Queer: Again (Notes)

As a young(er) queer, I was strangely comforted when I first read Fanon’s comments on homosexuality. In addition to his well-known denial that it exists in the Antilles, he writes, “I have never been able, without revulsion, to hear a man say of another man: ‘he is so sensual.’ I do not know what the sensuality of a man is” (Black Skin, White Masks 201). To put the statement in context, Fanon is describing a non-homosexual, albeit racist, description of “the Negro” offered by Michel Salomon, a French scholar. In what might be termed a queer reading, he “unveils” the pornographic imagination of racism. This is not my concern here.

It is, rather, the movement from feeling to knowledge, the irrational way Fanon wrestles with the question of desire. While Fanon is often credited with “race-ing” psychoanalysis, his re-working of psychoanalytic desire is equally important (I crib here from others). Now, to be sure, Black Skins is nothing if not full of logical leaps, jumps, and dances. It is brilliantly unsystematic (this, of course, may be why it plays so much better to a younger generation of scholars; I must confess, I find attempts to wrest a system from this particular text rather futile; I much prefer the “stuff” aspect of an over-full mind).

So, why should this particular articulation of “homophobia” (not quite the right word, but it is a remarkably imprecise term and may suffice here) be so comforting?

It is the way Fanon tunnels around, backward and forward. When he claims, for instance, “I do not know what the sensuality of a man is,” is he suggesting that desire and its presumed opposite, revulsion (revulsion may also be constitutive of desire, but that’s another point), may be based on accumulated experience? What does it mean to “know” desire, a phrase to be understood in all its biblical connotations? Put another way, to experience desire, must we first “know” what desire is? If so, how do we “learn” about desire? And, more interesting to me, what are the limits of a rational and experiential-sympathetic model of desire? What responsibility might we bear to that which we don’t know, understand, or experience?

As queer scholars have noted, Fanon seems willing to extend inscrutability to race and gender—in his claim that neither the negro nor the white man “is.” Indeed, despite his attempts to normalize race and gender, in tension and contradiction with his attempts to deconstruct both (this is the dizzying fort-da of the text), he needs a fairly stable notion of desire, even as he wants the very existence of desire to be the grounds of empathy and ethics more broadly. Put another way, Fanon wants the existence of desire to be grounds for politics, at the same time that he wants to control the terms of this desire.

I am less interested in resolving the problem of material desire in his text (material, to the extent that he writes about a form of “recognition” that Hegel “never” envisioned—the relationship between recognition and desire is fundamental in Hegel—that between a black man and a white woman—here is the importance of psychoanalysis, that, when set in the West, its terms only make sense within an interracial matrix) than in understanding why the nature of desire becomes so important to him. What is it about the nature of desire that demands it be managed in the service of politics?

The question is not new within the U.S. context. I think it becomes especially pressing for 20th century diasporic blacks, and that it finds its most complex, if incoherent, articulation in Fanon. Now, one easy answer is that managing desire is one way to manage race. Although I like this answer, it seems a little too easy because it ignores the way other social and historical categories also depend on managing desire.

But, again, that is not my concern.

What I find particularly comforting, finally, is Fanon’s inability to rationalize “homophobia”—no appeals to religion, or family, or tradition, though he does cite geography and history; rather, the more honest, “I do not know what the sensuality of a man is,” the (mis)recognition, that is, of emotion (revulsion) as intellect.

Having spent the past many hours reading rants against “academic prose,” and quite frustrated with my own attempts to think through Fanon, a final note. There is a certain pleasure-specialized, perhaps-in submitting to the style and manner of a text, one that, quite often, does not depend on being able to reduce it or even elaborate it. Mess offers its own rewards, though they might lie in irrational and bodily responses—the passage that always causes shivers, for instance. Sometimes, and its wonderful when it happens, we meet others who share our particular idiosyncratic pleasures in sound and sense, in a mostly non-systematic knowledge. Those times can be wonderful. But, and this is the lesson of queer desire, I make no claims for the universality of my tastes and pleasures.