In the Flesh

J. Marion Sims describes the first time he saw a vesicovaginal fistula as if he had been gazing at a captivating portrait. “Introducing the bent handle of a spoon, I saw everything, as no man had seen before,” writes the nineteenth-century physician in The Story of My Life (1894). “The vesicovaginal fistula was as plain as the nose on a man’s face. The edges were clear and well-defined […] and even the secretions from the neck could be seen as a tear glistening in the eye.” Almost absent from Sims’s text is the person from whose flesh his aesthetic reverie departs: an enslaved woman named Lucy (misidentified in his text as Betsey), whose body he held captive and experimented on, without the benefit of anesthesia. I say almost, however, because Sims has to simulate Lucy’s will power in order to make her disappear. “She willingly consented,” he writes, cloaking her tortured flesh into an aesthetically pleasing image that reflects back to him the future of his own fortunes.

In contrast, Doreen Garner’s artwork makes it impossible to separate the visceral from the ornamental. This is particularly true of Rack of Those Ravaged and Unconsenting (2017), a sculpture made of silicone, insulation foam, glass beads, fiberglass insulation, steel meat hooks, steel pins, and pearls, that featured prominently in White Man on a Pedestal, a co-exhibition with Kenya (Robinson) that staged a series of black feminist insurgencies in the “size, texture, and scale of white monumentality itself.” Garner’s subject throughout was the decorated status of Sims, whose own monument at the corner of 103rd Street and 5th Avenue in New York City still stood at the time of the exhibition. (It has since been removed.) Garner’s infusion of Sims’s gory practices into twenty-first century objects renders this history uncanny and palpable. Mass-produced materials, like the pearls and glass beads that can be found in a craft store, attract the eye only to then repel it as these same items take the form of exposed fat cells and muscle tissues. Hands, torsos, and breasts emerge, serrated and stitched together, from the smooth texture of the silicone one might browse in the aisles of a home improvement or sex toy store. The erotic, the commercial, and the macabre fold into and out of each other in Garner’s art, exposing the division between fascination and repulsion as an open wound.

As I walked around Rack of Those Ravaged and Unconsenting in the winter of 2017, as I felt pulled into and pushed away from looking at it, I sensed that Garner’s work does not just make vivid the grisly practices the plantation regime of the United States made possible and measured out in enslaved women’s lives, but also concerns the sanitization of those practices into the “profitable wonders” and popular memories of men like Sims. Indeed, her sculptural explorations of the traumatic underside of Sims’s reputation can disturb, not in spite of, but because there is no blood in them, because practices of repair become nearly indistinguishable from acts of violence. Both the gore and its sublimation, in other words, make up the twenty-first century’s violent inheritance.

Even though Sayak Valencia’s Gore Capitalism does not overlap with the periods, places, and practices I have described, her text has been helpful to me as I consider Garner’s art. Valencia’s book provides a remarkable vocabulary for anyone attempting to make sense of the new subjects and imaginaries that emerge from the entanglement of violence and value in capitalist postmodernity. Although Valencia’s book departs from capitalism’s transformations during the 1970s as they register in border spaces, I also wonder what the histories of profitable torture and bondage that Garner traces back to the nineteenth-century plantation clinic might contribute to a genealogy of twenty-first century gore capitalism. Such a genealogy would clearly raise the question of when precisely the body became an accumulation strategy, especially given that for surgeons like Sims, Nathan Bozeman, and W. H. Roberts (whose status Garner also addresses), the lives and labors of enslaved women constituted nothing less than capital in the flesh, living occasions for the cultivation of what, after Valencia, we might call “technologies of vicious meticulousness” (161). It would also raise the question of how else Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and “the three or four more” unnamed black women Sims repeatedly tortured might be recalled apart from the gore practices that pushed them “from the underground to the surface of [a] discourse” committed to transforming their pain into “the relief of suffering humanity.”

Garner’s art compels such questions and Valencia’s Gore Capitalism helps us understand their urgency as in part an effect of the contemporary problem of decorative violence. Instruments and memorabilia of violence, like an AK-47 transformed into a lamp whose sale benefits Doctors Without Borders, now regularly appear as consumable goods, she notes, and indicate the constraints on ethical imagination in the present. “Gore consumption and […] decorative violence expose that in the general consumerist imaginary, the sole way to demonstrate recognizable, praiseworthy, acceptable, and viable solidarity, empathy, critique, or resistance within gore capitalism is through consumption” (231). What does it mean in such a context to stay, as Rack does, with “the ‘flesh’ as a primary narrative” of the plantation clinic? To do so, as Garner says, might be to risk an indigestible realization that cannot be willed away—that gore practices of the nineteenth century make up not simply the decorated reputations of men like Sims, but also the more widely shared enclosures of ethical imagination that shape the present.

Alex Pittman

Alex Pittman is a term assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College. His book-in-progress, "Capital in the Flesh," examines the cultural politics of gender and embodiment in the work of black literary, visual, and performing artists as they grapple with transformations of labor and social reproduction since the mid-twentieth century. He has been a member of the Social Text editorial collective since 2015.