There is perhaps no single formal practice more closely associated with contemporary culture than the repetition of images, styles, and forms from the past, and nowhere have these practices been more contentiously debated than in the cultural production of racial subjects. This essay argues that critics consistently interpret such repetitions through the opposing frameworks of either parody or trauma, which consign them to imagining a racial subject who is either entirely in possession of the past or entirely possessed by it; who either stages a cathartic emancipation from historical oppressio or continual subjection to it. These opposing views of postmodern repetitions have collided in an especially contentious way in the reception of the work of visual artist Kara Walker, whose cut-paper silhouettes of antebellum racial stereotypes are seen as either parodically resignifying racist imagery or traumatically reproducing it. This essay argues that by relying only upon these models of repetition, critics inevitably fail to recognize the dynamic of compulsive repetition that permeates Walker's art, a dynamic that dialectically entwines the agency and subjection implied by parody and trauma respectively. For Walker, compulsive repetition becomes a way to elucidate the equivocal logic of contemporary identity politics, which consigns the socially marginalized to the contradictory practice of affirming the very identities on which their historical exclusion has been based. Concerned less with the recuperation of the past than with the contradictions of the present, then, Walker's art offers an incisive account of a contemporary moment that compels iterative repetitions rather than allowing conclusive resolutions.

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