Sunday, August 19, 2007

Magical Negroes, expendable queers, and other well-worn tropes

By Way of Introduction -

I've been thinking about this post for a long time. There's this thing about specfic that allows us as writers and readers, both, to thoroughly examine themes of other, in ways that other literary traditions simply don't flex to accommodate. When you turn the idea of other on its head the way specfic can, you get some pretty interesting and disturbing stuff -- like Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." (Available in The Wind's Twelve Quarters.) [ETA: I originally included a link to the story itself, but upon a bit of investigation discovered it was not an unauthorized use. Ms. Le Guin still retains copyright, and while I don't know her, I can't imagine she's fabulously wealthy. Writers generally don't get rich from writing -- please don't support intellectual property theft.]

Other isn't a terribly hard concept, even if you don't consciously recall encountering the idea. If you've ever read a book or a story that features token gypsies, queers, brown people, or even (oftentimes) women -- you've already encountered other. It means just what it says: other than. Other than white. Other than het. Other than us ("us" being a sort of weird unspoken default setting that means, in an awful lot of modern traditional Western-European and American writing, white, heterosexual, and male. We can argue male-as-cultural-default some other time, but I think I can make a pretty strong case for it.)

So Other isn't that tricky. You might have got this stuff in high school English classes. (I didn't -- but I went to an insanely conservative private Christian school -- friggin' all everyone was other.) If you've had a survey Lit course, you've almost certainly heard of it. If you've had a Women's Studies, Queer Studies, or Writing from the Margins class at some point, the concept will be downright familiar and comfy.

Some of literatures most enduring and beloved characters are most empathetic to us because of their own alienation from the safe place of cultural conformity, but they aren't really other. Rather, they occupy a space between -- and almost inevitably, they're trying to get from here to there (there being safely accepted as part of a community.) Other in fiction carries a pretty specific hint of magical threat.

You see the magical threat of otherness in the appearance of fairies, in medieval writing; in the appearance of gypsies, monsters, or queers, in fiction all the way to present; essentially, you can identify other in any character that cannot or will not every be reconciled with the portrayed cultural community, no matter what she or he does over the course of the story. Think of Queequeg, in Moby Dick. (Forget, for the moment, all the Jungian shadow-self stuff that requires we think of him as a dark reflection of Ishmael -- whose very name implies alienation. But you just gotta know we're coming back to it, later . . . )

Ishmael says of Queequeg:
I am no coward, but what to make of this head-peddling purple rascal altogether passed my comprehension. Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, i confess i was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I was not game enough just then to address him, and demand a satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him.
(page 21 in the linked edition)

Queequeg's never, ever going to be mistaken for a New Englander. He's other . . . and that's scary. Worse yet, Ishmael is supposed to share a bed with him -- which is a source of discomfort for Ishmael for a number of paragraphs before he ever lays eyes on Queequeg.

Now, as a lesbian who has been out -- a self-identified dyke, in fact (and, yes, I can almost feel some of you cringing because I used that scary word. It's okay, I promise) -- I know a bit about being other. I know more than a bit about seeing that otherness reflected in text across generations and genres. In fact, though, it's often tremendously educational to read as if we weren't on the margins, to learn what we can from the experience from the perspective of someone safely within culturally-identified norms.

Fast forward.

Some of the thinking for this essay started this spring, on my way to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 42nd Medieval Congress. If you should ever have the chance to spend a couple of hours in a car with Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Digital Medievalist, I highly recommend the experience, by the way.

We were talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'd just started methodically watching the DVD collection, having missed the whole BtVS phenomenon, when it actually happened. Someone casually mentioned that Tara dies.

Now. I was only partway through season four, at the time of the discussion, and while spoilers don't typically bother me, I was shocked and appalled to learn this bit of information. I sort of stashed it away, to look into later.

Fast forward, again.

Upon my return from K'zoo, in the context of a discussion regarding some of the presenters, Medievalist sent me this link, and asked me what I thought.

From Eileen A. Joy's Beyond Feminist, Gender, Queer, Everything Studies: Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies:

. . . While queer theory could be said to have begun with specific human and even posthuman bodies—with their indeterminate and illicit flows and intensities and, let’s say, their once-unspeakable and subversive desires—queer theory today, in the recent words of David Eng, has become “subject-less,” admitting of “no fixed political referent.”[5] As a term, queer cannot be allowed to stray from what might be called its essential contingency, in the sense that it must always pose a certain resistance to whatever is considered fixed or “normal,” an ontological state of affairs that is always changing over time. In this sense, queer studies is about everything, and even, following Carolyn Dinshaw’s lead, about “touching” and making queer “affective contact”[6] with everything: it is about sex and sexuality as always, but it is also about race, religion, empire, immigration, globalization, citizenship, sovereignty, terrorism, etc. And in another sense, queer theory is also now about the end of everything we think we know, about sex and sexuality and human bodies, but also about history and time. . . .
Not knowing in advance what precise forms our humanness does and will take—this is the point at which, unlike a certain famous medievalist, I am not going to “get medieval on your ass,” but I am going to “get manifesto” on you. I believe that we inhabit a present moment of what I take to be a kind of crisis, at the national level, in what I am going to call hetero-queer (re)productivity, a state of affairs in which a certain sterility of radical human becomings—both experiential and critico-philosophical—has settled in at precisely the same time as the entertainment industry and other corporations have taken over anything that ever did or ever will call itself “radical” and have sold it to us as the best acid trip ever.
"Oh, yippee," sez I, "Encourage the straight white chicks who love the idea of queerness, but only without any of the accompanying painful, horrible, soul-searching, overcoming-self-loathing bits. or the part where strangers call you 'fucking dyke,' sometimes under their breath but not usually. WTF is a 'hetero-queer?'"

This is getting long, so I'll leave you to read the essay. I'll be back with the next chunk in a day or so, and if you're an overachiever, and really wanna read ahead, here's a links round up:

In the Middle

Gays/Lesbians in the Media

The evil, dead lesbian cliche

A list of where you can see the evil, dead lesbian cliche in action

On Heterosexual Writer Bias

Unpacking the Magical Negro trope

Magical White Boy

The Kugelmass Episodes on BtVS

Inexplicably Fancy Trash

Part II of this essay, if I've not bored you silly already.


Karl Steel said...

Eileen should be the one to explain herself, but I give it a (brief) shot. 'Hetero-queer' doesn't mean heterosexual in the sense of man and woman (or whatever placeholders of pure sexual difference one wants to imagine). It means a queerness that can be a site of multiple, ever changing identities, one that, to echo Eileen, does not know in advance what it is going to be. It might help to think in terms of "queers" rather than "being queer" (where "queer" = some clearly identifiable category, while "queers" means something that always slides away from or promises something more than (mere) identity). I don't think this means ignoring the very real experience of harassment or worse as a result of claiming or realizing queerness. Far from it! If you knew Eileen, you'd know that's not what she's up to.

Does that help?

Mac said...

No worries. This really is just an introduction -- and after my initial reaction, upon a re-read, I think Eileen is saying some very smart and interesting things, and she's gutsy about it.

Karl Steel said...

Ok. Cool.

Lori A. Basiewicz said...

Interesting. Looking forward to reading the next installment.

Eileen Joy said...

Eileen here: I'm a lesbian, gay, queer, whatever. I am not one of those nifty straight people trying to hijack queer-ness in order to be theoretically hip. Far from it. Look carefully at what I am writing [I hope--could be wrong, though, because we can always improve our arguments] and I think you will see that I am: first, arguing that "queer" can never divorce itself from "woman," which will always--on a cultural level, anyway--be the foundation of "queer" [in the eyes of, say, the most hetero-normative communities]; and second, arguing, mainly following Elizabeth Grosz [a feminist, I might add] that, evolutionary-biological-wise, we are, all of us "hetero-queer" [produced through endlessly transmogrifying yet partially dimorphically fixed chains of sexual difference]. Desire has never been about sameness--I reject categoricallt the term "homosexual"--it is frankly insulting to those of us labeled as such. Being "homo" does not mean desiring "the same," and even if it did: how boring.

Mac said...

Ah, Eileen! Welcome to the conversation. It's happening simultaneously on a couple of different blogs -- but meanwhile, part II of this is already up, and part III will go up shortly.

Essentially, no one needs to be queer, "straight," or anything else in order to say smart, true things. So while your self-identification might assure some as to the purity of your motives, it's not really necessary here.

For instance, when you said in your comment:
"Look carefully at what I am writing [I hope--could be wrong, though, because we can always improve our arguments] and I think you will see that I am: first, arguing that 'queer' can never divorce itself from 'woman,' which will always--on a cultural level, anyway--be the foundation of 'queer' [in the eyes of, say, the most hetero-normative communities]; and second, arguing, mainly following Elizabeth Grosz [a feminist, I might add] that, evolutionary-biological-wise, we are, all of us 'hetero-queer' [produced through endlessly transmogrifying yet partially dimorphically fixed chains of sexual difference]"

A term like Grosz's hetero-queer is going to cause some real thought and ripples of response only insofar as it's unpacked and applied in a larger sense to the stuff we all read and think and talk about every day.

That is, its usefulness in the very limited and sheltered environment of a queer-studies department, or a couple of semi-incestuous blogs is one thing -- but if you can put it on the street and give it some legs, then interesting things might happen.

So I hope you'll hang around for the rest of the conversation.

Ben III said...


I signed up yesterday, and have killed 2 hours simply trying to find a place to post. This is the first that has granted access. Sorry, this dicussion is a bit over my head, but could someone please tell me what I need do to earn the "privilege" of posting on the poetry/song boards.

Although, I did all of the "newbie" stuff that I saw, I feel as though I've done something very wrong. :(