BY RODERICK A. FERGUSON
Professor of race and critical theory at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
I’m not entirely sure how I found Adrian Piper’s Self-Portrait 2000, the piece in which she “depicts” herself as a downed airplane and traces her descent to Wellesley College’s alleged attempts to “service” her to death as the school’s “only tenured black woman.”
I do know that it was early on in the writing of The Reorder of Things.
I also know that it felt like more than serendipity, like it was supposed to happen.
After writing two books, I now know that I begin writing a new book by imagining it as my version of some classical text. Aberrations in Black was my version of Marx’s Capital: Volume 1. The Reorder of Things is my version of Foucault’s work. Foucault begins The Order of Things with Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The painting depicts Velázquez as an artist at work in his studio. He is painting King Phillip and Queen Margaret of Spain, but we can only see them through their reflection in the mirror at the back of the room. The viewer bears witness not to the King and Queen, but to the painter at work, the maids of honor (las meninas), the princess that they attend, a little person, a dog, and another child. A nun is chatting away with a man. There is also another man in the doorway at the back of the studio observing the scene. For Foucault, Las Meninas signals the rise of Man and the downfall of the Sovereign as the subject of modernity. Hence, he was interested in the painting because of the way in which it depicts the scene of representation and the painter—a commoner, not a sovereign—as the designer of that scene. To paraphrase Foucault, we can observe the painter and ourselves being observed in this scene of representation. As the painter, Western Man is the force of representation. As the viewer, he symbolizes the object of analysis and its threat of dissection.
Self-Portrait 2000 in many ways seemed to be akin to and critical of Las Meninas. In both portraits, the subjects are absent. Both pieces also signal the rise of a new subject, signaled by the recession of a prior authority: For Las Meninas, the Sovereign; for Self-Portrait 2000, presumably Western Man himself. Both artworks “depict” the conditions for their subjects’ representations. For Las Meninas, Man can only be represented and analyzed in the wake of the sovereign’s downfall. For Self-Portrait 2000, Piper, a minority, could only be represented in the academy because of the social movements of the fifties and sixties that changed U.S. society, movements that—more pointedly—tried to put “the Man” in his place. Both are meditations on what happens when the subject becomes the object of observation and in the case of Self-Portrait 2000, of destruction as well. This aspect of Piper’s piece is what compelled me to open the book with it.
From my first encounter with Piper’s piece, I could see so many people in that portrait. I could also see the dangers of an institution—the academy—that offered both the pleasures of observation and the reality of destruction. When Audre Lorde died I was a sophomore at Howard and remember listening to the report of her death on NPR. When Sherley Anne Williams died, I was finishing up my dissertation at the very university at which she taught. I started teaching at the University of Minnesota the year that Barbara Christian lost her life to cancer. When June Jordan and Claudia Tate fell, I was well into my second year at the U, and Nelly McKay and VeVe Clark passed not long after I completed my first book. Like many of my colleagues who had also been shaped by the worlds that these women created, it seemed that many of the junctures in my life at universities had obituaries appended to them. After a while, I realized that I began to see these deaths as my own version of “where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-assassinated?”
In this sense, the portrait seemed to diagnose a historical situation—how the conditions within the academy and the struggles that took place on campus yards way back when occasioned the rise and the demise of minorities, in general, but racial minorities, in particular. Self-Portrait 2000 says that the American academy set the conditions for all those things—our entrance, our representation, and our troubles.
It’s the scene of world-making and world-devastation all in one.
Roderick A. Ferguson is professor of race and critical theory at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He is author of The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012) and Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2003).