Punk Planet 34 (Nov/Dec 1999)

Yes, this is nominally about that Annalee Newitz, whom I’ve never met. No, I have no idea what she thought when she read this (if she ever did). I still think biologically breeding out phenotypes is a dumb idea that completely misrecognizes race discourse as primarily visual rather than thoroughly discursive. For further reading, see Evelynn Hammonds, “New Technologies of Race,” in Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert’s edited collection Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life, or Denise Silva’s Toward a Global Idea of Race.

_____________________

I’m teaching in a women’s studies department this semester across the Bay at a state university. My class is a departmental regular called “lesbian and queer perspectives on literature and media,” formerly given to reading small press lesbian novels and other staples of the seventies. In sore need of an update, the revamped reader I’ve put together is nice and fat, heavy on the yummy queer theory and contemporary culture with an emphasis on race, class, and nation.

The hectic process of building a syllabus from scratch meant pulling all my related books off the shelves and onto the floor. I sat in the middle of my new fort and tried to think in weekly thematics, things like “lesbian looks and dykes on film” and “queer goods in commodity culture.” Meanwhile I’d just turned in my second column about race and sexual politics, something about a celebrated dildo and historical amnesia. Obviously, it’s the intellectual stuff that occupies most of my time these days.

By some stellar coincidence I came across an article by Heather Findlay, Girlfriends editor, examining the “lesbian dildo debates.” I was sorry I hadn’t discovered her essay earlier, before my last deadline; between Freud and the fetish she brilliantly theorizes the meaning of vinyl black dick.

Then I picked up the new Punk Planet and stumbled over a seemingly flip remark in an essay about “sexual mutants,” miscegenation and multiculture: “When I think about race, fucking –even just the word ‘fuck’ — just seems to come to mind.”

Oh dear. It seems I get to use the Findlay article after all.

Wanting to fuck the “other” isn’t in and of itself transgressive — unless you want to consider antebellum slave owners ahead of their time. Which I don’t. And as Findlay pointedly observes, “Race permeates American culture. Sex easily becomes the location for racial terror and desire; It seems that the black dildo [or any other racial] fetish can make acceptable a specifically racial lack — the lack, that is, under white hegemony of a relation between the races.”

I certainly didn’t feel any better after reading the rest of the “sexual mutant” essay. I mean, its basic premise was so amazingly problematic. Reproductive heterosexual activity is the solution to volatile race relations in the United States, what-?!

But the author, Annalee Newitz, was dead serious. “‘You know,’ I told my students one day in the midst of a discussion on race, ‘we could eliminate a lot of racial problems in the United States right now if everyone would just agree to breed with people of a different race. Then, the very next generation would have a totally different racial makeup.’ Everyone laughed. But I was only half-joking.” And I’m still bothered, not because I believe in any sort of racial “purity,” but because the coupling of reproductive heterosexuality and utopian national futures is so obviously reactionary. Do we really need to sanctify heterosexual activity any more than it is already in our national political culture?

Newitz might think her notion is wildly radical, but TIME magazine suggested the same thing in 1993 with a special issue on interracial (heterosexual) marriage, using computer-generated “morphing” to imagine “The New Face of America.” The accompanying TIME essay argued that “those who intermarry have perhaps the strongest sense of what it will take to return America to an unhyphenated whole,” and that this consensual crossbreeding, in the reproductive sense, will do the assimilative work of the “melting pot.”

Of course, as queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Evelynn Hammonds noted, the resulting computer-generated offspring looked oddly homogenized, tending toward light-ness, or white-ish . (Assuming that Newitz hopes to eliminate “race” in much the same manner– i.e., breeding whites and nonwhites. her vision of future generations will no doubt follow suit.) In the TIME essay the political rhetoric of abstract citizenship takes advantage of this physiological equivocating (a nose is a nose is a nose) to suggest we are all the same beneath the skin; raceless and genderless citizens equal under the objective eye of the Law. Of course, such abstractions hardly apply to the social realities of class war, institutionalized racisms and national heterosexuality. Or as the punks used to say (if never about themselves), some of us are more equal than others.

The question is, then, what purpose does it serve to eliminate “race,” and especially as an analytic framework, before we. ve actually dealt with its material and ideological effects?

Not unlike TIME‘ s special issue, Newitz fashions a potentially dangerous vision. Never mind the implicit patriarchal notion that women are the literal reproducers of the nation, disguised here as glorious sexual deviancy. (As if we weren’t already forced to deal with shocked exclamations of “What? You’re not going to have children?!” Now we’ll have to contend with accusations of being counter-revolutionaries.) Forget, for now, the racial fetishism she masks as radical desire. Hers is a vision in which private, reproductive heterosexual activity becomes the ultimate expression of both conscientious citizenship and revolutionary commitment. She suggests these acts would be the best thing for the “common good” of the nation.

This hardly departs from the usual ideological line handed us about the necessary heterosexuality of country and community. “Straight sex” is again naturalized as the proper expression of desire, duty and love. Queers are too-obviously unsuited for a eugenic program of future-forward fucking, and subsequently ineligible for the re-imagining of a utopian nation. It seems we are neither the future of America nor its most radical “sexual mutants;” both those destinies are recuperated for properly reproducing heterosexuals. That a national reproductive heterosexuality, already a patriotic fetish, is further enshrined as revolutionary by a “sexual mutant” is bad enough. Her racial politics only make it that much worse.

For Newitz race seems to be simply exotic, a sexy difference with no apparent (or meaningful) history or social consequence. Any other meaning is mere cliché, or even boring “melodrama.” What is not allowed then is the much rowdier difference that acts up, refuses to be assimilated, and makes a fuss about white hegemony or relations of power. As such, Newitz does not interrogate institutionalized racisms, or their volatile histories. Moreover, while reproductive miscegenation is hardly a “new” or unusual practice, “race” as a disciplining social logic still persists, itself a mutable construct. And that she makes no mention of white hegemony in an essay addressing race relations is both startling and profoundly telling.

In fact, Newitz unwittingly acts in at least some of the interests of white hegemony. She implicitly suggests that people of color threaten not only their own welfare but also the common good of the nation if they refuse to comply, even if only in principle, with the imperative of assimilative eugenics. She disregards the structural and ideological components of “race,” the multiple effects of racisms, and the necessary creation of communities of survival, as well as resistance, under white hegemony by derisively defining “separatists” as those who refuse to cross-fuck. (Though as a friend of mine said, “Yo, it’s not about not wanting to fuck other ‘races.’ Maybe we’re just not interested in dealing with white girls with bad attitudes!”) What she offers as social transformation can be understood instead as a wishful escape from confrontation and complicity with contemporary political struggles and the structural violence of racisms. Meanwhile white hegemony ducks out the back, unaccounted for.

Sneaking in behind her professed desire for an abstract post-racial “mutant” future is a volatile political history and unruly racial body it seems she wishes didn. t exist. An undeniably racial body that counts, that doesn. t want her love or a fuck but something else, something more like social justice, maybe.

So that her projection of race-mixing into the utopian future demonstrates a profound and problematic wish to forego the hatred, guilt and violence of our country. s history of racial domination. Paraphrasing Findlay, her miscegenation fetish can “make acceptable” a specifically racial lack . the lack, that is, under white hegemony of a relation between the races. And if sex itself is the location of racial terror and desire, we could say that this desire for “mutancy” and miscegenation is another powerful cultural fetish which allows her (or us) to circumvent the Real of racial disintegration.

Using her parents’ “mixed” Christian/Jewish marriage as a model for social transformation, Newitz stakes the utopian future in a family institution and reproductive heterosexual activity, both federally-protected within a zone of privacy. This national heterosexuality is mobilized to act as a “melting pot” in a frighteningly toxic metaphor of assimilation and historical amnesia. As Berlant wrote of the TIME issue, it is just as relevant here to suggest that this argument “sacrifices the centrality of African American history to American culture by predicting its demise,” as well as the erasure of Asian American, Native American, and Chicana/o and Latina/o histories. So that if white hegemony can’t kill the black or alien body, it seems it can certainly imagine a “happier” time in which that body no longer exists.

Newitz promises relief and disengagement from contemporary struggles by projecting a “mutant” image of the future that offers a stable and dominant collective identity. One that is, in any case, still white-ish, heterosexual, literally domesticated and completely forgetful. Hers is a “solution” that not only evades the messy question of unhappy histories and continues to eject queers from full citizenship, but also sacrifices attention to the complex race and class relations of exploitation and violence in the present tense. In the end it’s a still-liberal and relentlessly heterosexist version of the usual “love sees no color,” with fucking and babies.

Trangressive? Hardly.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: