Minstrelsy on Ice

by zunguzungu

As a blogger, stuff like this presents a problem, but an interesting one: the same factors that make it the sort of thing I’m interested in make it feel like just more of the same. Which is also the problem with trying to blog about racism in public culture in general: it keeps piling up in new forms, but that useful novelty is always a function of — and only legible through — a common and enduring history. And this circumscribes the novelty which makes the blog format what it is, since you find yourself trying to write about something new that is also old, and trying to say something new in the way you connect it to old histories. I’ve learned a lot from watching and thinking about the ways the bloggers at Sociological Images have dealt with this problem, for example; I (mostly silently) take issue with a lot of the readings they do of the images they collect, but I suspect that pattern of disagreement really has its origin in the problematic contradiction they’re straddling, the simultaneous imperative to create an archive — to produce a list of examples illustrating a kind of (thereby implicitly) timeless and place-less structural category — and the imperative to understand the complexities of each text in its particular historical conjunction. This sort of problem is absolutely endemic to the mode of discourse we employ in reading these kinds of texts — the reason the “post” in “post-structuralism” is so endlessly proliferative of discourse — and I don’t think it’s solvable for that reason. But it’s worth reflecting on when we come across something like the bizarre spectacle of these two Russians in their Maori minstrel costumes.

When a friend sent me the link, in fact, the first thing I did was check and see if Sociological Images had already blogged it (and indeed they had). And they recently collected a set of minstrel images that make a nice context for what exactly it means to call those ice skaters that. But how exactly do we connect the very American conversation about race that Minstrelsy represent to the very not-American conversation happening on the ice without losing either side of the problematic? Maybe the conceptual framework of translation is the appropriate approach: black-face might be the American vocabulary used to express a set of racist principles, but it can be — and often is — translated into other languages, with a very ambiguous balance between what is lost and what is retained in the process. And translation is a process which can be almost endlessly generative. After all, one way to approach what is so weird about those costumes is that they are wearing “[white] flesh” colored tights, an almost literal inversion of the blacking-up that made American minstrelsy what it was. Which is to say that phenotypic race is, in an important sense, the very remainder that’s being filtered out as the American term for “love and theft of ethnic difference” has been translated into Russian/Olympic.