absolute responsibility must be engaged in ways that respect not only the singularity and divinity of others but also their collective desire for visibility within the social fabric. The adversarial nature of the symbolic ‘face-to-face’ in Carrie Mae Weems’ mirror is a poignant reminder that racist ways of ‘looking’ can also infect the discourse of colour-neutral, “human” ethics. After all, when Levinas remarks that the best way to look at the face is not even to notice the color of his eyes (1981: 85), we can infer that he means one should not notice the color of his skin either. Perhaps only by bringing statements like that into relief through the lens of engaged cultural critique such as hooks’ can they begin to be read beyond their troubling innuendo of color-blindness and instead contribute to what Cornel West has called a race-transcending vision.21

To reinforce the importance of hooks’ ‘oppositional look,’ I would like to propose the term ‘anarchic vision’, to refer to the way of ethical looking with the ‘listening eye’. Levinas often makes references to the an-archy of that which falls outside being and thus refuses to be assembled in representation, while arche, the origin, is synonymous with sovereignty, self-possession and consciousness. Insofar as this anarchic, embodied vision intervenes into existing power relations as they operate on visible bodies, it has the potential to challenge the discourse of race predicated on an interpretation of vision that is collusive with those power relations. The anarchy of the face is an infinite, unpresentable difference, which correlates with the ‘light’ which is the face’s own proper signification.

It is my hope that the unexpected encounters such as the one above will help redraw the parameters of existing visual economies so as to inscribe them at the nexus of the ethical, in the Levinasian sense, and the political, in hooks’ understanding of the term, toward a political ethics founded upon a commitment to respect the other’s inviolable dignity. Levinas’ dictum that the supreme passivity of exposure to the other, which is responsibility for the free initiatives of the other (1981: 47), can then be re-translated in the above context as my accountability for racism inherent in the structures of the society and my responsibility not only for how I see the world but also for the ways those around me choose to see it.

I would like to thank Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems for their permission to reproduce images of their work in this publication.


1 Piper, A. My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerilla Performance for Dinners and Coctail Parties (1986 – 1990) (Berger, 1999: 135).

2 Kaplan, A.E. (1997) Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze. New York: Routledge, 4.

3 I am indebted to Ewa Plonowska-Ziarek, from the University of Notre Dame, for the initial encouragement to stage such an encounter.

4 As Plonowska-Ziarek forcefully argues in her book An Ethics of Dissensus, neither the discourse of politics, including the politics of radical democracy, nor the discourse of ethics can ‘disregard racial and sexed bodies as the location of the historical struggles’ (2001: 16). Against disembodied models of subjectivity, which she considers ethically insufficient and lacking in political viability, Plonowska-Ziarek develops an ‘ethos of becoming’, which is a non-theological, incarnated mode of resistance to disciplinary powers, a proleptic movement towards new, as yet unimaginable ethical configurations of the ways of being.

5 For a comprehensive overview of this debate see Martin Jay’s Downcast Eye: The Denigration of Vision in the Twentieth Century French Thought (1993)Berkeley: University of California Press.

6 hooks’ book All About Love is subtitled New Visions. (2002) New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. She writes: ‘Those of us who have already chosen to embrace a love ethics … know that when we let our light shine, we draw to us and are drawn by other bearers of light’ (101).

7 See Sander L. Gilman, ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature’. In Gates, H.L. (ed.) (1986) Race, Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 223-257. Based on the documentation related to the case of Sarah Bartmann, the Hottentot Venus, and the 19th century representations of prostitutes in both scientific discourse and literature and art, Gilman describes the mechanisms of constructing the black female body as an index of pathological sexuality.

8 Two famous literary examples are the protagonists of William Faulkner’s Light in August and Nora Larson’s Passing. Adrian Piper, a bi-racial artist who identifies herself as black, quoted in the epigraph of this paper, critically interrogates the phenomenon of passing, with the view to expose the constructed nature of skin colour.

9 Burns, A. (1948) Colour Prejudice. London, Allen and Unwin, 16.

10 For an excellent analysis of Levinas’ notion of the face, see Robbins, J. (1999) Altered Readings: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, especially Chapter IV, ‘Visage, Figure: Speech and Murder in Totality and Infinity‘. In her book, Robbins discusses Levinas’ ambivalent attitude toward the aesthetic and his foreclosure of the rhetorical and figurative dimension of speech.

11 Levinas certainly recognizes that Western sensibility is not used to such expressions, and therefore he cautions that ‘expression such as the eye that listens to the resonance of silence are not monstrosities, for they speak of the way one approaches the temporality of the true, and in temporality being deploys its essence’ (1981: 30).

12 For instance, ‘Resisting Representation’ is the subtitle of bell hooks’ book Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representation, London: Routledge, 1994.

13 The parameters of this paper do not allow me to discuss Levinas’ attitude toward art and aesthetics in general, which for the most part can be described as hostile and distrustful. Against such a view of Levinas’ notion of aesthetics, I have argued elsewhere that his discussion of aesthetics in the context of ethics opens up a possibility of an entirely different conception of art. See, for example, Glowacka, D. (2000) ‘Ethical Figures of Otherness: Jean-Luc Nancy’s Sublime Offering and Emmanuel Levinas’ Gift for the Other’, in Ziarek, K. & Deane S. (eds) Future Crossings: Literature Between Philosophy and Cultural Studies. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 168-90. See also Jill Robbins’ Altered Readings. In the context of my Levinasian engagement with hooks’ commentaries on art, I find the following statement by Levinas very helpful. In one of his rare commentaries on painting, in Existence and Existants, he says: ‘Paradoxical as it may seem, painting is a struggle with sight. Sight seeks to draw out of light beings integrated into a whole. To look is to be able to describe the curves, to sketch out wholes in which elements can be integrated, horizons in which the particular comes to appear by abdicating its particularity. In contemporary painting, things no longer count as elements in a universal order…. The particular stands out in the nakedness of its being’ (2001: 50).

14 Kobena Mercer refers to Weems’ Mirror/Mirror as a commentary on a (de)formative experience of the black subject’s mirror phase. In Mirrage, 29. For a critique of Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage in relation to recognition, see chapter ‘Vision and Recognition’ in Oliver, 2001.

15 I would like to thank Charmaine Wheatley for drawing my attention to this important detail.

16 For a detailed account of those telling events, see Susan Gibson Garvey, ‘Short Circuit: The Story of an Exhibition That Provoked Unforeseen Consequences.’ In Glowacka, D. & Boos, S. (eds) (2002)Between Ethics and Aesthetics: Crossing the Boundaries. Albany: SUNY Press, 275 – 92.

17 In the chapter ‘Seeing Race’ (2001), Oliver analyzes the rhetoric of the colour-blind society, which has supplanted notions of social justice based on the need for restitution (such as affirmative action initiatives). She argues that this rhetoric denies the social fact of race and its effects as well as the ‘white’ provenance of supposedly neutral categories such as ‘human’ or ‘American’. In a word, the call for colour-blindness is itself a symptom of racism.

18 For an interesting discussion of the phenomenology of skin in relation to Levinas’ ethics see Bernet, R. (2000) ‘Two Interpretations of the Vulnerability of the Skin’, in Bloechl, J. (ed.) (2000) The Face of the Other: Essays on the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. New York: Fordham University Press, 43-61.

19 Plonowska-Ziarek notes the similarity in Levinas’ and Irigaray’s attention to the intersection of embodiment and language, which ‘exposes the ambiguity inherent in the linguistic construction of the body’ (2001: 52). I would like to add that, in his reconstruction of skin as the locus of the ethical relation, Levinas’ metaphorization of this human organ, which nevertheless preserves its sensible and corporeal dimension, is reminiscent of Irigaray’s morphology of the female body, such as her famous articulation of the woman’s ‘two lips’ in This Sex Which Is Not One.

20 For the discussion of the Levinasian notion of the caress and its inflections in Luce Irigaray’s ethics of love, see, for instance, Oliver (2001), chapter ‘Toward a New Vision’, 191-216, and Chanter, T. (1995) Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Rewriting of the Philosophers. New York: Routledge.

21 See West, C. (1993) Race Matters. New York: Random House, and hooks, b. & West, C. (1991) Breaking the Bread. Toronto: Between the Lines.


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Dorota Glowacka is Associate Professor in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College, Halifax, Canada. She teaches courses in critical theory, feminist literature and Holocaust literature. Glowacka has published articles on American, French and Polish literature and on Holocaust literature and art in the context of contemporary philosophical debates on ethics and aesthetics. She is co-editor of Between Ethics and Aesthetic: Crossing the Boundaries (SUNY, 2000).