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Converging Modalities of Sexuality, Sexual Conflict and Race: Judith Butler on Nella Larsen’s Passing

Years ago, when as an undergraduate I read Critical Theory with Professor Carla Cappetti at City College, we students complained that the readings were too difficult and why did critical theorists have to use so much jargon. I think we had read Saussure, Bakhtin, Lukacs, Benjamin and Barthes and were moving on to Derrida. Professor Cappetti agreed that unnecessary jargon could be vexing but said that at times, difficult thoughts call for difficult language. So I focused on the ideas the theorists sought to express, and concluded that the critical theorists we were reading with Cappetti were worth reading, and the difficulty of having to get my head around unfamiliar terms was consequently justified. I find that Judith Butler’s chapter on Nella Larsen’s Passing falls in this category of necessary complication; the difficulty of her language is justified by the complexity and importance of her thought.

But for me, it’s slow going! After reading the first two paragraphs of “Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge” twice and failing to retain more than a fuzzy notion of what Butler is saying, I read it a third time very closely and tried to explain what she’s saying in my own words.

Butler describes a sort of diagram. I picture it as a kernel. On the inside we have a normative heterosexuality, and on the outside the convergence of homosexuality and miscegenation. It makes sense that these converge on the outside because they share the distinctive feature of being different from normative heterosexuality. Inside the kernel normative heterosexuality seeks to reproduce itself. Reproduction of the species, which I assume Butler considers our Darwinian evolutionary goal [1], is “the cathected [to cathect is to invest with mental or emotional energy] site of a racialized [to racialize is to reify boundaries and borders along racial lines] version of the species in pursuit of hegemony through perpetuity, that requires and produces a normative heterosexuality in its service.”

The kernel, or, in Butler’s words, the site, is the locus where humans aim to reproduce themselves through their relations with other humans within and without the sites they inhabit. These relations are invested with mental or emotional energy and seek to reify boundaries and borders along racial lines through normative heterosexuality. The goal of these human relations is to keep everything the same.

Heterosexuality is reproduced in different ways, depending on how race and its reproduction are understood. Butler says that while there are good historical reasons to keep “race,” “sexuality” and “sexual difference” in separate spheres, there are also good reasons to converge them, and that there are good historical reasons why at certain sites one can only be constituted through the other. This is not to juxtapose spheres of power or consider differences as separate attributes but rather to converge them, and Butler asks if we can read Nella Larsen’s Passing “to articulate the convergent modalities of power by which sexual difference is articulated and assumed” [123].

In Butler’s reading John Bellew is at the center of the kernel, for he represents normative white heterosexuality. He says he would not associate with blacks but “paradoxically, his own racist passion requires that association” [126]. Bellew needs Irene, Clare and Brian, and he needs them outside of the kernel, but really the kernel is more like a fluid membrane, through with Irene and Clare pass through as they choose. They pass until they are identified as black, at which moment their bodies are marked and those invisible markings set them outside the racial boundaries of normative heterosexuality. But really in Passing these boundaries are blurred. Bellew needs blacks as a foil on which to reproduce his racial purity and he also eroticizes blackness by calling Clare Nig and fetishizing her blackness which he at the same time denies. Race is inextricably linked to sexual desire. Clare is ambiguous both sexually and racially, playing with whiteness and blackness to seduce and lure. Passing, writes Butler, is not “about” race or sexuality but converges these and thus “offers a way to read the racialization of sexual conflict” [128].

Black is not normative. Nor are the women normative, as is made very clear in Irene’s desire for Clare, noted by Butler, and, I also think, apparent in Clare’s pursuit of Irene. Irene is tortured by her desire for Clare because Clare betrays not only the idea of race that Irene seeks to uphold but also the idea of family as a means to uplift the black race [131]. This idea of the normative heterosexual family is at the center of the notion of uplifting race through social mobility, but by ascribing to the normative heterosexual social order it follows a politics of sexual oppression in which the homoerotic relationship between Irene and Clare makes the two women a threat not only to a heterosexual norm but also to the norm of racial purity, because as black women’s bodies, writes Butler, “continued to be sites of conquest within white racism, then the psychic resistance to homosexuality and to a sexual life outside the parameters of the family must be read in part as a resistance to an endangering public exposure” [132]. Butler contests the claim that sexual difference is more primary or fundamental than racial difference, pointing out that

If, as Norma Alarcón has insisted, women of color are “multiply interpellated,” called by many names, constituted in and by that multiple calling, then this implies that the symbolic domain, the domain of socially instituted norms, is composed of racializing norms, and that they exist not merely alongside gender norms, but are articulated through one another. Hence, it is no longer possible to make sexual difference prior to racial difference or, for that matter, to make them into fully separable axes of social regulation and power [135].

By converging the problematization of sexuality and race we start to see the positioning of spheres of power in a wider, more nuanced and more interconnected way. Imagining this convergence feels strange to me, like reaching for networked relationships I don’t fully see, but the impulse to separate concepts into independent categories only obscures what I’m attempting to grasp. I look forward to discussing Butler’s chapter on Larsen in class.

A reflection on the complexity of life by Karina Ter

[1] On second thoughts I wonder if by reproduction Butler doesn’t mean propagation of offspring but instead reproduction or representation of ideated self.

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