Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness
by Nicole R. Fleetwood

Joshua Javier Guzmán | New York University

Fleetwood, Nicole R. Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 276 pages; $25.00 paperback.


Nicole Fleetwood’s Troubling Vision is a fascinating study of black visuality and contributes greatly to the fields of performance, visual, and critical race studies. Her interdisciplinary approach to questions concerning how blackness is configured, seen and performed in and through the visual realm provides a more nuanced understanding of the complex intersection between art and politics. If the presence of the black body—specifically the female black body— always already troubles the scopic regime, how might theories of visuality and performance open up other ways of seeing and doing blackness that not only reify the (in)visible black subject but at the same time disrupt its meaning? Troubling Vision offers new vocabulary and an engaging archive that ranges from photography, to fashion, to black popular culture, and feminist media art to tackle these issues.

Troubling Vision takes seriously performance studies’ interest in the quotidian. Chapter 1 seeks to articulate a practice of what Fleetwood calls “non-iconicity.” For Fleetwood, “iconicity” gestures to the process by which a singular image or sign comes to represent a historical moment. This process allows for blackness to be easily consumed into individualist logics—the icon— and “the grand narrative of overcoming that solidifies American excpetionalism” (33). Instead, Chapter 1 examines Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris' photographic archive that documents the ephemeral, quotidian and seemingly mundane acts that punctuate the lives of the Black residents of Pittburgh in the mid-20th Century.  Harris’ documentation of the ever-day offers an “indexical practice” that reworks and expands the dominant visual archive by refusing to document black 20th Century struggles as spectacular, iconic singular acts (28).

Meanwhile, figuring gender into the analysis of iconicity and the quotidian, Chapter 4 speaks to Fleetwood’s theory of the performativity of black visibility by examining how “the black male body becomes the iconic figure for a consumer culture rooted in urban music, black masculine aesthetics and nationalism” (29). This chapter brilliantly offers close readings of hip-hop advertisements. But most enjoyable is the archive of Jamel Shabazz’s photographic documentation of black urban life and fashion in 1980’s New York City. One may ask: How do fashion and its commodification reconfigure blackness as a performance of visibility in the service of nationalism and normative gender roles?

Troubling Vision also follows a theoretical thread that hopes to articulate a hermeneutics of fracture, failure and excess. Chapter 2, for example, offers a comparative analysis of two plays written by black female playwrights at opposite ends of the 20th century: Yellowman (2002) by Dael Orlandersmih and Color Struck (1926) by Zora Neale Hurston. Both plays deploy the trope of the dark-skinned black woman who falls victim to the color binary (black/white) only to reinforce the gender binary (male/female), and vice-versa. Fleetwood investigates the connection between colorism, vision, and performance. Colorism privileges seeing as a way of knowing and detecting difference specifically by fixing a scale of blackness on the principle that the black body is a visibly identifiable and “knowable” entity. For Fleetwood, the contradiction engendered by “the relationship between color and value, the visualization of intra-racial distinction, and how intrarracial distinction is visualized, performed and experienced as psychic trauma” demonstrates the ontological failure and the repressive power of vision in upholding colorist practices (72–73).

This book offers theoretical tools to understand how black visuality performatively fails, yet remains vulnerable to commercialization, the structural hierarchies of art, and racialized popular culture. In Chapter 3, Fleetwood uses performance work by Renee Cox, Ayanah Moor and others to develop the concept of “excess flesh” in order to highlight the fantasy of representing and constructing black women as “too much” against the canvas of hegemonic (read white) femininity. “Excess flesh” speaks to her concept of the “visible seam” which she develops in Chapter 5. Here, Fleetwood utilizes the media art of Fatimah Tuggar to critique the Western notions of progress and technological narratives that produce black female bodies as pre-technological and folkloric entities. The “visible seam” is an aesthetic practice that “reveals the gaps, erasures, and ellipses in dominant visual narratives and their underlying ideology” (30).

Troubling Vision is a move away from the epistemological—what blackness means—towards the performative—what blackness does—in the visual realm. Fleetwood does not disavow the ways in which Western society renders seeing black as a problem. Instead, working through this “problem,” Troubling Vision investigates how the iterations of blackness in the visual realm are primarily performative, and thus reveal how blackness gets attached to certain "bodies, goods, ideas, and aesthetic practices in the visual sphere" (20). According to Fleetwood, the troubling presence of blackness in Western discourse highlights “the desire to have the cultural product solve the very problem that it represents” (3). It is in this rupture, this opening, or visual contradiction where Fleetwood finds room for her investigation, making Troubling Vision aesthetically seductive and theoretically smart.

Joshua Javier Guzmán is a doctoral student in Performance Studies at New York University, and holds a master's degree from the same department. His areas of interests include Latina/o performance, critical border studies, aesthetics and queer theory.