Anne A. Cheng’s recent work pushes scholarship about the racial logics of modernity from the binarism of Orientalism to the fuzzier contours of what she terms Ornamentalism. While not releasing analytical grip on the lessons about visuality, flesh, exoticization, and othering from both Said’s Orientalism and critical race theory, Cheng’s 2011 book, Second Skin (on Josephine Baker) and her 2018 Critical Inquiry article, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman” drill down into the conceptual and practical ambiguities between flesh and skin, between animal and machine, and between person and thing.
Is ornament a “second skin” or the primitive adornment of skin? Cheng looks, for example, at the patterning of black and white blocks or stripes—a pattern criticized and yet often used by modern architect Adolf Loos.
Does this familiar pattern index the primitive art of tattooing skin, or animal stripes, or criminality, or the regularity of machines? Cheng superbly draws a discursive line connecting all of these possibilities. Rather than resolving the question into the binary logic of flesh (white vs. black, or white vs. yellow), Cheng’s metonymy between primitivism, modernist architecture, animality, criminality, and machines demonstrates what Bill Brown terms the “indeterminate ontology” of modern things (Second Skin, 116) and what Cheng herself argues beautifully as the “ineffable fusion between thingness and personhood” (“Ornamentalism,” 420).
Near the end of Second Skin Cheng writes, “In spite of our political sophistication today, we still have few tools and little language for addressing what I call visual pleasure in the contaminated zone: those uneasy places of visual exchange where pleasure, law, and resistance converge” (167). Cheng’s work in “Ornamentalism,” which I assume is continued in her forthcoming book, Ornamentalism (due out from Oxford in less than two weeks) dwells with this lack and aims to create the conditions for new and workable tools and concepts.
Perhaps because of my obsession with affect, I see Cheng successfully creating these conditions in theorizing a material socio-political space for aesthetics that limns both subjectivity and objectivity. The social skin of aesthetics, she shows us, cannot—should not (she does raise “ethical looking” in Second Skin)—devolve into asserting the authenticity or dominance of either the subject or the thing but brings each into a new, fraught, and fluid relation to itself and to its opposite. By placing aesthetics as the buffer, skin, or membrane between subjects and objects (maybe in resonance with Gramsci’s placement of culture between Marx’s superstructure and base?), Cheng’s scholarship affectivizes theoretical approaches to subjectivity, to objectivity, and to their relation, by showing how the shimmer, skins, colors, textures—in a word the ornaments—of modernity are not additions to (adornments on) pre-existing subjects and objects, but instead bring these elements into ontological and phenomenological tangibility. Through its very affecognitive slipperiness, ornament troubles our ability to separate subject from object or person from thing, and therefore troubles our ability to domesticate and control them. Losing this control is like losing our humanity–but this is a sense of humanity that is founded in rational (and racial) control. As Cheng writes in her 2018 essay, “While Orientalism is about turning persons into things that can be possessed and dominated, ornamentalism is about a fantasy of turning things into persons through the conduit of racial meaning in order, paradoxically, to allow us to abandon our humanness” (“Ornamentalism,” 435).
Cheng’s theorization of ornament gives us what I think Eve Sedgwick would call reparative scholarly tools to navigate the self-implicative binary racial logics that have dominated racial theories since Fanon. I look forward to the full book.