Book Reviews

Imani Perry, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, Duke University Press, 2018.

Revolution begins with the self, in the self…It may be lonely. Certainly painful. It’ll take time. We’ve got time. That of course is an unpopular utterance these days. Instant coffee is the hallmark of current rhetoric. But we do have time. We’d better take time to fashion revolutionary selves, revolutionary lives, revolutionary relationships. Mouth don’t win the war. It don’t even win the people. Neither does haste, urgency, and stretch-out-now insistence. Not all speed is movement. – Toni Cade Bambara, The Black Woman (1970)

Writing in the midst of the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the militarized white supremacist violence leveraged against protestors rebelling in defense and affirmation of Black life, I struggle to find a place to begin this review. And when I struggle with pulling together many interwoven threads and need guidance, I always turn to Black feminists of past and present. I do this is in part because Black feminism is my grounding praxis, but also because Black feminists are incredibly generous and timeless in offering gifts of mappings, frameworks, schematics, and analyses to navigate and understand complex, interwoven events and systems. Black feminist offerings include Audre Lorde’s (1984) ‘chaos of knowledge,’ Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1991) ‘intersectionality,’ Monique Morris’ (2016) “pushout,” Patricia Hill Collins’ (2009) “matrixes of domination,” bell hooks’ (2000) “oppositional worldview,” and Beth Richie’s (2012) “male violence matrix” to name just a few. In “On the Issue of Roles,” Toni Cade Bambara interrogates patriarchal notions of “the Black Woman’s Role in the Revolution” (p. 123)[1]. She offers a nuanced, historical mapping of the constructed binary of “masculine” and “feminine” roles as rooted in misogynistic and capitalistic traditions of domination. And as the above excerpt highlights, Bambara offers guidance for a way forward by beginning with one’s self and one’s relationships. In this Black feminist spirit, I am struck by the many offerings enclosed in Imani Perry’s Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (2018).

            Perry continues in the Black feminist tradition by offering ‘liberation feminist praxis’ as guidance on how to take time to critically read the machinations of patriarchy interwoven in conceptions of personhood, property, empire, modernity, neoliberalism, digital media and technology, and the security state. She offers liberation feminist praxis as a way of curating relationships to others, our imaginations of a liberated future, liberatory social organization, and affective witnessing practices. Vexy Thing is an invitation and demonstration of a critical feminist reading of “multiple forms of domination that grew under a structure of patriarchal authority that was globally imposed during the age of empire” (p. 6). I see Vexy Thing as an important call to take time, as Bambara says, to develop an analysis of patriarchy that makes clear the insidious character of gender domination and exploitation as complex and layered. As Perry describes, the book is “a theoretical argument advocating the primacy of praxis rather than [taking a pro or con] position” (p. 9).

            The book is divided into three sections with two interludes. The first chapter, “Seafaring, Sovereignty, and the Self: Of Patriarchy and the Conditions of Modernity,” and the second chapter, “Producing Personhood: The Rise of Capitalism and the Western Subject,” make up the first section. In this first section, Perry homes in on patriarchy as an undergirding logic of modernity, globalization, and neoliberalism by analyzing the relationships between the legal formations of personhood, sovereignty, and property. She begins with a significant engagement with John Locke in chapter one, writing: “So I begin with the proposition that the economic liberalism of which Locke was a foundational thinker — and, specifically, the doctrine of personhood — entails a system whereby the subject before the state or the law was made into either patriarch, his liege (woman), or someone outside legal recognition, whether slaves or what in that time were termed “savages” but whom we can also term “nonpersons” in the judicial sense” (p. 21). Drawing on Hortense Spillers, Perry highlights the integral role of gender domination in philosophical and political formations of legal recognition in the works of thinkers like Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes and in policy like the Relief of the Poor Act of 1782 and the Poor Law Amendment of 1834 (p. 40). The second chapter continues this line of inquiry into the nineteenth century to explore the structure of patriarchy and personhood during the rise of industrial capitalism and colonialism. This chapter interrogates the “modern, postfeudal global patriarchal order” through analysis of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1869), the “Father of Gynecology,” Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), and French colonial policy through Oscar Wilde’s “fantasy of domination” (p. 79).

            “How Did We Get Here? Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” serves as a bridge between section one and two. This first interlude reckons with the impact and interconnectedness of post-World War II gender discourses and geopolitics. Perry begins with an analysis of the success of the film Norma Rae (1979) as in tension with the film’s real-life inspiration, Crystal Lee Sutton, who lived an economically vulnerable life. This helpfully sets the stage for her call to feminists to critically assess how the “language of liberalism…and the liberal democratic project” limits feminist articulations of gender domination and struggle (p. 93). Perry pointedly highlights the liberal politics of inclusion as a call “for an expansion of who can be patriarchs and ladies,” which foreshadows chapter three. The second section of the book, “In the Ether: Neoliberalism and Entrepreneurial Woman”, starts with an exploration of the rise of the “entrepreneurial woman” as a neoliberal, postfeminist companion to the “entrepreneurial man.” This chapter draws heavily on Wendy Brown’s (2009; 2003; 2015) analysis of neoliberalism to suggest that the modern structure of patriarchy has expanded who can compete as a patriarch or lady to the patriarch in the neoliberal marketplace. She offers musings on the “marketization of identity” (p. 108), representation politics in “a bureaucratized feminist (and civil rights) movement” (p. 111), and “conventional hetero-patriarchal concepts of desire” (p. 113).

            Next, in “Simulacra Child: Hypermedia and the Mediated Subject,” Perry utilizes Jean Baudrillard’s (1994) reading of spectacles and simulacra to understand self-representation, human connection, profitable personal data, the rise in sexually explicit material on the Internet, and truncated (and often decontextualized) history. In chapter four, Perry suggests that:

            Consumption and performance in the simulacra are primary modes of engagement with, and contestation of, gender and racial representation, particularly as democracy succumbs to neoliberal priorities. It is a stage for popular dissent, and yet it is also dependent on corporations and disciplined by oligarchic control of market flows, as is evident during moments in which corporations choose to silence certain forms of critique (e.g., Twitter suspension in the midst of the 2016 campaign of the @GuerrillaDems account that created the #WhichHillary hashtag to criticize Clinton’s waffling on liberal and progressive issues) (p. 131-132).

            This chapter highlights the importance of a critical feminist reading of the many layers of domination imbued in the digital arena. The chapter includes a robust discussion of explicit versus pornographic images on the Internet, reality television as performative spectacle, and Kara Walker’s installation The Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014). And the fifth chapter, “Sticks Broken at the River: The Security State and the Violence of Manhood,” closes the second section of Vexy Thing. In this chapter, Perry reads patriarchy through the life of Jeffrey Fort and the United States’ National Security Act (1947). She contends that the logic of the security state hinges on patriarchy to define and exert sovereign authority as a relationship of control and deprivation. This is evidenced by the continued rise in domestic, border, and global U.S. militarization and expansion of the reach of carcerality (including prisons and detention centers with school service providers who do ancillary police work). Additionally, Perry considers the appeal and harm of men, whom she calls “patriarchy seekers,” who are denied the recognition of legal personhood and aspire to have the power and dominance of patriarchs. This is done, in part, to say that aspirational patriarchy supports the continuation of patriarchy, even if the distribution of harm differs from more powerful patriarchs, like the state and state officials.

            The second interlude, “Returning to the Witches,” introduces the final section of the book – and my favorite section. Perry uses Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” to frame the turn in the book from “reading through layers” to, what Walker names, ‘witch-artist’ traditions of rearranging and witnessing in the throes of injustice. Asking readers to go beyond calls to elevate women to the position of patriarchs or other integrationist feminist calls, Perry explains:

In this book, [witch-artists] carry us across the bridge from the first two sections, which offer descriptive readings of conditions and structures that create, sustain, and extend patriarchy, to the final section, which moves through an imaginative landscape in which we might ignite the capacity to make our way out from under the force of patriarchy on our minds and wills (p. 172).

            The final section of the book begins with chapter six, “Unmaking the Territory and Remapping the Landscape.” This chapter positions mapping as both “a tool of the sovereign authority, and its agents, in the form of men-cum-patriarchs” and a way of feminist witnessing from the margins (p. 179). Perry explores the former through Martin Waldseemuller’s world map of 1507 and analysis of what she calls “neocolonial cartographies of human value” (p. 180). And she highlights the latter through examinations of mappings of Black women and disability in novelist and elder, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and works by painters, like Wangechi Mutu and Julie Mehretu.

            The final two chapters of the book are “The Utterance of My Name: Invitation and Disorder of Desire,” chapter seven, and “The Vicar of Liberation,” chapter eight. In chapter seven, Perry draws on Stanley Cavell’s (2006) conceptualization of the passionate utterance and Audre Lorde’s (1984) conceptualization of the erotic to affirm the importance of affect for liberation feminism. She clarifies her work in chapter seven in the following:

            More explicitly, I am concerned not simply with the things we “love” or relations we desire, but explicitly with the act of gesturing toward the possible that does not fit into logics of liberalism vis-a-vis a personhood status that comes with forms of ready-made social and legal recognition. I am interested in how considering passionate utterances might lead us toward the development of a practice of resourcefulness and creative praxis vis-a-vis being (collectively) that lies in contradistinction to the terms of market logic and both the neoliberal and liberal subject (p. 207).

            Hence, Perry is seeking to call readers to break with exclusionary logics of liberalism to imagine creative, liberation practices. This is further explained in the eighth chapter, where Perry looks to the practice of curation to suggest that liberation feminist praxis requires deliberate curational practices to be in relation to others and one’s self. She examines curation in conversation with Toni Morrison, Alabama’s Gee Bend Quiltmakers, Toyin Ojih Odutola, El Anatsui, and Wendy Chun. Throughout the final chapter, Perry is proposing liberation feminism as a “living curational project” to cultivate listening politics and analytics (p. 245).

            As feminists and others continue to grapple with analyzing and building toward liberatory futures during the vexing times of 2020, Vexy Thing is a helpful interdisciplinary offering to read for the ways the moves of patriarchy show up in legal and political formations of personhood, the neoliberal marketplace, the digital world, and in one’s practices and relationships. Vexy Thing is filled with numerous, interesting threads ripe for conversation for any reader. For instance, I am interested in thinking through the conceptual links drawn in Perry’s analysis of the entrepreneurial woman, personhood, gendered labor, and neoliberal capitalism. In particular, it is challenging to parse through the varying conceptions of entrepreneurial woman as a “market victor” and entrepreneurial woman as a “legal nonperson.” Using Perry’s terminology, what is the relationship between legal nonpersonhood, partial personhood, full personhood and one’s available options (or lack thereof) in the neoliberal marketplace as an entrepreneur? Are all people with differing legal recognition of personhood entrepreneurs? Perry seems to suggest this when she says, “in the United States, people who, under conditions of danger and secrecy, travel across borders to do the work of entrepreneurship into which we are all forced and fill jobs in the neoliberal economy are often perceived as competitive threats in low wage markets rather than as vulnerable” (p. 121). And how does the framework of personhood help one identify the harm and relative power of the entrepreneurial woman in the example given of the market for artificial hair and knockoff designer bags? Last, given that the neoliberal marketplace relies on gendered labor exclusion and precarity, how do we distinguish the ways that exclusion and precarity create the conditions in which people are entrepreneurial in informal economies as a means of survival, rather than as a means to approach the status of a patriarch or liege of the patriarch? These are all simply fascinating questions to ponder, so I am grateful that Perry’s work inspires such thought-provoking questions.

            Ultimately, Perry says the book “calls for us to treat “feminism” as a verb: to feel the resonances, answer the utterances, listen closely, and experience that as a doing, as a diachronic poesis of living in politics that is ever changing, uncertain, and vexed but that also, we hope, will bring us closer to freeing us all” (p. 253). And certainly, it is crucial to take time to treat feminism as a verb to fashion revolutionary selves, revolutionary lives, and revolutionary relationships that indeed bring us all closer to freedom.  

Ayanna De’Vante Spencer

Michigan State University

East Lansing, MI


Bambara, T. C. (1970). The Black woman: An anthology. New York: Penguin.

Collins. P. H. (2009). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241-1299.

hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory from margin to center. Boston: South End Press.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansburg: Crossing Press.

Morris, M. W. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools. New York: The New Press.

Richie, B. (2012). Arrested justice: Black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. New York: New York University Press.

[1] I came to identify and hone my politics as Black feminist politics, in large part, because of my incredible community in the Toni Cade Bambara Scholars/Writers/Activists Collective at the Spelman College Women’s Research and Resource Center. Facilitated by Dr. M. Bahati Kuumba, Black feminist students met every Friday over pizza to read, discuss, and strategize together. This is my beginning. I am forever grateful to Bahati, Christine Slaughter, Hadiya Jones, Amoni Thompson, Banah Ghaban, AriDy Nox, Tanisha Jarvis, Ain Ealey, Madyson Crawford, Teri Davis, Veronikka Gittens, and many other sister-scholars.

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