Prof. Alexis Lothian
20 June 20, 2013
The Erotic in the Classroom: Pedagogy of the Queer Sensory
No deviant is a desert isle here, but part of an archipelago rushed together by a common sea of queerness.- Natasha Tinsley
The intersectionality of the erotic with a temporally flexible and spiritually fluid notion of queerness lends itself to considering a new category of “queer”: a queer sensory. By this, I refer to the multiplicity of possibilities for thinking about queerness not only through the lens of sexual orientation, temporality, or space alone; rather, it is an organic awareness of the erotic self in light of historical spirituality. In Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power,” she extends the definition of the erotic as “an assertion of the life-force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives” (55). This assertion is one of power, and certain this empowerment can and should extend to all human beings or all colors and ethnicities, to those privileged and those marginalized to again (as mentioned in previous syntheses) come to the realization of a more authentic and actualized self.
Although the title above may appear inappropriate to a reader not aware of Lorde’s erotic or the context of queer studies, it is just that lack of understanding of the erotic that should be dislodged from students’ ideologies. The erotic “has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation” (Lorde 54). The erotic should be a space of empowerment through the connection with other human beings but also with, I argue, the sensory. This sensory awareness that lies outside of normative notions of appropriateness engages what I term “queer sensory,” which involves an openness to the spiritual possibilities of connection in various forms. Part of this queer sensory awareness can be obtained by examining marginalized queerness in historical and transnational diasporic contexts, as Natasha Tinsley and M. Jacqui Alexander, demonstrate through their rhetorical texts. By examining these texts in light of a pivotal scene in Nalo Hopkinson’s Salt Roads, a rationale for a lesson plan in the queer sensory will emerge as pedagogically relevant. Using Kate Barnstein’s My Gender Workbook as a jumping-off point, students will engage in these critical issues of desire, power, and queerness, continuing the on-going self-reflexivity which is a primary course objective.
Natasha Tinsley’s “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic” is a logical text for bringing students to an awareness that the history narrative presented to them has most likely neglected an entire range of human experience that should be addressed and remembered: the “brown-skinned, full bodied experiences now called blackness and queerness” which “surfaced in intercontinental, maritime contacts hundreds of years ago: in the seventeenth century, in the Atlantic Ocean” (Tinsley 191). Popular culture and certainly historical narrative ignore the queering of black bodies as they were commodified and abused as part of the capitalist, colonial regime. Using the Atlantic as a metaphor for the fluidity of sexual identity and the queering of black bodies, Tinsley brings to light Audre Lorde’s eroticism. Even though the “sea was initially a site of painful fluidities for many Africans…under the force of brutality” (197), they developed erotic bonds within the ship holds. This bond is articulated when Tinsley notes that the “emergence of intense shipmate relationships in the water-rocked, no-person’s-land of slave holds created a black Atlantic same-sex eroticism: a feeling of, feeling for the kidnapped that asserted the sentience o the bodies that the slavers attempted to transform into brute matter” (199). Thus, through their eroticized connection, the queering of these black bodies, these human beings placed in bondage mapped out a queer space in a moment in history previously ignored.
What may be particularly enlightening for students throughout my proposed queer theory course is the notion that “queer” is not defined as homosexuality per se, nor is it even necessarily related to sexual behavior, although it certainly can be. Rather, “queer” is a term for any identity behavior that stands outside of the normative. Tinsley addresses this concept in her discussion of black bodies crossing the Atlantic: “Yet regardless of whether intimate sexual contact took place between queer enslaved Africans in the Atlantic or after landing, relationships between shipmates read as queer relatioships. Queer not in the sense of a ‘gay’ or same-sex loving identity waiting to be excavated from the ocean floor but as a praxis of resistance” (199). Thus, practicing resistance can be read as “queer,” an idea that would most likely be new as well as empowering to many students. African-Americans in particular (I am generalizing here) seem particularly wary of homosexuality. Many African-American males in my classes have become repulsed and even belligerent when it comes to discussing homosexual males. However, if “queer” is presented to them in a new context, one of empowerment and as practicing resistance, perhaps these attitudes may become more flexible.
In Pedagogies of Crossing, M. Jacqui Alexander further legitimates the axiom that queer is a space of resistance, and it is also a sensory space of erotic power. Influenced by Audre Lorde, Alexander also uses the Middle Passage as instrumental in constructing a queer discourse of power through the spiritual and erotic body. She is concerned with the “power of the disembodied and the stories that those who forcibly undertook the Middle Passage are still yearning to tell, five centuries later” (6). One may question how touching the story of these lost but empowering souls could address a notion of “queer sensory”; indeed, the quest for lost histories is one that is elusive to even the most committed academic, let alone an impressionable undergraduate. Yet, here again we can begin with awareness: if these stories are brought to light through their naming, in fact by seeing just the attempts to name the un-nameable, one is brought closer to the enlightenment of truth that Pedagogies wishes to uncover: “to instruct us on the perilous boundary-keeping between the Sacred and the secular, between dispossession and possession, between materialism and materiality—the former having to do with the logics of accumulation, the latter with the energy and the composition of matter” (Alexander 7). By recognizing the boundaries placed upon us, the constructs of power around us throughout history to the present—here is the queer space of resistance.
One hears Lorde’s echoes in these sentiments, Lorde’s apparent wish to close the gap between the sexual identity and the identity of political and spiritual agency. She wished that we would say “yes” to our “deepest cravings,” for the “fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful” (Lorde 57). Alexander wishes to extend Lorde’s legacy by teaching the logics of oppression and the truth of democracy: “Freedom is a hegemonic term, especially when associated with the imperial freedom to abrogate the self-determination of a people” (Alexander 17). Through recognizing the erotics of power and the possibility of the sensory and the spiritual, Alexander further recognizes Tinsley’s and Lorde’s calls to resistance. By calling attention to these key concepts, students will again see their theoretical legitimacy. However, imaginative texts help to bring these abstract concepts to a tangible, objective forefront.
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson presents erotic relationships of resistance as described previously. The characters of Mer and Tipingee in seventeenth century Saint Domingue alongside nineteenth century French women Jeanne and Lise embody deeply erotic and empowering queer bonds. Mer and Tipingee in particular resonate with Tinsley, Lorde, and Alexander, as these women are, as Tinsley defined, mati: the Creole word for female lovers, “she who has survived the Middle Passage with me” (192). Mer and Tipingee have a close spiritual as well as physical connection, begun on the Middle Passage. Mer explains the origins of their relationship: “A woman had died chained to me on the slave ship. Blood and liquid shit had been gushing from her anus for days. In that narrow space we had lain together for weeks, but I never knew her name, couldn’t understand her language…Was Tipingee, a little girl then, who had shouted and shouted till the sailors came and cut the dead woman away from me” (Hopkinson 28). Thus, the bond between the two females resists the commodification of their bodies. The erotic becomes a queer space of power and of empowerment.
Just as Mer and Tipingee’s relationship demonstrates erotic power in the face of colonization, Jeanne and Lise also enact sites of resistance to the masculine oppression. Like the former, they are enslaved and commodified, in this case through prostitution. From their opening scene of intense and graphic coupling, Jeanne and Lise enact their power through the pleasure they give to one another. Jeanne’s less than fulfilling encounters with Charles Baudelaire show that his eroticism is not as pleasurable or empowering to Jeanne: “I lay back and thought on softer, more skillful mouths” (74). Although she must submit to Charles for her continuing livelihood, Jeanne uncovers a source of power and pleasure through her relationship with Lise. Thus, again, female bodies achieve spiritual and erotic power through their encounters with each other, sexual and otherwise. In addition, the novel offers rich pedagogical possibilities through the multiple temporalities and narrative voices created through the spirits of Ezili and Lasiren. Through fiction, students will have more concrete illustrations of the “queer sensory” that Lorde, Tinsley, and Alexander address. All three, in addition to the novel, seem to promote a teleos of power through the sensory, the spiritual, the erotic. These are all connections that stand outside of a Colonial and Capitalistic hegemony, a philosophical possibility that many students may not ever have pondered.
As part of my ongoing development of a Queer Theory Course, I have included in my plan using Kate Bornstein’s excellent handbook, My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, Or Something Else Entirely. With accessible language and a familiar tone, Bornstein guides readers through an analysis of gender in general and for hir (Bornstein’s pronoun for an androgynous human) exploration of personal gender identity. With headings such as “Solving the Gender Puzzle,” “Who’s On Top,” and “Be All That You Can Be!”, Bornstein addresses theoretical concepts surrounding queer theory in practical terms. This text perfectly coincides with my queer theory course theme, “Know Thyself.” In applying the ideas explained above regarding “queer sensory,” an awareness of the power of the erotic through physical and psychological connection, I would assign the section “The Case for the Perfect Gender.” This section explains the power dynamic of gender, specifically how the white male Christian gender is privileged above all (40-41). In pointing out this power differential, I would discuss the spaces for resistance described in this synthesis.
Again, through awareness of the stories of this resistance, naming the previously un-named, a kind of historical eroticism may take place. This notion of the “queer sensory” is articulated by Adrienne Rich in her poem “Diving Into the Wreck”:
The thing I came for:
The wreck and not the story of the wreck
The thing itself and not the myth
The drowned face always staring
Toward the sun
The evidence of damage
Worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
The ribs of the disaster
Curving their assertion
Among the tentative haunters. (Rich 61-70)
This “wreck” of history is one of queerness, of colonization and commodification, of re-memory and remembrance. It needs to be remembered, and we can internalize this remembrance as a lesson in how to live.
Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.
Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, The Real
You, or Something Else Entirely. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Hopkinston, Nalo. The Salt Roads. New York: Warner Books, 2003. Print.
Lorde, Audre. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Tucson: Kore Press, 1984. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Diving Into The Wreck: Poems 1971-1972. New York: W.W. Norton Company,
Tinsley, Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.”
GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 14.2-3 (2008): 191-215. Web. Project
Muse. 19 June 2013.