Lorraine O’Grady’s “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity”
by Thomas Feucht-Haviar, 2005
It is no overstatement to say that the greatest barrier I/we face in winning back the questioning subject position is the West’s continuing tradition of binary, either: or logic, a philosophic system that defines the body in opposition to the mind. Binaristic thought persists even in those contemporary disciplines to which black artists and theoreticians must look for allies.
One of the things Lorraine ’Grady’s “Olympia’s Maid” brought home was the almost infinite applicability of the categorical splits that are and have been nearly determinative of the roles played by knowledge and judgment in the constitution of the West. Within Western dialectics the goal seems to be to both unify and differentiate through dichotomy: mind/body, nature/culture, man/women, etc. Of course, the position of the categories can be switched to in turn constitute a new power formation such as feminism (for binarism is undeniably a codification of power that seems to have mythological roots). But feminism can in turn be modified and further divided by other categories like class and race. In relation to feminism, for example, racial signifiers can take on either a
privileged or slighted position. To the extent that the modified structure becomes inclusive of further differentiation, new categories are apt to become routinized through institutionalization. Figuring the ratio of rationality becomes synonymous with the process of professing knowledge and, indeed, another dichotomy comes into play—professional/amateur—that in turn establishes another power relationship.
It is an understatement to call this Western form of knowledge production and profession insidious since it is considered to be the coherent way to map the world. And yet, as O’Grady’s article abundantly points out, the map, despite the ontological grammar that either/or thinking implies, is not the world; the relation of the two, though overlapping, is not a form of binarism. Even when knowledge is represented as the exercise of rationality “in an allegedly postmodern world,” in a statement such as O’Grady’s “white woman is what woman is: not-white is what she had better not be,” we see that assumed knowledge of “IS” becomes something more than a cultural projection that reduces judgment to a form of stereotypical rehearsal. It is a ( … )