dossier - IDENTITY + DIFFERENCE
Ann Cvetkovich - "In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings: Documentary and Popular Culture"
The ARCHIVE is a key theoretical concept in post-structuralist and media theory. According to Foucault and Derrida, the archive delineates the contours of knowledge and power in society. As such, it's more than just the material existence of records and files in the colloquial sense. Any archive implies both an evaluation of which materials are worthy of preservation and an ordering principle for categorizing these materials -- that is, it embodies a topography and a technology of power.
This conception is the context for Cvetkovich's investigation of queer archives. Her artifacts include real life LGBT archives, films that embody archival projects, and the representation of the former in the latter. These examples provide an occasion to consider how queers "queer" the whole notion of an archive, transgressing dominant ideas about authoritative knowledge by valuing domesticity, intimacy, ephemerality, disorderliness, etc. She also suggests that archives are particularly important to queer communities because of the need to make visible shared experience/traditions and the trauma of being erased from traditional histories.
Queer archives are thus intensely personal but intersect in rich and unpredictable ways with the products and byproducts of commercial mass media. One of my favorite things Cvetkovich writes is that she "takes the fan as a model for the archivist" (116). What is important to archive (in the case of postwar lesbian pulp novels, for example) is not the pop cultural object of affection but our idiosyncratic feelings and fantasies about and through it. The documentaries and films she discusses (including this week's selection The Watermelon Woman) approach this queer archival project in different ways, but together suggest the validity of a kind of "semi-public" sphere (in opposition to the traditional public/private dichotomy).
Following from Cvetkovich, here are some questions I would pose: what kind of queer archives are you familiar with, on either an institutional or a personal level? what are their organizing principles? what media do they include or use? do you think that film/media can function as a viable counter-archive of itself?
Last updated 848 days ago by Julie Levin Russo
Kara Keeling "Joining the Lesbians: Cinematic Regimes of Black Lesbian Visibility
Keeling introduces her article by referencing Stuart Hall’s article, “New Ethnicities,” in which he discusses the transition of black images/representation in politics and our culture. He explains a shift from “relations of representation,” which refers to the struggle of the black British cultural worker to make themselves visible and counter stereotypical images, to the “politics of representation,” in which black cultural politics theoretically encounter the predominantly white critical culture theory. With respect to black queer film, Hall explains that “the emergence of ‘black lesbian and gay film’ in the United States can be understood as itself a critique both of the notion of an essential black ethico-political subject and of the construction of an undifferentiated ‘lesbian and gay’ collectively.” Thus, black queer film critiques both black subjectivity and queer subjectivity simultaneously.
Keeling moves on to an article by Michelle Parkerson in which she describes how a new generation of gay and lesbian filmmakers of color are now producing imagery countering the existing stereotypes and silence of black gays and lesbians. Looking specifically to the movie Tongues United, Keeling discusses how these films both expand the notion of what it means to be black and create a separate identity from white gay and lesbian cultural politics. In essence, these films are meant to collect “the excesses unleashed each time ‘blackness’ is wrenched violently from ‘lesbian’ and/or ‘gay’ and vice versa and makes what it collects visible as an expression of life that currently is recognizable as “black lesbian and gay,” a collectively created expression fashioned to ensure its own survival.” However, these filmmakers need to constantly interrogate the images that they put forth when creating this resistance so that they don’t “settle into a comfortable complicity with the very forms of domination, oppression, and exploitation that the birth of ‘black lesbian and gay film’ itself critiques.”
Keeling continues by expressing that these black lesbian films do not always represent what it really means to be a black lesbian, but rather, they portrays images that challenge racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. Keeling goes in depth, although in a rather confusing way, describing what is the “black lesbian.” She suggests that it presents itself as the consolidation of those who remained invisible from the socio-political forces that organized themselves as “black,” “lesbian,” and “woman,” and serves as a resistance to those classifications. However, after examining the film, The Watermelon Woman, she concludes her article by reminding the reader that the term “black lesbian” is a loaded term, since it addresses issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but the term is most powerful when used to look at all of these aspects together as one debate, rather than as separate entities and separate socio-political issues.
I found the article to be at times wordy and her run on sentences made some of her arguments difficult to follow, particularly at the end. We can go more in depth about the final section of her paper in class, and I would like to hear if people took away a different message from her conclusion than I did. But moving forward, this article raised several questions for me. First, I would like to know what the class thinks about the strategy of tackling a socio-political debate from a united stance as “black lesbian,” verses separately as “black” and as lesbian”? It seems to me that while it is positive to create the identity of “black lesbian,” it is not positive to split the voice of a united “black” or united “lesbian” front. Second, I would like to just generally learn about current “black lesbian” representations in the media and discuss how these figures are characterized. Finally, I would like to know what the class thinks of the line on page 221, when she writes, “’black lesbian’ can be invoked as an illustration of the threats facing the moral fabric of the nation and…the perfect answer to the problem of feminism.”
Simone 850 days ago
Mercer first asserts that the category of “black gay and lesbian” is influenced by both the black and queer agendas, but rather than exist as the total overlap of the two, it falls somewhat in between, affected by both but also with unique problems and perspectives. Like the Keeling article, Mercer describes the black gay and lesbian category as having no real essential subject, and therefore the freedom to portray race and sexuality in a complex and diversified manner. However, whereas Keeling was more critical of the effectiveness of black gay cinema towards this end, Mercer celebrates two films for their ability to elegantly handle the material and inspire thought and questions.
He mentions two films, Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston and goes on to discuss the difficulties in trying to represent the “black, gay and lesbian” without creating a new essential subject. The films both fit squarely as black gay films, but manage to avoid the burden of trying to represent an entire group of people, and potentially reaffirming homophobic or racist stereotypes, by “opening it [black gay film] up to displace the assumptions and expectations contained within it.”
Tongues goes about this by emphasizing its status as one voice among many, and by being a “real” (honest and faithful) depiction of its subject matter. It blends both the struggles of gays and blacks in America, and allows a diversity of black gay perspectives to engage in a dialogue with the viewer. Mercer claims that the realness of the film derives from this quality of openness and direct confrontation with its many subjects, rather than from any accurate depiction of black gays.
In discussing Langston, a film about the Harlem Renaissance and its many queer leaders such as Langston Hughes, Mercer launches into that ever present commentary about “the gaze” in cinema, as it now relates to the black, homosexual object of desire. Black, naked men stare back at the audience, as if questioning their right to look or challenging them to come to terms with what they are looking at and whether it is pleasurable. He talks about a man named Beauty, whom Langston Hughes lusts for in the film. His full lips, rather than an image associated with racist depictions of blacks, are a source of attraction and desire. By employing the language of spectacle and observer, the film does not articulate a description of black gays, but intrigues the audience with bold images of desire and historical enlightenment.
Questions: Mercer makes a point about how independent films are not really independent, they depend on public financing and institutions who have a mandate to give a voice to usually underrepresented communities. Does that affect a film’s ability to be objective? Since they were only screened on television a couple times each, can indie films have any large impact outside of academic interest? Can mainstream “commercial” films hope to capture the queerness, ambiguity and honesty of these “independent” titles?
Why isn’t Mercer quite as critical as Keeling when talking about black gay films? Might it have something to do with “black lesbian” rather than “black gay” subject matter?
OliverC 849 days ago
B. Ruby Rich - "When Difference Is (More Than) Skin Deep"
This article is concerned with surveying films that represent queer interracial relationships (up to the early '90s). While Rich presents a useful genealogy, some of her overarching arguments seemed problematic. She "argue[s] that queers have the potential for a different relationship to race, and to racism" (319) due to the ways that race introduces difference into a pairing otherwise defined by the sameness of gender. Her binarization of same vs. different was counterproductive for her argument, and I don't think the decades since have borne out her optimism about queers' potential for dealing with racial issues more constructively than the culture at large. But she at least tries to get at some of the complexities of engaging in and representing interracial same-sex relationships.
She states several times that she's oriented toward multi-racial identities, though, so it's odd that this possibility seems absent from her readings of the films, which are all ostensibly about a white person paired with a person of (a particular) color. I wonder if the difficulty in "seeing" such intersections parallels the lacuna around bisexuality/pansexuality in our interpretations of characters?
- Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)
- Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant, 1986)
- She Must Be Seeing Things (Sheila McLaughlin, 1987)
- Nocturne (Joy Chamberlain)
- Privilege (Yvonne Rainer)
- Current Flow (Jean Carlomusto)
- Gold Diggers (Sally Potter)
- Flesh and Paper (Pratibha Parmar)
- 10 Cents a Dance (Midi Onodera)
- Chinese Characters (Richard Fung)
- videos from "Those Fluttering Objects of Desire" art installation (1992)
Julie Levin Russo 848 days ago