Race(ing) Queer Studies

Elizabeth Freeman and Christina Sharpe have recently, separately, written about Isaac Julien’s The Attendant. I want to think a little about how their approaches to the film index the place of race in queer studies. This question interests me as I continue to wrestle through my own writing, especially as I think about the frames around that writing. Writing about blackness in queer studies is still a surprisingly difficult thing to do: the primary text always feels three or four steps away as one demonstrates a mastery or at least knowledge of foundational and recent paradigms. “Foundational” and “recent” are, of course, unfortunately, racially coded words. With the exception of Rod Ferguson’s important Aberrations in Black, which is now ritually invoked as the book those in a predominantly white queer studies have to read and cite (perhaps as the only book, just as, once, one had to know and cite Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to demonstrate an “attention to race”), few works by black critics, either writing under the banner of LGBTI or queer, have made it into the “magic circle” of scholarship that must be read and cited, certainly not with the regularity with which, say, a Jack Halberstam is read and cited, or cited, if not read. Something is awry. And, yes, this is polemical.

Let me continue (not start) with a curious moment in Freeman’s work—I take her book up first because it was published prior to Sharpe’s:

On the face of it, The Attendant is clearly a filmic response to specific critics and intends to trouble several different early 1990s audiences. In the moment of its release, it questioned contemporary antiracist accusations that interracial sadomasochism simply repeated and extended violence against people of color, and instead asked black and white men to examine the traumatic histories encoded in their interracial desires without demanding that they simply cease desiring. In this respect, it also interrogated Kobena Mercer’s critique of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black and white men, some in sadomasochistic poses, which Mercer described as fetishistic and racist. And the film critiqued Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989), which vilified sadomasochism as a white thing and proclaimed that black men loving black men was the revolutionary act. (146-47).

Approximately 9 pages into the chapter—it starts on page 137—Mercer and Riggs are the first black gay cultural producers and critics mentioned (there’s a brief mention of Saidiya Hartman on page 137), and mentioned only as foils to Julien. This seems like a petty observation, until one reads over the preceding pages and encounters: Simone de Beauvoir, the Marquis de Sade, Andrea Dworkin, Catherine Mackinnon, Leo Bersani, Lacan, Freud, Blanchot, Bataille, Lee Edelman, “white lesbians,” Kathy Acker, Lynda Hart, Ann Cvetkovich, Cathy Caruth. And let us not forget, “critical race theorists,” an amorphous group that, strangely, lack names worth naming.

Critique can be deep, prolonged engagement, but Freeman seems unwilling to allow or to gaze at this tangle of black men together. In a work about temporality—including a wonderful reading of the pause in Julien, or rather, in Benjamin via Julien—I am curious that the temporal structures of stillness and truncated life in Mercer (AIDS in Mapplethorpe’s models) or even the SNAP! in Riggs merit so little attention. Why do these black gay theorizations of temporality as variously hurried, interrupted, delayed, cut (in Fred Moten’s sense), and violated not merit Freeman’s attention? Why, in fact, must we begin from a tedious, too-familiar opposition between the black (Afrocentric?) gay and the good postracial black gay, which is to say, the one who meditates on interracial sex? (Of course, anyone who would describe Mercer and Riggs as “Afrocentric” has never bothered to engage their works.)

Curiously, this inattention to black gay cultural production continues even in Freeman’s discussion of Julien’s film. Three stills from the film are lovingly described, even fetishistically so, a method of (un)reading that dominates Freeman’s engagement with The Attendant. Not self-conscious enough to theorize itself, as does, say, Hilary Brougher’s Sticky Fingers in Time (1997), a work that Freeman thinks through in provocative and fascinating ways, Julien’s film is always subject to a swerve, serving as an occasion to meditate on Marx, Benjamin, S/M theorists, and so on. In Sandy Soto’s apt description, the film under consideration serves as “evidence,” a “footnote,” regrettably, as the obligatory “black chapter” in a work on queer studies.

This method of what I want to call the “swerve” also marks Freeman’s regrettable (non)discussions of slavery. As she rightly notes, S/M practices invoke and replay slavery’s subject-object making and unmaking. Yet, something curious happens to the time and space of slavery. Borrowing from Walter Johnson, Freeman writes,

Slaveholders stole and reshaped, among other things, African people’s quotidian rhythms of sleeping, waking, eating, and mating; their biographical timelines for entering the workforce, coupling, reproducing, nursing, childrearing, and dying; their seasonal times of agriculture and holidays; their market times of buying, selling and trading. Slaveholders also suspended the geographical movements of an entire segment of the U.S. population in order to feed the machine of rapid-paced industrial production. (154)

All true.

But how might we think about the space and time of slavery in broader ways? France was a slave-owning country when the Marquis de Sade wrote; in fact, blacks feature in his stories. How might that information change the (white) genealogy of S/M that Freeman engages (predominantly through Beauvoir)? Given, also, that The Attendant is set in a British museum, what would it mean to engage the various temporal irruptions and disruptions of British slavery as they become central to Julien’s S/M imagination? How would these different spatio-temporalities—U.S., French, and British slavery—as they collide in Julien’s work (and its global distribution) direct or, to use Sara Ahmed’s term, orient Freeman’s theorizations on temporality?

By the end of the chapter, race, or blackness, has strangely disappeared, as the “queer-of-color” critique that Julien embodies is pressed into the service of a “revitalized queer studies in which we recognize the power of temporal as well as spatial demarcations, see temporal difference in relation to subjugated or simply illegible attachments, and view time as itself material for critical and cultural practices that counter the insistent rhythm of (re)production” (169). In the remaining sentences of the long paragraph from which I take this, S/M is mentioned, temporality is mentioned, queers are mentioned, modernity is mentioned. Not a single word about race or blackness. Its duty done, it can be returned to its status as “footnote” (to invoke Soto’s again).

Thus, I end Freeman’s chapter thinking of the immense psychic labor required to understand my work as “queer,” or black (acronym) production as “queer,” if queer is simply the appropriation of black (acronym) labor to revitalize itself.

It is with a sense of relief, then, that I (re)turn to Christina Sharpe’s chapter on Julien’s film—one can be ritualistic, so let me admit that Christina is a friend. As with Freeman, framing is important. Sharpe opens the chapter with a long epigraph from Dionne Brand:

The Door of No Return—real and metaphoric as some places are, mythic to those of us scattered in the Americas today. To have one’s being lodged in a metaphor is voluptuous intrigue; to inhabit a trope; to be a kind of fiction. To live in the Black diaspora is I think to live as a fiction—a creation of empires, and also self-creation. It is to be a being living inside and outside of herself. It is to apprehend the sign one makes yet to be unable to escape it except in radiant moments of ordinariness made like art. . . . The frame of the doorway is the only space of true existence. . . .

“Pray for a life without plot, a day without narrative.” . . . To be without th[e] story of captivity, to disremember it, or to have this story forget me would be heavenly. But of course in that line too is the indifference, the supplication of prayer. Yet I want to think that perhaps there is also regeneration in its meaning.—Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging

This long epigraph helps frame Sharpe’s reading of the film “in relation to narratives of slavery and the signification of the black body.” Monstrous Intimacies, about which I will have more to say in another post, is interested in what Sharpe terms “post-slavery subjects,” the ways that slavery’s histories not only continue to haunt the present, but are present as quotidian features of daily interaction between those of us living in the time “after” slavery. Like Freeman, Sharpe is interested in the present of “pastness.” This present is especially key in her chapter on Julien, which focuses on what she terms “the sadomasochism of everyday black life.” And here, I must confess, that the many absences I noted in Freeman’s chapter stem from my having read Sharpe’s chapter first: she mentions French and British slavery, for instance. And also mentions a curious facet that Freeman ignores: Hanif Kureishi and Stuart Hall make brief appearances in Julien’s film!

Unlike the antagonism that Freeman posits between black gay cultural producers, Sharpe embeds Julien’s film within the context of “black visual artists” working in the 1980s and 1990s and those artists interested in “the politics and aesthetics of black male subjectivity and representation”: Fred Wilson Robert Mapplethorpe, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Marlon Riggs. One can certainly read these works as engaged in (often) discordant and contentious conversations, but, as Mercer claimed: what was significant about these works was their unprecedented focus on black (gay) representation, a project that, to be sure, is fissured and fractured.

By no means is Sharpe inattentive to the ambivalence that structures Julien’s film. As she writes,

Julien establishes that the (antislavery) museum’s production of history not only includes images of slavery and earlier attempts to rewrite the history of slavery, often in less brutal terms, but it also foregrounds a pleasure in slavery and its representations that is hard to admit yet impossible to deny.

This pleasure in slavery and its representations is manifested (and replayed) in the film’s attention to labor, that of the black attendant and the black female conservator, his partner:

Julien casts the quotidian scene of institutional work as horror and pleasure, and then he ruptures those scenes with scenes of even more stylized spectacle. Such a breaking open of museum codes connects the largely invisible labor of the black museum attendant and museum conservator to the largely invisible structures that maintain how we see and, moreover, who sees objects and (historical) relations.

She continues,

The Attendant and the Conservator in their daily lives perform “scenes of subjection.” They are produced and produce themselves as subjects in relation to time, space, and place, in relation to the objects and images archived and presented in the museum, and in relation to their own labor that upholds the very structures that hold them captive to a historical narrative and its present implications. Sadomasochism appears here in the course of everyday life enduringly and almost invisibly . . . Julien challenges us to look at sadomasochism in The Attendant beyond where it becomes immediately visible and, once visible, rendered perverse, as s/m in the Attendant’s desire for the Visitor, through his willing occupation of a (sexual) space of abjection (slave, bottom).

By no means is Sharpe inattentive to the eroto-racial ruptures present in Julien’s film:

We cannot dismiss s/m or reduce it a “white thing,” renounce interracial sex or desire as “sleeping with the enemy,” nor can we reduce interracial s/m or a general desire to submit, to be the sadomasochist, to a simple repetition of the historical sadism of slavery . . . We also cannot dismiss forced submission and its everyday contemporary manifestations.

What Julien stages, if I understand Sharpe, is not an escape from the complications of racial histories and interracial encounters into a “revitalized queer studies,” sated by the service of black laboring bodies; instead, to use Sharpe’s terms, “he turns the viewer’s attention back to the production of post-slavery subjectivity itself, to the ways that post-slavery subjects continue to occupy these abjected black bodies in their postures of submission and mastery and the ways that this occupation in the present is a source of (ambivalently experienced) pleasure.”

I want to broach a conclusion via Sharpe:

there is no erotic (and certainly no exotic) without the other. It is a statement that would be true historically as well as psychoanalytically: one cannot cleanse one’s fantasies of the other, of slavery, of the gaze, and there is no fantasy without the other.

Regrettably, and I’m still being polemical, Freeman’s work suggests that the black other performs a service for “queers” and “queer studies,” and once that service is done, the black—queered, but not queer? Or at least not queer enough to stay in the room—is asked to leave. This, despite her claim, early in Time Binds, “to restore a differently queer body to queer theory—the body erotic thought not only in terms of its possibilities for making sexual cultures but in terms of its capacities for labor” (18). Through Sharpe, we see that it is precisely the black laboring body that is effaced in Freeman’s work to produce a “revitalized” queer body.

What, then, becomes the space/place/time of/for the (black) queer theorist or is that black (queer) theorist? How does one occupy the space-time of parentheses? Despite important work by James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Assotto Saint, Barbara Smith, Essex Hemphill, Robert Reid-Pharr Sharon Holland, Cathy Cohen, Dwight McBride, Jacqui Alexander, E. Patrick Johnson, Rinaldo Walcott, Marlon Ross, even the much-cited Rod Ferguson, queer studies still often feels too much like a “bleach your skin” cream for “negroes.”