Week 3 – Synthesis
The Power of Queer Imaginings – (T. KIRK)
While reading Eve Sedgwick’s Queer and Now, I was intrigued by the section titled, “Promising, Smuggling, Reading, Overreading.” Though Sedgwick confesses that she is “uncomfortable generalizing about people who do queer writing and teaching, even within literature,” she goes on to do a bit of generalizing anyway:
I think many adults (and I am one of them) are trying, in our work, to keep faith with vividly remembered promises made to ourselves in childhood: promises to make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled, and, with the relative freedom of adulthood, to challenge queer-eradicating impulses frontally where they are to be so challenged. (3)
Sedgwick contends that she, and what she had “to struggle to wrest from [books and poems] sustaining news of the world, ideas, myself, and (in various senses) my kind” (4). She had to become what she calls a “perverse reader”—in that she had to wrest from texts the “tacit things” to make them “explicit” and to make the “invisible” visible. Sedgwick confesses that she, and others like her, desperately desired and “needed there to be sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other,” and that it was literature and her “visceral near-identification with the writing [she] cared for,” that inspired her to “care enough about literature to give a lifetime to it” (3).
And it is here that Nalo Hopkinson’s Salt Roads intersects with our study of queer theory. Unlike Sedgwick’s “formalist project” of deconstructing texts to locate queerness, Hopkinson creates a safe zone, an inviting, imaginative space, not only to consider the lived lives of subalterns in a “queered” space, but also to consider that one’s perception of counter-heteronormative resistance is less a matter for dogmatism—a matter of “good or bad” or “wrong and right”—but rather a space for intentionality, for deep reflection and reflective choice. With Mer and Makandal in mind, one woman’s clever subaltern, queer resistance is another man’s dismissal of bargaining. Likewise, one man’s self-sacrificing, self-declared militancy is another woman’s rejection of a “continually, one-sided oppositional” posture. Yet, for the purpose of analogy, we might consider that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were both self-described militants for the cause of social justice; there paths were different but converged on the same plain. Hopkinson creates an explicitly queer space that allows for the conscience of the queer reader to comprehend the nuances and complexities peculiar to raced, queered communities, and that is no small imaginative act.
Through fiction, Hopkinson touches upon one of the central threads of our queer theory course, a thread that began with a simple query: what does “queer” mean? It is a question that, three weeks in, we are still unpacking. Like all important thinkers/writers/artists, the author of Salt Roads takes the theoretical and breathes life into it—and it becomes a living thing. Hopkinson gives the theory a place/space where the reader “sees” characters come to life, like actors on a stage in the mind, and embody unnamed but implied, abstract concepts like “heteronormativity,” “power,” “performativity,” and “queer.” Like Shakespeare’s Othello, Mer and Makandal body forth ideas “on stage.” One of the central, yet indirect, meanings of Salt Roads lay in its resistance to varying strands of queer dogmatism. I would suggest that there is a temptation for each of us to use what I call our “Jesus stick” to beat the hell out anyone who doesn’t see things the way we do. Why a “Jesus” stick? Well, we’ve all seen people “bludgeon” each other (figuratively speaking , mostly) over issues of religion and politics, but even in our study of critical theory, we see the human compulsion to “fundamentalize” our own ideas about what it really means to be “queer” or what it really looks like to advocate for queer rights, queer place, and queer space—queer identity. Just as Herring and Tongson are addressing “homonormative” impulses that seek to commodify and “normalize” queer identities, Hopkinson accomplishes the same end, not through a discursive argument but through narrative rhetoric.
Simply put, both Mer and Makandal are represented as “queer” individuals who inhabit “queer” communities and who have different ideas about how to resist the “heteronormative” power structure that dominates and controls their lives and to form dictate their identities. Or, as M. Jacqui Alexander might pose it in the form of a question: How might Mer function in a capacity that is representative of the idea that “all spaces carry the potential for corruptibility” and the possibility of building “oppositional practices within and across multiple simultaneous sites?” Likewise, how might Makandal represent the danger of being “continually, one-sidedly oppositional?” (6). But the problem with fiction, even for some literature teachers, is that the story is an invitation to consider possibilities through various interpretations of a given text as opposed to a discursive (of didactic) argument that provides an opportunity to preach. Hopkinson’s Salt Roads is an exploration of many of the ideas that have been named and codified in our growing critical lexicon, but they seem less concrete when they appear in an liquid, breathing fictional landscape. Maybe that is because it is easier to form an argument around abstract concepts than it is to apply them to characters, fictional persons who have lives that involve the full range of what it means to be human. And to be human means that no one fits easily into any strict category or label (gay or straight)—especially the artificially created binaries that are just as prevalent in the academy as they are in the street.
Hopkinson’s novel achieves something unique: she embodies all of the queer possibilities that Sedgwick desired to see, but she doesn’t offer an answer to the dilemma that remains—the dilemma of human community—period. When all of the structures coming crashing down, there will always be new structures, the omnipresence of Power. Maybe Foucault was right. Carving out a queer “way of life” inside whatever structure one finds oneself is more important than creating a new binary that juxtaposes “queerness” to “something else.” Why? Perhaps it is in that exchange that new forms of injustice emerge. To build up you have to tear down; to create you have to destroy. And the cycle goes on and on and on. Maybe there is a utopian urge in queer theory that assumes that the banishment of “deviance” is a panacea. If everything and everyone is accepted, then nothing and no one will be rejected—nobody will be marginalized. But that is a fantasy that queer theorists and critical scholars should resist at every turn.
On Friday, during Luke’s presentation, he concluded with the idea of coalition building. Very relevant the question of “where do we go from here?” I took that to mean, as a means of application, that gay, white men in Provincetown, MA, may be guilty, not of being anti-lesbian-racist-misogynists, but that they may be subject to something that is risky to verbalize or put into print—but, what the hell, I’ll just throw it out there—every human being is subject to an aspect of human nature that is (wait for it)—universal. I don’t mean the monolithic, normalizing variety, but the singular capacity for disparate individuals and groups, of whatever self-prescribed identification, to “other” those outside the group. Is it conceivable that there is a temptation peculiar to queer theory that mirrors a particularized, universal human temptation to absorb, manipulate, name, and control whatever it intersects? Is it possible that because of queer theory’s unbounded intersectionality, it is tempting for some theorists and practitioners to think of it as a Makandalesque shape shifting “master theory” that, because it can literally intersect with any other theory or field of knowledge, should?
No tentative conclusions this week. I’m still thinking and asking questions.
I enjoyed reading your thoughts and questions very much. I am glad you enjoyed The Salt Roads, and the “liquid, breathing” complexity of the narrative there; I think that one of the guiding impulses of queer theory has often been, perhaps, to capture the liquid, breathing complexity of human experience that is so often devalued by normativity, capitalism, structural hierarchies of race and gender, etc. I take from your synthesis that there are strands of Mer and strands of Makandal within this: the stance of opposition at ant cost and the resistance that occupies and subverts while sometimes also propping up the norm. I think we could map most of the works we have read in class as fitting somewhere on this continuum, though rarely would we be able to see a scholar as advocating whollly one or the other.
Your synthesis and JC’s final one seem interestingly intertwined; you might enjoy reading his!