(Im)Possible: A Critical Ambivalence for Black Female Sexual Subjectivity Restricted; Files & ToC

Tunstall, Trinity (Spring 2023)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/8336h3323?locale=en


Fraught with paradoxes and burdened by social oppression, a liberated black female sexual subjectivity is uniquely difficult to imagine. In discourse, the word “impossible” is among the most common descriptors of black women’s subject position. This project addresses the intractability of black female sexual subjectivity. It intervenes in the discursive prescription of “impossibility” to posit a black female sexual subjectivity that embodies possibility and impossibility with ambivalence. This project navigates out of black women’s discursive conundrum using literary analysis centered on the intersections of pain and pleasure for black female characters. “(im)Possible” investigates an archive that begins with Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and includes Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975). These three 20th-century novels grapple with the precarity of black female sexual subjectivity from its foundational injuries in the discourse of enslavement to its ambivalently erotic liberation. Case studying six black female characters from these works, this project surveys scenes ostensibly centered on pain, unintelligibility, and impossibility where writers subtly open space for pleasure, understanding, and possibility. I apply Michael Dango and Tina Post’s definition of “critical ambivalence” to approaching the discourse of sexual subjectivity with a disposition that can hold contradictory opposites as a “pair of affects that aren't just co-present, but co-constitutive.” Analysis of these selected works is set within the larger frame of “(im)possibility,” a conceit of critical ambivalence. The concept contests the mutual exclusivity of the perceived opposites that render subjectivity entirely unintelligible and impossible. The impetus of this work is rooted in contemporary black feminist efforts to account for paradoxes and rescript the totalizing prescription of impossibility. Specifically, this project mobilizes the scholarship of Kevin Quashie and Jennifer C. Nash, defining black women’s individual subjectivity in and through relational and citing moments of “ecstasy” wherein “possibilities of black female pleasures” can prevail in a normative (racist, sexists) discourse. This work avoids suggesting pain and pleasure are one, or, worse, that pain is a pleasurable experience for black women. Instead, this project carefully aims to open space for nuance. Intersecting so many oppressive systems, the logics of racism and sexism would define black female subjectivity exclusively by its pain. This project argues that resisting pleasure’s nullification when it comingles with pain is a crucial black feminist project in restoring human complexity and possibility to black women’s sexual subjectivity. 

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