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Querying Postcolonial and U.S. Ethnic Queer Theory By Frederick Luis Aldama
"Querying Postcolonial and U.S. Ethnic Queer Theory"
In Brown, literary agent provocateur, Richard Rodriguez, renders visible his experiences as queer and Chicano in a contemporary postcolonial America(s). In his trademark fast-paced and high-stylized journalese mode, Rodriguez textures an identity he variously identifies as brown and "third man" (125) that occupies "the passing lane in American demographics" (125). Racially positioned in a third-space that is neither black nor white but queer "Catholic Indian Spaniard", Rodriguez shapeshifts in the slipstreams of a racialized, "post-Protestant" America (35). He is the new, postcolonial queer subject. He celebrates a hybrid queer and racial identity as he re-inhabits North and South American spaces (San Francisco/Los Angeles/Mexico City) marked by histories of colonization and filled with dislocated bodies ((Euro-Spanish mestizo and Pan-Pacific Asian, for example). In Brown, Rodriguez is the past and future as he engages with everyday postcolonial worlds in the present. Richard Rodriguez is living testament to a postcolonial world fast filling up with the dislocated and queer not as disenfranchised, but as empowered "bifocal" (206) subaltern visionaries and New World resistant subjects.
Whether we buy Rodriguez's utopian dream of a bifocal visioning, queer brown self or not, he is not alone. Many contemporary postcolonial queer theorists similarly affirm an ethno-queer resistant ontology. Indeed, in much of poststructuralist postcolonial queer theory today, the ultimate aim is to identify and affirm a queer diasporic epistemology and/or ontology that can resist and critically intervene into dominant xeno- and homo-phobic (neo) colonial, capitalist nation-states. Whether an identification of Brazilian jijra, Afro-Surinamese mati, queer mestizas, or a formulation of localized knowledge systems (cultures, histories, and social matrices), the postcolonial queer subject has been variously invested with the power to destabilize and radically transform master narratives that naturalize hierarchies of gender, sexual, racial, and national difference.
Certain authors make somewhat less ambitious claims. For example, some aim to excavate and reclaim lost cultural traditions informed by those outside the bounds of heteronormativity. I think here of the essays collected in John Hawley's Postcolonial and Queer Theory, Peter Drucker's edited collection, Different Rainbows, Hoshang Merchant's Yaraana: Gay Writing from India, and Ruth Vanita's edited, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. Many of the essays included in these various critical anthologies make present historically the ethno-sexual "outlawed" subjects' participation in the culture and politics that make up their larger societies. Some such theorist acts of recovery focus on a single culture's queer presence. For example, in Ruth Vanita's introductory essay to her edited collection, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, she performs several queer excavations: first, of a 14th century Bengali epic poem, Krittivasa Ramayana, and its mythic description of same-sex procreation; second, of a 2nd century medical text's description of sexual intercourse between to women. And another example is Roberto Strongman's scholarship on queer sexuality in Afro-Catholic syncretic cults where, for example, in the Candoblé's belief system, the figure of Exu is polysexual and genderless. He concludes, "The dissemination of knowledges of local practices and identities of homosexuality in Latin America is a necessary endeavor for the continuation of distinct Latin American gender identities" (188). Though the subjects of their scholarship differ, Robert Strongman and Vanita Ruth have similar aims in mind: One, to retrace the historical presence of same-sex love in Othered cultures; while same-sex subaltern subjects might not engage as openly with the public sphere as those in the West, there has nonetheless been a strong presence over the centuries of a behind-the-scenes shaping of their respective cultures. And two, to put to rest Western misconceptions (queer scholarship or otherwise) that see Third World cultures as void of complex gendering and queer relationalities. Other theorists seek a more comparative model of postcolonial reclamation. Such scholarly approaches often aim to de-center Anglo-European queer centered scholarly endeavors. For example, not all queer sexual relationalities operate exactly like the In/Out-of-Closet Western model: in Mexico, for example, machos can have sex with men (passivos/bottoms) and not lose face in the community as long as they identify as activos (tops); often, too, queer isn't always male-male or female-female, but can include the bakla in the Philippines, the jijra in India, and the tomboi in Indonesia, all of which identify men who crisscross-genders as opposed to men who gay identify. Often with a comparative slant, such postcolonial queer excavations complicate otherwise Anglo/Euro-centric approaches and understandings of queer subjectivity and experience.
There is another camp of postcolonial queer scholars that seek to deflect an Anglo-European ga(y)ze that either neglects or make Other the subaltern subject. Of the latter process of objectification, I think of José Piedra's seminal essay, "Nationalizing Sissies", that queers the Euro-Spanish conquests and colonizations of Latin America, and also Christian Gundermann's "In search of a Lost Body with Organs", that critiques a privileged positionality of white European queer authors and theorists who indulge in non-normative sexual relationalities at the expense of young, dark male bodies. Gundermann, more than Piedra, also asks us to look carefully at how contemporary queer theorists like Leo Bersani uncritically reproduce this Western gaze-ing subjectivity that turns Third World subjects into objects. In Homos, for example, Leo Bersani identifies a homo-ness as a "nonthreatening supplement to sameness" (Bersani 7) and as a "homosexuality without sexuality" (121) by resuscitating Gide, Proust, and Genet. Bersani simply obscures his own position of privilege and enacts a primitivism in his locating of the dark Other as the repository for a positing of a new "way of coming together" (121). As Gundermann aptly concludes, "the unmediated Gidean body as Bersani constructs it cannot exist; that Gide's and Bersani's fetishistic belief in the uncoloniz/ed/ing body is purchased at the cost of perpetuating a very real colonial relation" (158).
Bersani's primitivism, of course, is not unusual. I think here of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, both of whom formulated new desiring configurations (Foucault's "slantwise position" for example)--the Sadomasochistic outlaw, the exotic hermaphrodite, the young Greek and Roman, the Japanese, and even the American Indian---all while uncritically reproducing orientalist/primitivist ideologies. Spivak has rightly identified theorists like Foucault as the "prophets of heterogeneity and the Other" (272). Yet, not only does Foucault maintain the primacy of the Western subject, he also romantically situates the resistance to the powers that regulate desire and bodies in the de facto figure of the outlawed subaltern subject. Sharing with Roland Barthes this kind of romantic racialism, he identifies the North African male body as existing outside the Western image/text and bourgeois heteronormative sex-code repertoire. Barthes's North African as characterized in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes and Incidents, for example, is silent, adjectiveless, and transgresses those "certain good rules of sexuality" (Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes 133). Each theorist's identification of a utopian queer relationality rests on the playing out of a primitivism (exoticist, nostalgic, romantic racialism).
While many postcolonial scholars here mentioned re-frame the queer gaze within postcolonial theoretical contexts to critique colonial and capitalist (straight and queer) hegemonies, others seek to identify the positive side-effects of such Western-gazed, capitalist paradigms. For instance, they assert that in the forceful dislocation of Third World peoples it is possible to form new transnational alliances in new nation-state spaces. Moreover, they consider that, by sharing a space of free-flowing information, diasporic queer alliances can be formed between those in Bangkok, Manila, Seoul, Budapest, San Francisco, and so on. So, while such theorists are critical of capitalist globalization, they ultimately identify a queer agency that wrests control from global capitalism by using media/internet technologies to gather and share information and to build transnational political coalitions. In "Global Gaze/Global Gays", for example, Dennis Altman says that Asian men learn, share, and re-distribute information to overcome internalized racial/sexual inferiority complexes. Thus, for instance, they might decide to use "some variant of the western 'macho' style", as Altman writes, since this and other forms of behavior divulged by the new global technologies allow them to "counteract both indigenous and imported perceptions of them as men-who-want-to-be-women" (13). Also, in their introduction to Queer Globalizations, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé and Martin F. Manalansan IV eke out a site of resistance and collectivity within the global production and consumption of the Carlos and Billy dolls, as well as in films such as The Crying Game, Strawberry and Chocolate, Fire, To Wong Foo. For Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan, while global capitalism generates conspicuous consumption of all cultural artifacts--queer included--to generate profits, it can simultaneously generate "multiple opportunities for queer political intervention through an equally globalized coalition politics" (1). Their so-called "grammar" aims to provide "queer itineraries" that make visible the "density of the cross-cultural interactions generated by our present global condition" (4).
Thus far, most postcolonial queer scholarship considers, then, that its recuperation and theorization of an active queer subaltern agency destabilizes Western notions of Other sexuality and gender, re-maps more complex topographies of subaltern history, identifies transnational coalition building strategies that (ab)use capitalist technologies, and critiques (neo)colonialist practices that continue today. David Eng and Gloria Anzaldúa also seek to empresence ethno-queer epistemologies and ontologies to complicate traditional models of U.S. ethnic and feminist communal affiliation (Asian, Chicano, African American, American Indian, Anglo- feminist movement, and so on) based on discursive and political conventions that "naturalize" hierarchies of racial/sexual/gender difference (say, male and Chicano as pure voice of raza nationalism vs. queer mestiza as impure voice in need of erasure). So while in Racial Castration David Eng aims to demonstrate how the West discursively constructs itself as hypermasculine and the East as hyperfeminine (where the "Asian and anus are one", for example), he aims also to give shape to those "disavowed social identities and differences" (224)--the diasporic sexual/racial Asian subject--that will in turn destabilize an old-guard, homophobic and male-biased Asian American nationalism. For Eng, the first step toward transformation of "the conditions under which we claim our identities and communities" (28) is the acknowledgment of a queer imaginary and psyche within Asian America.
Likewise, in Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa mythopoetically imagines a more inclusive queer (or "atravisados") Chicano/a borderland space where the healing of wounds inflicted by patriarchal (brown and Anglo) nationalism and/or Anglo-feminism can take place. By means of her inclusive, imagined borderland, as well as her postcolonial revisions of precolonial mestiza feminist iconography and mythology, Anzaldúa deterritorializes frontiers at the same time that she reterritorializes real and symbolic geopolitical spaces. Other postcolonial queer theorists, such as Sonia 'Gigi' Otalvaro-Hormillosa, use the concepts of borderland and "hybridity" to understand better the "internal dynamics of racial identification within each subject who allow the Other(s) within to emerge" (91) and that will ultimately give rise to a transnational, postcolonial praxis of "radical equality" (89). And, in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Wendy Brown reclaims the racialized body--the wounded body--as a site for transnational feminist healing and resistance. In Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity, Sharon Holland similarly seeks, though not articulated as such, to heal proverbial wounds. Holland presents readings of African American literature, culture, and film so that dialogue may take place along "the borders between African American, lesbian/gay, and feminist studies" in order to best express a "black queer subjectivity" (121). She analyzes how "death" functions as a "cultural and national phenomenon or discourse" to silence, erase, and control ethnoqueer and racialized peoples: her aim as a theorist is "to define where marginal spaces exist and to travel into the territory of those relegated to the space of death" (163). She concludes, that the act of bringing "back the dead (or saving the living from the shadow of death) is the ultimate queer act" (103).
To summarize thus far: Much "postcolonial queer theory" today seeks to recuperate and/or identify otherwise outlawed epistemologies and ontologies; it also seeks to create transnational models of comparative analysis to make visible differences and affinities between those subjects traditionally identified as perverse and/or outlawed; it seeks to make visible same-sex desiring configurations to destabilize oppressive and violent heteronormative master narratives that inform the nation (colonialism, capitalism, for example); and it seeks to identify postcolonial queer subjects as cultural workers who enact interventionist politics and/or as individuals whose outlawed existence leads de facto to acts of political intervention. The goal in toto of such scholarly endeavors is "to queer citizens, to queer citizenship, and to queer political discourse" (Phelan 6) with the ultimate aim of founding a truly democratic nation-state.
Whether or not today's poststructuralist postcolonial queer theories are successful at making visible a complex queer subaltern identity that promises to move across national, gender, and epistemological borders remains to be seen. That these theories allow us to better engage, question, and revise our understanding of the world also remains to be seen. And finally, what also remains to be seen is whether these theories simply bubble up utopian fantasies, ones that might actually prove to be extremely dangerous to the disenfranchised world wide.
Notchings on the Same Post
As the work of the authors mentioned above attests, queer theory with a postcolonial bent (or postcolonial theory with a queer bent) is asking and answering questions that aim to dramatically revise such scholarly terrains as ethnic, feminist, and socio-cultural studies. Its purpose is to open eyes to a queer subaltern presence in past and present societies and also to add important postcolonial queer thematic layers to literary and film analyses. That work by itself does not promise to enact a radical transformation of society. However, there is unfortunately much postcolonial queer theory that churns out grist that is at best fantastically utopian, and at worst, dangerously antithetical and destructive to the queer, subaltern--working class generally--struggles for basic civil and democratic rights.
Largely the result of the absolute permeation of various poststructuralist theories that read texts (literary, filmic, and/or cultural) as signifying systems with equal effectiveness to so-called discourses that make up and inform real subjectivity and the real world we inhabit, such postcolonial queer theory slips easily into an arm-chair, laissez-faire political praxis. If the "material" that makes up our late-capitalist, post-colonial world is constructed through signifying systems (Jacques Derrida's unstoppable play of the signifier) that produce meaning and subjectivity, and if the disenfranchised subject is likewise constructed, then the simple decoding of the slippage/play between signifier and signified will reveal hegemonic power relations and radically alter flows of ideology (the master narratives of capitalism, say) that control and oppress. Thus, according to such postcolonial queer theory, the identification of non-normative desiring configurations in signifying systems is enough to create stoppages in the flow of capitalist controlled meaning. Such stoppages can be anything, from personal sartorial style choice to the decoding of a localized epistemology or a particular form of musical expression--all are given equal ontological force and status in the de-constructing of universal signifying systems (patriarchal, heterosexist, colonialist and/or capitalist grand narratives) and therefore all have an equal power to radically alter reality through their subversion of cultural representations. As Donald Morton aptly summarizes in "The Politics of Queer Theory in the (Post)Modern Moment", such poststructuralist informed queer theory is, ironically, "the latest version of bourgeois ideology in the domain of sexuality--is a space in which tropicity of the textual/sexual is displaced by libidinality, figurality is displaced by embodiment, and the postmodern 'linguistic turn' is overtaken by a posthumanist 'erotic turn'" (139). That the queer subaltern subject--literary, filmic, or cultural representation--is invested with a de facto counter master narrative presence--namely, do nothing except decode and the reality of massive poverty, famine, and exploitation will magically disappear--simply plays into the hands of those who continue to exploit and disenfranchise subaltern subjects generally.
Unraveling a Queer Subaltern Nation
The problem runs deep and wide. We see this confusion between linguistic signifying system and real social and economic structures that oppress in contemporary South Asian postcolonial and U.S. borderland theory. Homi K. Bhabha, Gloria Anzaldúa, José Esteban Muñoz, Cindy Patton, Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, and David Eng variously formulate subaltern subjectivities that are discursively constructed and that re-inhabit and destabilize discursively constructed nations. As such, they can posit variously a "radical hybridity", a borderland mestiza "atravisado" identity, or a drag performative "disidentification" that destablizes otherwise "naturalized" discursively constructed hierarchies of racial and sexual difference. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha proposes a number of these decodings--variously identified as "mimicry", "radical hybridity", "colonial nonsense," "politics of asavagism", to name a few--in the reading of a variety of postcolonial texts (novels and political and judicial doctrine). For example, he identifies the "mimicry" in the postcolonial novel as a sign of "double articulation" (86) where the text (the written text of the novel and the spoken text of the character) exists within and uncritically replicates as well as threatens to disrupt the regulative rules of a disciplining colonial signifying system that imposes the English language as the standard and that exercises a close surveillance of subaltern bodies and knowledge systems. Anzaldúa shares with Bhabha a similar formulation of language that speaks between the gaps and a similar formulation of a discursively constructed mestiza subjectivity--an incompleteness of identity--that can be used to radically intervene into lesbian separatist politics and colonial capitalist order. She, too, identifies an inter-dicta, in-flux postcolonial lesbian subjectivity--she is "no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races" (88)--that destabilizes dominant signifying systems that fix meaning and identity. Her borderland mestiza lesbian is outside and un-fixed. For both Bhabha and Anzaldúa, subjects, texts, and cultural phenomena are all signifying constructs, so to unseat colonialism, capitalism, or, as in the case of Anzaldúa, a heteronormative Chicanismo, is to identify counter-discourses that destabilize so-called signifying systems that privilege straight over queer, Western over non-Western, male over female. And, in Disidentifications, José Esteban Muñoz formulates a theory of Latino/a subjectivity as discursive performance that re-textualizes heteronormative, racist discourses of nation. His "disidentifications" seek to account for the real violence against real bodies, at the same time that they seek to formulate a social constructivist understanding of subject formation. This allows Muñoz to state that the cross-dressing performances by Carmelita Tropicana and Vaginal Davis use the "stuff of the 'real world'" to express the negotiation between a "fixed identity disposition and the socially encoded roles that are available for such subjects" (6). Their parodic performances ("disidentifaction"), then, become willful re-deployments of discursively regulated gender/sexual identities and become a "counterpublic sphere" (7) capable of transforming the real national spaces. Much like Muñoz, in Queer Diasporas, Cindy Patton and Benigno Sánchez-Eppler identify localized knowledges and queer subaltern "dissident" (5) performances that reflect the "incomplete local and global effects" (3) whose "burn marks" (8) are invested with the power to resist and politically intervene into global capitalism. Here, they similarly conceive of an ethno-queer subject identified as a "highly mobile cluster of claims to self" (4) that form "imagined communities" and deconstruct "the slippage between body-places" (4), thereby destabilizing the nation as a discursive construct--identified as a "fantasized space" (10). For Paton and Sánchez-Eppler, postcolonial queer recrossings and "resymbolization" of national spaces (8) are in themselves and by themselves acts of political intervention, in the same way that, for David Eng, the traditionally disavowed queer Asian American subject is the site of radical transformation of the nation-state.
However, following the example set by Jacques Derrida in his Of Grammatology (published originally in 1967) and also by a cadre of other well-known French theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes, many postcolonial and U.S. ethnic scholars, among them Bhabha, Anzaldúa, Muñoz, Patton, Sánchez-Eppler, and Eng, resort to a fundamental misreading of Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of the sign. According to Saussure, the two components of the sign (the "signifier" and the "signified") are psychological ("mental") entities and they are not separable. In other words, contrary to a widely shared misconception, the Saussurean notion of the sign excludes all possibility of a split, a parting, a hiatus, a void or a slippage between these two components. The sign can only exist and function as a sign, that is, as the most basic unit of linguistic communication, if it remains whole, if it is the undivided mental unity of an acoustic image (what is known as a "phoneme") and a concept (a "meaning"). Many theorists have confused the "signified" (a "concept", a "meaning") with the referent (of necessity, "something" exterior to the sign), thus judging themselves entitled to separate the "signifier" from the "signified", misconceiving the "signifier" as a "word" and the "signified" as a "referent", all the while believing that they are following de Saussure's theory of sign and language. Thus, for instance, the textual resistances--counter-narratives as counter-nations--that Anzaldúa and Bhabha posit are based on the mistaken notion that there can be a "slippage" between the signifier and the signified. As such, they posit the impossible. If such a slippage could occur--if meaning in the Saussurean sense of "concept" or "signified" is separable from its "acoustic image" or "signifier" and is hence indefinitely deferrable, and both subject and world are therefore always unstable and fragmented--the result would necessarily be sheer noise/nonsense.
As is well known and amply practiced, decodings of counter-nation texts (literature and/or cultural phenomena) and subjects are based on the identification of the nation as a textual construct. This requires the conflation of signifying systems (conceived erroneously as strings of signs in the Saussurean sense) with culture, then conflating culture (so called fantasized or imaginary communities) with real political, geographical, economic and judicial structures that make up the nation in the real world (hors texte, so to speak).
Much evidence points to the fact that the economy and most of the political and social structures of postcolonial Third World countries are still overwhelmingly submitted to the dictates and the hard fists of the First World controlled International Monetary Fund. And what is now fashionably termed the "process of globalization" is being experienced more and more patently as a global domination by First World countries, themselves becoming more and more subservient to American imperialist interests. So, wherever the rule of law has been challenged and weakened or destroyed, or a nation has been deeply dislocated, like in many countries that once were part of the Soviet Union, in some Eastern European countries (such as the former Yugoslavia), in most of Africa, and even in Latin America (for instance, Colombia and Argentina), a Mafia styled warlordism has become rampant. So theorists who posit the diffusion of borders and the subversion of nation, while seemingly proposing a progressive, radical, Left wing policy, are actually favoring some of the most destructive and reactionary tendencies exhibited today by capitalism in its road to barbarism. There is nothing emancipatory and recuperative in the exploitation of women and men as sex workers transferred from Eastern European countries to the West, including the United States, nor in the spread of dictatorships, patronage systems, racism and genocides, sexism and fundamentalism all around the globe. In today's specific state of corruption attained by capitalism as a world system, these and many other scourges are pandemic when the framework of nation is destroyed--as Bhabha, Anzaldúa, Muñoz, Patton, Sánchez-Eppler, and Eng, among many other theorists would ultimately have it. A clear example of this is the news widely published that half the territory of Argentina (the southern part of the country) is envisioning the possibility of becoming an independent nation. This is the richest part of Argentina, the region where most agriculture, oil, gas, mines, water and other important resources are located. And the secessionist option is a direct result of the policy applied in Argentina under the orders of the Bush administration and the International Monetary Fund, a policy that has being leading the Argentinean people to starvation and the country to a catastrophic dislocation as a nation.
This example shows that to theorize postcolonial (queer and straight) spaces of resistance that putatively exist between the lines of signification is to ignore the long history of struggles--and massive human loss--waged by working people within the borders of nations to impose upon the ruling and proprietary classes the rights that set limits to oppression and exploitation. Because capitalism cannot do without its own foundational principle--the right to the means of production and distribution as private property and the right to put these in motion by using a labor force that produces more value than it receives in the form of wages--historically the bourgeoisie has had to accept the existence of laws generally, and in particular of those that protect the laboring classes. Hence the importance today of the framework of the nation for subaltern struggles worldwide, for it is nowadays the very political framework in which all the wage-earners and the oppressed peoples of each country fight to obtain and preserve--even against the most violent opposition of the ruling classes--their democratic and labor rights. As one can easily conclude, then, for postcolonial queer--and straight--emancipation to take place, all must join in the everyday struggle necessary to acquire and maintain the democratic rights of all to a decent job, to decent housing, to a free access to education, health care, and public transportation, to freedom of speech and to the right to organize in independent unions and political parties. As Peter Drucker writes in Different Rainbows about Third World countries, "true democratization will require mobilizing and organizing the poor majority, which in turn can set in motion fundamental social change" (213).
Post (colonial queer) Power
As we have seen, to formulate a postcolonial queer resistant subjectivity and counter-nationalist discursivity that carries the same ontological weight as a political treaty, a mass social protest movement, or a revolutionary force, it is necessary to identify the nation-state as discursively constructed and to conceive of power as being discursive also. It is a line of thought that follows a Foucaultian theorizing of power as discursively constructed and devoid of a specific location, since it is posited as being everywhere--which in all logic is equivalent to saying "nowhere". In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault states, "Sexuality must not be described as a stubborn drive, by nature alien and of necessity disobedient to a power which exhausts itself trying to subdue it and often fails to control it entirely. It appears rather as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priest and laity, an administration and a population" (103). If sexuality is the "dense transfer point" that forever fends off hegemonic control, it is that can both reveal "relations of power" and resist within an omnipresence of power articulations situated in multiple points of resistance. Thus, Foucault writes, "These points of resistance are present everywhere in the power networks. Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent; still other that are quick to compromise, interests, or sacrificial" (96). If power circulates in society through discourse--historically inflected ways of speaking, writing, and so on--then resistance to hegemonic power structures is simply the act of decoding the systematic articulation of power through discourse that controls and regulates what is desirable and undesirable. Namely, for Foucault, because power creates resistance in the instant it exerts force on desiring bodies, power is not simply a top-down, unidirectional force: capitalism's control and regulation of desire--the privileging of bourgeois heterosexuality, for example--de facto leads to its creation of resistance, say, the subaltern queer sexuality. Postcolonial queer theorists consider that this allows for the simultaneous critique of the discursive power articulations controlling desire--those cultural representations, judicial acts, and so on, that prohibit queer and/or racial being/desiring--and the use of such controlled desire as a "reverse discourse" (Foucault 101) to demand its legitimacy and denounce a dominant hegemony. As such, a Foucaultian decoding of a discursively constructed ethno-queer sexuality is considered to reveal the contradictory transfers of power--hegemonic and counter-hegemonic--that are the nation.
Such esoteric formulations of a knowledge/discourse/power triad endowed with the power to destabilize through non-normative desiring bodies provide one of the central foundations to much of today's postcolonial queer theory. For example, in Racial Castration, David Eng aims to decode Asian American subjectivities where non-normative desire actively ruptures dominant, discursively constructed epistemologies and ontologies. His Asian American queer desiring subject is posited as a counter-discourse that unsettles "existing categories by exposing their complicity with those regulatory systems that kill desire" (6). To enliven and multiply configuring desires is to make visible shape-shifting counter-discursive subjectivities and epistemologies that work within dominant power/discourse/knowledge systems; it is thus that they can destabilize such a triadic system that makes the nation-state appear coherent in its repression of--and killing off--outlawed desire. Hence, Eng's excavation of so-called "affect-genealogies" that identify a destabilizing ethno-queer desiring subject existing at the "transfer point for relations of power" (cf. Foucault).
Of course, if power simultaneously regulates and de-regulates subaltern queer bodies, then, as we have seen with Foucault, power must not be locatable in the real institutional structures that the ruling class and its representatives use to command, to dominate, to oppress and to exploit. Rather, power must be equated to discourse and is to have its sources and sites everywhere. Likewise, postcolonial queer theorists like David Eng must theorize the simultaneity of power with resistance in order to make their postcolonial queer counter-nation/power work. Eng and others must promote symbolic forms of resistance in cultural phenomena and literature in order to be able to follow Foucault in erasing the very real sites of power situated within the State apparatus, itself controlled by the real ruling class. They must also theorize out of existence the real exploitive and oppressive systems of colonial rule. This approach gives fuel to politically hollow statements such as the "the personal is political", where acts of transgressive pleasure (metropolitan, middle-class "shocking" sex) become politically subversive; in its extreme, such a strategy of "resistance" dangerously romanticizes the mutilation of bodies. Of course, pleasure and sex (straight or queer, transgressive or vanilla) do not necessarily lead to social transformation. This has required, over two hundred years, a constant struggle by millions of people all over the world to establish and maintain the democratic and labor rights that they have forced nations to adopt and to uphold. As Jonathan Dollimore remarks, the aforementioned theorizing "corresponds to a more general move today whereby the undoubted thought that sexuality is political through and through, has allowed many to delude themselves into believing that sexuality is the only political focus worthy of attention" (221).
Post (colonial, queer) Subject
If for postcolonial queer theorists, sexuality is discursively produced within a discursively produced nation-state, then it follows that rather then search for a "truth" of subjectivity that repression may have kept from view, one must seek to identify a fragmented, non-autonomous (ethno-sexual) subject. Of course, this (ethno-sexual) subject must be a discursively (linguistically/socially) constructed, fragmented fiction, one that is acted upon but is not entirely assimilable by hegemonic power structures. In this schema, moreover, the formulation of the queer desiring ethno-sexual subject is likewise fragmented textually but is not predicated on lack--the lack of, say, a straight identified Freudian Oedipal complex or Lacanian (linguistic) Phallus. The queer ethno-sexual subject is a multiply desiring, fragmented fiction that exists for itself. Thus, the subject is both unfixed and fragmented, and because it doesn't lack (sidestepping fixity within a repressive law of the Freudian Oedipus and later super-ego and Lacan's Phallus as the linguistic sign that links signifier and signified to stabilize chains of ever shifting meanings in society, for example) its desire is full and productive. (It being understood that, in order to make the subject and the world seem coherent and whole, those with power construct signifying systems that pretend wholeness all while naturalizing sexual difference.) As such, multiply desiring, discursively constructed postcolonial queer subjects are both produced by and have the power to unfix heteronormative, colonial/capitalist Euro-Anglo fields of signification. Accordingly, David Eng writes of the Asian American queer subject: "As the subject can never be aligned with the agent, so, too, identity and identification never quite meet. All identifications are inevitably failed identifications, a continual passing as a coherent and stable social identity" (24).
The move into the realm of the Lacanian unconscious (mostly) to understand postcolonial subjectivity superimposes the Saussurean signifier (acoustic image/phoneme) with the unconscious and that of the signifier (concept) with the conscious. However, within this conscious/unconscious or signifier/signified, linguistic schema of formulating a postcolonial queer subjectivity, there is the recapitulation of a Derridean signifier/signified gap, slippage, or aporia. Namely, to come into consciousness is to come into the realm of the signifier. Once in the realm of chains of signifiers that infinitely reproduce and never reach true meaning, the subject is itself incoherent. In consciousness is fragmentation, but this is disavowed (Lacan's "misrecognition") by the subject in his/her fantasies of coherence. The queer subaltern subject inhabits the gaps between signifier and signified, or consciousness and unconsciousness, and so can destabilize the Imaginary where the ego/self is seemingly made to appear unified within dominant signifying systems. Because the Phallus is never attainable, and the queer subaltern subject makes this visible, it also exposes how the Subject (straight/queer, Anglo/Other) is always in process of deferred becoming. In sum: For postcolonial queer theorists, the ethno-queer subject is not informed by material impulses and biological instincts--repressed and liberated--but by signs and meanings. Therefore, this subject is a discursively fragmented construct and it exists within chains of signifiers that promise consciousness but forever hold at bay the ultimate realizing of consciousness, or the primary signifier, the Phallus; precisely because it is a fragmented construct, such an ethno-queer desiring subject can detach itself then re-inhabit the gap between signifier/signified, or conscious/unconscious, and then re-figure hetero-normalized discursively inscribed desire. As Eng proposes, "To account for the production of race, processes of racialization, and the naturalization of racism in psychic terms would be to provide potentially transformative methods of exploring how Asian American men are managed by, and in turn manage, their masculinities" (15). Here, a fundamental confusion of linguistic hypothesis with ideologically inscribed subjectivities becomes a mode of politics.
The Lacanian turn toward signifying systems in order to dissociate sexuality/eroticism from biology/reproduction/anatomy has become a central feature of postcolonial queer theory. However, as we have just mentioned, Lacan--like Bhabha and Foucault and most authors of postcolonial queer theory--fundamentally misread Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of the sign and, more generally, his conception of language. Donald Morton summarizes thus the ensuing conception of subjectivity as a
textualized entity which reads itself and other texts of culture according to a ludic process marked by différence-as-excess which subverts ideology autotelically: the decenterd subject makes meaning (reads/writes/thinks the texts of culture) by disrupting the signified, the commonly held public denotations of words and other meaning units, by 'sliding along the chain of signifiers (connotations). This slide along the chain of signifiers (driven by 'desire') is a pursuit of the pleasure of the text, a pleasure said to 'vary' depending on different subject's different subject-positions. ("The Politics of Queer Theory in the (Post)Modern Moment 135)
To repeat: When postcolonial queer theorists arbitrarily posit a slippage between the signifier and the signified and infer from this the equally arbitrary assertion that meaning is deferrable and the subject and the world are experienced by the subject as unstable and fragmented, they are applying an inaccurate and even incoherent interpretation of Saussure's theory of the sign.
These misreadings of linguistics combined with unverifiable psychoanalytic concepts have other practical consequences. For instance, David Eng asserts that "sexual and racial differences intersect to configure the Asian American male psyche" (15); and it is within that social context that he seeks to account for the racism and homophobia felt by those (discursively constructed) bodies. He writes, by "focusing on the domain of the specular and the role of the imaginary" (4) it is possible to identify "both the psychic and the material limits" (4) that inform ethno-sexual subjectivity. But these notions, as tools to engage with reality, prove utterly unsuitable--if not entirely inane. If subject and world are linguistic constructs, then how can we account for the real stigmatization and real suffering and real pain that the subaltern queer subject experiences in the real world "out there"? The outcome of theories that posit a linguistically constructed basis for identity is that, as Adam Katz states generally, "power differentials, which are seen as constitutive of individuals, seem to disappear in relation to the problem of articulating identities through contingent discursive links." (87). The theories of postcolonial queer subjectivity based on notions such as the Lacanian Phallus and the Foucaultian omnipresent Power want it both ways--to forefront the discursive and constructionist "nature" of all things human while preserving the real as being objectively "out there", or to view the world as only textual and to maintain the existence of material reality--but such a contradiction ultimately self-implodes and makes the whole speculative edifice built on it appear as a load of hot air.
Post (colonial queer) Performative
A very prominent expression of the attempt to read sign systems yoked together with speculative psychoanalysis in the formulation of a postcolonial queer subjectivity is to be found in the work of Judith Butler, who has theorized a performative text-act as being capable of defying master narratives (pertaining to colonialism and capitalism, say) that discursively regulate bodies and desires. If, as Butler contends in Gender Trouble, sexual and gendered identities are a "persistent impersonation" (x), then, by extension, the performance of ethnic, racial, and sexual "attributes" (cf. Butler) by the postcolonial ethno-sexual subject suffices to destabilize and re-signify such regulative fictions. (According to Butler, performance is never exact and therefore opens up the space of "psychic rupture" between signifier and signified where re-signification can take place.) Following closely this position, José Esteban Muñoz formulates a Latino performance that parodies gender and sexuality and therefore enacts a radical "disidentification" and transformation of an otherwise oppressive and highly regulated discursively constructed world. (He identifies "chusmaría" as an instance of a "disidentificatory" performance of politics in its "tactful refusal to keep things 'pristine' and binarized, a willful mismatching of striped and floral print genre, and a loud defiance of a rather fixed order" (191), for example.) Many other authors have followed suit. Thus, for José Quiroga, to read a performative queer subjectivity in Tropics of Desire is to "privilege the network of relationships that will allow subjects to construct an identity" (17) capable of countering the "repressively modernizing state power" (19). And thus, too, Silviano Santiago affirms the presence of the "wily homosexual" and/or "homosexual rogue" whose "subjectitivies in play" (18) expose and subvert those signifying systems that naturalize heteronormativity in Brazilian society. In the same fashion, Chela Sandoval asserts that the lesbian mestiza trickster figure performs a "dissident social-erotic" (21) and a "subjectivity-as-masquerade" (25) that leads to the "play of effective stratagems where "oppositional praxis can begin" (27). And lastly, José Esteban Muñoz rather grandly asserts, "that the doing that matters most and the performance that seems most crucial are nothing short of the actual making of worlds" (200).
Thus, Muñoz, Quiroga, Sandoval, and Santiago, to name a few, consider that to perform is to step into that space of psychic rupture where signifier/signified slip and new ethno-sexual significations can take shape. They assume not only that the subject is discursively constructed and regulated, but that all regulation takes place, say, at the surface of textual identities. So, to exaggeratedly perform discursively constructed race and sexual identities is tantamount to calling attention to everyday repetitive acts (sartorial choices, gestures, speech acts, for example) that create regulative, heteronormative and Anglo-defined sign systems of racialized and sexualized meaning. Namely, their performing bodies enact the Butlerean notion that the body is not naturally sexed or raced, but becomes so through the sociocultural processes that produce sexual and race identities to sustain the status quo in today's power relations.
The postulation of a postcolonial queer performative act capable of destabilizing the regulative fictions that control desire and identity is based too (as has happened with Saussure) on a very eccentric interpretation of a much "used" author, in this case the philosopher J.L. Austin. As is well known, Austin formulated the constative/performative binary in his William James lectures (a series of twelve lectures later transcribed, edited and collected by his students and posthumously published in 1955 as How To Do Things with Words). Austin himself abandoned his constative/performative hypothesis, noting that language does not work in such a neat contrasting way and that his formula ultimately failed to account for the contextual factors that determine meaning in everyday speech acts. Hence, he offered a revised hypothesis (the locution/illocutionary binary) to identify those complex aspects of sentences that highlight the thought and/or action expressed. Even still, neither model proved fruitful for future generations of linguistic scholars who have been seriously pursuing an interest in understanding how language works, how the language faculty is acquired, and how rules and words combine to convey meaning. And yet Austin's "performatives"--the name given to utterances that function in and of themselves as actions rather than as assertions--are to be found everywhere in postcolonial queer theory today. The reason is probably that Austin's notion plays nicely into a poststructuralist understanding of the subject as discursively constructed and of language (discourse) as perpetually self-referential. Since it is posited that discourse is performance and the subject is discourse, such a subject can only be a performative subject. And, by further extrapolation, race, sex, and gender are also performative discourses or acts, for bodies are never merely described, they are constituted in the very act of description. Thus, there is no truth or origin about anything, let alone race, sex, and gender--only performance and subjects produced in and through (discursive) performance. From this point of view, if one de-contextualizes normative race and/or gender identities through performance, say, as Muñoz reads of Carmelita Tropicana's drag performances, one destabilizes ("disidentifies") heteronormative regulating fictions that perform truth and origin. Muñoz's "disidentification" is the performative act that reveals how all gender and race identities are derivative copies. There is no original. Therefore, to displace normative performing identities is to produce "a radical proliferation of gender", as Butler states (148). Similarly, Butler can posit the performative troubling of originary and/or "primary" genders in parodic practices of "drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities" (215). Here, she writes, "If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender, and gender performance" (215). It is in this same fashion that the queer postcolonial subject enacts a politics of troubled peformativity: by decontextualizing and/or exaggerating already performed-as-normative identities.
Muñoz's choice to analyze performance artists is telling when we take into account the evidence that Martha Nussbaum has assembled to show, with respect to Butler's work generally, that theoretical formulations of performance have more in common with theatre arts than with Austin's analysis of four classes of performative sentences. (See Nussbaum's "The Professor of Parody--The hip defeatism of Judith Butler".) Moreover, the idea that our everyday existence is a series of repetitions of behaviors (male and female, straight and queer, say) that are fictions (naturalized or not) within dominant hegemonic systems (not a central part of our identity) that can be destabilized through a parodic performance, has been ultimately recognized as ineffectual by Butler herself, who has admitted that it cannot change the system. All it does is give the individual performer of such and such identity the possibility of creative play, as someone would do on stage; when the curtain falls, while the performance might have engaged its audience and even opened the public's eyes to certain social injustices, nothing will have changed in the real world of the real people that suffer daily from those injustices.
Finally, then, we have to ask, do theories of "performative" enrich our understanding of (postcolonial queer) subjectivity? Do performative identities enact real social change? Simply stated, No. Stripped down, such theories lead to dead ends because even a cursory look at facts shows a different story about how social change is enacted and how real bodies experience the real pain involved in the lack of such change. So when queer theorists put forward the fantastical notion that only a performative identity has the strength to make at least a little room for play within the "prison house of language" (a "prison", by the way, of their own theoretical making), and that all a racialized, gendered, and/or sexualized subject can do is to enact a parodic performance within the master narrative structures of power, they are upholding not only a hugely pessimistic viewpoint but also an idiosyncratic hypothesis that is contradicted by all sorts of historical and scientific evidence. As Nussbaum appropriately remarks: "Isn't this like saying to a slave that the institution of slavery will never change, but you can find ways of mocking it and subverting it, finding your personal freedom within those acts of carefully limited defiance? Yet it is a fact that the institution of slavery can be changed, and was changed--but not by people who took a Butler-like view of the possibilities. It was changed because people did not rest content with parodic performance: they demanded, and to some extent they got, social upheaval" ("The Professor of Parody" 37).
Final Felling of the Posts
What are the consequences when esoteric speculations and mystic theorizations abound? In postcolonial queer theory (performative or otherwise) it can lead some authors to dangerously assert, for example, that AIDS research participates in so-called "narratives of scientific progress" that, as Cindy Patton continues to write, "help rationalize discriminatory policy and continued pursuit of unwarrantedly narrow research questions" ("Migratory Voices" 19). According to Patton, to apply to the study and the struggle against AIDS the scientific procedure of hypothesizing, testing, refuting, verifying, and building the most coherent and general theory possible would only feed the interests of an oppressive colonialist/capitalist hegemony. So, in the place of science, Patton proposes that we engage in a decoding of "the discursive aspects of the AIDS epidemic [to reveal] a particularly spectacular example of the switching, drifting, bricoleur use of supposedly disinvested descriptive frames" that will ultimately shed light on how "medical knowledge is mediated in radically different ways, with compounding ill effects" (34). Of course, it is one thing to contest and actively protest the heterosexist and racist discriminatory practices that surround AIDS and its victims. It is quite another to say that medical research can only ever be manipulated by oppressive power structures or that AIDS itself is a discursive construct. If this were the case, why bother trying to figure out a cure to a real disease that is killing millions of real people across the globe? To put policy makers and scientists in the same boat (both as elite brokers of power) or to theorize a decoding of AIDS as discursive construct is not only naive, but extremely dangerous. Science and scientific research are necessary to find a cure for AIDS; and it is imperative to understand AIDS within a larger health care context that acknowledges, as Donald Morton writes, "the distribution of economic resources (research funds, etc.) in relation to the health needs of all citizens" ("Queer Consensus/Socialist Conflict" 142).
Instead of acting as sites of counter-hegemonic resistance, such obscurantist postcolonial queer theories feed the fears of an already disoriented (sometimes even superstitious and prejudiced) mainstream. To abandon reason, objectivity, and truth, on the supposition that they are nothing more than discursive articulations of power is to give up the very tools we need to resist and oppose the consequences of capitalism and the capitalist system itself. Those tools and the norms based on them are also necessary to show, as Nussbaum rightfully contends,
why certain arguments, say, about sex difference or racial difference, are bad science. We need to cling to the norm in politics and ethics as well, if we want to show why certain views are justifiable and others (racism, sexism) are not. Even the norm of respect for difference and pluralism is itself, of course, a definite and controversial norm, and thus we cannot defend it against those who attack it if we embrace either cultural relativism or a Foucauldian view that there is nothing more to truth than local expressions of power. ("Political Objectivity" 886)
As postcolonial queer theorists, then, our job is to shun obscurantism and the deleterious confusion of concepts (linguistic and psychoanalytic, nation and narration, and so on) and embrace the criteria of scientific exploration, such as thought experiments, scrupulous observation and verification of data, development of novel hypothesis to be contrasted with empirical phenomena, and selection of theories possessing the widest explanatory and predictive scope. We need these procedures, among other things, to clarify, as Adam Katz writes, "modes and boundaries of accountability" (224) that can lead to pose new questions "in the ongoing struggle against the articulation of ideological and political-economic violence" (224). The so-called theories of the ethno-queer subject that magically work within and against oppressive political and economic structures--for instance, Muñoz's positing the transformation of "a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance" (12)--would have to be replaced and conceptual boundaries would have to be established to differentiate between different ontological and epistemological and practical categories belonging to different domains, such as the aesthetic, linguistic, historical, economic, social, and political.
The stigmatization of gays and lesbians (postcolonial or otherwise) has many causes that ultimately find their roots in our present social system based on exploitation and oppression. Therefore, for liberation to take place, we need to turn our attention to the basics: the advanced state of decomposition attained today by global capitalism, the leading role played in this respect by its American component, and the precise forms of resistance and struggle evinced in international and national proletarian political practice. Likewise, we need to understand capitalist hegemony in relation to, as Adam Katz contends, "the notion of social necessity (in the sense of the laws of motion of a social form) rather then in terms of contingent and unstable articulations" (101). This is not going to happen, as Donald Morton writes in "The Politics of Queer Theory in the (Post)Modern Moment", with a "semiotic democracy" (7) in which people speak (only) for themselves and that gives credence to "a non-class, coalitionist, liberal politics" (7). Social change will come about, he continues, "by displacing the relations of production, for although the relations of production do not evade, they nevertheless always exceed, the fate of signs" (7). Finally, then, postcolonial queer emancipation will only be realized within the framework of the collective struggle waged in every country and worldwide to resist oppression and exploitation, to defend the democratic rights of all workers and to overturn capitalist relations of production.
Postcolonial queer theorizing of the subject--via Foucault, Lacan, and Butler--develops as if in a sociohistorical void, where the movement of millions of people that make history is never taken into account. Moreover, postcolonial queer theorizing always overlooks the fact that the subject is the product of a process initiating since time immemorial, in which mostly biological but also social factors have been playing a fundamental role.
To reiterate: to begin to understand the subject it is necessary to understand that the subject is a biological and social being. It is necessary, too, to understand that the subject is a member of a social class, and that he or she also becomes a subject through his or her resistance or his or her political struggle against oppression and exploitation. To understand the subject is to look into the biological and social evolution of human beings and into the history of the widely differently organized societies it has built since the Paleolithic period.
Of course, such an approach is largely neglected by postcolonial queer theorists, particularly those that follow in the footsteps of Foucault and Butler. As such, they disregard actual biology and history and provide in its place a subjectivized version of fragments of psychoanalysis and of history that are extremely idiosyncratic.
To build the fields of inquiry aimed at obtaining a better understanding of postcolonial and queer subjectivities, we must be accountable for what we say and do in our scholarly pursuits. The confusion of nation with narration, speech act with political praxis, literature with ontology and politics, power with discourse, the world with the text deviates from such a responsible accounting. Of course, we need to continue to defend the democratic rights of all citizens worldwide, whether queer or straight, just as we need to continue to research history and language. We also need to continue to systematically recover, read and analyze postcolonial queer literature--and film. But to avoid sterile confusions, all investigation should use those tools--and questions--best suited to a truly scientific research.
I end with a brief discussion of postcolonial queer literary and film aesthetics. Many of the postcolonial (queer) theorists that I have discussed often turn to literary texts to exemplify their theories: Bhabha turns to Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, Quiroga to Elizabeth Bishop and Lydia Cabrera, Muñoz to Toni Morrison, Butler to Kafka and Willa Cather, to name a few. Here, however, rather than analyzing each of the literary texts according to the principles that govern fiction--or poetry--they simply use them as backdrops to a theorizing that conflates fiction with ontological fact.
Once the aesthetics of literature is set aside, the only way to re-introduce
value is to identify whether a given text supports a good or a bad politics--for
instance, whether it is an act of counter-national resistance or not. Conversely,
politics is now articulated via a given literary representation. As Winfried
Fluck sums up, "What makes the literary text an important object of study is no
longer its power of transcendence but the fact that it exerts power. This power
is not exerted through a particular form or structure (so that only some texts
would exert power) but through the one aspect all objects of cultural studies
have in common, namely that they are all representations" (84). This, of course,
does a great disservice to the rich variety of postcolonial queer short stories,
novels, films, drama, and poetry that have appeared of late. Off the cuff, I
think of Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens), Hanif Kureishi (The Black Album and Intimacy), Francisco X. Alarcon (From the Other Side of Night), Dinonne Brand (In Another Place, Not Here), Arturo Islas (The Rain God and La Mollie and the King of Tears), Shani Mootoo (Cereus Blooms), Cherríe Moraga (The Last Generation: Poetry and Prose), Raj Rao (Slide Show), John Rechy (The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez). In the realm of film, Jorge Perugorría's &