criticism

The Erotic Queer Double

Leloir - Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865)

[Alexander Louis Leloir’s painting of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865)]

In a scene from the 2003 HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Joe comes home to his wife (named “Harper” and nicknamed “buddy”), with whom he’d just had a fight the previous night, and tells her about Jacob wrestling with the Angel (see clip; part 1, chapter 2). He had this book of bible stories as a kid and there was this image that, he says, he looked at “twenty times every day”; he doesn’t “even remember the story, or why they’re wrestling—just the picture.” Struck by it, Joe now offers the image as the answer to the question his wife had asked the previous night. This was the question that, because it had gone unanswered, or had only been further closeted with answers, had led to the fight, the question that Joe, teary-eyed, indirectly answers by describing the image:

Jacob is young, and very strong. And the Angel is a … beautiful man with … golden hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it, many nights, and … it’s me, in that struggle … fierce and unfair. The Angel’s not human and it holds nothing back … so how can anyone human win? What kind of a fight is that? It’s not just! Soul thrown down to dust, your heart torn out from God’s, but … you can’t not lose …

What is Joe wrestling, as it were, to say here? Who is the angel that Jacob is wrestling with? What does the angel signify in this story, in Joe’s memory? And what is it about Jacob with which Joe identifies? The scene that Joe recreates from memory is a fight, in some ways a repetition of what took place between him and his wife, indeed a physical manifestation of what almost, but did not, verbally come out in last night’s fight. On the surface, the angel is the adversary with whom Joe, in the person of Jacob, finds himself fighting, the danger from which he aims to liberate himself in a contest in which he wants to “not lose” but fears he “can’t not” … In other words, the scene, as Joe presents it, is a struggle, a relation of conflict, of hostility, an intricate contest with the enemy. And yet Jacob, as Joe also says, is “young and very strong,” the angel “beautiful,” “golden,” “a beautiful man with golden hair and wings,” the two engaged in a fight Joe “still dream[s] about […] many nights.” The scene that Joe recreates as a belated answer, truer than the direct answers he had given the previous night, is thus not just a fight, but the layering of multiple fights on top of each other, fights, as it were, multiply doubled, or a fight doubling itself into multiple forms: the answer that Joe couldn’t give in the fight (with his wife) is itself a fight (between man and angel) that he aims not to but knows he will lose, something he at the same time unconsciously wants to lose, i.e. a given both resisted and desired, fighting inside of him (“it’s me, in that struggle”), the two sides, the(ir) doubleness, the cause of both the fight/s and of the dream of its passing/return, what Joe is both, and “still,” fighting for/against. Thus the contestatory, undecidable space between two sides, the suspension of doubleness characterized by struggle, what Joe refers to as a “fight,” is, through the recreation of a memory / the painting of fantasy, the answer that, after all, if indirectly, Joe gives to his wife to suspend its (re)surfacing, the process of going around in circles ultimately providing, through doubling, the answer in like kind.

In this (multiply doubled) fight, Joe identifies the angel as the enemy. “The Angel’s not human,” he says, “and it holds nothing back,” which makes the fight “fierce and unfair.” Celestial, the angel is not only more powerful; he is unburdened by the rules of men, which, it can be inferred, is what gives him power: “hold[ing] nothing back,” the angel does what he wants, unlike Joe who cannot answer the question, who cannot bear the answer. This makes the angel beautiful, seductive, like his robe and wings, white but thick, ruffled, shaded, impure, amoral, out of this world—his power, seduction, and otherness, the way that he’s “not human,” both constituting a threat and inciting desire (which may be the more fatal threat), hence his designation as the enemy to be defeated, disavowed … The angel is the opponent, Joe says, he “holds nothing back,” yet once he’d caught Joe, once Jacob had been enclosed, the angel struggles to be let go, he holds back. That is, the struggle is not only threatening and seductive, but seductive and frustrating, frustrating thereby seductive, “fierce and unfair.” Jacob’s youthful strength emanates from his body, the shapes sculpted by his muscles the dark match of the ones on the angel. The power expressed on Jacob’s body mark not so much the effort to defeat or escape from an enemy, but the exertion, seemingly much stronger than the angel’s, to hold the angel down, keep him there, embrace him. Joe says that the angel “holds nothing back,” yet it is man who is naked, whose strength is more pronounced, who has the clear and determined expression on his face, who’s disrobed from the darkness of red to uncover his darker flesh. This is in contrast to the angel, whose body is covered by cloth, whose face is subdued, frugal, who seems to want to stop what is happening. The scene is supposed to be a struggle, but it is less adversarial than erotic, indeed erotic at its root, the vigorous expression of Jacob’s desire to pull the angel to the ground, down to his world, to make him stay—in which, however, the angel holds back, shows restraint by hiding his face, by attempting to fly off. The holding back makes Jacob want to hold on tighter, makes Joe still dream about the angel. In other words, the withholding of the higher being is the hook that seduces desire that at the same time frustrates it indefinitely, impossibly, thus seducing man, in fact inflaming his desire—and all over again … “What kind of a fight is that?” Joe asks. “It’s not just.” Your heart is torn out from God’s, but and by that very fact you constantly seek God, but instead you find his messenger, the angel, you think he’ll lift you up from dust, but, in fact, you’re just pulling him down—but, as it turns out, you can’t do that either. “You can’t not lose.”

The angel is indeed a celestial being, but the lowest kind—an unworthy substitute, a debased supplement, not much higher than man. “Are you a homo?” Joe’s wife asks him the previous night. This is the question to which Joe offers multiple answers: “No.” “What if I am …?” “Does it make any difference that I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I fought with everything I have to kill it?” And then: the duplicitous image of man wrestling with the angel. The angel that man is wrestling with, as it turns out, is not that different from himself, not much higher, is in fact intimately related to him: simultaneously the ideal desired and the fellow fallen. The angel, in other words, is the double of man, and in multiple senses: the other image of himself, the object of desire and the subject of prohibition, the figure by which man works through his all-too-human desires. The figure of the angel, not that different from man, indeed based on man, intimates how man is his own narcissistic object of desire and author of the law that prohibits this abject desire for oneself, man’s abjection in the first place the reason why the angel is desired and why the angel, the higher being, withholds. In other words, because he is a desiring being, man is in a fight with himself, the other with whom he’s fighting figured in the form of an angel, the double that allows man to get at his duplicitous, abject/narcissistic desire through triangulation. Thinking that he’s fighting the angel, who’s unjustly and impossibly imposing on him, Joe has in fact taken up its role, forbidding his desires thinking that this gives him power (to control his desires), unconsciously identifying with the angel against and in order to repair the pre-given identification with Jacob, the man who holds on to the angel, i.e. man and his wretched desire. In the process, Joe denies as well what draws him to the angel in the first place, what makes him not want to let it go, namely, human desire and its paradox, this suspending it in its doubleness and perpetuating it in a crisis state, causing it to resurface every now and then in increasingly tensed fights with Harper. Is this the only choice? Can man really recognize and let the angel come out of the closet, in its doubleness? But the angel is itself debased, but a pawn in the condition of doubleness that keeps man, in his desire, in a vicious circle. Is it only through this abject/narcissistic form of power that is the angel, the queer triangulation of divine prohibition and abject desire, that man, in his fallen condition, has any fighting chance at fulfillment at all?

criticism

The Courage and Limits of Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair

I must admit that when Bruce Jenner first came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair (7/2015; see full article), I took notice but didn’t think of the act as particularly significant. In the context of the other news of the day—the police killings of unarmed black civilians, the enduring recession, currently coming to a head in the Greek debt crisis—my gut instinct was to criticize the moneyed and celebrity position from which Caitlyn is coming. My first thoughts went something like: of course she can afford to do that, unlike others who might feel the same way, indeed others who have more urgent medical concerns, but do not have the resources of the top 1%; of course she can think about being “who she really is” rather than settling with a given he can’t change, indeed can’t even think about, given more grounded preoccupations, say, with daily material needs; of course she would have a commodified response to a crisis revolving around gender felt as personal, given his own commodification as an Olympic athlete and American hero.

Jenner’s acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPY (see clip) dispelled these reservations. This award was a necessary follow-up to the Vanity Fair cover as it situated Jenner in context, both where he’s coming from and where she plans to go, in the process driving home the significance of Caitlyn, all this taking place in an especially pertinent setting. Yes, there are other problems that do need our attention, but those pertaining to gender and sexuality, as highlighted in this case by a sports event, are not to be ignored. The harrowing statistics of trans violence in this country alone highlight the political urgency of trans justice, which Jenner claims was a motivation for her to come out. The same goes for arguments that question whether Jenner, and not some other athlete who has gone through more significant hardship, deserves the award (see brief profile of Arthur Ashe). There are, indeed, other minorities who are also oppressed, perhaps more than the subjects that Caitlyn represents, certainly more than Jenner herself, but pointing this out is less an argument against giving Caitlyn a public platform than an argument for devising more ways to grant recognition. This is so especially since subjective recognition, like struggle itself, is not exclusive, but shared and contagious. As such, the complaint, “What about X? Don’t they deserve it more?” (contrast to: “Our fellows won something they needed!”), is counterproductive. Among other things, it resentfully and unwittingly participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy by which the dominant keeps the oppressed, well, oppressed.

As for Jenner’s privilege and celebrity, first, when it comes down to it, it means nothing; and secondly, it is, in fact, an advantage, and not only for Jenner. Everyone who is privileged in some way (thanks to background, talent, looks, etc.) knows that such privilege proves cheap in the face of an attribute that could be exploited as a weakness. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, there is always a closet in which one finds oneself in, no matter how out one thinks him/herself to be, no matter how open the environment. This is because you can be respected for something in which you are considered “good” or “strong,” and lose all that respect because you’re gay, or be respected only despite being black, Hispanic, or Asian, or be excluded and ridiculed for not being one of the boys. At the same time, Jenner does have privilege, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, because she is privileged, Jenner has the resources with which to fight, and, it must be noted, for a group of people deemed and treated as the lowest of the low, including in the gay community. Privilege buys (some) power (in some contexts), and it is the use to which power is put that is to be judged, not privilege by itself.

In fact, Jenner’s performance of the ex-“American hero” now identifying as and standing up for gender outcasts—already ironic—ironically makes him more critical than the mainstream LGBTQ movement. After all, the current thrust of the gay mainstream is heavily weighted toward marriage and the “proper” “type” of gay, undoubtedly a compelling factor leading to its recent victories, its acceptance in the mainstream. The price of this has been the disavowal of the less proper type of queers, notably trans, despite the fact that it was trans activists in Stonewall that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. Similarly, of course ESPN has a vested commercial interest in presenting Jenner the award and that such presentation involves her commodification, but why single out a transgender woman, and not the other athletes, heteronormative or not, as the object of televised exploitation? And so what if Jenner is commodified as she is publicly recognized? Does commodification necessarily blunt the critical force of her public performance? In fact, doesn’t commodification, given its speed, its shock or seduction value, its mass dissemination, propel Jenner’s performance? In a world where capitalism attempts to penetrate virtually everything, does pointing out that something is entangled really amount to a critique? More importantly, does entanglement necessarily foreclose critique of that to which one is entangled and, it must not be forgotten, of the other operative axes of power that may or may not be aligned with capitalism, say, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and patriotism?

These attempts, ostensibly well-meaning, to dismiss or minimize the significance of Caitlyn Jenner miss something crucial about her. Criticisms from the right make up a reactionary backlash (what else is new?) against the way in which Caitlyn has deconstructed the American hero, proving him not only to be unknown (as expressed by Caitlyn’s constant remark, “Before this, nobody really knew me”), perhaps unknowable, because hollow—a mere ideal, a fantasy—but, indeed, as the opposite of what he’s thought to be, i.e. as deviant, wretched, monstrous, as someone undesirable and unworthy of admiration, at least not in the conventional sense, in other words, as queer. These reactionary criticisms, in other words, root from a nostalgia for something that’s not there but is believed in, an anchor of identity that Bruce used to be, but which Caitlyn has shattered. Whereas these nostalgic criticisms do everything they can to erase what Caitlyn has revealed, more sympathetic criticisms, including those coming from the fellow oppressed, miss what it was that Caitlyn showed the world. For in courageously standing up there to flamboyantly parade her gender for all the world to see, what Caitlyn Jenner has showed, in these times of enduring racial persecution, unending economic recession, and the institutionalization of gay marriage, is the centrality of sexuality itself, not against but along with other axes of struggle.

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