The Touch of Flesh with Flesh

Work Reviewed:
Holland, Sharon Patricia.
The Erotic Life of Racism.
Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. xii + 168 pp.
Then she touched me, and then I did stop dead. […] I do not know. I know only that my entire being seemed to run at blind full tilt into something monstrous and immobile, with a shocking impact too soon and too quick to be mere amazement and outrage at that black arresting and untimorous hand on my white woman’s flesh. Because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers know because it makes them both. […] But let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too. Yes, I stopped dead-no woman’s hand, no negro’s hand, but bitted bridle-curb to check and guide the furious and unbending will-I crying not to her, to it; speaking to it through the negro, the woman, only because of the shock which was not yet outrage because it would be terror soon, expecting and receiving no answer because we both knew it was not to her I spoke: `Take your hand off me, nigger!'”
(William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! 143-4)

Sharon Patricia Holland’s slim study The Erotic Life of Racism, which ends with an analysis of this, my favorite, passage from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, begins with an encounter in a California parking lot, in which the author finds herself in a historically and racially fraught contestation over space and prerogative. Proposing that everyday meetings between black and white in the United States are always already burdened with age-old expectations, hidden scripts, and implicitly racist misreading, Holland suggests, hinting at Johannes Fabian and others, that these encounters might not even occur on the same temporal place, “because the black subject is mired in space and the white subject represents the full expanse of time.” Facing this dilemma, Erotic Life asks: “Exactly how does one move beyond a nonevent?” (18)

As the title of her work suggests, it is in the erotic, the intimate, and in desire that Holland seeks for answers. In so doing, her study concentrates upon quotidian acts of racism and moves away from the focus, or even obsession, on spectacular acts of violence -such as spectacle lynchings– which has dominated Americanist studies of racism in recent decades. Holding that race is inseparable from the practice of racism, Erotic Life concentrates on acts committed by “our intimates, our friends, our neighbors, and our blood relations” (99). The autonomy we usually attach to our erotic choices, argues Holland, “should be reevaluated to think through these attachments” (7).

In order to do so, Holland’s book sets out to articulate a space within the theoretical intersection of critical race theory and queer theory to reimagine a connection between race and “the feeling that escapes or releases when bodies collide in pleasure and in pain” (7). In the sense that, as Seigworth and Gregg have recently argued in The Affect Reader, affect is “found in those intensities that pass body to body […][,] that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world’s apparent intractability,” (1) Erotic Life falls into this proliferous scholarly niche. Holland retrieves the erotic from the realm of the personal and returns it to the political. “I understand racism,” she proclaims, “as wielding incredible power in its ordering of family, generation, and desire — in both black and white” (10). Reading the recent canon of critical race theory — the works of Cathy Cohen, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Paul Gilroy, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown, Charles Mills, and Robyn Wiegman, among others — Holland critiques the desire to conjure up a “beyond” race. Opposing this trend, Holland asserts that “[w]e are not done with slavery because we have yet to thoroughly investigate its psychic life” (31). Holding that our subjectivity, bodies, and affiliations, even at the level of blood relations, owe to the histories into which we are born, Erotic Life restores the intimate choices and preference of our quotidian lives, erotic and otherwise, to critiques of racism. Examining the erotic life of racism in this sense allows Holland to work towards an answer to the two most fundamental questions at the heart of her study: “What makes race work for us? Why do we need it?” (32).

To carve out a space within which this intellectual inquiry can take place, Erotic Life examines the ways in which feminist texts from the mid- to the late twentieth century “paved the way for the erotic’s disarticulation from racist practice” (12). Her critical readings of Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Rosemary Hennessy, Michael Warner, and others points to myriad moments in which the sexual desire has been uncoupled from other everyday racist practices. Within this body of texts, the erotic is attributed revolutionary potential, particularly for sexual liberation, but, in doing so, it is conceptualized as autonomous. As Holland notes, this process “is risky for the whole because it focuses exclusively on the individual by breaking an individual off from the regulatory structures that make community, place, and home while simultaneously casting the queer subject over and against such normative spaces” (47). Thus, wherever the erotic is imagined as an agency apart from and untouched by racial frameworks, “the racialized subject is lost in the play of desire, flesh, consciousness, and transformation” (51).

While feminism, according to Holland, still offered moments of intellectual encounters between critiques of racism and sexual oppression (such as in the 1982 collection Against Sadomasochism), the transition toward queer theory rendered feminist ethics as both morally regulatory and based on biology and hence at odds with new articulations of queer (re)production. In its championing of “queer (male) bodies and their unreproductive coupling” (34), Holland, hinting at Lee Edelman and others, proposes that there exists an unspoken prohibition to examine racial politics within queer theory. Here, at the most acerbic moment of her critique, Holland urges that “[t]he place of slavery in queer studies work has yet to be reckoned with, and this is perhaps because the boundary-breaking futurity in which queer studies finds its subject would balk if such a subject were held to a transhistorical vision of time” (62). “But the forgetting of the black body, — its relegation to someplace else in queer studies — continues,” Holland alleges, “as there is something politically necessary that cannot be done, or even acknowledged as possible by (white) queer counterparts, without dire political consequences” (70).

To thus discover critical voices for establishing a theory of the (racist) erotic, Holland turns towards Black Queer Studies and re-examines central texts by Judith Halberstam, Jose Esteban Muñoz, Jasbir Puar, Gayatri Gopinath, and Michael Cobb. In doing so, Holland particularly deplores the systematic absenting of black lesbian voices from this debate and the resulting historical forgetting. “[T]he categories ‘black,’ ‘colored,’ ‘female;’ ‘queer’,” she argues, “point to a persistent problem in queer theorizing-how to have our queer theory and our feminism while still seeing the colored body or how to have our colored criticism while still seeing the female and the queer body and so on” (66). Retrieving these foundational voices, restoring sexuality to debates about social and political practices which create and maintain human difference, and returning the critical focus onto reproduction and the body, Holland hopes “to reach an epiphany of sorts -one that would allow us to see what happened to us collectively […,] [to recognize] just what we did and do to one another at the moment of our intimate interactions-erotic, racist, and otherwise.”

According to Holland’s analysis, the emergence of queer of color critiques coincided with the transnational turn in queer theory. Hence, at the very moment at which black queer critiques began to dissect racism’s intimate life, these voices were rendered “parochial.” Considering this development as “risky, if not intellectually suspect” (72), Holland resists the urge to go transnational and instead reclaims the now customarily rejected focus on a black/white binary as well as on the particular histories of race in the United States. While the return to this nucleus of American race relations cannot be dismissed altogether, Holland’s reduction of contemporary racism to this bipolar model, which still dominates much scholarship, takes away from, rather than adding to, the complexity and appeal of her project. As Louis Chude-Sokei writes, we are living in “a world that can no longer be contained, explained, or lived in by way of a bichromatic model of difference; after all, that bichromatism ultimately privileges its two primary elements: the white and the African American, locked in a struggle for mutual recognition which can blind them to the changing landscape of their premises” (16). Likewise, Holland’s reliance on a societal critique which continually plots the “black (radical)” against the “white (liberal)” (19) is misleading as it obscures the manifold overlaps, borrowings, collaborations, shared histories, which exist between both traditions despite the obvious tensions.

Whereas the greater part of Holland’s book constitutes an at times jargon-heavy critique of existing bodies of scholarship, it is primarily in its conclusion that Erotic Life presents a case study of how critical race theory and the study of the erotic can converge to inform our understanding of the intimate life of racism. Establishing the significance of touch via a selective reading of passages from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jacques Derrida’s “Le dernier mot du racism” and “Le toucher”, and Toni Morrison’s reflections on the ending of Beloved, Holland approaches the aforementioned meeting between Faulkner’s Rosa Coldfield and Clytie Sutpen.

“Because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh,” Rosa muses, “which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers know because it makes them both” (Absalom 143). Clytie’s touch, argues Holland, “manifests itself as the psychic life of difference, transforming two categories of being (human and nonhuman) into a charged space of pleasure and of possibility” (96). The touch and the “shock,” “outrage,” and “terror” (Absalom 143) it conveys, hence simultaneously calls for and proves the very inadequacy of these socially constructed and historically deposited boundaries. As Erotic Life makes clear, the touch renders undeniable the threat of shared belonging, the fact that the contamination which Rosa dreads has already occurred. “We do not create intimacy;” Holland notes and argues that instead “it is there awaiting our recognition” (104). How painful this recognition can be is only further illustrated by Holland’s analysis of the collective anxiety inherent in public responses to revelations about Jefferson’s intimate relationship with Sally Hemings.

While Holland’s close reading and contextualization of Rosa Coldfield’s terror establishes beyond all doubt that racism had an erotic life, which we still have to come to understand more fully, The Erotic Life of Racism raises but does not always conclusively answer other crucial questions. “It is my pledge in this book,” Holland promises, “to find the admittedly tenuous although nonetheless compelling connection between the erotic and racism” (44). While we do get occasional glances at the various shapes in which this connection might manifest itself, a comprehensive analysis remains to be done. More broadly, Holland questions “whether or not aesthetic preference ever passes as proper moral practice” (41). Opening this can of worms, Holland leaves it to the reader to untangle the myriad implications of this inquiry. In this manner, a plethora of urgent related questions is raised, but never explicitly addressed.

Holland’s reading of Absalom, Absalom! demonstrates beyond doubt that race is pivotal to thinking about the (in this case white) American family. But her initial, provocative question “whether or not [nearly 150 years after the abolition of slavery] the preservation of the idea of the ‘black’ family is working for us” (7) tantalizes the reader as it is never brought up again. Her related remark “that it might be time for a reassessment of the survivalist mode for black being-a mode steeped in the often faulty logic of blood, belonging, and family, a trifecta that has not paid off but still has particular resonance within black life and letters” (26), deserves further attention as this question has fueled much debate since Paul Gilroy’s Against Race. Yet here it appears to serve merely to tease the reader. Likewise, Holland, in passing, suggests that “we also fail to acknowledge our own intellectual responsibility to take seriously how the transatlantic trade altered the very shape of sexuality in the Americas for everyone” (56). “Sexuality’s very vocabulary,” she suggests elsewhere, “has been altered by human being’s bizarre machinations under slavery” (87). Erotic Life seems to dance around, rather than really take on these questions.

While The Erotic Life of Racism thus calls for more studies on these topics, there are many moments in the text which allow us to see the potentials, and not only the anxieties, which lie buried in the intimate encounters of our mundane lives. The touch, Holland suggests in one of Erotic Life‘s most compelling passages

can alter the very idea as well as the actuality of relationships, morphing friends into enemies and strangers into intimates. For touch can encompass empathy as well as violation, passivity as well as active aggression. It can be safely dangerous, or dangerously safe. It also carries a message about the immediate present, the possible future, and the problematic past. Finally, touch crosses boundaries, in fact and imagination.
If, as Sharon Patricia Holland suggests, “[o]nly grave trespass can produce another order altogether” (18), her study, above all, challenges us all to imagine everyday trespasses against the existing order of things, erotically and otherwise.

Works Cited

Chude-Sokei, Louis. The Last ‘Darky’: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora. Durham: Duke UP, 2005

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!  The Corrected Text. New York: Modern Library, 1993 [1936].

Seigworth, Gregory J. and Melissa Gregg, eds. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010.

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