Reading Sharon Holland

Ultimately I attempt something rather inappropriate, if not uncomfortable; namely, I suggest that we can’t have our erotic life—a desiring life—without involving ourselves in the messy terrain of racist practice.
–Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism

Desire can only be monstrous.
–Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies

I have been “wrestling” with Sharon Holland’s The Erotic Life of Racism as Jacob wrestled with the angel: intimately, bodily, emotionally. Along with Christina Sharpe’s Monstrous Intimacies, it is one of the few books to take on, fully and uncomfortably, the relationships among race, racism (race’s “constant companion,” Holland writes), and queerness by focusing on the problem of “desire.” I want to think, a little, about the “problem” of desire in queer studies and anti-racist work, but let me start (haven’t I already?) by reading a symptom. In November 2012, HASTAC hosted a symposium, “Everyday Racism, Everyday Homophobia: A Symposium on the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality,” which took Holland’s book as its point of departure (video available on YouTube). Holland responded to the presenters (Jack Halberstam, Marlon Ross, Kathryn Stockton). This is how her work was framed:

The Erotic Life of Racism is a key document helping to define and understand these typically unspoken interconnections between what [Holland] terms “everyday racism” and “everyday homophobia,” including the intertwined histories of racial eugenics and reproductive rights. These recurrent strains in American society also form much of the discourse of critical race theory, transnational studies, American studies, gender theory, queer theory, and sexuality studies.

“To think about desire is to arrive at a queer place,” argues Holland, marking how “desire” has become “the” labor of queer studies, perhaps isolated there as other scholars move toward other projects, other horizons, other (im)possibilities. What is the relationship between this “queer place” from which one speaks and the worlds that one speaks of and to? More precisely, what might it mean to suggest that to speak from a “queer place” means to speak only, or predominantly, about and against homophobia? I wonder if the move from thinking about the erotic as such, desire as such, to the (in)convenient politics of homophobia registers the kind of anxiety Holland describes.

In her concluding chapter, she reads the race for/of U.S. intimacy through Faulkner, discussing normative race-making and race-conserving as a problem of/for (heterosexual) desire. The title of this symposium defers the problem of heterosexual desire by foregrounding the quotidian lives of racism and homophobia; indeed, heterosexuality remains unremarked upon in the symposium (apart from a too-brief comment by Cathy Davidson in her introduction), enabling, perversely, its continued circulation as a race-making, race-conserving project. This, I have said, marks a “symptom”: the continued insistence that queer studies speaks (only) about “queers,” against “homophobia,” and has nothing else to tell us about desire as such. Indeed, this description of the symposium (which is not necessarily what happens in the symposium itself) allows heterosexual desire to remain untroubled, a fiction Holland’s work refuses.

Let me not be interminable.

Desire is a problem for queer studies.

Framed through psychoanalysis, desire emerges as resistant to the social. The “free-play” of desire—desire has “no object”—might permit a more capacious way to envision those things we call intimacy, identity, anti-identity, community, anti-community, relationships (open and closed), displacing “fixities” to allow “polymorphous perversity,” but this thought experiment risks or dares or insists (and perhaps all three) on the racially-neutral fiction of desire.

Let me read this as another symptom.

By the end of the 90s, queer studies had decided that Fanon, while useful as a critic of race, was “homophobic.” Fanon, then, could not be—and has not been seen—as a theorist of “desire,” at least not one who merited serious theoretical attention. Let me offer, as one of my own symptoms, some ongoing thinking on Fanon before returning to Holland.
Fanon’s theory of sexual perversions focuses on the co-emergence of two key figures within colonial modernity: the negrophobe and the homosexual. He anticipates recent queer theory, which has argued that discourses of race and sexuality are not only structurally similar, but mutually reinforcing. We might speculate that in Fanon’s work this co-emergence happens in this way: colonial modernity is predicated on denigrating non-white, implicitly all black races. It does so in an ambivalent way by constituting them as objects of fear and desire. Within colonial modernity, the negrophobe both fears and desires blackness; desire is co-extensive with fear—a practice such as lynching demonstrates the entanglement between the two. Simultaneously, colonial modernity enables the circulation of stories, anecdotes, and images of the black as “penis,” as “genital.” As a result, every desire for and fear of the penis within colonial modernity—and here we must clarify that Fanon sees colonial modernity as an encounter between men—takes the black man’s penis as its object of fear and desire. All forms of male homosexuality within colonial modernity are then predicated on a psychic relationship to the black man’s penis. Or, restating Freud: the desired father always has a black penis.

The broadly implicit question that Fanon asks and leaves unanswered is this: how do the conditions of colonial modernity, which rely on the image of the Negro man as “penis” and “genitality,” produce the enabling conditions for a theory of homosexuality that would foreground the importance of racial difference? To phrase the question in Fanonian terms, what is the relationship between colonial modernity and the transnational spaces it occupies and homosexual territory? How does the black man figure in both spaces?

Black Skin, White Masks opens on a note of implicit cross-gender identification that ties racial oppression to desire. Fanon writes,

Supply a single answer and the color problem would be stripped of all its important.
What does a man want?
What does the black man want?
At the risk of arousing the resentment of my colored brothers, I will say that the black is not a man. (8)

Fanon frames his questions through a series of displacements that complicate the possibility of an answer. We recognize the question as a gendered transposition of Freud’s infamous, “What do women want?” Here, as elsewhere in Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon raises the question of male desire by displacing the figure of woman. Yet, a further displacement takes place that further complicates this scenario. While the racially unmarked man may occupy the position of desiring subject through an act of gendered displacement, the black man’s race forecloses cross-racial masculine identification. The implied figure of the displaced woman returns in Fanon’s declaration that the black is “not a man.” In foreclosing the domain of masculinity for black men, Fanon effects a displacement that makes black manhood contiguous to inscrutable womanhood. This poses a problem. In Black Skins, White Masks, forms of perverse manhood (neurosis, homosexuality) are a mere stone’s throw, or, in Fanon’s orthography, a mere dash or hyphen away from perverse forms of womanhood. Proximity is contagious. Fanon’s task, then, is to find a position for the black man that is not contiguous to perverse femininity and not located in homosexual territory.

Proximity to “perverse femininity” provides a gateway back to Holland’s work, albeit on the circuitous path I am following.
For a U.S.-based queer studies, the free-play of desire can be an alibi for not engaging with the race-work of desire. Holland’s work demands that we re-engage this relationship as it takes place within and as the quotidian. The “fiction” of unmediated desire will not withstand scrutiny in a monstrous ordinary produced through and as race-work.

Christina Sharpe’s insistence on our present, ongoing afterlife of slavery matters here, a lot. She writes, “all modern subjects are post-slavery subjects fully constituted by the discursive codes of slavery and post-slavery.” And adds,

I mean Monstrous Intimacies to intervene in and to position us to see and think anew what it means to be a (black) post-slavery subject positioned within everyday intimate brutalities who is said to have survived or to be surviving the past of slavery, that is not yet past, bearing something like freedom.

Chandan Reddy terms this “something like freedom” “freedom with violence,” and is a necessary interlocutor here.

“We are not done with slavery because we have yet to thoroughly investigate its psychic life,” writes Holland. Fanon’s homosexual and negro come together in the psychic life of slavery, as these are psychic positions joined by colonial modernity in the thing we call “desire.” To “return” to the “psychic life of slavery” requires we re-think the psycho-somatic habits we term “ordinary” and “unmediated,” that is, that we encounter the race:desire-work of everyday life.

Thus far, I have repeated a violence Holland indicts in her work: in turning to Fanon, the male homosexual, the black father’s penis, I have displaced the black female queer Holland terms “S.H.E (Singular, Historical, Exogenous),” a figure invoked and displaced in the same breath, understood as living in a past we have moved (queerly) beyond in search of “bodies and pleasures” in “transnational space.” Domestic and domesticated, troubling in her fleshy materiality, S.H.E. borders thought as “footnote” and “example,” as a singular voice with a univocal critique (“see me!”). S.H.E. demands “recognition” and is left “at home” when we travel elsewhere. In the figure of S.H.E., Holland clarifies an earlier claim on the relationship between space and time: “It is precisely because the black subject is mired in space and the white subject represents the full expanse of time that the meeting of the two might be thought of never actually occurring in the same temporal plane; yet the desire to get over such a meeting is immediate and the recovery is often swift.” Holland’s book begins in a parking lot in 1996, with an encounter of everyday racism. The “desire to get over such a meeting” may be “immediate,” but the post-slavery economy we inhabit makes the “we” who recover an impossible fiction. Note the absence of identifiable agents following the semi-colon. (Post-race” is the fiction that “recovery is often swift.) It is, Holland argues, the black female queer who is often “left behind” in queer theory’s ongoing search for new territories and everyday racism’s ongoing race-work, the black female queer as a subject already too marked (one must invoke Spillers here), as a subject “accounted for” in a handy footnote (one must invoke Sandy Soto here), as a fiction whose materiality is both excessive and spectral, as one whose thinking is “unthinkable” as thinking that must be engaged. In The Erotic Life of Racism, S.H.E. must be left behind for race-work and queer-work to proceed, because S.H.E. arrests a fiction that we have gotten past, gotten over, gotten through to a promised land, call it “post.”

A Fugazi lyric from “Bad Mouth” opens and closes this book, a repetition that needs to be marked, and is marked in Holland’s contribution to the symposium, as she ends with the same lyric:

You can’t be what you were / So you better start being / just what you are.

How might thinking through the spatio-temporal labor of race:desire-work produce a shared now? Who is the “you” called into being here? And what is being asked? Recall the race:racist labor of asking black subjects to “leave behind” old resentments, even as the race-work of desire prolongs the afterlife of slavery.

Holland calls us to a “now” defined as and through “touch, which she reads through phenomenology and deconstruction (Bergoffen and Derrida). One wants to add Fanon’s own belief in “touch,” in an encounter where spatio-temporal gaps might be bridged. In optimistic moments, I turn to Fanon’s touch to ask about a different kind of erotic labor. I’m not yet sure how to think about the now of touch in relation to the erotic life of racism. I’m glad that the book grants a space for this thinking to happen.