(Break) Diaspora and Frottage

Imagine for a moment that black diasporic encounters can be conceptualized as forms of volitional and inadvertent frottage. Imagine, too, that histories of sexuality emerge from contact and proximity, encounters of carnality. Finally, imagine the range of emotional and ideological reactions that emerge from such rubbings, disgust and pleasure, sanction and approbation, abrupt interruptions and pleas for more. To these reactions may be added the surreptitious pleasures we term being on the “DL,” the ambivalent pleasures mediated by the demands of social position, the pleasures of antinomian intimacies, even the pleasures of normative strictures. Frottage may be a strategy for reading the histories of the black diaspora alongside and against histories of sexuality.

Yet, in terming frottage a reading strategy I have withdrawn, perhaps coyly, from the intimate implications of frottage, the space of unruly affect, for it connotes, more than anything else, the bodily experience of proximity, the place that is indifferent to personal space, the bus-ride of a been-to, where one remembers being home means pressing strange flesh. It also means experiencing the strangeness of one’s body: in close spaces bodies disobey, run away from us, forget the social rules that govern legibility. At such moments, we may wish to get away from our bodies, to disappear from our ever-present fleshliness. We can’t.

I must withdraw again from this scene of rubbing, but only briefly, to emphasize I am interested less in the moments of dispersal that give rise to diaspora and much more in the uneven, intimate moments of coming together. Thinkers on the black diaspora use the term “diaspora” to mark cultural multiplicity, to say not all blacks are the same. (As much as possible, I avoid the somewhat fashionable term “difference,” for it seems to mean too much and not enough, perhaps the condition of all language.) Within my conceptual histories, I might be describing the encounter following displacement in which traditional ethnic rivals find themselves recoded as color or labor or object. We know such histories, yet not as intimately as we might. Beyond that recoding is not simply the re-establishment of pre-encounter kinship patterns, as some thinkers have it, but the innovative establishment of a range of intimate lives. But this seems too structured for what I’m after.

It is the accidental moments that intrigue me, not because they may lead elsewhere, but because we have few ways of archiving such moments (with the possible exception of fiction) even though, taken cumulatively, such moments probably capture the rich quotidian of the diaspora. Take, for instance, antinomian McKay seated on a dais with middle-class Harlem elites, uncomfortable in his performing suit, abraded by the experience. It might be possible to recode, or recognize, this moment as an instance of frottage, to recognize in his purple blushes and chafed neck the marks of diasporic encounter.

One might write about the modes of affective response experienced when encountering an individual similarly recoded: two Africans on a zebra crossing (as it must be named), my excitement on joining kbw, the first time I read Teju. Two Africans on a zebra crossing (if this is not the title of a book, story, or blog post, it should be. Potash?).

Also, irritation. For the mediated moment of frottage, through layers of clothing, layers of culture, layers of history, layers of language, this mediated moment makes known its mediating character. Irritation, we might remember, describes a feeling on the surface of the skin and an affective state akin to that skin-feeling. Unlike other cathartic emotions, joy or anger, it persists, indifferent even to cause. One might spend the day irritated unable to explain the cause. Once irritated, it seems a cascade effect begins, the slightest encounter or event, Sianne Ngai points out, extends the temporality of a heightened sensitivity. One feels air.

I have wandered off again. Perhaps my sense that unless one is engaged in it, frottage might be one of the most boring acts to envision, despite its metaphorical richness.

Frottage flirts with the suture of re-connection, to be sure, but insists on sloughed skin cells, exchanged scents, flows and fluids (thanks WM). Despite its arrested temporality, that is, “something” remains, a feeling, a smell, a sensation. To understand the accretion of such moments is to trace what I consider diasporic intimacy.

I end this post, which forms part of a larger ongoing project, with the image of two Africans at a zebra crossing who bump into each other, accidentally.

2 thoughts on “(Break) Diaspora and Frottage

  1. I love this idea, the implicit concepts of friction and abrasion, and I wonder if this isn’t as useful model of Diasporic interactions and interrelations as ones that suggest deeper penetration, embrace, and so on, that either imply harder directional and forceful, hierarchical vectors of interaction, or softer, less difficult ones? In every case, of course, skin comes into contact with skin; zebras, yes, but what about two people on the trail who bump into each other, who press against each other, whose skin becomes one for a second or two or a minute, before separating, the exchange at the atomic level noticeable even if the two people don’t notice it–something is passed along; but what, exactly? What, and isn’t it what’s often missed in the attempts to theorize it?

  2. I miss zebra crossings, the absurdity of the name (and the driving exam I took that imprinted it). A form of nostalgia explains my use of the zebra.

    First, thanks for engaging with this. It is related to my diss (if that’s not obvious), especially the chapter I’m working on now on Jomo Kenyatta and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, both of whom, I claim, are trying to engage with the question of ethnicity/identity as a form of intimacy most akin to frottage. There’s something to their surface/depth, interior/exterior sense of identification that excites and unsettles me. Taking a long view, the idea of “something [being] passed along” is crucial to the (ir)rational ways we envision forms of identity (one drop rule, HIV). But I wanted to imagine a contact that is far more nebulous, even accidental, to refuse as much as possible the logics of insemination and penetration that, to my mind, seem quite unsatisfactory in describing more ephemeral, though no less important, ways of inhabiting and sharing the world.

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