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Violent Intimacies: Producing Racial Terror in American Visual and Material Culture

Fri, October 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Cedar

Session Submission Type: Paper Session: Traditional Format


Police violence against young black men and women has been a focal point of many recent grassroots organizing efforts, each of which call attention to the ways that racial logic has shaped the fundamental practices of law enforcement in America. While instances of structural problems, the deaths of young black men and women at the hands of the police are also evidence of an alarming sense of proximity between subjects. For example, a publicly circulated video depicting Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a Long Island police officer in July of 2014 emphasized the close physical relation between these two men, the sound of Garner’s increasingly labored breaths, and the sweat of exertion on the body of each man. Visual and material culture have played important roles in not only portraying, but also prompting, racial violence and unrest. Indeed, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, the hoodie became a potent symbol of race relations in the United States. The papers on this panel seek to historicize violence towards black bodies in America through attention to the ways that such acts have been experienced as a form of intimacy.

Through considering the discursive and material circulation of both sensational and everyday objects, images, and practices, each paper offers access to a particularly charged moment in the long history of racial violence in America, reaching back to the terrors of New World slavery and echoing into the present. Among scholars who have theorized intimacy in the New World, Colin Dayan in Haiti, History, and the Gods calls the relationships produced in slavery “a conceited counterfeit of intimacy” (189). This panel explores what happens when we add intimacy to our matrix when examining objects that were produced and used to inspire, enact, or reflect racial violence. How, as Dayan puts it, is intimacy made “counterfeit” or, more unexpectedly, how does intimacy manifest where it is least anticipated?

Drawing on methods from visual and material culture studies we examine how our objects of study engage with feelings of familiarity, loss, longing, and physical proximity, as well as more structural conditions of violence as a cultural condition. In each case, we seek to understand how this unlikely collection of objects—clothing worn by African Americans during Reconstruction, KKK robes, lynching quilts and re-enactments, and the covers of pulp novels—position racially motivated violence as an intimate encounter. These objects and performances undoubtedly connote the perpetuation of misery into the twentieth century, but they also call into question the role of intimacy involved in the production, consumption, and circulation of such items.

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