By Keguro Macharia
I am seduced by the prospect of queer conference panels. I anticipate their erotic charge, their intellectual promiscuities, their fleshly abundance—so many queers in one space. I crave their sustaining energy, which enables me to inhabit less queer-friendly and distinctly queer-hating spaces. So I arrived at the MLA panel, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity,” featuring Anamarie Jagose, Robyn Wiegman, and Elizabeth Wilson, with a deep sense of anticipation. I have been struggling to find a language to describe what I experienced as the familiar violence of a field I desire and claim, to name that stubborn attachment Lauren Berlant describes as “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011). It is a strange thing to experience oneself being absented from view—I must, wrongly, personalize this—even as the terms “we” and “our” and “us” were used at the panel often, a lot, extremely.
The panelists mused on the limits of antinormativity as an organizing principle for queer scholarship. Antinormativity, claimed Wiegman, functions as an “engine” that drives queer thinking as intervention, permitting those who invoke the term, and who critique norms and normativity in general, to believe their work is necessarily political. The critique is well taken, for, as the panelists argued, we need to be able to think more deliberately about what constitutes the political and, also, how to distinguish between the norms with which we cannot do without and those that punish and destroy.
While their papers followed different trajectories, they all agreed that “we” needed to return to queer foundations: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, and a distant Foucault.
I was nagged by the familiarity of this archive: white women. How had we come to the (familiar) point where as a rich body of work has proliferated—known, variously, as Black Queer studies, Queer of Color critique, Postcolonial Queerness, Transnational Queerness—we are urged to go back to our (white) roots? Back to our white mothers, who, we were told, we had not yet understood, not quite. Who we had misheard, and misused in the service of something that was dismissed as “the (prematurely) political.”
In case anyone dared to raise the complications of other geo-histories, we were told that this was about the history of the West.
I want to take up this challenge of the West and its queer roots by multiplying our queer genealogies through two key figures: Frantz Fanon and Hortense Spillers. Against what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes, in another context, as a “single story” of queer origins, midwifed by Sedgwick, Butler, Teresa de Lauretis (an absent name), I want to offer other, complementary myths of how we enter into the space called queer. I hope the “our” and “we” and “us” produced by this complementary genealogy includes (as it must) the “our” and “we” and “us” imagined through white mothers. Learning from Sharon Holland, I want to persist “in the stubborn insistence that we do belong to one another despite our every effort at home and in the institution, to lose track of, if not forget altogether, such belonging.” (2012: 15)
Let us proceed with Sedgwick’s own strategy: by insisting that this is about the history of the West. Fanon’s West.
By the late 1990s, as Queer studies took disciplinary shape and gained muscle, the field had decided to abandon Fanon. While Fanon was understood as a theorist of blackness and an interruption into psychoanalysis, he was homophobic, unavailable for Queer studies. Proclaimed as such by Diana Fuss, Lee Edelman, and Kobena Mercer, Fanon became an impossible figure for Queer studies (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996). And here, I must borrow more language from Holland: Fanon could be dismissed with “glee” (2012: 14). While Darieck Scott (2010) has made the Fanon of Wretched of the Earth newly available, Black Skin, White Masks remains safely bracketed.
This bracketing has been strategic, as it means certain strands of Queer studies have ignored the problem race presents for something called the homosexual. If, following Fanon, the Negro represents genitality within colonial modernity, and if the term “homosexual” names a desire for genitality, then desire itself must be directed toward—or routed through—blackness understood as that which incarnates desire for/as genitality. One could claim this is a flattened reading of the homosexual within colonial modernity, but, with Robert Reid-Pharr, I want to insist that “If there is one thing that marks us as queer . . . then it is undoubtedly our relationships to the body, particularly the expansive ways in which we utilize and combine vaginas, penises, breasts, buttocks, hands, arms, feet, stomachs, mouths and tongues in our expressions of not only intimacy, love, and lust but also and more importantly shame, contempt, despair, and hate,” (2001: 85). If such embodiedness rubs the wrong way, then one might simply go with Holland’s claim that “having a right to our queer desires is a fundamental tenet of queer theorizing” (2012: 45). If one reads Fanon a particular way, desire must be routed through, worked through, approached through blackness as that which makes desire possible within colonial modernity, which is to say, modernity.
If a certain strand of Queer studies has been too willing to abandon Fanon, Fanon remains stubbornly attached to Queer studies, demanding an accounting of how blackness comes to figure within and as desire, as the portal to homosexuality as desire. And if the materiality of blackness forces a mad dash for psychic figuration, Fanon has already been there: the Negro and the Negro’s genitality are psychic figurations within colonial modernity that the homosexual cannot do without.
If Fanon poses a problem for the homosexual, Hortense Spillers poses a problem for sex and gender. In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers complicates certain queer strategies: the distinction between gender and sex, the undoing of this distinction, the role of the performative, the distinction between subject and abject, the idea of the dominant and the marginal, normativities and radicals, and so on. To these fine, necessary distinctions, Spillers, like Fanon, poses the problem of colonial modernity as the problem of “the thing.”
Here is one instance of the problem:
The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body – a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence, biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail, is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality [hear Fanon here]; 2) at the same time – in stunning contradiction – the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. (1987: 67)
The thing-making project of New World subject production (the “captive body” is “being” for the captor”) refuses the too-celebratory discussions of undifferentiated gender and un-gendering in Queer studies. The much-heralded “blur” and “undecidability” understood as conditions of freedom must contend with its longer genealogy in a thing-making project. One cannot uncritically celebrate gender or sex undecidability. Instead, one must work through the micro- and macro-positions created in the New World: “captive body,” “thing,” “captured sexualities,” “otherness,” “potential for pornotroping,” “sheer powerlessness.” How might these terms and their emergence from slavery provide other ways to approach Queerness? How do we work through the problem of the “thing” in that micro-transition from “captured bodies” to “captured sexualities,” where thingness becomes a mediating term, a filter, a catalyst, a door? How is sexuality within colonial modernity always (and only) approachable through the thing?
What might a Queer studies that begins with, or engages, the problem of the “thing” look like? How might the problem of the thing compel us to re-think and re-work Sedgwick’s powerful first axiom: “People are different from each other” to ask, instead, how we come to think of the term “people” and what that term brackets and makes impossible. How might the unthinkability of blackness direct our queer gazes?
Something radical—at the root—has happened in Queer studies over the past decade, sometimes, though not always, through Fanon and Spillers. Fred Moten (2008) has taken up the problem of the “thing” for blackness, charting blackness as “fugitive movement in and out of the frame, bar, or whatever externally imposed social logic,” including, I would add, that which governs Sedgwick’s useful distinction between homo and hetero within Western modernity. Moten tasks us to track what “escapes” that figuration of time and being. If we stay within the fiction of a hermetic West, something that Rudi Bleys’s reading of the ethnographic imagination makes difficult, but still (1996). If we stay with this fiction, then work by Christina Sharpe, Omise’eke Tinsley, Ricardo Ortiz, José Muñoz, Nayan Shah, Mark Rifkin, and many others has taught us that far from being close to exhausted, the project of reading queerness in the West remains to be done, remains radicalizing, always demanding a (re)turn to places and times we had not known to look or, having looked, we had not known how to think about.
If the paradigms we have relied on thus far—antinormavity, say—no longer suffice because of our increasingly multiply entangled and multiplying geo-histories, if we need to forge contingent tools that will allow us to keep speaking with each other across increasingly disparate times and spaces, if we must jettison everything we thought we knew to pursue the “not yet here” Muñoz so richly invokes, so be it.
But, to take language from Essex Hemphill, “don’t let loneliness / kill us” (1992:165) Hemphill’s “us” is what is at stake—the “us” I desire, the one I went to the panel seeking, the “us” that was pronounced through negation.
It could have been otherwise.
It should have been otherwise.
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
Rudi C. Bleys, The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behavior Outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918 (New York: NYU Press, 1996).
Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994)
Diana Fuss, “Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification,” Diacritics 24. 2-3 (1994): 19-42
Essex Hemphill, “Heavy Corners,” Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (New York: Plume, 1992)
Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 15. (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996)
Kobena Mercer, “Decolonization and Disappointment: Reading Fanon’s Sexual Politics,” The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation, ed. Alan Read (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996).
Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50.2 (2008): 177-218.
José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009)
Ricardo Ortiz, Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
Robert Reid-Pharr, Black Gay Man: Essays (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
Mark Rifkin, When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, The History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (New York: OUP, 2011).
Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination
(New York: New York University Press, 2010).
Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (CA: University of California Press, 2012)
Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987).
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)