Some writers have a rule: never write anything negative about another scholar’s work.
Some have another: never answer your critics.
I was recently accused of having “race fatigue.”
The specific charge, leveled against Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Joan Scott, and me, was directed toward our various critiques of the category of experience, the way the phrase “it happened to me,” for example, is sometimes used to guarantee the authority of a claim and, in the process, shut down critical inquiry.
Anyway, our critiques of experience suggest to Ernesto Javier Martínez that we do not take “the lives and experiences of people of color or the legacy of colonialism as core concerns” (26).
Okay, I get it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, false class consciousness — all find one of their conditions of possibility in the denial of the authenticity and authority of the lived experience of their subjects. And given that they take hold at the level of the body, it is logical that a marginalized subject might appeal to that body in an effort to produce a counter-discourse of lived experience.
As a critic, however, I understand my obligation as an attentiveness to what that counter-discourse might unwittingly carry along with it.
“Ethnology—like any science—comes about within the element of discourse. And it is primarily a European science employing traditional concepts, however much of it may struggle against them. Consequently, whether he wants to or not-and this does not depend on a decision on his part-the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he is employed in denouncing them. This necessity is irreducible; it is not a historical contingency. We ought to consider very carefully all its implications. But if nobody can escape this necessity, and if no one is therefore responsible for giving in to it, however little, this does not mean that all the ways of giving in to it are of an equal pertinence. The quality and the fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which this relationship to the history of metaphysics and to inherited concepts is thought. “
Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play”
In terms of evidence of my specific lack, Martínez cited a book chapter I wrote on Marlon Riggs’ film Tongues Untied.
Apparently, only praise counts as evidence of taking “the lives and experiences of people of color” as “core concerns.” According to the logic of identity politics, then, if you don’t have anything nice to say about us, you must not be taking us seriously.
- That praise can be a form of benevolent racism is never entertained.
- That there might be something patronizing in the succès de scandale that was PBS’s showing of Tongues Untied is never entertained.
- That I actually analyzed and wrote about the film apparently did not register as interest, seriousness, intellectual commitment to explorations of race and racism, and so forth.
The forgotten circumstances of my critique: the interpretive controversy surrounding Mapplethrope’s photographs, eloquently analyzed by Kobena Mercer.
Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Joan Scott — and me! My first response was a giddy, “Shut up! If only!”
But then I got a bit miffed.
For had the writer searched, he would have discovered that, in essays on Mariama Bâ, Toni Kade Bambara, Etel Ednan, and “transnational” queer identity, I in fact explore the legacy of colonialism. I also spent a year teaching English in Tunisia and have written on how the legacy of colonialism impacts both educational policy and the transnational male sex trade.
And, in the book in question, the chapter on Tongues Untied is followed by one on Paris is Burning, in which I make a series of arguments very much concerned with the “lives and experiences” of its subjects. That is why, for example, I discuss Antonio Gramsci‘s notion of common sense.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, he’s hauling in the “some of my best essays are Black” excuse.
I also cannot help but notice that, while, in his review of the book in question, Donald Morton took a jab at Gayatri Spivak for being my mentor, Martínez here erases the influence of her work on my own.
Apparently, I am both too close to a female critic of color for some, and not close enough for others – unless Martínez is attempting to re-write Spivak as white. But, if that were the case, her name would have appeared alongside those of Butler, Haraway, Scott, and my own. No, clearly, chromatism prevents us from taking a woman of color to task for the sins of her (non) student.
Psychoanalyze this: Of course I would never appeal to experience and the body as the unmediated registers of truth — I have OCD!
So why, after all these years, (my critique of the film was published in 1995), am I dredging all this up? (beyond Martínez’s recent critique?)
Because what any writer fears most is not being read, and I have always assumed that much of my work never got read because people heard “he’s a racist” and stopped reading me — as Martínez’s literal failure to read beyond my chapter on Tongues Untied attests.
I still want to write an essay on queer Sissie in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy; the novel is a brilliant poetic analysis of the enabling contradictions of the privileged marginal. On Aidoo, see also here.
There are people around who remember the earliest versions of my critique of Riggs’ and Hemphill’s discursive strategies. And they remember, as I do, (how’s that for a reference to experience?) the backchat my critique produced:
“Is he such a bitch that he would actually critique two people with AIDS [which is what we still called it in 1995]?”
I am privileged to be of the generation of queer scholars who were not “something else” — a scholar of 19th century American literature, for example — before s/he was a queerist. My early work was quite polemical, sometimes unnecessarily so, too invested in the effort to “vincere” rather than “convincere,” as a very helpful reader’s report once noted. I was trying to find — am still trying to find — my way as an intellectual. And I have been tough on people’s work. But I actually read it. And, at the time, writing about queer critics of color with whom I did not agree seemed preferable to either ignoring their work or, conversely, falling all over myself praising them for their bravery while wallowing in self-serving liberal White guilt.
A longer, differently inflected version of this can be found here.