III. Dialectics and Making-Machine

What is meant by this subjective dissolution, by this making-machine of the Black body? Consider the below tweet, issued by McCain (presumably) as she watched the televised testimony of former F.B.I. Director James B. Comey during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Appended to the tweet is a GIF featuring Kenya Moore, star of the reality television show The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA). The text of the tweet reads, “Me – watching the Comey hearing for the last hour…”.

Who is this “me” said to be watching Comey’s testimony? In the absence of the included GIF, whatever message McCain’s tweet intended to convey would be rendered unintelligible. Upon an initial engagement, this tweet could be interpreted in a relatively superficial manner, whereby the “me” McCain names is interpellated by the content of the appended GIF in the form of a corresponding simile: “My reaction to Comey’s testimony before the Senate is akin to Kenya Moore’s reaction in this confessional scene from RHOA.” The GIF of Moore thus indexes McCain’s own affective state, performing the very labor that Jackson identifies as characteristic of digital blackface. Thus, at even the most rudimentary level, McCain’s tweet provides a point of entry into the phenomenon of digital blackface, evincing a moment in which a non-Black person marshaled the image of a Black woman to index (setting aside whether this indexical form is intended to function hyperbolically or through direct correspondence, that is, through an identified moment of affective mimesis) her own affectivity. 

On Assumption

I would like to note, nevertheless, that this surface-level reading, if analytically restricted to the inferential sequence just presented, necessarily founders on its own terms. Said otherwise, to advance this interpretation of McCain’s turn to digital blackface insufficiently attends to the contextual complexity of the dispositional symmetry McCain seemingly intends to invoke. As a provisional manner, it is evident that McCain does not marshal the GIF of Moore to structure a comparison of correspondence or likeness. McCain’s textual qualification does not recognize the ontological distinctness of Moore as an embodied Black subject; instead, it repudiates any gap between self and other by claiming Moore as a mirrored reflection of McCain in the instantaneous moments the tweet describes. McCain thus marks Moore as fungible, as object, as a machinic prosthesis that can be deployed in the service of self-interpellation. McCain accordingly superimposes and supercedes Moore, a deft maneuver that evacuates Moore of any ontological distinctiveness (both vis-à-vis McCain and vis-à-vis any other who might transform her into an object of explication).

In this quasi-Hegelian act of sublating the difference of the other through its ultimate eradication as a separate self-consciousness, McCain forcibly demands that she be permitted to assume Moore embodiment by effacing Moore’s own claim thereto. Embedded within the field of emergence that enables this act of assumption, however, is also an act of distancing, an act that paradoxically refutes the absorption of the other into the self by, in effect, marking the other as so fundamentally alien as to be outside of the ontological categories in which the self perceives its own occupation. To track the oppositional force concurrently operating within the dialectic of making-machine, I want to consider with specificity the content of the GIF that McCain selected to include with her tweet.

The GIF features Kenya Moore, a long-term star of the Bravo television series The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA). The scene from which the GIF was spliced appears to have been a confessional scene, a frequent formalistic trope of the reality-television genre. Such scenes commonly involve a cast member appearing alone and speaking in monologue form directly into the recording camera. Edited in such a way as to imply that their content derives from the extemporaneous, candid reactions of cast members to the plot events of the related segment, confessional scenes appeal to a sense of intimacy that their formal elements endeavor to construct and retroactively naturalize. These scenes provide cast members with an opportunity to express their most authentic, “unfiltered” thoughts; that directors, producers, other cast members, and crew members likely surround the “confessing” individual cannot, of course, be acknowledged. Confessional scenes encourage a willful suspension of disbelief, and it is through consistent appeal to confessional scenes’ purported authenticity that reality television derives and can seemingly maintain its claims to authentic representations of “reality”—despite the countless instances in which that authenticity is unambiguously proven to be the genre’s most manufactured product.

On Repudiation

Kenya Moore, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, via Giphy

As the clip’s frames begin to cycle, Moore is seen pantomiming the act of holding and then imbibing from a cup of tea. Her left hand functions as both the saucer on which the imaginary cup rests and the edifice on which the saucer rests; the fingers of her right hand, clasped around the imaginary handle of the teacup, lift the cup to her mouth for her to consume the fictive liquid. As she drinks from the cup, her eyes close and her facial disposition relaxes; lowering the cup from her mouth, Moore then opens her eyes, slightly arching her left eyebrow, and coyly states, “Gimme the tea.”

My purpose in belaboring this thick description of the GIF (a single cycle of which completes in approximately two seconds) is to be able to return to the analysis earlier advanced with the newfound capacity to revise it. When McCain claims Moore as representing herself, as, in effect, her in toto, she claims a symmetry with Moore’s dispositional stance, the latter of which is communicated not by expression admission (that is, not by Moore stating explicitly stating that she is interested in learning more about the potentially scandalous elements of some situation occurring on RHOA) but by her pantomimed actions and brief concluding remark. McCain’s claim of dispositional symmetry is thus seemingly predicated upon an implicit claim of symmetrical relation to Moore’s actions. What work does this implicit claim perform upon the analytical tenacity of the proposed hermeneutic of making-machine and its dialectic? Does not this implicit claim of symmetry strengthen the proposition that digital blackface is about the assumption of Blackness and its subsequent repudiation, rather than the simultaneity of that assumption and repudiation?

A response to these inquiries should, I would maintain, turn on an engagement with what in effect becomes a relational triangle, with two of its three vertices occupied by figures this discussion intuitively marks—those of McCain and Moore, respectively. The contours of the third vertex, I would like to suggest, must be drawn according to the particular historicities, always already inflected by the meaning-making processes of culture, race, and the myriad elements of the social, of the phrase, “Gimme the tea.” Moore’s uttering that locution and her pantomiming the act of sipping on a cup of tea are intelligible only in those discursive fields which recognize the cultural specificity of Moore’s talk, one whose roots take hold in Black vernacular speech. That is to say, the meaning of “sipping tea” emerges out of a specific history of talk, one connected to forms of Black vernacular speech emerging at the turn of the twentieth century. The phrase and its associated permutations, including “no tea, no shade,” gained mainstream traction, per E. Patrick Johnson, after they were “made popular by millennial [B]lack queer blogger Qaadir Howard (also known as “Timiya”) on his YouTube series and then taken up in [B]lack queer popular culture by drag Performer RuPaul.” “No tea, no shade,” suggests Johnson, indicates that “I mean no offense by what I’m about to say, but I need to speak the truth.” Commonly in a lexical position that precedes the main subject of the talk, the locution is uttered when a speaker seeks to assure his co-conversationalist that what is about to be said (the “tea”), no matter how scandalous, salacious, or scathing, is not intended to be derisive or hurtful (what would otherwise be the “shade”).

A frequently exchanged GIF of rapper, entrepreneur, and entertainment icon Nicki Minaj, pantomiming the “sipping tea” motion at the 2014 BET Awards, via Giphy

In the above frequently exchanged GIF, rapper and entertainment mogul Nicki Minaj, during an audience address at the 2014 BET Awards, pantomimes the same gesture of “sipping tea” performed by Moore. Minaj’s address to the audience emphasized Minaj’s role as the primary creator and writer of her lyrics, intended to deflate media speculation to the contrary. Minaj’s oblique disavowal of any assurance that other rappers could make the same claim precipitated the gestural “sipping tea,” the uncomfortable truth that, though not intended as offensive, sought to illuminate the hypocrisy of the attacks against her. The GIF is usually exchanged in homologous circumstances, when an individual wishes to speak plainly about what might be a taboo or hushed topic and thus endeavors to lexically mark an acknowledgement of that taboo, deference for it, and a context for disregarding it.

Setting aside the contextual mismatch of McCain’s invocation of Moore and her statement—”tea” is “spilled” during the unfolding of relational talk, a moment of relational intimacy, less a moment of nationally televised broadcast—McCain’s otherwise doggedly anti-racist positioning is belied by the appropriative relation she maintains with both Moore and the queer Black histories of spilling tea. McCain’s subsumption of Moore within her flippantly posited “me” simultaneously subsumes and therefore effaces the cultural histories of the gesture Moore performs and McCain deceptively absorbs. The annihilation of Moore as an ontologically distinct subject, one who is irreducibly other to the “me” of McCain, works through the dissolution of particular queer Black histories that McCain simultaneously absorbs and occludes. This absorption and destruction of difference disavows the particularity of Blackness as an experience constituted out of resistance to the violently racist hierarchies of an American social order, and, through this disavowal and dissolution, McCain is able to effectively maintain a distance from Blackness, an ontological demarcation from the “other” achieved by the removal of that other from access to a shared ontological field. This is the simultaneous assumption and repudiation of making-machine, which effaces both the specificity of the conscripted Black subject and the multiple histories of Blackness through which that subject emerges.