Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

21 May 2015

As a Latina...

A couple of years ago, I was at a conference and I was working on a committee to plan the following year's conference and when the committee asked for feedback on the current year's events, several people complained that the events were not as inclusive of people of color as they might have been, and made some very valid critiques. One of the planners at this point got rather indignant and said, Well as a Latina...

I can't actually remember what she said after that. This, to me, was the worst kind of positioning. This woman was attempting to use her own subject position as a woman of color to excuse the way that the conference she had helped to organize had been insensitive to women of color. I have identity with other women of color and therefore I should be excused from being considered insensitive to women of color even though many people here actually feel slighted by my behavior. Um, no.

I've used that phrase As a Latina to make fun of this kind of positioning ever since. And since then I've noticed the phrase As a... also crops up when people do not want to take the time to justify their own credentials. As a person who researches x / As a historian of x, here is my opinion about x... Or you could just make an argument that makes your point clear and demonstrates why your theory is workable or interesting. As a person who thinks about x / As a person who is a longtime fan of x... These are somehow even worse. Wait, wait, you think about this topic? That's the way you're going to describe your subject position here? Or you're a fan? And that is supposed to give credence to your argument in some way?

In a way, I think this kind of strange positioning, the active claiming of a specific position in the world before making an argument, is descended from Pierre Bourdieu and the idea that we ought to analyze our own subject positions as a part of the analysis we are doing. I am totally on board with this, but the As a Latina formation actually occludes analysis. Instead of interrogating how this position might color or otherwise affect the argument being made, the position almost always is intended to make the argument seem more accurate – as a person like the person I am, my argument is going to be more sound than someone who does not have this position – or it is intended to excuse behavior that ought not to be excused – as a Latina, I ought not to be considered at fault for whatever anti-Latina sentiments you perceive.

I haven't thought about this phenomenon seriously in a while, but I've been thinking of it again lately because I am revisiting some scholarship on manhood and masculinity. And I am noticing this weird "guys like us", "for us men", "feminist critiques have often misunderstood what we as men actually understand about ourselves because we've lived it" kind of thing. In other words, the theorist I'm reading at the moment (who shall remain nameless) keeps beginning sentences by saying, sometimes obliquely, sometimes literally: As a man.

The reason I am thinking about this positioning seriously is that although I write about masculinity, I cannot actually imagine ever writing anything equivalent to the phrase As a man. In fact, I don't think I would ever use that phrase even in conversation.

As a man...

It just looks weird to me.

First of all, one's position as a man does not give one any particular access to understanding masculinity writ large. And secondly, to be a man is specifically to claim not to be so many other things. Why would one want to do that? I have often felt the need to quote one of José Muñoz's critiques of masculinity, the one that notes that “masculinity is, among other things, a cultural imperative to enact a mode of ‘manliness’ that is calibrated to shut down queer possibilities and energies. The social construct of masculinity is experienced by far too many men as a regime of power that labors to invalidate, exclude, and extinguish faggotry, effeminacy, and queerly coated butchness.”

But also, I don't actually understand myself as a man, at least not as a man without qualifiers attached. I refer to myself as a gay man often enough, I guess, but never as simply a man, never as a man undiminished by faggotry, weakness, sensitivity, pacificism, shame, or bookishness. In fact, I like the idea of whatever manhood I might possibly claim being somehow always diminished.

In any case, I have no intention of beginning any arguments by saying as a gay man or as a person who is often racialized as white or as a person who listens to a lot of Philip Glass, but I often think it is interesting when other people do. Why are we positioning ourselves and what advantages do we feel that these positions offer us? I am not arguing that who we are ought somehow to be absent from our scholarship or that we ought to try to excise our own subject positions from our scholarship. Not at all! But wouldn't it be best if it were the argument itself that made this position clear? If I have argued well, my argument ought to state my position quite clearly, at least whatever one (or several) of my identity positions that is relevant to the current argument.

As a Spanish-speaking Packers fan invested in the anarchist movement in France in the late nineteenth century and also captivated by queer issues and also interested in the political history of black America and also fascinated by the work of Seneca, my argument today will be that the original reception of Bernard-Marie Koltès's play Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton (1985), with its too-intent focus on issues related to AIDS, overshadowed Koltès's own focus on economics, much to the detriment of the play itself.

Sometimes one's subject position just isn't relevant.