BBHMM, Gender, Property, & Sound: part 2, bizarro pornotroping

This is part 2 of a too-longread piece on Rihanna’s BBHMM.


  1. Pornotroping & Property


This destabilization of cisbinary gender in general, and her character’s “sonic” gender identity is one of the main techniques BBHMM uses to reroute the relations that distribute property, private property, property in person, you know, money. This technique works because racialized cisbinary gender and private property are mutually implicative phenomena, produced by the same mechanisms and processes. Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe” is about the relationship between de-gendering and anti-black dehumanization, and how property relationships void kinship relationships. It’s easier to treat someone without a legible gender as property (rather than a person), both because gender is a key component of subjectivization (all subjects have a gender), and because gender is necessary for attributing kinship status (e.g., a mother’s status with respect to her child). Kinship relations and property relations are mutually exclusive–you generally can’t lawfully take a child away from its mother without her consent, for example–so eliminating someone’s kinship status is necessary to transforming a human being into chattel.


Alexander Weheliye reads this essay with an eye toward the way racialized sexual violence produces black women’s status in relation to private property by transforming their bodies into “flesh.” “Flesh” is Weheliye’s reinterpretation of what other philosophers call “bare life”; whereas bare life is generally understood to be something like absolute social death and exclusion, the flesh is ‘alive’ in a post-human register illegible to and as liberal humanism. “Flesh comes into view as a series of desubjectivations, which are always already subjectivations, that hail the slave and the spectator in order to engrave upon him or her the hypervisible yet also illegible heiroglyphics of the flesh” (110). The process of desubjectivizing black women produces, in its hypervisiblle legibility, white subjectivity; this same process, in its hypervisible illegibility, produces a queer existence below the threshold of what liberal humanism can perceive as subjectivity.

Weheliye takes up one of Spillers’ example of this process: “pornotroping,” which “names the becoming-flesh of the (black) body and forms a primary component in the processes by which human beings are converted into bare life” (91). The concept of pornotroping shows that the racialized sexual violence inflicted on black women’s bodies is constitutively paradoxical: the violence that dehumanizes her by un-gendering her (paradigmatically in the form of rape) also sexualizes her, and thus attributes a queerly gendered identity that’s not precisely human. Pornotroping’s paradoxical outcome–the ambiguous gender status of black women–is the effect of its paradoxical form: in “the simultaneous sexualization and brutalization of the (female) slave, yet–and this marks its complexity–it remains unclear whether the turn or deviation is toward violence or sexuality” (90). Think of it this way: all women experience racialized sexual violence. But there’s something particular to the racialized sexual violence black women experience that produces them as black, and thus both women and imperfectly feminine. That particular thing is this instability or paradox that Weheliye identifies, this turn or deviation, that’s the crux of pornotroping.

This turn or deviation is responsible for its hypervisible illegibility. Pornotoping is a type of racialized sexual violence produces both hypervisiblly “straight” pleasure, pleasure that subjectivizes white people as property-owners, and queer, illegible pleasure, pleasure that is perceptible only to and as flesh. Its “violent political domination activate[s] a surplus and excess of sexuality that simultaneously sustains and disfigures said brutality” (91). Pornotroping produces ‘queer’ or ‘deviant’ sexualities that, because they are embodied in the flesh and not conventionally ‘human’ bodies, transform pornotroping’s violence into something more and other than murderous brutality. “The continuum of ungendering that is unleashed by racial slavery’s violence/sexuality matrix (pornotroping)” (96), when understood and experienced as a sexual practice, could queer the very dominant institutions that set it loose. Thus, Weheliye argues, “the idea of pornotrpoing must also be understood as conceptually igniting the im/potential libidinal currents that slumber in all acts of political domination and as part and parcel of modern sexuality as such” (108). These “im/potential” currents are outside the range of ‘normal’ human perception–that’s why “bare life” is thought to be absolutely inert, immobile, and non-vibrant. “Her ungendered flesh and its attendant pornotroping…sets in motion the bare life that slumbers in the permanent state of exception, especially in the libidinal charge that accrues to the slave” (105). This ‘libidinal charge’ is the vibrancy of otherwise dead, immobile stuff, the immobile flesh that is the ground of vibrant bodies.

As a representational technique, pornotroping’s turn or deviation produces a shift in perceptual registers, and this shift illustrates the way liberal democracy’s inherent racialized sexual violence creates registers of existence beyond the human life/bare life dyad. For example, in the medium of film, when pronotroping depicts the violence of the law, it produces a turn or deviation from the juridical to the visual: “cinema enables the production of bare life as a politico-sexual form of life, wherein the remainder that is effected but cannot be contained by the legal order is disseminated in the visual realm” (98). In turn, when considered as a visual trope, pornotroping effects “the scopic deviation from violence toward sexuality” (103). Similarly, reading Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby…”, Weheliye notices that the violence that de-genders captive bodies is present in the historical accounts Spillers analyzes as sound. For example, in William Goodell’s study of the North American slave code, which Spillers cites, “Godell narates, ‘The smack of the whip is all day long in the ears of those who are on the plantation…’” (Weheliye 67). In depicting a scene of racialized sexual violence, the text turns or deviates from verbal propositions to sounds. Likewise, when the grain of the voice or “regionally accented expression, ‘I craves,’” is what makes “the white I, synonymous with Man” (111) intelligible, the rhythm of that “chant…lends quasi-decipherability to the heiroglyphics of the flesh” (111): timbre turns and deviates to rhythm. These are aesthetic representations of the turn/deviation, not actual instances of them. To the extent that they’re intelligible as a source of meaning or object of knowledge, to the extent they’re representable as “other” or knowable as “unknown,” they’re not habeas viscus. From the perspective of the subject and subjectivity, the “im/potential libidinal currents” that pronotroping’s turns and deviations produce don’t feel like desire (because desire, like sexuality, is an attribute of a subject).

The dysselection of the black subject as not-quite-human requires visible inscriptions on the flesh and in the field of vision…while, on the other hand, desire must remain invisible. The happening of desire takes place off the screen, off the map off the charts, off the books, which is what renders the symbols etched into and written by the flesh indecipherable to the extent that they do not appear as desire (111)

Pornotroping’s turn or deviation from violence to sexuality produces libidinal charges in registers that screens, maps, charts, and books are designed to obscure, desires “in the red,” to borrow Tricia Rose’s term for the hip hop aesthetic practice of pushing sounds (especially the gain) past the point of distortion. In this way, pornotroping is evidence that “bare life” isn’t an absolute state of privation, and that the flesh exists in the red. “What the pornotrope contributes to the theorization of modern sociopolitical subjectivity is its freeing and setting in motion of the viscous deviances–the detours, digressions, and shortcuts that authorize violence as a vital layer in the attires of modern sovereignty–that lay dormant in bare life and social death” (112).

Weheliye’s point is that what European philosophers call bare life may lack (biopolitical) life, but do not lack existence. The flesh exists in the red. Pornotroping illustrates the turn or deviation in the racialized sexual violence that produces both the white supremacist patriarchal subject, on the one hand, and the flesh on the other. Both because “property circulates in a thoroughly libidinal economy” (97), and because pornotroping uses sexuality (e.g., de-gendering and undoing kinship relations) to establish property relationships, (neo)liberal private property, the production of the flesh is intimately bound to neo(liberal) private property. The apparent death and non-existence of bare life, the production of black people as inhuman, as flesh, this is a necessary foundation for the white supremacist patriarchal capitalist distribution of property. So, pornotroping’s turnt or deviant libidinal charges, embodied in flesh, redistribute property, including and especially property-in-person. “In addition to the unremitting possibility of familial bonds rupturing as a result of their equation with property relations, the heiroglyphics of the flesh also throw a wrench into any steadfast divisions between property, gender, violence, and sexuality” (96).
Because Weheliye’s theory of pornotroping illustrates the connections among white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal racialized sexual violence, the logic of (neo)liberal property relations, and the currents of desire and existence that exist in the red/as habeas viscus, it’s the concept we need to help unpack what’s going on in BBHMM. To be clear: this video isn’t an instance of pornotroping, at least in the conventional sense, and Rihanna isn’t performing as “flesh” or habeas viscus. Rather, BBHMM is in conversation with pornotroping as a trope, mixing around some of its elements–racialized sexual violence, de-gendering, the production of property ownership–to dramatize a process that resembles pornotroping but has a different outcome, a sort of bizarro pornotroping.