Succor

I want to think speculatively, and counterintuitively, about two rhetorical tics that recurs in media accounts.

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A necessary aside. I am not objective, nor do I think, at this time, that calls for objectivity are fair: elections are highly subjective. Voting is an act premised on dreams and desires, a way of imagining and trying to create a future. To ask for “objective” and ostensibly rational thinking at this time is to minimize the affective investments we bring to our political undertakings: it is, to use a bald analogy, to tell the wounded person to stop feeling pain.

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More than one account has asked: what will the western media think? How will they portray us? To my mind, this is one of the most irrelevant questions. I have long argued, and will continue to do so, that this nervous tic surrounding western representation does us little good. To return to a theme I’ve already broached, it sets up a false dichotomy between an already achieved west and an always-striving Kenya (and the rest of the world). It assumes that we need and want western approbation to define our political futures. It ignores that even “at our best” we can only always come in as second best, lagging behind but catching up. And, most disappointingly, it betrays that we have not yet learned to trust ourselves, to trust our intuitions, instincts, dreams, and desires, to imagine a nation that is uniquely ours, though in dialogue with the world.

The second rhetorical tic is the constant assertion that “Kenyans are peaceful people.” I have always been troubled by the implicit class and age assumptions embedded in this statement. Appearing in the major newspapers, it has always seemed a little too blind to its own bias. I am not claiming that “Kenyans” are violent people; that sort of rhetorical reversal is uninteresting, though there are certain quotidian acts of violence (domestic violence, for example) that continually mark the national landscape, and need to be recognized.

I am interested in asking: are the people who are fighting and rioting and even looting not Kenyans? Are they anomalous figures, parasites within the national body that should be destroyed? Of course, much of this resonates for me with the constant deployment of the GSU in the 1980s and 1990s to contain “un-Kenyan” activities.

To be clear, I am not interested in defending violence. I do think, however, we do ourselves a disservice when we assert as fact—Kenyans are peaceful—what might be more properly described as aspiration, and especially when we ignore the very material and affective conditions that create violence. Those who may be looting are not less Kenyan or non-Kenyan. It’s important to remember this.

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Over the past few days, I have been thinking about two blog-events as a way to gain some sanity. The first is a long-ago meme in which members of kbw were asked what they liked about being Kenyan—or what they missed about Kenya. (A quick summary of the results can be found here.) What seemed most useful about the meme was the way it allowed us to recognize our diversity, to register our tastes and idiosyncrasies, to forge connections, to learn that difference does not equal division. We need to remember this.

The second blog-event is the outpouring of sympathy following the tragic accident of flight KQ507. Kenyans across the diaspora, whether members of kbw or not, understood that one necessary way of being national, becoming “pamoja” is to grieve together, to extend sympathy, to be joined by a shared experience of pain.

While the first example I offer may seem slightly frivolous as compared to the second, I want to register my sense that citizenship, what I have termed elsewhere feeling national, moves along several registers, from the frivolous and celebratory to the profound and melancholy.

Somehow, this has provided succor.

Courtly Gentleman vs. Flamboyant Businessman

Writing for the NYT, Jeffrey Gettleman has described the Kenyan election as a battle (if you will) between two different kinds of men who embody two forms of masculinity. As a courtly gentleman (reincarnated from Elizabethan England no doubt) Kibaki represents the vestiges of empire: he is its progeny and heir. Raila, though, is a bit harder to figure out: he seems, in the terms of the article, much like a Donald Trump figure. (Incidentally, it’s telling that almost all the coverage from the west has termed Raila “flamboyant.”) Depending on how one reads the term “flamboyant,” Raila could be read as a figure who combines Bill Clinton and George Bush, both “flamboyant” characters in their own ways.

Of course, the opposition between the “courtly” gentleman and the “flamboyant” businessman, and here I want to focus primarily on the adjectives, calls to mind longstanding and deeply historical divisions of class and race, of old world and new world distinctions, of the division between civilized and uncivilized subjects. Kibaki’s reticence is appropriated into an idiom of gentility, suggesting he has the right kind of education and mien while Raila’s exuberance be-speaks a certain kind of African authenticity, what Senghor might term an expression of negritude.

These adjectives, I am suggesting, tell us something quite interesting about how African (and the metonymic slide is important here) masculinities are understood and misunderstood, translated and mistranslated so that they register within a western context. It goes without saying that such acts of (mis)translation reify distinctions forged within colonialism, distinctions that rely on a developmental logic in which Africans move from savagery (often flamboyant, but not always) to civilization, courtliness, that is.

My real topic, much more so a brief comment, has to do with the rhetoric of development that has surrounded the election; repeatedly, reports have spoken of Kenyans “maturing,” of democracy “developing.” I am rankled by the developmental logic of such statements, in part, because they ignore the fissures and tensions of “developed democracies” (see the previous US elections; see France) to infantilize African countries, which are always “developing,” held suspended in perpetual childhood (enhanced of course by generous infantilizing gestures in the form of aid, giving and withholding).

At the risk of infuriating many political scientists, let me say: there is no such thing as a fully realized or mature democracy. The bundle of promises, desires, attachments, and obligations suggested by the term democracy (far beyond the rite of a certain way of voting) are more than matched by the irrational, inchoate, and utopian dreams and promises that remain unrealized, and perhaps unrealizable. There is, of course, a smart way to talk about this in terms of the relationship between capitalism and democracy, that their interdependence is, perhaps paradoxically, the limit of democracy’s realization, especially if we imagine social equality as one of democracy’s promises.

But I’m tired—I just had multiple job interviews with incredibly brilliant people who sucked my brain dry. So I cannot actually think. And I probably shouldn’t post this.

I will.

That “odd” Note

In a mostly persuasive article in the Nation, Peter Mwaura argues that Kibaki’s “true legacy” is freedom of expression. He offers, as evidence, that this freedom gave Kenyans such latitude that the president was not spared. Indeed, Mwaura contends, it is an index of Kibaki’s success that he has been, at times, the victim of granting such freedom.

I am interested, though, in the final paragraphs of the article, in which Mwaura delves into strange, and telling, territory:

MR KIBAKI REMOVED AN INTRUSIVE and meddlesome government off our backs. He provided us with an enabling environment to be ourselves, to be what we wanted to be.

All his five years as president were characterised by unprecedented freedom, even freedom for his ministers to run their ministries. In fact, his often quoted “insults” including pumbavu and mavi ya kuku were given in the same spirit of freedom of expression enjoyed by other citizens, no matter how unbecoming the usage of such words may seem.

At the same time, his outspokenness about who are and who are not members of his family was part of that freedom. It was also an attempt to uphold family values, to state that even families have a right to freedom (from idle gossip and calumny).

By categorically stating who his family members were and denying insinuations that there was a second wife (even in a society where polygamy is acceptable and respectable in many quarters), he boosted Kenyan family values that have been constantly watered down by creeping permissiveness.

A queer reading, that is to say an “interested” reading, might consider this movement from government in the first quoted paragraph to family in the final one; the implicit, though by no means surreptitious claim that government is invested in promoting “Kenyan family values.”

Here, “creeping permissiveness” becomes the enemy of “government,” of “Kenyan family values,” a contentless abstraction that carries unbearable weight (after all, as Lee Edelman asks, who would dare to be “against” family?).

In slightly more academic terms, we might think of how the act of “categorically stating” one’s family members constitutes them as family members (as a “man” speaks, so it shall be). Lacking in Mwaura’s analysis is any sense of whether Kibaki’s performative is adequate to the task of defining intimate relations: is family and are family values reducible to this declarative act? Here, I’m thinking of the scores of men who all-too-willingly disavow fatherhood—it’s not mine! Is this declaration sufficient to define the complicated terrain of intimacy? Asked another way, does Mwaura want to argue that the government is invested in protecting and promoting specific family values that find their realization and exemplar in the form of the church-sanctioned monogamous family secured, in turn, by what we might term, tongue in cheek, the “Law of the Father?”

And, how do we understand the claim that Kibaki allowed us to “be what we wanted to be” alongside the all-too-familiar complaint of “creeping permissiveness?” What is the relationship between citizen-defined intimacy and state-sanctioned intimacy?

What is it about the domain of the intimate that so often produces this strange disjuncture between “freedom” and “permissiveness,” between intimate practices and family values? Why doesn’t freedom of expression, which Mwaura wants to praise, extend to the domain of the intimate? Why must this domain be policed above all else?

I ask these questions to think about the presents we will be creating in the aftermath of this election, presents that have the potential to recognize and work with what might be termed, adapting Bruce Robbins’s apt phrase, “already existing intimacies”: it might be possible, instead of upholding mythical “family values,” secured by the word of a benevolent patriarch, to conceive of public and private modes of intimate life that reflect our rich diversity.

And, so, the 27th

For the third time since I gained the right to do so, I will not be voting. I will be forced to ask strangers with whom I share an undefined connection we term “nationality” to choose for me, and to choose wisely.

In a recent speech, Ida Odinga argued that we needed a stronger economy. Attempting to personalize the claim—to forge empathy—she said impoverished workers did not have the means to “give her grandchildren.” Putting aside the absurdity of the claim (the Odingas are far from impoverished), it might be possible, indeed necessary, to challenge the grounds of her claim: put simply, I think we lose “nationality” when we vote for the generations we will produce, when our genealogical roots become the mythical shoots that direct our actions.

We might learn, rather, to vote counterintuitively: to vote for strangers.

Adapting language from the US, we might learn to vote against what we perceive to be our own self interests, to vote, that is, for individuals who may not share our backgrounds and ethnicities, who may act or speak differently. To vote for strangers means not relying on the insecure myths of shared origin or even presumably shared goals.

From my vantage point, it also means voting on behalf of those of us who are strangers: figures online, the many abroad, the many in hospital beds, the many who, for some reason, will be unable to register to vote, the many whose votes may be destroyed or miscounted.

To vote for a stranger means putting aside one’s own desire to prosper, or, better yet, putting that need alongside a stranger’s perhaps undisclosed needs and desires. This, then, is the challenge and privilege of voting: to consider how one’s vote brings into being the world one wants to inhabit.

“Fats,” “Fems,” Gay Aesthetics and Gay Desire

Little of what follows is systematic. With time and patience it might be. I wanted to capture the irrationality and excitement of response, what might be akin to an intellectual erection. On re-reading, I find I seem more flaccid than I would have liked. But I am older and the flaccid does have its pleasures. I would term this a preamble, or the apology before undressing.

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I spent much more time thinking about “gay aesthetics” in my early twenties: I lived in metropolitan areas, I went out to clubs, I actively used the old and new social sites of networking (internet ads, chat rooms, public spaces). At the time, though I barely weighed 150#–I think I ranged between 130 and 145—it was easy to believe that my never overly masculine self (thank you primary school classmates for letting me know I did everything “like a girl”) was captured in the phrase, “no fats or fems.” Those who claimed to be attracted to me labored, I felt, under some misapprehension of who or what I was. I did not know enough then to de-link aesthetics from desire, to register their incommensurability when it counted.

To be sure, there are good reasons for how I felt: I was, at least in those early days, in a new country, whose codes seemed utterly foreign; I had joined undergraduate college culture, a space that reinforces, often without question, the dominant assumptions about attractiveness, in part because it is so fraught with anxiety that it cannot invent its own languages and practices of desire; I was in a predominantly white setting, where I could not experience “being ordinary” as part of my desirability (on this there’s much more to write); I was learning a new language of desire, one quite distinct from the previous religious and social identities I had cultivated.

It was not until the end of my college days and, actually, my move from Pittsburgh to Seattle and Portland, that I would begin to explore other modes of desire, other ways of being available that would fracture what I mistakenly assumed to be the mirror of “dominant” gay aesthetics.

I recount this not because I am fond of positing myself as an example; indeed, little of this account may resonate. But because I want to engage in a dialogue about “gay aesthetics” and “gay desire,” to register how complicated I think these terms might be, and to push toward what might be a more interesting discussion.

(Larry, once again, I am engaging with you on my page. But only because I am sure you do not want me to clog up your page with half-baked ruminations that go on for too long.)

Perhaps it might be appropriate to note that while today’s notions of gay aesthetics may derive from 1970s culture, they are not reducible to it. In fact, the complicated line from 70s gay macho through the post-AIDS steroid-enhanced physique suggests a much more uneven genealogy. And, we need only look at the cover of Robert Reid-Pharr’s latest book to understand the sexual allure of Black Nationalist politics. And here I elide the complex ways that working class bodies became icons of a certain masculinity and sexual freedom. It might be appropriate to note that the 70s body was less a product of one community and identity and, rather, a complex unit that borrowed from ideas of race, class, sexuality, and nation, an appropriation and stylization of available cultural types of masculinity, which is not to say it was purely derivative; rather, it was culturally inventive, parodic, even hyperbolic. I am less interested in tracing this genealogy here, than I am in making a simple claim: “gay aesthetics” today are not reducible to bodies inhabited by gay men, if ever they were.

Our available popular languages of desire are shared across sexualities, races, and ages, and, to my mind, sometimes impoverished by that sharing. What is often considered a “gay” issue, “no fats or fems,” resonates across sexual identification. We have, I think, to contend with its ubiquity in a more fruitful way, though our particular allegiances might be to certain communities. (As an aside, we might also think about the way such desires are complicated by the popular: I find the range of male hip-hop bodies to be incredibly interesting in their refusal to conform to one aesthetic. That’s another issue.)

In addition, we need to think about how this particular shorthand, “no fats or fems,” functions, not simply as a kind of disavowal (I cannot desire what I fear I might be), though that has its merits, but, I think, as a kind of tic that registers, at times, our inability to speak about desire. Even a stated preference for the hefty and the feminine is not without its own stammer. It’s no coincidence, I think, that some of the most successful love songs and sex songs retreat into the non-discursive whoops and squeals, moans and groans of sexual feeling, registering the inability of language to register desire or pleasure. Here, we might imagine a personals ad that reads: “eheheheh ahhhhhh, eeep eeep eeep, huzzah!”

How, for instance, can we speak about the intangible: that “hotness” is often deeply situational, many times unexpected, indeed idiosyncratic; that visual pleasure might be divorced from other kinds of pleasures, there being no necessary correlation (hence my frustration with commentators who believe pretty bodies make for good lovers); that, to paraphrase Wilde, anything can become pleasurable if done enough; that the domain of pleasure shares much with expectation and surprise (hence, again, my frustration at the question, “tell me what you like,” which, I think, attempts to codify what might elude codification; how, for instance, rimming might be wonderful with one person and ho-hum with another and disgusting with yet another, which is not to say that disgust has no place in sexual pleasure [Jonathan Dollimore has a great essay on this]).

There is, to desire, a certain “I don’t know what it is” (I’m not pretentious enough to attempt the French) that eludes discourse. It is how we distinguish, for instance, between two people who look the same, act the same, sound the same, but who elicit completely different reactions. (The smart people who study affect have things to say about this).

Although I support introducing a wider range of body types and manners into discussions of gay aesthetics/gay desire, I am wary that, much like some of the weaker strategies on diversity and multiculturalism, inclusion might be taken to as a closing down rather than opening up, that we might take representation as a solution rather than a provocation to further discussion. (This, of course, is the infamous “I grew up watching the Cosby Show so racism doesn’t exist” mentality.) We might think a little more carefully about how to negotiate the politics of inclusion. (Here, I invoke Kobena Mercer’s powerful essay on Mapplethorpe that Larry knows much better than I, since he actually studies Visuality, whereas I look at pretty pictures).

Finally, to return to Larry, would the inclusion of a diverse range of body types in nude studies alter the nature of “the gaze” or the act of gazing? Apart from demanding inclusion, or representation, what would a true and necessary body politics be? Is a politics of the body the same as a politics of desire? Should desire be politicized? Or, rather, can it be? How might we map a more productive relationship between desire and aesthetics? Do “our” (and we must put pressure on that our) “modes of appreciation work in the service of the narrowest, most trite notions of black masculinity?” (I would question the “trite” as well.)

I am reminded, in closing, of a beautiful porn model hired to dance for a charity event at my “club” in Pittsburgh (my version of “the club,” which everyone seems to have). Much admired during the dance, once he was done, no one seemed to want to talk to him, socialize with him, even approach him. And it wasn’t intimidation. He just seemed to disappear. In part, I ask about the line, or shall we say slash, between aesthetics and desire (aesthetics/desire) to approach an explanation for this phenomenon.

(Break) The River Between

Having spent the past few years teaching, thinking, and writing about Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between, I find myself irritated by the seeming endless commentary that deems it “atavistic,” “out of touch,” “irrelevant” to young readers.

Much of the criticism reveals a rather unsophisticated understanding of literary criticism, one that focuses on content and plot summary, “themes,” as we used to call it. In such a reading, Ngugi’s specific concerns about women’s bodies can only be read as endorsing or critiquing circumcision. While the issue is worth debating, it seems that we can ask what are, arguably, far more interesting questions about gender and embodiment. That is, we can read women’s circumcision metaphorically and re-purpose it for today.

Mungiki’s recent attempts to define gendered clothing, for instance, can fruitfully be read through Ngugi. Is this reading “beyond” the text? Of course it is. And it is not a bad reading practice either. Use the particular in the text to think through and about the general we inhabit. The absence of such a reading practice suggests to me the impoverished methods taught in schools. I refuse to believe that high school students can only understand forms of new criticism. Certainly students can learn some easy types of gender criticism and post-colonial critique.

I find myself incensed, as well, by the limited ways we seem to understand Ngugi’s text. I think there is good reason, at this particular point in history, to return to his text. Composed in 1961, published in 1965, it returns to the nationalist struggles of the 1920s and 1930s to understand the connection between historical periods, to understand, that is, what a post-colonial moment can gain from a colonial context.

And the lesson?

Waiyaki and Nyambura’s condemnation at the end of the novel speaks to the inability of ethnic groups to become national(ized), to transcend their local politics and beliefs in the service of a larger project. Ngugi, that is, belongs to the group of thinkers including Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Yambo Ouloguem, who, in the first blush of independence, diagnosed the malaise that we still occupy.

Far from being an irrelevant relic that should be replaced by a far more “interesting” and “current” novel, The River Between continues to provoke because it asks whether ethnicity can survive nationalism, and seems to suggest that becoming political, turning into a citizen, requires sacrificing the privileges of ethnicity.

If the current political jostlings are any indication, we are far from learning this lesson.

Babel III

You have never offered a declaration of love and I have never demanded one. Though we both enjoy the satisfaction of cheap romances where secretaries conquer billionaires, we understand the slipperiness of fiction. Were you to love me like a character in a Barbra Cartland novel, I might revert to the Jackie Collins character I’ve never been.

Dare I confess my fantasies run to Harold Robbins’s anti-heroes?

* * *
You once told me that being naked was a weak metaphor for intimacy. It came, you said, from a culture that took clothing too seriously. I’m still not sure what you mean.

Perhaps you wanted to remind me not to misread the banal for the meaningful.

Still, I like to think you might be wrong.

* * *
We have never shared our fantasies.

At least not in the sanctioned tell me yours fashion, followed by scripted performances. It has never seemed important.

It might be, as friends claim, that we are two uncommunicative men engaged in a long experiment with silence.
* * *
Yet we both adore mystery and surprise, embrace the effusiveness of the Victorians, refuse to believe de trop has any relevance to our lives, have claimed that excess is never enough.

Might we embody the hedonistic sublimation of our time? Should we get t-shirts emblazoned Perverse Prudes?

* * *
I have never claimed to be a poet. You have never wanted me to be one. We are far more comfortable in the undefined world of short sentences, with intention.

Babel II

You ask me to stop turning us into a metaphor.

When we first met, we laughed over the idea of silk sheets. Too poor to afford them, we could only imagine that we would slide too much to be comfortable. In the midst of the laugh, we realized we had both admitted to sleeping in the nude.

If we could, we would have blushed.

You once said you loved me for my writing. Now you fear my abstractions. As though one day I might prefer the slide of metonymy to your touch. You notice I have stopped writing poetry and wonder if that means we’ve lost our music.

I have never termed you my muse. You know my distaste for clichés and so have never demanded this title. But, at times we both question whether my idiosyncratic explanations mask a more banal truth. You do not inspire me.

To say this is, of course, to say little, even nothing, about the texture of what we create, what we enable, what we are.

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Once, forced to play a social game, you were asked: “when did you first know?’

You answered, “we still don’t.”

That’s when I knew.

* * *
We have refused to proclaim our values and histories benign. We acknowledge that my 1982 was not yours, your 1984 not mine. To speak historically, as we must, is to risk turning minor scabs into keloids.

Because I cannot read maps and you lack orientation, we speak in bodily eruptions, avoiding the triteness of origins and destinations.

When Tahar Ben Jelloun writes, “I am moving from myself to myself,” he suggests the impossibility of pure subjectivity as agency. You seem befuddled, as am I. But we both recognize intimacy may be a move from us to us, not growth or maturity or development.

This is why we have no story.

* * *
Asked why, I have said you make me want to wait.