A Tired Aesthetic
Issue #61, September 2002
Race is tired. Fucking tired. The concept has seen better days. The word itself came into the English language half a millennium ago with the coming to the Caribbean of one Italian sailor on a Spanish expedition. As a descriptive device its authority has weakened significantly, most tellingly perhaps, because its implement of creation, the European phallus, hasn't written anything great of late.
While the master works of racism have been written, texts such as those of discovery, conquest, colonialism, slavery, and the New World, the Euro pen is still capable of becoming excited by current discourse of race. Consider a contemporary Italian-Hispano in the Caribbean, Aldo Bianchi, protagonist of Daniel Chavarría's El Rojo en la Pluma del Loro. As the novel opens, Aldo, an Italian by way of the Río Plata, is tired. He is fifty-five years old, divorced, and impotent. But Aldo goes to Cuba and in minutes after meeting an Afrocuban prostitute, he ejaculates in the racialized vagina. In fact, he does so five times in their first four hours together. And in his four days with Bini, Aldo fucks well, twenty-five times.
When confronted by this miraculous display of the power of racial intercourse, Aldo's friends feel compelled to account for it. The success of such racialized sex, especially when compared to the failure of the marital sex, is understood within the parameters of European racism. "No ignoraban que el embrujo de los tambores y cánticos afrocubanos, más el ron, el contagio eufórico, al lado de una hembra salvaje y bella, pueden liberar pasiones reprimadas." Bini is reduced to her sex, an element of the exotic milieu that allowed Aldo to relax. She is the savage female, not necessarily human, but beautiful.
Such transparent racism is ironic in serious, contemporary literature, isn't it? El Rojo en la Pluma del Loro won Cuba's 2000 Premio Casa de las Amíricas. Chavarría, a Uruguayan who has lived in Cuba for three decades, has the imprimatur of the revolution and its literary organ. It must be ironic.
While the issue of the European and racialized sex may serve to open Chavarría's novel, it is the raison d'être for a novel that has captured the contemporary French imagination. Michel Houellebecq's Plateforme is fully about racialized sex, its practice, its commodification, its advertising. It is a capitalist, first world, European vision of the current state of the Euro phallus and as such, Plateforme emerges as exemplar of its milieu.
The novel is unashamedly about sexual tourism, specifically about the practice and marketing of European sex with racial others. Various interlocutors delineate the predilections. "On vous parlera de Brésiliennes, ou des filles de Cuba. J'ai beaucoup voyagé, monsieur, j'ai voyagé pour mon plaisir, et je n'hésite pas à vous le dire: pour moi, les Thaïs sont les meilleures amantes du monde." Valérie, the main French female character, declares, "C'est vrai, c'est frappant, à force: les femmes blanches préfènt coucher avec des Africains, les hommes blancs avec des Asiatiques". She asks the protagonist, Michel, "Qu'est-ce que les Thaïs ont de plus que les Occidentales." She is answered verbally by Michel and graphically by the narrator.
In Plateforme, Michel has lots of sex and, with Valírie, devises and markets a sort of Club Med with prostitutes. The novel is replete with interracial sex. It is replete too with judgement, value, taste, and discrimination in regard to racial others. To what degree does Houellebecq avoid stereotype and racism in his delineation of European sexual activities with postcolonial subjects? Or more bluntly, is his racism ironic?
The beginning of an answer might lie in a self-reflective passage in which Michel (the character? the author?) considers the contemporary state of the European phallus. He is almost nostalgic when he considers its history,
Mes ancêtres européens avaient travaillé dur, pendent plusieurs siècles; ils avaient entrepris de dominer, puis de transformer le monde, et dans une certaine mesure ils avaient réussi. Ils l'avaient fait par intérèt économique, par goût du travail, mais aussi parce qu'ils croyaient à la supériorité de leur civilisation: ils avaient inventé le rêve, le progrès, l'utopie, le future.
In other words, in greater times, times which coincided with those of conquest, colonialism and slavery, the Euro phallus was powerful and wrought wondrous things. Hard working and ethnocentric Europeans dominated the world and invented notions such as dream and future.
In those times, the European also invented race. And the notion potentially came into play every time the Euro phallus engaged native vagina. Because back then,
La situation était bien sûr différente dans les précédents siècles, au temps où la sexualité était quand même essentiellement liée à la reproduction.
But if the European history of patriarchy is written as nostalgia, present day sexuality is written in economic terms.
Pour mantenir la valeur génétique de l'espèce, l'humanitié devait alors tenir le plus grand compte des crières de santé, de force, de jeunesse, de viguer physique-dont la beauté n'était qu'une synthèse pratique. Aujourd'hui, la donne avait changé: la beaute gardait toute sa valeur, mais il s'agissait d'une valeur monnayable, narcissique. Si décidément la sexualité devait rentrer dans le secteur des biens d'échange, la meilleure solution était sans aucun doute de faire appel à l'argent, ce médianteur universel que permettait déjà d'assurer une équivalence précise à l'intelligence, au talent, à la compétence technique; qui avait déjà permis d'assurer un standardisation parfaite des opinions, des goûts, des modes de vie.
If we take Michel's discourse at face value, we accept the transformation of the Euro phallus: what it had undertaken previously as a politic, it undertakes now as an aesthetic. In other words, the former project of dominating and civilizing the world was political, and in that context, the intercourse of race and sex was hard work. Miscegenation and eugenics, for example, were hard work. But today's phallus is fun. Freed from the rigors of human reproduction and the writing of race, the Euro pen is now able to experience race and sex for the sake of beauty. Sex with the racial other need not require the huge displacement of colonial power, and it need not result in the subjects of miscegenation. Instead, the tired phallus can undertake sterile sexual relations, relations dictated by matters of beauty, of discrimination, of taste, and of desire, specifically, capitalist desire.
What is this soft aesthete, the New Phallus, envisioned by Michel? If denied the function of procreation, the Euro pen is denied to a great extent the function of writing the master texts of patriarchy and racism. The tired Euro phallus need not engender humans or human difference, for sex with the racial other can be merely a matter of pleasure, of discriminating tastes and the realization of the desire for beauty. No longer needing armies of soldiers, priests, and the police, the New Phallus can rest and let money do the work.
But Plateforme itself belies the irony of the new Euro phallus, belies the sense that the new prick is any less a prick when it comes to racism. Its transformation seems more catachresis than irony, more a twisted similarity than an inversion or negation. True, the current phallus differs from its past, and according to Michel, it is due to a displacement of its reproductive function, but it is not so different that it no longer writes racism. It continues to do so. The displacement of reproduction from the sphere of the sexual politic is concomitant with the displacement in meaning, the catachresis, of the phallus in the sexual aesthetic. The phallus still writes and still means racism in the act of sex, but the act itself has been displaced in sense and in site.
With the diminution of the project of progeniture, coitus is viewed as one variation of the sex act, its preference merely a matter of taste. The vagina loses some of its pre-eminence as preferred site of pleasure for the heterosexual phallus and is frequently supplemented in Plateforme by the mouth and hand. The phallus is less tied to the vagina because sex is less tied to reproduction. The Euro pen is free to undertake sex without the huge consequences of patriarchy and miscegenation. In the vagina, as in the mouth and hand, the penis can realize beauty, pleasure and desire without recourse to racism. But race is differentiated at the anus.
After many episodes of sex in various combinations of races and body parts, there occurs one episode that is noticeably different. Valérie and Michel meet "un couple de Noirs sympa." Nicole is a nurse, and Jerome is a jazz drummer, cool and hip. Jerome proposes to Valérie a double penetration. As Michel recounts, "Elle accepta, à condition que ce soit moi qui la sodomise-il fallait s'y prendre très doucement avec elle, j'avais plus l'habitude." Jerome and Michel simultaneously penetrate Valérie, the black penis penetrating the white vagina; the white penis, the white anus. After Valírie orgasms, Nicole excitedly takes her place. Nicole tells Michel, "Avec moi tu peux y aller... j'aime bien qu'on m'encule fort." The black penis penetrates the black vagina, the white penis penetrates the black anus, bringing Nicole to orgasm. The women then kneel before Jerome and Michel, and while the men talk jazz, they take the penises into their mouths: black penis in white mouth, white penis in black mouth. Jerome, "joit d'un seul coup, éjaculant violemment dans la bouche de Valérie." Valérie then joins Nicole, instructing her how better to perform the task, and Michel nearly faints.
What Plateforme proposes is a catachresis, a depiction of difference coupled with an assertion of fundamental similarity. The Euro phallus is different, and it is the same. Yet such contradiction is not ironic, for the primary articulation is not one of difference, but rather, one of essence. The Euro phallus remains essentially and fundamentally a racist prick.
In the logic of the catachresis, the anus gains new prominence. It replaces the vagina as the site of racial transgression. Heteroracial coitus is fine, preferable in fact, but heteroracial sodomy is taboo. Valírie takes the black penis into her vagina and mouth, but rejects the black penetration of her anus. Michel's white penis is free to fuck vagina and anus of any color. This is not fundamentally different from tradition. Michel's European ancestors, in their dissemination of civilization through acts such as colonialism and slavery, worked very hard penetrating colored vaginas and restricting colored access to white vaginas. What is different is the shift of focus from vagina to anus, and it is this difference that underscores the new phallic order.
The anus is thus the site of whiteness. Houellebecq is not alone in articulating this discourse. Plateforme coincides with other articulations of the catachresis: the new but tired phallus is as racist as the old, hard working phallus, but relates to the anus rather than the vagina. In all these articulations, the phallus is still the phallus in essence, though at times hard to recognize. Four examples, all from cinema, explore variations of anal discourse where the phallus, removed from reproduction, coitus, and the vagina, remains bound to the exigencies of race. These variations of the catachresis demonstrate how far the notion of the phallus has stretched.
Two films, Storytelling (USA: 2002) and Monster's Ball (USA: 2001) demonstrate that the new phallus need not be white nor seize its traditional privilege. In Todd Solondz's Storytelling, a black penis penetrates the white anus in a scene that is obscured for viewers by a red square, purportedly to avoid classification as pornography. Mr. Scott, a tired black professor, sodomizes Vi, his white student, and in the act, demands that she utter racist epithets. The white anus is transgressed racially, and the inappropriateness of such act is condemned according to a traditional racist ethics. A black phallus is still a phallus.
In Marc Forster's Monster's Ball, the anal encounter of the Euro American phallus is opposite that of the French in Plateforme. Hank is a tired racist, tired of killing blacks, so tired that he can't penetrate the white anus. He fails with a white prostitute, who keeps his money and screws him in the process. He is rejuvenated by Leticia, a black woman, almost in the same manner that Aldo is rejuvenated by Bini in Daniel Chavarría's novel. In his first attempt at heteroracial sex, Hank first tries anal penetration, but is rebuffed. Leticia turns over and the two engage in coitus happily. A very traditional sexual relationship is espoused.
Two other films, Baise moi (France: 2000) and American History X (USA: 1998), focus on the transgression of the anus, white and male. In one of the more sexually violent scenes of Baise moi, a film full of sexual violence, Manu, an ethnic minority woman, penetrates a Frenchman's anus with a pistol and shoots. It is a particularly violent ejaculation, expressing sexual rage for sure, but also, race rage. For Manu is colored, and yet perhaps more significantly, the victim and anus are male and white. In Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Ti's vision, the endless displays of sex and violence are weak on a feminist politic and reaffirm traditional hierarchies of race. The phallus need not have a penis.
Tony Kaye's American History X is as much about race and violence as is Baise moi about sex and violence. White supremacist Derek is raped in prison because he becomes a race traitor, because he engages in discourse with a black inmate. The white anus is transgressed by a white penis as punishment for opposing traditional racism. The phallus need not be heterosexual.
These films and Plateforme hint at irony but promote a catachresis that functions much in the way that does Bakhtin's carnival: on the day of carnival (or at the site of the anus) traditional hierarchy is inverted only to be reestablished the day following. There is nothing radical or revolutionary in the new phallus. Consider, for example, what is affirmed in three gratuitious instances in Plateforme.
Valérie is not the only European woman confronted by the specter of racialized anal sex. Marylse is raped by a group of Caribbeans, "Ils l'avaient pénétrée violemment, sans ménagements, par tous les orifices."
In long racist diatribe, an Egyptian declares that Arabs have nothing to do "que d'enculer leur chameaux." The Egyptian "exagérait un peu, mais c'etait un Oriental," but confirms the racist French vision of the lowest of the low: Arabs transgress the anus not across race lines but across species.
Minor character Jean-Yves has sex with the new babysitter, fifteen year old Eucharistie from Dahomey. "Elle savait très précisément, par ses gémissements, deviner l'instant où il allait venir. Elle éloignait alors son visage; avec petits mouvements précis elle orientait son éjaculation, parfois vers se seins, parfois vers sa bouche. Elle avait à ces moments une expression joueuse, presque enfantine..."
The Euro pen is alive and well, racist, orientalist, sexist, and pedophile. There seems to be no irony in Michel's declaration:
Européen aisé, je pouvais acquéir à moindre prix, dans d'autres pays, de la nourriture, des services et des femmes; Européen décadent, conscient de ma mort prochaine, et ayant pleinement accédé à l'égoísme, je ne voyais aucune raison de m'en priver.
Yet Plateforme does participate in an irony of history. The novel's publication in September, 2001, coincides with the 9/11 attacks on the first world's organs of capital and the military. The climax of Plateforme, its most violent ejaculation, is a mass slaughter of European sex tourists in Thailand by "trois hommes enturbannés". Turban functions as metonym for Muslims, who in turn stand as obstacles to Euro phallocentric rule. Muslims are inhumane, anti-capitalist fundamentalists who transgress the anus of camels and who oppose free market sex.
That the novel so coincides with history is ironic. But there is no irony in either the fictive or factual response. Michel responds fictively, as has the first world historically, by invoking the proven politic and tired aesthetic of race:
Chaque fois que j'apprenais qu'un terroriste palestinien, ou un enfant palestinien, ou une femme enceinte palestinienne, avait été abattu par balles dans la bande de Gaza, j'éprouvais un tressaillement d'enthousiasme à la pensée qu'il y avait un musulman de moins.
Alfred Arteaga is an associate professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California - Berkeley and a beloved friend of Bad Subjects editors.