In my ongoing quest to demystify what academics do, here are my remarks from a roundtable at the American Studies Association conference on the “preposterous encounter” between American studies and postcolonial studies. The term “preposterous encounter” comes from a seminal essay by Brian Edwards, who kindly joined the roundtable.
I am currently obsessed with the labor of narrative and anecdote as academic practices of memory, walking the line between argument and performance–literally, staging an argument. I was interested in “fleshing out” and disseminating rumor as critical intelligence, learning from Luise White and others on gossip and its work. That I skewer myself in these remarks needs not be said, but I’ll say it anyway.
Let me begin with a familiar scene.
A major conference is taking place on, say, postcolonialism or transnationalism or cosmopolitanism. After a distinguished speaker theorizes whatever formulation is at stake, a figure stands up to ask a question. This figure says: “As an African woman, I do not know how what you are saying addresses me.” Versions of this scene abound—I have witnessed several. At each one, I have squirmed with some degree of shame and embarrassment, worried about the kind of recalcitrant nativist claim being performed.
In preparing for this roundtable, I found myself wanting to inhabit this woman’s recalcitrance. Engaging with and disengaging from the theme of this roundtable, I want to think about what, following Audre Lorde, might be termed the uses of recalcitrance. And because this roundtable is focused on time and space—the postcolonial, the American, and their intersecting and divergent spatio-temporal coordinates—I want to invoke African time and space: lag, delay, waiting, timeliness and timelessness, obliqueness, absence, nowhere and everywhere. All of these name ways “Africa” circulates in US/postcolonial encounters in a range of texts, where Africa continues to be the setting or occasion for US actions, but never becomes more than prop-like.
I beg your indulgence and ask you to engage with another thought experiment.
I have already asked you to imagine the figure of the recalcitrant African woman, to imagine that I am her in drag. Now, I will ask you to imagine the setting where what Brian Edwards terms the “preposterous encounter” between postcolonial studies and American studies might take place.
Imagine a major conference, much like this one, set, perhaps, in Egypt or South Africa or Kenya or Ghana, a place filled with sophisticated Afro-cosmopolitans. Following a panel, two co-panelists, one a queer Afro-cosmopolitan the other a queer Euro-American head out for meals and a drink. They go to a ritzy hotel called “tribe,” where beautiful young African men, dressed in vaguely native clothing, topped off with a red fez, serve them drinks with vaguely exotic names, say, for instance, “Crocodile in the Sky,” my favorite Nairobi cocktail.
Later in the evening, in the spirit of queer conviviality, the panelists have a threesome with one of the beautiful waiters, bareback, of course, at the end of which they give him taxi fare. Part of what licenses all this, of course, is the peculiar place Africa occupies in the critical imagination, as still somewhat unreal. [I have in mind a whole rash of works at the intersections of queer/LGBTI/postcolonial studies that favor white gay men’s experiences in Africa. Africans appear in these works as props, if at all. Bobbing red fezes.] One goes to Africa on vacation—to escape time and responsibility and consequences, to escape scandal, to have unmarked and untrace-able encounters.
I offer this latter example to suggest, perhaps unfairly, that within the space of encounter between postcolonial studies and American studies, Africa remains a vacation spot, ritually invoked, even represented by bodies like mine that are vaguely Afro-cosmopolitan, but largely absent. Within the scene of the preposterous encounter between postcolonial studies and American studies, Africa hovers in the background clad in a red fez. [Thus it is that in a surprising moment in Wai Chee Dimock’s work that attempts to look “beyond” the nation-state, the “strict Africanist” is faulted alongside the “strict Americanist,” but where the Americanist has been grounded in the US, the Africanist remains everywhere-nowhere, in Africa as a “country,” to invoke Sean Jacobs’s felicitous phrase.]
I have been trying to provide figures who might help us to understand the scandal of the preposterous encounter, but not as we might imagine such a scandal. Indeed, to register as a scandal the presence of African bodies within the preposterous encounter might require an altogether different vocabulary—one must learn to read the tightened lip, the shrug, the folded arms, the quizzical eye.
Permit me to end by staging another scene, this from an ongoing saga.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Europe and North-America-based allies of queer Africans suggested that colonialism had introduced homophobia into Africa, not homosexuality, as some African leaders claimed. This strategy could have opened up a space for African queers to re-imagine a range of intimate diversities as part of their pre-colonial heritage. However, over the past three years, at the conjunction of what might be the preposterous encounter between American studies and postcolonial studies a new narrative has emerged. In this new narrative, homophobia in Africa is a US export, introduced there by US religious conservatives.
This attention to US-sponsored homophobia seems salutary: neo-imperial politics are named and confronted. Except a curious thing has happened: Africa and Africans have become background to US politics. Curiously, US religious conservatives are deemed responsible for African affect and ideology. One finds oneself in the absurd position of arguing that Africans are quite capable of performing their own homophobia.
In brief, the naïve Africanist who believed that postcolonial studies would create shared ground with Americanists finds herself intrigued, bewildered, and finally overwhelmed by the vacation slide show of self-critique. These days, she finds it far easier, if less satisfying, to quietly pack up her handbag and leave the room.