<Book Review>
Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom
Sarah Jane Cervenak
[Durham: Duke UP, 2014. 232 pp.; 10 photographs]

In Sarah Jane Cervenak’s Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom, the author brilliantly plunges the depths of Enlightenment thinking and discourse and puts that in conversation with contemporary artists to ask the reader a fundamental question: are racialized and sexualized bodies ever free and able to wander, journey, and explore?

The author begins with a meditation on the role of restricted movement as a means and method of criminalizing Black bodies beginning in the early years of the American slave trade. To wander, for a slave, was to be in direct opposition to the laws governing the ownership of Black bodies. Moreover, dancing, singing, and walking become delegitimized as evidence of blackness as a kind of disorderly conduct and inherently irrational, leading to the criminalization of free movement. The author notes in her introduction that “indeed, before and after legislative emancipation, black people’s capacity for self-control figured as essential in the acquisition of freedom. This definition did emerge out of a white-supremacist fiction and fear of black recklessness (or unenlightenment)” (16). Thus, in an effort to achieve some semblance of freedom, Black people had to restrict their bodily movement, though the author argues, through several examples throughout art and history, that in many ways a kind of psychological and philosophical wandering can be just as powerful as they physical wanderings which were unavailable to them.

In her first chapter, “Losing Their Heads” Cervenak focuses on the work of Enlightenment theorists and philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant and their role in figuring the Enlightened subject. For Rousseau, a hero of the French Revolution, a quest for freedom is at the heart of all human beings. Cervenak argues that for Rousseau “men come into the world free, become unfree as members of a family, and then rearticulate their relationship to freedom as they reach the ‘age of reason’” (32). The author then takes Rousseau to task for his total abnegation of the millions of Africans brought to the Americas in chains and whose children would never be “born free.” Moreover, she points out that as Rousseau argues that each man should limit his freedom in favor of the “greater good” he is ultimately arguing precisely for individual unfreedom for the benefit of the state. If we are to believe that Enlightenment comes from subsuming oneself into the state and into civic life, then all things natural and outside of the city are incapable of Enlightenment. In essence, she argues that “not everyone gets to roam freely” (35) only those who have already achieved Enlightenment. This is problematized by the author when she brings to light that much of Rousseau’s Enlightenment and many of his philosophical ideas come as the result of a kind of aimless wandering which, as a white man of wealth and privilege, he is able to do.

Similarly, Immanuel Kant finds much of his most significant and foundational ideas in philosophy while wandering. Kant “relied on anthropology, and the (trans)national wanderings it required, to make conclusions about the racial and sexual requirements for enlightenment” (43). For Kant, Enlightenment is arrived at through a kind of subjugation of passions in favor of “understanding” thus in early interactions with Africans, Kant sees only a lack of “moral understanding” (47) as defined by white Enlightenment philosophers and thus relegates “The Negroes of Africa [to] savages […] quite Black from head to toe” (47). Of course, in order to make these observations, Kant needed to quite literally wander and trespass into the communities of Africans--- a wandering and trespass that would have been found to be morally unjustifiable if the wanderer had been Black.

Cervenak argues that “for Kant and Rousseau, wandering described a movement antithetical yet indispensable for reason. In Rousseau’s case, wandering provided the conditions for an embrace of private desire […] But it was Kant himself who wandered, who engaged in errant movement as an expression of (his) reason” (58).

Once Cervenak makes her central argument regarding the question of who can wander and how, she takes up artists from the days of slavery to the present and questions how their work provides a space for the artist to wander, while often staying physically in place. Chapter two of this analysis is focused on the slave plot as a space of both subjugation, but also of travelling and escape. She connects this ideology to the works of Harriet Jacobs, Martin Delany, David Walker, and Sojourner Truth as the creators of black enlightenment. She asks,

How did these different black activists move across the plot and imagine their movement in relation to freedom? How did this difference in movement correspond to and enact opposing modes of philosophical comportment? How did sexual difference as well as the difference that emerges when one is born either free or enslaved presume different sets of bodily and philosophical maneuvering? (60-61)
The author rather brilliantly comes to answer each and every question posed here in a way that at once embraces the works of these activists, while also rereading (and possibly rewriting) their project as a means of a counter-cultural black enlightenment.

She argues that the crooked routes taken in, for example Harriet Jacobs’ narrative belie a resistance to the hegemony of the straight-and-narrow in Enlightenment philosophy. This is echoed in her discussion of Delany and Walker as advocates of “acting free” (breaking away from the presumed comportment of a slave) (81) as a tool to dismantle slavery itself.

Finally, Cervenak looks at the works of Sojourner Truth and her connection with and resistance to white feminist humanism. She argues that because of the unique brand of sexualized violence visited upon female slaves, white women could not figure black women as a part of this social movement. If, to be female is to walk the straight and narrow path of purity and morality, Black women who were victims of sexualized violence and who were illiterate and uneducated simply could not be manifested into their humanist project. Truth, was regularly maligned as a Black woman by the likes of Frederick Douglass for her illiteracy and from the white feminist movement for her refusal to embrace its moral ideology, thus refusing her space as both “Black” and “Woman.” Truth’s steadfast commitment flew is the face of these limitations and, like Jacobs, Delany, and Walker demonstrated a kind of “philosophically performative spirit of ungovernability that brings these activists together” (93).

In her third chapter, “Writing Under a Spell” Cervenak analyzes the women in Adrienne Kennedy’s theatre. She begins by commenting that since the Enlightenment, Black people have been figured as being someone lacking of reason and morals and thus in need of constant surveilling, scripting, and policing. This chapter, which is thoughtfully dedicated to Trayvon Martin, the young teen who was brutally murdered by the local neighborhood watch for looking suspicious, looks at the ways in which the characters in Kennedy’s works dream “into being Black female wanderers who, though speech, movement, and reverie, undo the very scripts they’re dreamed into” (97).

Cervenak specifically analyzes the central characters in Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers as black female characters that defy fixity and exist in direct opposition to Enlightenment philosophy. In Funnyhouse the central character plays all the central characters in the play, from Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg, to Sarah, the daughter of Patrice Lumumba, to Patrice Lumumba himself. Cervenak argues that this “ontological refusal” is also an act of wandering. A wandering between personas, races, genders, and characters such that the story resists “narrative, spatio-temporal, and political enclosures” (112).

In her analysis of The Owl Answers, Cervenak engages with many of the same elements as she does in her analysis of Funnyhouse. Again, Kennedy’s central character plays 3 other characters, and each of the characters in the play has multiple personas, again enacting a resistance to any kind of ontological fixity. In the play, Clara Passmore sits on a subway car, fiercely trying to write while being constantly interrupted by the other characters in the play. Cervenak asks:
If the subway in Kennedy’s work serves as a metaphor for the unconscious, then what might be at stake for this black woman traveler that an ever-increasing set of people not only intrude upon her (and her private writings) but continually break down her subway car’s walls? Tragically, in fact, the more they wander, the less the subway car remains hers to ride and write on. The more they wander, walk, stride, spin, diagnose, dance, trample, the less she can rest in her own ramblings. The more they wander, the greater the risk that they (he) will lock her up in the prisons and mental institutions of their choosing. (114).
What Cervenak is interested in then is the role that the outsiders play in delimiting the psychological and physical wanderings of the main character. The more they are able to move freely the more they impinge upon the freedom of Passmore. Cervenak draws a significant connection between the black/ mixed race characters of Kennedy’s theatre to the characters of the world at large. She argues that the incessant need to limit, script, define, and encode the wanderings (both mental and physical) of racialized, sexualized bodies, the more likely those bodies are to be seen as in need of diagnosis and constraint. She sees this in the “pedestrian ‘stop-and-frisk practices’” and in the “black kids [who] are arbitrary gunned down while walking down the street” (121).

As a way of extending the argument that the wanderings of Black characters in literature can in some way stand in for the desires of Black citizens in the world, Chapter Four explores the role that both the characters of Gayl Jones’ Mosquito and the author herself have in rebellious wandering. Cervenak argues that the often negative reviews of the book came as the result of Jones’s refusal of “the kinetic constraints of a singular story as well as a singular, dominant way of telling” (123). In essence, she is arguing that the authors refusal to walk the straight and narrow path of writing, in favor of a wandering and unstable text are used as a reasoning for a disavowal of the entire story itself. This is compounded in Cervenak’s argument by the fact that Mosquito was published shortly after its author was released from psychiatric detention. This of course, furthers the argument that the wandering text stands in for the wandering (and psychotic) brain of its author.
When critics and other agents of the post-Enlightenment don’t have answers for who Jones is and the kind of work she produces, they resort to a rhetoric of aesthetic and psychiatric pathology. Author and book collapse upon one another. That is to say, by aligning Jones with her work, critics attempt to cohere or psychologize (straighten out) her work, rendering Jones’s text the text of Jones. But Jones isn’t Mosquito (131).
The collapse of author and text is incredibly problematic for Cervenak who sees the pathologizing and desire to “straighten out” in direct conflict with both the freedom of the text and its author to do with the text as she wishes.

Finally, in her conclusion, Cervenak argues that “to wander is to renounce the limits imposed on one’s movement, to live and act in excess of the moorings of someone else’s desire. To make and unmake one’s own way” (145). Each of the artists presented in this text find ways to wander in spite of the dominant and hegemonic culture of slavery, racism, misogyny, and even institutionalization. Cervenak makes the compelling and convincing argument that the history of marginalized populations (people of color, women, LGBTQIA populations, and more) is rife with examples of this kind of wandering- whether it be physical, psychological, emotional, or intellectual, and that these wanderings run in direct opposition with the Enlightenment, and post-Enlightenment philosophies and morals. They are, in fact, a clear subversion of these principles.

As further evidence of this subversion she directs her attention to performance and visual artists William Pope.L, Adrian Piper, and Carrie Mae Weems as contemporary 21st century examples of such wanderings. The work of these artists refutes a fixity or a singular reading, they are reflections of a desire to actively explore and Cervenak argues, they resist understanding by offering the “Potential of another world, moving underneath, above, and around this one […] These are the terrains where bodies are no longer the grounds of others’ becomings, others’ vicious expressions of neoimperial, homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, classist and ableist desire” (172).

Cervenak makes the argument that these wanderings have the ability to reclaim a kind of freedom that has been taken away from the raced, classed, sexed, gendered bodies of individuals by the post-Enlightenment in the form of surveillance, stop-and-frisk, physical violence, misreadings, and incarceration in the hopes of creating a new order in the world.

In opening up a discussion of wandering as a productive and performative tool of resistance, Cervenak opens up new avenues of analysis within the field of performance studies as well as a next theoretical lens in which to probe the work of artists of any and every medium. By asserting that wandering is in fact a tool of oppressed, marginalized populations this book allows us to read resistance in new ways and through new forms as both an activist accomplishment and as a performance.

Wandering offers readers a unique perspective into the worlds of art, performance, writing, philosophy, women’s studies, queer studies, and African-American studies that few books can. In its pages, author Sarah Jane Cervenak probes the inner workings of the American psyche and offers tools to modern day activists and resisters to stand in opposition to the authoritarian power of the state as well as the psychic powers of hegemony. While dense at times, the author does an exemplarily job explaining in great detail the works of art she critiques and situates her analysis in clear and concise prose that is a pleasure to read, contemplate, and ponder.

     — Reviewed by Erin Kaplan, University of Colorado Boulder

Erin Kaplan is a teaching artist, facilitator, playwright, and activist who is deeply interested in the ways in which theatre can be used as a tool for social justice, education, and revolution. She holds BAs from the University of Michigan’s Residential College in Drama, English Literature, and Political Science and an MA in Educational Theatre in Colleges and Communities, with a focus in Applied Theatre from New York University’s Steinhardt School. Erin is currently a doctorlal candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder where her research focus is in Applied Theatre and Women's Rights and the application of feminist theory and practices in everyday life.

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