Frottage (One)

A friend tells me that books (critical, scholarly) should have some kind of personal narrative, a kind of “this is how I came to this project and this is why it matters to me.” This is an interesting convention. We spend multiple years working on books, and for the untenured, the tenure-track, the hoping-to-be-tenure-track, and the hoping-to-move-from-one-tenure-track-position-to-another, the book is a passport. Which is to say, for many, many books written in the humanities—though I can really only speak for my discipline—the book’s personal narrative reads: “I want a job” or “I want to keep a job” or, and perhaps most truthfully, “I like eating.”

However, since we in the academy prefer to theorize about starving artists and scholars rather than to live their lives—though many of us do—a personal narrative is called for.

This requirement poses considerable problems: where does the staunchly anti-autobiographical critic turn? What story of self should one craft to satisfy an indifferent and voyeuristic public? And what about the self so narrated can in any way anchor the argument to follow: “I fuck men so please read 100 pages about Liberian history.” (That, incidentally, might not be a bad thing to write.)

Grouch though I may be, I am also conventional. So these are my false starts.

I am writing a book called Frottage.

No, it is not a “how-to.” (Though, really, just get together and rub.)

My first real awareness of the slave trade—which is to say, the image that has stayed with me over the years—came from Alex Haley’s Roots, which I read when I was about 10 or 11. I could not get over the image of bodies packed in slave ships, the feel of wood against skin, metal against skin, skin against skin, a voyage of forced proximity, forced rubbing, literally and otherwise. Over the years, Roots has stayed with me, less as a genealogical project (though I had thought it was) or even as the spatial re-organization of intimacy and intellect Paul Gilroy might favor (as a route). Instead, it remains, in memory, as contact: body against body against surface against surface.

According to art critics, frottage is a technique developed by Max Ernst. It consists of capturing the texture—image—impression of a surface by placing paper (or some kind of surface that can be rubbed on) on top of a rough surface—wood, stone, a wall, some kind of textured surface, and rubbing the paper with charcoal or pencil or something to “reveal” the textured image below. (If you have placed a coin under a piece of paper and rubbed a pencil over it, you will recognize what I mean.)

As taken up by sexologists, frottage is a paraphilia that consists of one gaining sexual excitement and even orgasm by rubbing up against another when clothed—think men who rub up against women in crowded buses. For the moment, I will avoid the question of who rubs against whom. The term frotteur enters English in 1892, through a translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis while the term frottage seems to enter English in 1933, in Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex. (The sexual meaning of frottage seems to precede the art meaning, at least in English—it would be quite another job to trace the origins of frotter, the French from which the English takes its direction.)

But here is the OED: Frot ?c1225 derives from Old French:

1. trans. To rub, chafe; spec. to polish (a precious stone); to rub (a garment) with perfumes; in early use, to stroke, caress (an animal). Obs.

Frottage meditates on encounters between and among African-descended people: Africans with African-Americans, African Americans with Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-diasporic figures with themselves and the homes they imagine (Claude McKay writing about Jamaica after a 20-year absence, Kenyatta writing about a rural Kenya he left at the age of 8 or 9). I am interested in how frottage-as practice and figure—might provide a language or perhaps method for thinking about Afro/diasporic encounters.

In the plainest terms possible: I want to figure out or suggest what happens when black folk get together. How do they rub along?

At the same time, I am not overly invested in the shape of the encounter. We already have evidence of what, say, Blyden thought of Du Bois, Du Bois of McKay, Padmore of Kenyatta, James of Kenyatta, Fanon of Kenyatta (lots of people thought about Kenyatta). Nor am I very interested in narratives of intra-racial discrimination or self-hatred–these are already well documented. I am after something slightly more elusive: I am after the selves and others narrated as a byproduct, as evidence, of frottage.

I am intrigued, for instance, by Blyden’s role as intermediary between Americo-Liberians and indigenous Liberians; by Maran’s rendering of the Central African populations he governed; by McKay’s return to Jamaica; and Kenyatta’s return to Kenya. What happens if, instead of taking Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya as the ethno-biography it purports to be, we take it as a response to his interactions with his London-based friends? What happens it we see it a response to or in dialogue with The Black Jacobins? How, then, do we understand its imaginative work?

While the figure (and practice) of frottage slips in and out of the book, it acts as a reminder about the flesh of the men I am studying, about the range and varieties of their bodies as they crossed space and time, rubbed up against, along, and with each other and the worlds they occupied.

I am thinking about moments of irritation and desire, bewilderment and seduction, repressed and insatiable desire: men in too-close proximity, the worlds they imagined, and the imaginations we have inherited.