Acknowledgments: Thank you to my students for first challenging me to think through some of these questions, especially Anirban Gupta Nigam, Parisa Vaziri, Rashad Evans, and Graham Eng-Wilmot; to my co-panelists Elena Gorfinkel, Amy Herzog, and Homay King for our initial conversations; to Alessandra Raengo for a productive dialogue and for sharing her forthcoming work; and to Marc Francis and J.D. Connor for joining this dossier.
1. Despite its varied cultural meanings and aesthetic uses, in color theory black is not considered an actual color. Eugene Thacker writes, “Black objects are those that do not reflect light in the visible spectrum; thus colour theory refers to black as ‘non-chromatic’ or ‘achromatic.’” Thacker, “Black on Black,” Mute, 17 July 2013.
Yet, as film theorist Alessandra Raengo has suggested, there can be no image without black. Raengo “Black Matters,” Alessandra Raengo, "Black Matters," special section "Is the Moving Image an Object?" ed. Brian Price and Raengo, Discourse vol. 38, no. 2 (forthcoming, Spring 2016). Raengo spearheads the Liquid Blackness project at Georgia State University. [return to text]
2. In addition to suggesting dirtiness and its racist connotations, “dinge queen” is also a slang term for a white gay man who is attracted to black men. See Robert Reid-Pharr, “Dinge,” in Black Gay Man: Essays (New York: NYU Press, 2001), 85-98.
3. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markman (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 110.
4. In this formulation, as black life exists outside of conventional philosophies of human ontology, it is beside or beyond it—para-ontology. Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50, no 2 (winter 2008): 179. Moten writes,
“lived experiences of blackness ... are, on the one hand, aligned with what has been called radical and, on the other hand, aligned not so much with a kind of being-toward-death but with something that has been understood as deathly or death-driven nonbeing. This strife between normativity and the destruction of norms is essential….” (177-78).
Moten goes on to examine “chromatic saturation” by revisiting a 1967 artists’ debate on the color black (188-205).
5. After surveying the major reviews of the film, it appears that the racial connotations of the film have largely been unexplored. In the United States, although we are often fixated and entrenched on questions of race, we are often reluctant to actually think through the complexities of race and how it operates. Although not quite offering racialized readings, some reviews implicitly suggest the use of blackness to connote non-humanity.
[Romney, “Film of the Week: Under the Skin,” Film Comment blog, April 3, 2014, http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/under-the-skin-jonathan-glazer-review/ ]. Jonathan Romney writes,
“Some scenes take place against pure white or black backgrounds, in places or non-places that we can’t easily identify, but which are just irreducibly other. What happens there to human bodies—how they react physically and, just as importantly, how those reactions sound—makes for one of the most unnerving and hallucinatory images in recent cinema.”
[Sharkley, “Scarlett Johansson Mesermerizes While Getting ‘Under the Skin’,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-under-the-skin-20140404-story.html. ] Betsey Sharkely remarks upon the counter-evolutionary connotations of blackness,
“The specifics of our world fade to undefined blackness, clothes fall away as do fears as the men follow her, everything slowing. It evokes a museum diorama of early man emerging from the muck, in reverse.”
Generally, however, reviews of the film primarily invoked the word “black” only as an adjective without further analytical inquiry into the color’s meaning. See, for instance,
5b. Andre M. Carrington, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 3.
5c. Anirban Gupta-Nigam’s final paper was revised and published as “Black Infrastructures: Media and the Trap of Visibility,” Media Fields Journal 11 (2016): http://mediafieldsjournal.squarespace.com/black-infrastructure/.
6. For foundational works in the Queer of Color Critique, see
7. In part, this might mirror Darby English’s move to think through black artists’ creative practice beyond the limiting frameworks of their racial identities and contexts but to look beyond metaphors of race in their work and to, following Richard Dyer, understand that whiteness also operates as racial metaphor. See Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007) and Richard Dyer, White. (New York: Routledge, 1997).
8. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Steven Best, and Ruth H. Lindeborg, “Introduction: Representing Blackness/Representing Britain: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Knowledge,” Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, eds. Baker, Manthia Diawara, and Lindeborg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 5. Stuart Hall suggests that as an immigrant from Jamaica, he only learned to identify as “black” in England. “Minimal Selves,” BBCS, 116. He writes that black “has always been an unstable identity, psychically, culturally, and politically.” (116)
9. Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities,” BBCS, 163. Hall continues,
“What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences, and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black’; that is, the recognition that ‘black’ is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed trans-cultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature.” (166)
10. I’m less able to speak to the specificity of this as a Scottish film, but it presents the people of Glasgow to be homogenously (if inaccurately) white. The Johansson alien, in contrast, is vocally marked as an outsider by performing a British accent, rather than a Scottish one, and she appears pointedly indifferent to a news radio report on a Scottish referendum for independence.
11. For a review of these discourses, see Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions 5 (2011). http://www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/jaredsexton.php
12. Black Lives Matter, also known as #blacklivesmatter, is a social movement based in the United States that arose in response to a wave of (mostly police) killings of unarmed African-American citizens across the country, after which citizens or police were typically unpunished through lack of indictment or conviction. The ideological message of this racialized violence was that it was “legal” for police to kill black citizens, and that black people were treated as disposable or less-than-human by the state. Black Lives Matter was originally coined in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman (in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin); the term gained traction and national visibility as a campaign in 2014 in response to the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, NY, among other deaths. Under the Skin debuted at film festivals shortly after the Zimmerman acquittal and was released in early 2014, prior to the broad adoption of the phrase Black Lives Matter.
13. At one point in the film, the alien is swept up in a crowd of women going to a discotheque, and she cannot understand the visceral pleasures of strobe lights and house beats; rather than experience ecstasy, she seeks to escape. In moments when human characters experience their own ecstatic embodiment—such as amidst the strobes and colored lights of a discotheque—or when they experience sensory overload—such as blinding sun—our alien protagonist is unphased.
14. Michel Faber, Under the Skin (San Diego: Harcourt, 2000): 163 and 176.
15. The color red—via lipstick, blood, and warmth—connotes carnal pleasures and sustenance in this film. See Elena Gorfinkel’s reading of the film in this dossier, “Sex, Sensation and Nonhuman Interiority in Under the Skin.”
16. See Amy Herzog’s reading of the character’s routine in terms of alienated labor in this dossier, “Star Vehicle: Labor, Alienation, and the Surface-Level Pleasures of Under the Skin.”
17. See J.D. Connor’s essay in this dossier, “Independence and the Consent of the Governed: The Systems and Scales of Under the Skin”. [return to page 2]
18. The obvious reference here is Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:3 (autumn 1975): 6-18, and widely reprinted.
19. Only later, when the alien experiments with a romantic human relationship, does the score even flirt with familiar movie score sounds; that cue is titled “Love” on the soundtrack album.
20. Responding to a deep sense of alienation from U.S. society, a number of black musicians, writers, and artists—including Afrika Bambaataa, Sun Ra, Parliament, Octavia Butler, Samuel L. Delany, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others—turned to fantasy, science fiction, and outer space to imagine a different world and consciousness during the 1970s and 1980s. For populations that had been denied their histories and that continued to be structurally oppressed in the present, imagining futures were radical acts. This utopian project has come to be called Afrofuturism. Although there are parallels between that movement and this film, I do not see Under the Skin as part of that discourse; in fact, it may be its inverse.
21. Whereas human existence and consciousness have been the primary concerns of philosophy, Object-Oriented Ontology shifts focus to the existential status of non-sentient things. In effect, this poses a turn from thinking in terms of human subjectivity to thinking of humans as just one kind of object among various objects in the world.
22. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis; University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
23. Thanks to Alessandra Raengo for raising the question of the limits of metaphor during the Q&A when I presented the first iteration of this essay at the Society for Media Studies annual conference in Montreal in 2015.
24. Attributed to Michel Foucault, the term biopolitics references the power of the government to manage life, whether through structural policies that support and sustain certain populations’ life expectancy or that subject certain populations to oppressive practices that undermine their life chances and let them die. See Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, Trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003): 239-64. For an anthology of major writings on biopolitics, see Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, eds. Biopolitics: A Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
25. Attributed to Giorgio Agamben, the concept of “bare life” references populations who exist as mere bodies without the political enfranchisement of citizenship or recognized personhood. See Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
26. Attributed to Achille Mbembe, the term “necropolitics” references populations that, although living, are subjected to such dire government and economic policies that they exist within “death-worlds” and might be understood to have already been killed by the state. See Mbembe, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 2003 15 (1): 11-40.
27. Alexander Weheliye, Habeous Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
28. Black skins of sorts appear in various other iterations in the film: the alien’s supervisor’s motorcycle gear, the Czech man’s wet suit, and the leather jacket the alien’s suitor loans her.
29. My thinking here is shaped by — and somewhat twists — Judith Butler’s essay, "Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy.” As part of her biopolitical turn, Judith Butler has questioned whose lives count as grievable lives and has advocated for the importance of fantasy in political life. Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 17-39.
30. In a curious post-script, blackness figures as pure knowledge, as the super-human capacity for cognition and consciousness at the resolution of Scarlett Johansson’s follow-up film Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014). On Lucy, see Marc Francis's essay in this dossier, "Splitting the Difference: On the Queer-Feminist Divide in Scarlett Johansson's Recent Body Politics."