Article Overview of Heather Hicks’ “’This Strange Communion”: Surveillance and Spectatorship in Ann Petry’s The Street”

Heather Hicks argues that “a central concern in The Street has never been addressed: namely, the dynamics of spectatorship and surveillance that animate the racist social formation of Harlem” (21). She states, “Petry…produces a distinctive view…between spectatorship and surveillance” (22). Hicks foregrounds her argument by offering a brief overview of the British art historian Griselda Pollock’s essay “Feminism/Foucault—Surveillance/Sexuality.” Hicks discusses Pollock’s assertion that there is a “key distinction between ‘fascinated looking’ and ‘disciplinary investigation” (23). According to Hicks, Pollack “connect[s]” fascinated looking with “’the mechanism and processes associated with the unconscious’” and its “drives” which are “’unpredictable and destabilizing plays of fascination, curiosity, dread, desire, and horror’ complicate—or ‘furrow’—the will to know and the resultant relations of power’” (23).

Hicks asserts the following:
• “Petry’s novel constructs a picture of social relations…in which two distinct, but interdependent, modes of looking are in operation…spectatorship and speculation” (24).
• There are two characters through which Petry demonstrates modes of looking. (These modes are “distinct” from one another.)
o The “Super”
 “fascinated looking”
• which “Pollock associates” with sexual desire
• and “Psychoanalytic theory treats as male gaze” (24
o Mrs. Hedges (who runs a whorehouse in the building)
 Who “embodies a mode of controlling surveillance”
• While Mrs. Hedges sees Lutie’s body as a “sexual object,” she does so because she views Lutie’s body as “saleable” (27)
• She is engaged in “tireless surveillance” for Junto
o Junto is the white controller of the “large prostitution ring” Mrs. Hedges runs

Hicks admits Junto is also a type of “watcher” in the novel, but due to limitations of “space” in the essay, she chooses not to focus on him. However, Hicks asserts that Junto is, as Marjorie Pryse argues that Junto is, “not one man but a figure for a power that feeds on the color line but not reducible to it” (28). He is according to Hicks, also, as “Wurst put it, ‘invisible, invincible, and omnipresent” (28).

Hicks asserts that what makes the gaze of Hedge’s (“as the eyes of Junto”—though a gaze that is separate from Junto’s) and the Super’s important in the text is the way they each “represent a sexualized, fascinated looking, respectively” at Lutie’s body—for their own purposes (30).

Finally, Hicks states the hope that the argument she’s presented establishes “Petry’s novel is a subtle mediation on the relays and intersections between fascinated, sexualized looking and a regulatory gaze of surveillance that serves as a racist system of power” (33).

My thoughts on the article: Hicks presents an interesting and compelling argument in her reading of Petry’s The Street. Her use of Griselda Pollock’s essay works as a fitting underpinning to her assertion that Petry’s The Street exposes two important types of gaze that Lutie, as an African American woman is subjected to; and, through Lutie’s fictional situation, Petry is exposing a real world issue for African Americans, and African American women in particular.
How can we apply these two types of looking to other naturalists’ works we’ve read this semester?


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