Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression, by Tina Post. New York, NYU Press, 2023. 280 pages.
PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW ME often tell me I look fairly blank. It comes out in a swarm of ways. “I can’t read you,” someone who wanted to fuck informed me. (We didn’t make it to bed.) “She’s so serious,” a retail worker said, addressing the white person next to me. (I didn’t buy anything.) “She’s so boring” is another one I’ve gotten, mostly behind my back. (I’m a professor who doesn’t drink or do drugs anymore, so I’ll ungrudgingly admit to that—maybe too quickly.) “Well, what do you think?” is a question I get a lot while teaching. (I like this one.)
Sometimes I gloat over my inscrutability; sometimes I shrug it off; sometimes I protest. In any case, I can acknowledge the gendered and racialized implications of being unwilling or unable to contort my face into a shape that will put others at ease. In her new book, Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression, Tina Post lingers on supermodel Naomi Campbell’s 1995 cameo on the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous—and her “resting bitch face”—to elucidate her titular subject. “Campbell neither smiles nor frowns, but fans herself looking nowhere in particular,” Post writes. “Her affect seems quiet but not uncomfortable, like an introvert having their own thoughts in company.” And yet she’s perceived as difficult by the show’s wildly out-of-pocket characters. “Though Campbell is beautiful and feminine, her muted affect is perceived as intransigence.”
Put simply, a black woman can be called a bitch when doing or looking like whatever. That’s the rub. As Post asks, “If black expression cannot be trusted, what can be known of black expression?” Blackness’s unreadability, she argues, has developed in tandem with its “excess emotion.” This perception of affective surplus is reinforced by both the hypervisibility of death and the proliferation of visual stereotypes. The mediatized spectacle of black pain finds extreme expression (or inexpression) in the case of the renowned poker-faced pugilist Joe Louis, who first inspired Post’s research. “Louis was famously deadpanned,” she writes. “He rarely smiled or frowned in his public life. He could stroll through throngs of fans with the humility of a man going out for a quart of milk, and he entered and exited the boxing ring in much the same way.”
Overall, Deadpan explores, in the author’s words, “the aesthetic affects at work at the intersection of blackness and embodied inexpression.” She builds on the fast-growing scholarship on “black illegibility,” working through concepts including Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s signifying, Édouard Glissant’s opacity, Darlene Clark Hine’s dissemblance, and Sylvia Wynter’s decipherment. An assistant professor in the English department at the University of Chicago, Post elaborates on the traditional definition of deadpan—a word for inanimate expression likely originating in vaudeville, literally “dead face”—while refusing a strict and stable meaning; she does not conceive of the deadpan as a kind of mask that, in a moment of revelation, can be pulled off. Beware: “A reader looking for the hidden depths of expressionless black subjectivities will not find them here.”
For Post, the deadpan isn’t a kind of mask that, in a moment of revelation, can be pulled off.
The book opens with the emotive ambivalence of Rich Homie Quan’s hit 2013 rap single “Type of Way.” Poised between a “lack of expression and an abundance of aesthetic affect,” the track—and the titular idiom it helped bring into mainstream usage—exemplifies the enigmatic “non-naming” that distinguishes deadpan aesthetics, occluding communicative transparency and invoking and deflecting sentiment in the same breath. In its adamant caveats about what deadpan is and is not, what it does and what it does not do, Post’s book will either delight or frustrate readers of contemporary aesthetic theory—or both, as it did me. As she writes in the first chapter, on inexpression’s relationship to respectability, science, empiricism, modernity, and Western bourgeois subjectivity: “I began this book as an attempt to discern how a single performative gesture could signal so variously.”
Is deadpan a form of resistance? “Maybe.” Does expressionlessness impart restraint? Sometimes. And then there is the important complication of psychoanalytic projection, the way in which “the deadpan’s blank surface also allows it to act as a vehicle for all manner of other information.” Blackness’s aesthetic nebulosity, then, is an effect of what black feminist scholars call its fungibility: the coercive set of conditions that make blackness movable, substitutable, extractable, interchangeable, borrowable.
It is in Post’s creative and heterogenous readings that the force of her argument best comes across. From the surveilled, violated, and exploited black figure (Louis Agassiz’s daguerreotypes of enslaved people); to the display of black respectability (Richard Avedon’s group portrait William Casby and family, 1963); to black refusals of photographic capture (Rashid Johnson’s Jonathan with Hands, 1997); to the work of Robert Morris, who, without consciously invoking black imagery or cultural markers, embraced an “aesthetics of looming” linked to a racialized “paradigm of black threat”; to discomfiting fusions of dramatic realism and minstrelsy (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s first play, 2010’s Neighbors); to affective indeterminacy in contemporary rap (Atlanta’s aforementioned Rich Homie Quan), Post’s readings include both “black subjects who perform expressionlessness” and white artists whose work flirts with and feeds on the imaginary of blackness.
The book’s promotional copy suggests that its author is “intervening in the persistent framing of African American aesthetics as colorful, loud, humorous, and excessive.” If you live in racist America, or have simply been touched by its hegemonic exuberance through popular culture, you can understand that claim without needing examples. (After reading Deadpan, I’ll dispassionately withhold the litany of mine.) As Post suggests in an endnote, “assumptions of expressiveness” often attach themselves to blackness, “emphasizing the ways that race and gender are mutually imbricated, and the ways that the neutral or universal are implicitly white.”
A chapter titled “Minimalism and the Aesthetics of Black Threat” revisits Michael Fried’s foundational 1967 jeremiad “Art and Objecthood,” reading the critic’s discomfort with the anthropomorphic character of Minimalist art through the prism of what Post calls “loom”—a quality that conflates ideas of peril, portent, physicality, darkness, and obscurity, and that “accrues particular resonance in tandem with blackness—or, more accurately, in tandem with the persistent cultural tendency, in America, to sense blackness generally, and black masculinity in particular, as potential menace.” Post does not attribute such a view to the author of “Art and Objecthood”: “To be clear, I am not suggesting that Michael Fried was secretly writing about race all along,” she cautions. “Rather, the aesthetics of minimalist art as Fried sees them are consistent with ways that black subjects have been, and continue to be, described—obstinate, aggressive, secretive, untranscendent, inexpressive, and above all, stubbornly, uncomfortably, theatrically present.” Discussing the work of David Hammons, Morris, Adrian Piper, and Martin Puryear, Post shows how deadpan can encompass not only faces but also gestures, figures, bodies, and objects. Particularly provocative are the reflections on Morris, in which the white artist’s performing body in Site, 1964 (which cast a naked, reclining Carolee Schneemann in the iconic pose of Manet’s Olympia), becomes a “substitution for [the] unreadable blackness” of the courtesan’s maid, and in which the sinister enclosure of Morris’s coffin-like Untitled (Box for Standing), 1961, assumes ghostly connotations of threat, carcerality, and social death. The stakes are high when taking into account state violence in America, where Post notes that “a quick associative leap” has “connected black inscrutability with black threat” beginning at least with Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, in which the founding father submits what he perceives as black people’s inability to register emotion through blushing as evidence of black inferiority, white supremacy, and the genocidal consequences of upsetting this “natural” hierarchy.
What is in this gap, ever narrowing, between aesthetics and death? Is it atmospheric blackness? Psychosocial negation? What Toni Morrison might have called an “Africanist presence”? Or does the “dead” of deadpan recur as a black figure who is unwilling to be moved?
As the book moves toward illustrations of deadpan “less wedded to black faces and bodies,” Post turns to the comedic repertoire of silent film star Buster Keaton, known as “the Great Stone Face.” It’s relevant that Keaton, the “paradigmatic white cultural enactor of deadpan aesthetics,” occasionally engaged in blackface performance, but more crucial for Post is the way that his physical resilience and imperviousness to abuse, his “inexpressive performance of not-knowingness and contingent existence,” would have been coextensive with blackness for Jim Crow–era audiences. She concludes with a coda on Steve McQueen’s 1997 short film Deadpan, in which the artist, in a rewriting of Keaton’s famous scene from 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., stands motionless as the facade of a house falls over him, again and again. “I have the sense, when I watch Deadpan, that I am, for once, the intended audience,” writes Post. “That in this case, McQueen’s inexpression is speaking to me, with me, about the shared condition of embodied racialization and of the kinds of psychic durability and physical stilling that it can call for.” We might recall that when Rich Homie Quan isn’t feeling “some type of way,” he is trying to escape it:
I got a hideawayAnd I go there sometimes
To give my mind a break
You see I find a way
To still get through struggle, what I’m tryna say
And I ain’t lying today
Then we might ask ourselves why it takes so little in this life not only to be compelled to express absence, but to want to disappear entirely.
Tiana Reid is an assistant professor in the department of English at York University in Toronto.