Queer: Again (After Teju)

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.

3 thoughts on “Queer: Again (After Teju)

  1. “Nowhere near Teju’s inviting complexity.”

    Don’t be silly. Well, be silly, *if you’d like*, but it’s really not necessary.

    I find this a nuanced excavation (but the word I want is more surgical than that) of a subject I don’t know much about. Certainly, in the hetero- sense of African women (and to a lesser extent, African-American women) functioning as objects of desire only within a colonialiast gaze, I can understand it. But that argument is somewhat sullied by the way women, in general, are presented as objects of desire in popular culture. Even the average milk-white Lancome commercial is an echo of the colonialist gaze, in its overpowering objectification and distortion.

    What I find more intriguing is the fact–surely one that’s been revisited by many scholars–that the terms of queer exclusion, to an extent not shared even by women (the fairer sex) or by blacks (the workhorse), have been bodily. To be gay is to be a body. To be rejected for being gay is to be rejected as a body. The prurient interest in “what those people do” is half of it, in its bringing the most private intimacy into public discourse. The only analogue I can come up with is reproductive rights, which gave the word “uterus” and unexpected starring role in protest banners. The other half is the damage done to the queer body (singular and plural) by AIDS. “Those people,” with their strange acts, and their strange diseases.

    To have experienced exclusion in such specifically bodily terms is to have an insight into life as a life in the body. It is to have phenomenological insight. It is a rebuke to the Kantian worldview. One thing heterosexual discourse (which, in any case, never thinks of itself as such) might learn from queer theory is the ethics that comes from such phenomenology: arousal, intimacy, distance, compassion. To care for a dying lover, for example, is unique among human lessons in love. And here, among us, is a whole host of people who have gone through the experience. What can they teach us.

    But I’ve veered off from your original subject, which is “how can we make African men beautiful without making them beautiful as objects?” I don’t know. Sports? Football players in Europe have some of the world’s most celebrated bodies, and many of the leading men are Africans. Then again, it’s a most macho arena, and any bodily (or erotic) beauty, the practitioners would insist, is accidental.

  2. No false modesty here. I have a very vulgar conception of images–how to see them and read them. While some of the languages I have learned–feminism, psychoanalysis, postcolonialism–have been enabling, I want to resist the literary scholar’s hubris about reading. If I’m going to insist that reading poems takes more than 10 minutes looking over them, then I also have to acknowledge my own deficiencies working with other media.

    I am re-reading Black Skin,White Masks (if that weren’t obvious). The bodily is a category I’m trying to understand once again, this time without the lengthy excursion through the minefield of early 20th phenomenology. Perhaps that will show up again. I do think you’re right in the queer’s sense of the body; it is actually one of my central arguments that Fanon is a specifically queer body–that a certain kind of specularization turns him queer. We shall see how the argument plays out.

    Increasingly, I believe a certain kind of strategic history demands objects, not simply archives which we try to fill with subjects. Simple insights from Spivak et al. The act of recovery (history) necessarily performs a certain kind of needed violence. One can only be aware and, hopefully, try to account for it. Queer studies, more than any other field, has fostered this violent (invasive?) relationship to historical recuperation.

    Though I have not read John Amaechi’s biography, and probably won’t, he seems to suggest, from the little I’ve read about it, that black male athletes revel in a certain prized status as objects of desire, albeit within homosocial settings. There is a certain obviousness about the present. History, as always, is the problem.

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