Engaging Questions of Embodiment

What associations does the following scene suggest to you?
[Framed by a night club stage] Marlene Dietrich emerges, all blonde hair and long pale limbs, from the interior of a gorilla costume. Stripping off first one hairy paw, then another, to reveal a pair of slim, white hands, Dietrich lifts off the ape's head, exchanges it for an ample platinum blonde Afro wig, and raises herself up out of the squat gorilla body. Dressed in a shiny black bodice, trimmed below the waist in arching plumes of boa, she sings a breathy rendition of "Hot Voodoo" against a primitivist setting of tropical foliage, African drums, and a leggy chorus line in black face.

One need not be a film critic to recognize that Dietrich's night club act conjures images of the dark continent and suggests associations of white femininity with black masculinity. Indeed, this scene from Joseph Sternberg's 1929 film Blonde Venus and similar celluloid images from the same era are frequently invoked by feminist critics who investigate cultural representations of gender and race.

Assistant Professor of English Eva Cherniavsky launches the prospectus for her new book project with the above description. Hot Voodoo: Race and the Cinematic Fetish will explore the image of the early Hollywood glamour girl as a cultural commodity. Through examinations of classic Hollywood films such as Blonde Venus, Gilda, and the two film versions of Imitation of Life, Cherniavsky explores the ways in which the sexualized spectacle of the white female star's body suggests animality and excess--traits analogically associated with racial stereotypes of blackness. Thus, Cherniavsky's study probes some of the most uncomfortable images in American experience by discussing how "the spectacle of the auction block haunts the scenes of U.S. commodity culture." Her thoughtful, and at times tentative, explanation of the project reveals a complex and multi-layered argument. Indeed, as we talk, she seems to test her own formulations for unanticipated nuances--examining the connections, looking for other facets of the premise.

Hot Voodoo will combine perspectives drawn from psychoanalysis, feminist critiques of culture and literature, and Marxist and postcolonialist theory. Cherniavsky explains that "the main critical axis of the project will be to consider how commodity culture furnishes an arena where ‘whiteness' becomes legible as a racial identity, and, more particularly, [where] white femininity becomes legible as a racialized sexuality." That is, Cherniavsky interrogates the concept of whiteness as a racial identity that historically has not been racially marked. Rather, whiteness has been the norm against which racial difference is measured. Hot Voodoo discusses the ways in which the hypersexualized body of the female film star complies with the Anglo-American racial norm while simultaneously suggesting otherness associated with racial stereotypes of animality and lawlessness. Cherniavsky argues that while Hollywood films of the 1930s and '40s--especially the film noir genre-- impute a racial taint to promiscuous femininity, they also put the whiteness of female stars on display.

Cherniavsky notes that her latest project grew out of questions about gender, sexuality, and race that she had necessarily left unarticulated in her first book, That Pale Mother Rising: Sentimental Discourses and the Imitation of Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century America. Cherniavsky says, "I think that's what second books frequently are--everything you didn't get to talk about in the first book." That Pale Mother Rising explores the relationship of white motherhood to African American motherhood as depicted in nineteenth-century American literature ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Nineteenth-century images of motherhood are often associated with sentimental fiction, a body of work that has received academic attention over the last few decades as a result of feminist scholars' efforts to estab-lish a female literary tradition. While the concept of motherhood has been and continues to be central to much feminist analysis, the issues surrounding maternity have raised some particularly vexing questions for feminists in the 1990s. Cherniavsky notes that "the bourgeois maternal body has been left curiously intact by current academic feminist critical discourses." At the same time, she continues, "contemporary debates on abortion, surrogacy, and naturalized motherhood pervade late twentieth-century U.S. culture, exerting a dominance that demands--continues to demand--a reckoning."

Cherniavsky observes that maternal identity as represented in the discourses of sentimentalism is remarkably "stylized, exaggerated, and overwrought." While white, bourgeois motherhood is the dominant embodiment of the maternal ideal in nineteenth-century American literary texts, it is not, asserts Cherniavsky, "the only register for the representation of the reproductive body in this period." Thus, her first book reads images of white motherhood in light of the commodified reproduction associated with African American maternity. The project explores African American motherhood as a process of production wherein both the mothers' and their children's bodies are juridically determined material capital. This idea led Cherniavsky to think of motherhood as a "racialized" concept that may entail either a less-than-human (i.e., the slave mother) or a culturally mythologized maternal (i.e., the white, bourgeois mother) body. A postscript to That Pale Mother Rising examines contemporary reproductive discourse on surrogacy and in vitro fertilization within a discussion of virtual motherhood as represented in William Gibson's cult science fiction novel Neuromancer.

It may seem odd that an English professor should explore texts as diverse as nineteenth-century American literary classics, old movies, and modern science fiction novels. However, over the past twenty or thirty years literacy scholars have become increasingly interested in the various interfaces of literary and popular culture. Investigations of how literary production relates to other forms of cultural production are valuable, revealing, and essential. Indeed, ahistorical analyses that remove literary texts from the cultural milieu in which they were produced now seem dubious at best.

But that was not always the case. In the 1940s and '50s, "New Criticism" defined an approach to literary analysis that effectively denied the importance of anything but the words on the page. This approach understood the literary text as a kind of object to be studied in itself. Over the last few decades, the New Critical approach has been resolved from a variety of different perspectives. Once it was acknowledged that literature was embedded in culture, it began to seem artificial to focus scholarly inquiry purely on literary texts. Consequently, the movement away from New Criticism encouraged scholars to consider the relationship of canonical texts to popular print culture--everything from broadsides to films--and to apply more multidisciplinary methodologies to the texts they study. Such an approach also allows researchers to explore connections between the literary text and the visual image.

Cherniavsky notes that she teaches a good deal of popular culture, which includes the examination of articles on sexuality in the popular press and discussions of images of gender and race as they are portrayed on television. She holds an adjunct appointment in Cultural Studies and recently taught a sophmore-level course titled "Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Culture" through the Women's Studies program. Asked about the Lilly Library's acquisition of Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts, Cherniavsky comments that she frequently examines Star Trek episodes. Of particular interest is the episode in which the android science officer, Data, has (or more accurately, constructs) a child. Cherniavsky says her students, attuned as they are to media culture, "are very smart in their readings of visual images."

One might think Professor Cherniavsky's high-powered, high-tech, theoretical approaches to the texts she studies would make her somewhat inaccessible to her students. Yet, as one of her teaching assistants explains, that is certainly not the case "Professor Cherniavsky is very good at conveying complicated theoretical concepts in language that undergrads can comprehend. Perhaps more significantly, she demonstrates very lucidly ways in which theory can be applied to everyday life. She is a very dynamic and thoughtful lecturer." The same instructor goes on to observe that Cherniavsky has a "stellar" reputation among graduate students in her department: "everyone agrees that she is both an exceptionally talented and an exceptionally kind person."

Clearly, for Cherniavsky, engaging questions of embodiment means reaching beyond traditional scholarly and pedagogical strategies. Her inclusive approach to the essential concerns of race, gender, and sexuality speak directly to our present moment in which the texts of popular culture more universally than ever influence our understanding of our own humanity.

--Susan Moke