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Family and nation, Desires I, African American lit

March 4, 2015

Last week’s grad seminar focused on issues of the family and nation, including marriage, miscegenation, and kinship. Here are just a few passages that stuck out to/with me.

On the reciprocal but uneven desires of same-sex marriage advocates and the law:

Reddy, Chandan. “Time For Rights? Loving, Gay Marriage, and the Limits of Legal Justice.” Fordham Law Review 76.6 (2008): 2849-72.

In fact, we might be in a position to ask a question other than why gays and lesbians desire formal recognition by national law.

Instead, let us ask why national law in this historical moment seeks gay and lesbian desire for recognition. Why does the law recruit this desire? What vulnerabilities and instabilities are created through national norms such as those the law “desires” the LGBT community to desire? And, finally, might we see in these vectors of desire—between the gay and lesbian subjects’ desire for formal rights and the norm’s “desire” for that desire—a nonequivalence between the two desires such that one does not fulfill the wants of the other, but rather, both desires are vulnerable to the incompletion and exposure that modem desiring more often reveals. (2856)

On doing “justice” to history . . . :

Indeed, if “we” must take care to do justice to “history,” this is because history has a central role in making just “our” contemporary society governed as it is by legal norms that were once exclusive but are now striving for real universality. History, for the subject of historicism, has both a redemptive and an explanatory force in relation to the legal norms that were once exclusionary. It is redemptive in the sense that it is a promise not to forget those communities that were once excluded from the very norms to which the remembering subject belongs, lest the injustice of their historical exclusion be redoubled by the injustice of their erasure within social memory. And it is explanatory in the sense that these histories detail the specific social relations that denied a “people” protection and recognition by those norms. It is also explanatory in the sense that it relates the distinct meanings encoded in those norms by a “people” or marginalized “community” originally excluded from those norms, such that the norm is itself, in our present moment, a monument of sorts to the once historically excluded “community” or “people.” The irony of course is that the social history of the excluded community is now dependent for its conditions of representational existence on the popular affirmation of the norm from which it was excluded. In addition, what is socially remembered of that community is governed by the framework of the norm or norms themselves, such that the social history of the excluded people is told only through the prism produced by that norm or set of norms. (2866)

On the un-gendering of the Middle Passage:

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.

That order [the socio-political order of the New World], with its human sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New-World, diasporic plight marked a theft of the body—a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time—in stunning contradiction—the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. (67)

This week we’re dealing with issues of desire, fantasy, pleasure, race, power, and related themes.

On the constitutive failures of heterosexuality and its unflagging endurance:

Jagose, Annamarie. “Counterfeit Pleasures: Fake Orgasm and Queer Agency.” Textual Practice 24.3 (2010): 517-39.

Although it has frequently been misrecognised as just such a strategy, drawing attention to the public failures of heterosexuality is not in itself an unsettling or destabilising gesture, as is readily evidenced by the failure of those failures to register significantly against heterosexuality’s social value. Far from being the end of the road, or even a malfunction, failure is a constitutive part of modern heterosexuality’s support system, buoyed about on every side by aspiration, consolation, optimism: the everyday bricolage of emotional making do. Widely known but known inside circuits of transmission that do not allow for its solidification as a transparent fact, the sexual incompatibility of the heterosexual couple can consequently keep arriving on the cultural scene as news, in large part because such diagnoses are almost always in the service of some more optimistically framed project, the failure of heterosexual sexual reciprocity a resource for the hopeful possibility that it might nevertheless yet be realised. Drip-fed by failure, this order of optimism is not the Pollyanna-ish kind, fattened on buoyancy and confidence. [. . .] For now let’s just say that whatever the futures of the intimate public cultures currently articulated in the name of heterosexuality, one thing is certain: the demonstration of the capricious relation between coital sex and female orgasm does not prevent heterosexual intercourse continuing to figure, however, ambivalently, the optimistic expression of a sexual ideology whose privileged ethical terms are equality and mutuality.44 It is under these specific historical circumstances that the much discussed, although little theorised, feminine heterosexual sexual practice of fake orgasm emerges. (527-8)

On politically “suspect” desires and racialized fantasies:

Rodriguez, Juana Maria. “Queer Sociality and Other Sexual Fantasies.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 17.2-3 (2011): 331-48.

So how do we begin to make sense of our politically incorrect erotic desires? More to the point, what kind of sense is even desirable or possible? [. . .] Perhaps it is this desire to rupture, traverse, disrupt, or refute the power of race that is being acted out in racialized sexual fantasies and play. These imagined moves of power are neither subversive nor staid, but for racialized subjects they present an occasion to stare into the face of racialized erotics and pain in a gesture of critique and imagination that attempts to unravel both individual subjectivity and the existing social relations that surround us. [. . .] To deny our fantasies because they are too complicated, too painful, or too perverse, to erase their presence or censor their articulation in public life, constitutes a particular kind of insidious violence that threatens to undermine our ability to explore the contours of our psychic lives, and the imaginary possibilities of the social worlds in which we exist. (342-3)

On “racial iconography” as an alternative analytic for reading racialized porn:

Nash, Jennifer. Introduction. The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 1-26.

In place of reading racialized pornography for evidence of the wound, as is the tradition within black feminist visual culture studies, I develop a new method of analyzing racialized pornography: racial iconography. Racial iconography is a critical hermeneutic, a reading practice that shifts from a preoccupation with the injuries that racialized pornography engenders to an investigation of the ecstasy that racialized pornography can unleash. By reading for ecstasy rather than injury, racial iconography performs what Judith Butler terms an “aggressive counter-reading,” one which suspends normative readings of racialized pornography and instead advances readings which emphasize black performances and pleasures represented on the racialized pornographic screen. By ecstasy, I refer both to the possibilities of female pleasures within a phallic economy and to the possibilities of black female pleasures within a white-dominated representational economy. I am drawn to the term ecstasy in much the same way some feminists have been drawn to the term jouissance, to describe pleasures that exceed or transcend the self and to capture a bliss that exceeds language. If jouissance describes an unnamable sexual pleasure, my use of ecstasy aspires to capture forms of racial-sexual pleasure that have heretofore been unnamed (and some that have been too taboo to name), including blissful performances of hyperbolic racialization and uncomfortable enjoyment in embodied racialization. The ecstatic pleasures that this book locates are varied and multiple—pleasures in looking, pleasures in being looked at, pleasures in performing racial fictions, pleasures in upending racial fictions. I am particularly interested in the ecstatic possibilities of racialization, pleasures which are both deeply personal (aesthetic, erotic, sexual) and deeply social, and that form the basis of political communities and identities. To that end, I use ecstasy to consider how race aids pornographic protagonists in staging, enacting, and naming pleasures, even as it always already constrains protagonists’ lexicons of desire. (2-3)

On “brown” sexuality as a strategy for white disavowal of anti-black violence:

Perez, Hiram. “You Can Have My Brown Body and Eat it, Too!” Social Text 84-85; 23.3-4 (2005): 171-91.

The brownness conferred on Kiko when he is designated as “Latin” (itself an already ambiguous sign) circumvents troubling histories of racial oppression that are more immediate to the white imagination in the form of enslavement, lynching, and police brutality. Already forgetful about its his­tory of state-sanctioned white-on-black violence, the United States remains blissfully amnesiac about its violent imperial history. The ambiguities of brownness function to unburden fantasies of black sexuality from their troubling histories; those same fantasies, and new ones, may be revisited on the brown body. In other words, one manifestation of the brown body occurs in the form of a black body un-moored, if you will, from material history and fixed instead to the landscape of a gay cosmopolitan imagina­tion. (185)

. . . Which segues into a couple of passages from African American literature that my students in U.S. ethnic literature can choose from to write their first papers around. Relevant, I believe, for today’s racial landscape.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963):

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.

I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words ‘acceptance’ and ‘integration.’ There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. (7-8)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987):

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own. (234)


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