Desire is elegiac.
Queerness is elegiac.
My attachment to elegy comes through my particular queer canon: Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, especially Dixon’s posthumous and lovely Love’s Instruments. Limited, to be sure, but these are the authors who served as midwives to my queer awakening. They are also authors deeply invested in mourning and melancholia as quotidian practices.
A peculiar meaning attaches to being a diasporic queer of color: one lights candles for bodies across continents. Living grates against the privilege one might occupy. One learns to live raw.
At first, I had wanted to make this writing playful, to displace an easy empathy. I am still not sure how we ever came to believe that empathy is easy. It strikes me that acknowledging its continual failure, our continual inability to occupy another’s place, might be a more productive way to approach the ethics of citizenship.
A set, then, of related terms: desire, queer, mourning, melancholia, elegy, empathy, ethics.
In his sumptuous The Colonial Harem, an analysis of colonial postcards featuring Algerian women and select couples, Malek Alloula writes,
What I read on these postcards does not leave me indifferent. It demonstrates to me, were that still necessary, the desolate poverty of a gaze that I myself, as an Algerian, must have been the object of at some moment in my personal history. (5)
Of the approximately 91 postcards, only about 8 feature men and women in couples. This colonial depiction of heterosexuality, Alloula claims, is wrongheaded: “The mixing of the sexes that is presupposed by photographing a couple is . . . inconceivable in the Algerian family at the beginning of the century” (37). More forcefully, he claims, “The couple, in the Western sense, is an aberration, a historical error, an unthinkable possibility in Algerian society” (38).
We may consider his dismissal of the couple as a space-clearing gesture.
The problem: “What I read on these postcards . . . demonstrates to me . . . the desolate poverty of a gaze that I myself, as an Algerian, must have been the object of . . .”
How do we read this (impossible) performance of empathy? How do we understand the male academic in a metropolitan setting who ostensibly displaces gendered bodies (women, veiled and nude) with the presumably de-gendered category of nation, “I myself, as an Algerian,” when he claims a similar experience?
One skeptical reading would be that Alloula displaces the women he studies in order to mount a postcolonial critique. Such a reading aligns him with many male critics and politicians who use women’s bodies and positions to justify their politics.
But such a reading disturbs me. It stabilizes gendered positions I would like to disturb.
The Colonial Harem may be a form of postcolonial critique, but its mode is distinctly elegiac. (But may not be the best conjunction. I use it to respond to ideas about appropriate postcolonial affect: anger for David Macey and Neil Lazarus; ambivalence for psychoanalytic minded critics, usually a role I occupy; other modes of affect exist.)
Might we read Alloula’s national and gendered identification, “I, myself, as an Algerian,” as a form of cross-gendered performance? Less an act of appropriating a position gendered female than of queering the position of nationality? I do not want to suggest here that Alloula’s sense of identification should not be subject to feminist critique. I do want to allow for the possibility of a queer reading that unsettles gender in the service of postcolonial scholarship.
A queer reading would emphasize the necessary act of impossible empathy that informs elegy. I am interested, then, not only in unsettling postcolonial critique but queer critique by linking both to an elegiac mode. Admittedly, it is far less sexy than resistance or subversion. But just as necessary.
A queer reading that foregrounds the necessary impossibility of empathy allows, I think, for one way to approach certain aspects of Potash’s writing.
“Voluntary Drinking Overseas,” for example, contains a telling comparison:
[S]uddenly I realise that I am the only local on the table. The strange feeling that gives me can only be shared by that Savage Woman with her engorged pudenda flung wide open to the scrutiny of the civilised world. Noble (savage) Potashius put upon a pedestal; representing at this moment every African from Cape Town to Cairo- even though he has never met them.
In a moment akin to Alloula’s, time dilates, taking with it gendered and national identity. Specificity dissolves even as it reconsolidates in the identity-non-identity game, the fort-da that reads blackness as its genital display. Here the genius of the inversion, the white woman who claims, “Now you have gone and blown away all the chance you had of getting laid by me.”
But there is more. For the “strange feeling” that establishes kinship between Potash and that Savage Woman (and here, she should not be named, though I want to call her Sarah; such singularity, as Zine Magubane reminds us, allows us to forget the scale of violence and exploitation), the “strange feeling,” the sense of becoming representative, of losing self, of being queered, this “strange feeling” is important.
It is, that “strange feeling,” a moment where cross-gendered identification, and the specific location of that identification with genitality, opens up valuable questions about the relation of race, national identity, and gender to queer reading strategies and queer appropriations.
And so, A Queer Potash?