queer, Translation

More Sodomy

In response to On Sodomy (oh the glorious wordplay I’m resisting), mothufare asked a series of questions I’d like to take up, insofar as I can.

I wrote: “I am not as concerned with the individual bodies concerned, victim and victimizer, as much as I am concerned with the production of sodomy as a particular kind of discourse with particular, negative connotations.”

He asked: What about the concept of disgust? What about the ideas about the body, boundaries, health? House arrangements? Body aesthetics? Hierarchies? If we talk of metonymy, what of mis/translations? Irony?

To recap, I had suggested that the absence of affirmative discussions of sodomy in Kenya meant that when mentioned in the media, sodomy could only have negative connotations. Given the incidents of male rape associated with the post-election violence, I had hypothesized that these narratives would now dominate any mentions of sodomy, with the possible effect that queer activism might be irreparably hobbled.

Mothufare’s questions complicate the narrative I tried to construct by implicitly suggesting that sodomy, even when done consensually and with pleasure, is not necessarily affirmative. Indeed, quite often the pleasure of sodomy arises from its close relationship with disgust, the transgression of boundaries and rules, even before we enter into “kink.” I certainly think of rimming as an act whose pleasure (for the rimmer) is tied, in some way, with an often unacknowledged notion of disgust. Modesty forbids certain disclosures. But suffice to say, I know of what I speak.

Influential thinkers like Leo Bersani and Tim Dean have argued that sodomy is fundamentally about breaking the body’s boundaries, fragmenting a sense of coherence and integrity. In this reading, sodomy functions quite differently from romanticized notions of heterosexual sex, notions that emphasize wholeness, togetherness, and intimacy. Now, to be clear, I want to emphasize the term romanticized, because I certainly believe that heterosexual sex can have the same effect of breaking the body’s boundaries. I should note here that I am NOT discussing rape.

To the extent that sodomy, at least for Bersani and Dean, represents the act par excellence that shatters the ego’s boundaries, it has consequences for how we think about health and house (and I think the two need to be put together, as mothufare has them). I am unclear as to what “house arrangements” means, so I will put off responding until I get some clarification.

On the question of body aesthetics, I will defer to my compatriot, Larry Lyons, who has been thinking deeply, with great charm, honesty, and grace, about body aesthetics.

Instead, I will jump to metonymy and mis/translation as crucial ways for us to think about sodomy in the African context in general and the Kenyan context in particular. For the non-English majors, metonymy is the formal term we use when a part stands for a whole. Yes, I know, the puns and implied puns keep coming. Take, for instance, to continue the bad pun, calling someone an asshole. In this particular example, which, I admit, I use when teaching poetry, the asshole, a part of a person, stands in for the entire person. Of course, to get technical, this example of metonymy is more properly known as synecdoche. But let’s save that for when you take a poetry class. So, now we know that, on we go.

In the Kenyan context, sodomy has often been constructed based on broad-based generalizations: one sodomite has AIDS therefore all sodomites have AIDS. (Here, I use sodomite instead of homosexual not only to be provocative, but also to complicate the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual. Medical folks and activists use men-having-sex-with-men. I will note that the last anecdote I heard involved some poor sodomite watching his lover get married to a woman.)

But, back to mis/translations and the problem of sodomy. In a quite fundamental way, all cultural interactions, the basis for sociality, are based on translation. Indeed, we might say that the current (not sure what to call it) in Kenya is based on some profound mis/translations. Translation is not simply a matter of substituting one word for another. (John Keene, who translates wonderful poetry and prose, would have a much smarter way to talk about this.) Instead, translation is also about the weight of language and the values of a culture. At this juncture, I must cite Fanon: “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (Black Skins, White Masks 17-8).

Surely, you don’t need me to make the bad pun again? Those “boys” who went to a certain kind of school will remember what it meant to “assume the position,” but we must now queer it and add “to support the weight.” (Yes, there’s a smile as I write this.)

Sodomy, then, enters into African languages in a very specific way: predominantly through missionaries. It comes attached with all kinds of weight. Those first pioneers who mastered “a certain syntax” took on not just the language, but the assumptions of that language, even when they might have been unclear about the referent. Here, of course, the problem of mis/translation: scholars have noted that many Kenyans do not know what “homosexuality” means, but they are disgusted by it all the same. This is what it means, in part, to “assume a culture.”

And the question about the affect of translation and cultural transmission also needs to be considered. If you make a certain kind of face when using a certain word, you teach your listeners to create certain kinds of associations. Certainly, the first time I heard about “sodomy” was in standard 4, when one of our teachers made a “certain” kind of face and warned us against European men in toilets. I may not have known what she meant then—this has since been remedied—but the affect was enough to let me know what she was discussing was distasteful, “not to be discussed among Christians.”

And, finally, the question of or problem of irony. I am a bit baffled about the relationship between sodomy and irony. There must be one, right? Mothufare, when you come calling again, please clarify the question.

I have given hopelessly incomplete answers, in part because each one deserves a very long book, and also, in part, because I have little interest in becoming an “authority” on sodomy in Kenya (yes, I know, laugh away). I am interested, as always, in continuing conversations.