The Meaning of Black Inexpression

Photo of man with deadpan expression (Shutterstock)

Tina Post’s first monograph, Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpressioncharts the territory of deadpan as a Black aesthetic practice. Deadpan, a vaudeville term meaning “dead face” is deployed in the book as “the place where the inexpressive Black person meets narratives of Black inexpression,” a definition that allows Post to survey Black inscrutability across a broad spectrum of what might be known more colloquially as feeling “some type of way” (3, 1). The text pulses with creativity as Post locates deadpan in theater, visual and performance art, performances of the self, and more—an expansive archive that contributes to scholarship on Black modes of reserve and frames “the ways Black subjects exist and invent under visual strictures of racialization” (22). To this end, Post approaches these works with a focus on their aesthetic achievements rather than their political successes or failures. Deadpan works to limn the boundaries between visibility and withholding, and while respecting the subject’s right to opacity, like Édouard Glissant, does not foreclose the possibility of relation.

Through a sweeping archive that includes Joe Louis, Don Cox, and Lorna Simpson, Post positions deadpan between opacity and fugitivity and illustrates forms of deadpan that range from the obvious to the opaque. Black facial gestures are read alongside art that absents the Black body. Post adeptly guides readers through the grammars of deadpan while introducing increasingly opaque works and performances, leading us to ultimately examine how deadpan has been taken up in white performances reliant on symbolic Blackness. Acknowledging that not all American culture is about Blackness, Post nonetheless reminds us that “Blackness informs far more than is widely acknowledged” because we have culturally “denied the aesthetic as a register of Blackness” (101). Rather than staying with the deadpanned subject, Post considers deadpan as a Black aesthetic comprehensively and recognizes its influence in works by Black and nonBlack artists alike.

In the first chapter, “Subjectivity and Self-Specimenization, Post argues that respectability “[bolsters] the Black subject’s claim to a place in modernity” (23). In order to perform respectability, however, Black subjects must perform self-specimenization, which is a form of self-alienation. Deadpan facilitates this process as it allows Black subjects to “simultaneously perform the positions of specimen and empiricist” (23, emphasis mine). By presenting themselves as evidentiary bodies, Black subjects use their specimenization to their advantage. Post offers numerous examples to illustrate this concept, one follows Shawn Michelle Smith’s reading of W.E.B. DuBois’s Types of American Negro, Georgia, USA and Negro Life, Georgia, USA from the American Negro Exhibit of the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Visually, DuBois employs a similar method to race scientists by pairing frontal and profile views of Black people’s faces, presenting them as ripe for specimenization. He uses this specimenization to his advantage, however, by absenting Black people from rural atmospheres and placing them in bourgeois settings instead. Post contends that DuBois mobilizes deadpan aesthetics to promote respectability or “performed modernity” (45).

Deadpan also reads variously across Black gender. Though Post disavows a gender binary, she nonetheless acknowledges the way gender is read onto Black bodies and how deadpan figures differently across more masculine or feminine leaning registers. Troubling the binary further, Post queers her readings by including women in her chapter on the Black masculine and men in the chapter on the Black feminine. In her second chapter, “Minimalism and the Aesthetics of Black Threat,” Post observes deadpan on the Black masculine registers, reading how its performances both reinforce and trouble the notion of the Black masculine as threatening. She analyzes the way the aesthetics of looming utilize minimalism to evoke and/or intervene in the associations between Blackness, inscrutability, and impending threat. She defines “threat” following Brian Massumi “who describes it as an affective effect born of unactualized danger” (23).

Post considers the ways the aesthetics of looming, deadpan, and minimalism converge: Adrien Piper’s work looms by ceding consciousness to Black objecthood; Martin Purveyor’s stunning sculptures loom but refuse to be threatening; David Hammons exchanges the Black body for looming blocks of ice dressed in clothing. Robert Morris—a white artist—performs Black deadpan by drawing on objecthood, looming, and unreadability while maintaining an insistence on relation (97). In analyzing deadpan through the Black masculine, Post highlights that within the cultural imaginary, “white Americans persistently interpret Black inscrutability as threatening, and that Black Americans strategically perform Blackness as foreboding” (23).

Post’s third chapter approaches deadpanned Black feminine performances with what she calls “The Opacity Gradient.” Here, she analyzes a continuum of works that involve transparency, sheerness, obscurity, awayness, and opaciousness, aesthetic spectra that, for Post, afford the Black body “a degree of scopic fugitivity” (108). In these readings, transparency becomes a “presence that makes it possible to see the invisibility of the Black subject without simply creating hypervisibility instead” (108). Post offers Sarah Sutton’s 1970 performance of Byrdwoman in Deafman Glance as one that tows the line between invisibility and hypervisibility. Sheerness similarly holds multiplicity as a Black feminine aesthetic that registers for variability—it’s “structured yet pliant, supporting and suspended, present yet aggressive” (118). Obscurity, like sheerness, “offers partial revelation” (125). But where sheerness’s preoccupation with materiality acts as a substitute for “the otherwise surveilled Black body,” Post offers the work of Titus Kaphar as art that mobilizes obscurity in order to “present the Black body in a manner that makes full surveillance impossible” (125).

For Post, the closest deadpan comes to fugitivity is awayness. Awayness provides a present mind, but absented (in part or in whole) body. This presents “deadpanned awayness as an inverse instance of visibility and withholding” (130). Beyond awayness lies “opaciousness,” a limit in Post’s gradient. Opaciousness is “unspectacular opacity that allows one to seem part of the background or landscape, especially as a product of skin and or shape” (134). Simone Leigh’s Jug (2019) plays in both opaciousness and looming as a sculpture that, at a height of eighty-three inches, melds (Black) body into object.

In “Excess and Absence (or, The Negro Believes______),” Post shows that “(the fantasy of) Blackness is not only represented in theatrical forms, but is itself a theatrical form” (140, emphasis mine). This theatricality manifests itself in a Black aesthetic that includes the play of excess and absence. By marshaling this play, contemporary Black artists demonstrate that with contemporary Blackness, there is everything and nothing to see” (161). Here, excessive Blackness can be a form of deadpan in that it renders race “hypervisible to the point of being confounding” (140). Glenn Ligon’s art bookends this chapter, and Post ends by analyzing the play between the excessive and absent in Ligon’s “Self-portrait exaggerating my Black features” and “Self-portrait exaggerating my white features” (1998). In these identical silk-screened photos, Ligon wears a deadpanned expression. Mobilizing deadpan aesthetics, no exaggeration exists as Ligon both withholds and invites audiences to look anyway.

Post’s final chapter convincingly argues that Blackness is central to Buster Keaton’s deadpan. Post is less interested in Keaton’s own Blackface performances than in the ways that “he deployed Blackness’s cultural signage […] effectively pioneering a kind of non-Blackface minstrelsy” (166). By reading Keaton’s performances in The Playhouse (1921), The General (1926), College (1927), and more, Post uncovers objecthood, indestructibility, imperturbability, imperviousness, and interchangeability as cultural signifiers of Blackness. Post ends with a coda that reads Steve McQueen’s film Deadpan (1997) as a corrective to Keaton. In the film, McQueen revises Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) by performing deadpan but not the durability associated with Blackness. Analyzing these transracial scripts enables an understanding of what is projected onto the racial other and why—McQueen’s work then highlights that Black durability is but a quality hegemonic white culture “has imaginative use for” (167).

Ultimately, Post doesn’t seek to prescribe methods for demystifying instances of deadpan. Following Sylvia Wynter and José Esteban Muños, Post reads the objects and performances in Deadpan through the practice of decipherment, that is, finding meaning within process and its results rather than focusing on meaning alone. Decipherment allows Post critical ambivalence around whether performances of deadpan can be read as forms of resistance–the answer to which is “‘Maybe.’ Deadpan might enact deference or denial, quietude or aggression, resistance or acquiescence” (19). The goal isn’t to finalize a theory of deadpan but to chart how this performative gesture figures so variously and has become a Black aesthetic practice. Given the book’s focus on the United States, Post’s openness is also directed outwards, toward a broader exploration of deadpan aesthetics across the Black diaspora. This kind of possibility for development might inspire others to take up further study transnationally, temporally, or across even broader media. With the ambition of her project and immense catalog of works, Post generates momentum for further study of Black aesthetics, affect, and modes of reserve.

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Rhya Moffitt

Rhya Moffitt is a PhD student in the Black Studies in English cohort at the University of Chicago. Her research centers around Blackness, affect, and mental un/wellness. Rhya's book reviews have been published in MELUS and the E3W Review of Books. Her work is also forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of CoFuturisms and Contemporaries.