Not Yet

A series of quotation that have yet to be processed. That, perhaps, I dare not process.

The most recent issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly focuses on the “state” of theory. Ellis Hanson represents one take on “queer” theory.

Here he is, “working through” Eve Sedgwick’s concept of “reparative reading”:

Faced with the depressing realization that people are fragile and the world hostile, a reparative reading focuses not on the exposure of political outrages that we already know about but rather on the process of reconstructing a sustainable life in their wake. (105)

So far so good.

Though one could quibble with the either/or of exposing “political outrages” (knowledge is only one part of action) and “reconstructing a sustainable life” (gay gentrification?). What is the “cost” of “reconstructing” a sustainable life? What might one have to sacrifice or ignore?

Here he is on racial fetishism:

The outrage around racial fetishism is surprisingly widespread and volatile for a desire that people of all races seem to indulge—and quite frequently, if the pornography market is any indication. The Web site has riled up an enormous response. The site tackles every rationalization people make for their sexual preferences in regard to race. Desire, however, is clearly debating on the other team, and the arguments devolve into a question of etiquette: gay men should be more polite online and accentuate the positive. The site recommends that instead of saying I am not into hairy men or black men, I should be more sensitive and positive and say that I prefer guys with smooth, pale skin. Given the site’s comparison of racial fetishism to employment discrimination, I doubt this distinction would make much difference: who would tolerate either phrase as a reason for getting passed over in a job interview? (111)

I am irritated, even as I agree with him. But many people (Blyden, Baldwin, Fanon, McKay, Lorde) have written eloquently about the limits of “etiquette.” So this is not surprising. I am less impressed with his deliberate misunderstanding of “sexual racism,” though it does not surprise me. Theory means never having to engage history, or so some believe. (One can know it and ignore it, after all.) It’s very tiring to hear “get over it, that’s tired,” as one way to disengage from anti-racist politics. Really tired.

And then I get more irritated:

Most academic writing on racial fetishism seems to me to resonate well with Sedgwick’s definition of paranoid reading. I say this not because it is impossible, or even difficult, to dehumanize and otherwise offend people by focusing lasciviously on their racial difference from oneself. After Fanon, however, there is virtually no other academic line on the subject. The rigidity, rancorousness, and repetitiveness of this reading suggest to me that it has finally calcified into a defensive fetishistic ritual in its own right. In paranoid fashion, we might even ask what pleasures and knowledges this ritual seeks to disavow on the way to a really satisfying social outrage. There is no necessary political relation between racial fetishism and racial oppression, nor for that matter between desire and history. Indeed, such fetishism is pursued avidly by all sorts of people in astonishingly creative ways that have rarely found a deep or sympathetic critical appreciation in queer theory or anywhere else in academic discourse. Such fetishism is fundamental to the pleasures of racial identity and community that we most valorize, and yet we insistently moralize about it as if it were something we could simply purge from our desire if only we were more politically astute and self-aware. (114; my emphases)

And even more irritated:

I think one could also view racial fetishism less rigidly. (115)

I think it is impossible to understand “modern” sexuality without taking blackness as one of its main foundations. Hanson might be right in viewing “racial fetishism” as part of a range of fetishisms, but not for the right reasons. He misses the suture between “fetish” as “commodity” and fetish as “ritual” object that inaugurates modern sexuality. What Hanson cannot (will not) account for is that “desire” might have “a history” that is wedded to and, in fact, rooted in “blackness.” That “racial fetishism” and “racial oppression” come together in the market that “transforms” bodies into “objects.” These facts I take as elementary.

Fanon did not, could not possibly, have exhausted all “there is to say” about “racial fetishism” but it is convenient to think so. In fact, Fanon can be a convenient “alibi” for U.S.-based academics, especially because his Francophone models of racialization, the promise of the evolué that subtends his thinking, map onto a U.S. narrative of things “getting better,” even when the historical record says differently. (Sorry, the evolué is not a Washingtonian or Du Boisian model in any real way.)

I remain irritated.