From here, the scene of desire seems ever-more distant, pushed further by words that speak of healing as they break me. Because, ultimately, my desire is tainted by the traces on which it rests. This is about the scene, or better, the image of desire. To ask the question of what image can elicit desire: one must ask permission from the gatekeepers, or crawl through a hole in the thorny fence.
In his seminal, revised essay on Robert Mapplethorpe’s black nudes, Kobena Mercer admits the necessity of ambivalence. On the one hand, one can excoriate the white photographer who embodies black men (as opposed to en-fleshing, as Spillers has it). History seems to repeat in the gloriously decapitated images of black muscle, in the faces devoid of all history but that of the desiring viewer. In this vein, the argument seems predictable, if well written. It becomes innovative as Mercer argues for the value of representation and, in the aftermath of AIDS, the need for archives.
AIDS erased histories of desirable bodies, and we forget how much beauty it destroyed. Mapplethorpe restores, in some small way, this history of desire, elicited then and now. For a brief moment, I allow myself the fantasy of synecdoche. Sometimes I need it. It is here, from this history of ambivalent desire that I return to 100 years ago.
Postcolonial histories of imperial photography are notoriously unfriendly to theories of desire. Colonial subjects, we are told, were dehumanized, objectified, rendered knowable through the technologies of the image. Gleaming black bodies were fetishized, became actors in a Fanonian fantasy, “rape me, Negro!” In critiquing these histories of objectification, we ostensibly restore dignity, history, subjectivity, or fantasized story to these images. Refusing to read them as desirable objects, we perform an act of reparation.
Against this reparative act, no matter how generous it may be, I would posit the need for a queer reading strategy. A break into autobiography.
I began to question postcolonial readings of images in the context of queer desire. As a response to invisibility, queer activists offered their varied bodies, fat, thin, muscular, disabled, clothed, nude, pierced, tattooed, as objects to be desired. No matter the ambivalence, if not hostility, this strategy might elicit, it has still been a powerful way to re-imagine social proscriptions and to insist on the validity of queer desire, and the queering of desire. (An aside: I am increasingly disenchanted with descriptions such as body-fascism, a phrase that seems as belligerent as femi-nazi.)
From this context of queer reclamation, it was disorienting to shift to a postcolonial focus where I was taught to police my desire, to grant subjectivity to colonial subjects by disavowing desire. Here, of course, there is a larger question of how to understand the relationship between desire and subjectivity. Certainly, granting desire need not create subjectivity or history. But I also have a more general problem with some historical claims that we can grant subjectivity to dead people if we talk about them with respect. I’m not sure the dead and rotted need or want dignity. But that’s another conversation.
To be nativist for a moment: I was being taught to desire Euro-American men, white and black, taught that the west was the locus and should be the focus of my desire. At the same time, I was learning that men like me, with my features, my body, my distribution of fat, my knees and elbows and lips, these men were distant objects of racist fascination and desire. To desire them was to be complicit in colonial desire. (I avoid here the thorny arguments about the ambivalence of colonial desire, but I cite Stoler and Malek and Young.)
How, then, to introduce the need for desire into postcolonial encounters with colonial image? This is, I believe, a queer project. It happens on various online forums where pictures of traditional African men are presented as objects of desire. It has yet, I think, to be registered as an academic project. (Whether it needs to be registered as such is yet another question. Academia frequently lags behind the space and encounter of desire, necessarily so.)
This, then, is my encounter with the image. Nowhere near Teju’s inviting complexity. But, I hope, quite in the spirit of conversation.