Author's Roundtable 1: Response from Richard T. Rodriguez

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Above photo: Emily Skidmore and Ricky Rodriguez.

I want to begin by thanking Professor Darieck Scott for sharing his work with us this evening. However, it is important that my gratitude be supplemented with a sense of indebtedness. And while I don’t want to make this response all about me, I do want to acknowledge that the selections I’ve read from his forthcoming book provide invaluable insights as I think through the transition from my first book to my current project on Latino masculinity, sexuality, and fantasy. Allow me to explain.

Like the texts Scott critically appraises for the ways in which the black bottom has historically been rendered as a figure often signaling an abdication of power, in my book Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics I treat a handful of Chicano authored texts that raise the subject of homosexuality only to object to its assumed complicity with a failed masculinity and, as a result, sexual passivity. Indeed, the appearance of gay men in various Chicano movement (and movement inspired) literary texts are conveniently rendered “bottoms”; that is, they are cast as failed men who, for a struggle hinging on reproductive futurity, presumably wish they were women. In short, these bottoms are incapable of generating la familia in the heteronormative terms set forth in Chicano empowerment narratives. After reading Scott, I realized that I failed to say anything about the queer political potential of bottom status. For after pointing out the ways in which anal penetration is deemed an act of subjugation, I simply argue against this typecasting (reading it in a way that, after learning from Scott, now seems quite obvious) and mark it as the exertion of heteropatriarchal domination over gay men. Yet Scott’s work, while indeed registering the force of domination at work in representations of the bottom, further insists that the “willed enactment of powerlessness” also “encodes a power of its own—a kind of skill set that includes pleasure in introjecting and assimilating the alien (perhaps, alienation itself), a sense of intimacy acquired even in situations of coerced pain, a transformation, through harm, of the foreign into one’s own.”

Professor Scott’s reading of Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man is provocative as it is essential for thinking about the crucial significance of the bottom, especially the black bottom. Unlike the smooth equation of unwilling consent with anal penetration in texts by Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison, for example, Delany’s novel offers a counternarrative in which protagonist John Marr, Scott argues, “navigates the position of sexual/racial ‘bottom’ as a complex, empowered political persona, and potentially demonstrates how a history of sexual domination endows the figure of blackness with nimble abilities, with a form of power.” Moreover, “John uses his activities and fantasies and their historical resonance of racial subjugation, and the intense pleasure these acts give him largely because of that resonance, to open the way to a sense that he operates within a greater sphere of freedom and power than he did before engaging in his sexual practices.” The coordinates of this “greater sphere” match up with Delany’s aptly-named “pornotopia,” the cartographic context of The Mad Man. And just as reconfiguring the bottom does not simply lead to his mobilization as a figure for radical empowerment in performing a reversal of social hierarchies, pornotopia, Scott cautions, does not line up with discernable “utopias, those golden Edens imagined by emancipatory narratives: Here the erotic and sexual are not liberating as some hoped they might prove to be in the Sexual Revolution, though they are of course political in their work in and with human relationships.” But unlike those who cast the bottom as the end of reproduction, Scott crucially emphasizes the generative function of both the bottom and pornotopia: “We do not find emancipation here; but we find movement toward it, however ponderous, along a particular asymptotic curve.” Within pornotopia—and I would insist outside of it, thanks to Scott’s deft and searing theoretical formulations—the bottom stands as both an embodied subjectivity and a meeting ground of its own on which contests for power repeatedly play out.

I also do not want to lose sight of the fact that Scott’s black bottom is a subject of desire. Sex—or rather, what I take as more to the point, sexual fantasy—is the setting where submission and pleasure are intertwined. In The Mad Man, Scott insists, racialized discourse produces meaning that does not sidestep historical matter or lapse into careless decontextualization but rather grapples with fantasy scenarios shot through with social and political phenomena. The goal, Scott maintains, is “to address the historical (or little-r ‘real’) in the mode of the fantastic, and to invest the fantastic with a consciousness of the painful, horrific historical reality that makes the fantasy appealing (precisely in its also being appalling). And for the black bottom, this means deriving sexual/erotic pleasure specifically from the history—as well as the present enactment—of an abjection that gives rise to the racialized subject-that-is-also-an-object.” The far reaching potential of Scott’s book, I believe, rests on an illuminating proposal of reconfiguration through fantasy. And if we continue hold on to Laplanche and Pontalis’s classic assertion that fantasy “is not the object of desire, but its setting” (Laplanche and Pontalis 1986, 26), then pornotopia is indeed one such setting where we might begin to imagine other possibilities.


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