CW: Cannibalism

In “From Circumstance to Constellation,” Farid Matuk suggests desire as a condition of race, racism, and racialism. Desire not only to possess, but also to consume and to violently unify – erase the space between – racially divergent subjects is the critical substance of this framing. Matuk substantiates this point using the horrific example cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s gory and disturbing murder of a Laotian boy by the name of Konerak Sinthasomphone. In Matuk’s telling, through both the cannibalism story and the example of David Joseph Martinez’s art piece in contribution to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, desire takes on a spatial significance. Both function according to a high (dis)regard for the boundaries between people. The concept of being something one is not already enfolds an instantaneous migratory process – arguably being includes moving towards, joining, and inhabiting in a moment. Although not instantaneously, Dahmer certainly acts out that process, in the most terrible fashion. This spatially-aware definition of desire also clearly reflects certain elements of colonialism.

Matuk’s arguments grapple with likeability as much as desire. After outlining the contours of racial desire, he presents Richard Pryor in a 1980 interview on the set of his film, Stir Crazy. In the interview, Pryor is harsh and seemingly unfiltered, or at least impolite. According to Matuk, he portrays a multiplicity of racialized subjects in the space of the interview, refusing to re-present the lionized, exceptional roles pre-defined for Black people. Because of his self-presentation as queer-phobic, sexist, and generally unpleasant (according to normative social standards, which are by definition racist) Matuk claims that Pryor comes across as unequivocally unlikable. This raises several questions, first about the relationship between likeability and desire – is the former necessary for the latter? – and second about race and desire – is race integral to desire as desire is to race? There is a way in which, as well, Pryor’s refusal to play a singular role troubles the spatial matrix of desire. How can a single entity hold and consume more than one at once?

Although the connotations of ‘desire’ are primarily interpersonal, Matuk’s arguments point beyond the interpersonal. In a way, the piece’s title – “From Circumstance to Constellation” – encapsulates entirely the dynamic between happenstance experientialisms and natural law that racism, as a fully integrated system of oppression manifesting on every level of society, simultaneously entails, posits, and denies. That is to say that ‘circumstance’ and ‘constellation’ imply unplanned-ness, movement, brevity on the one hand and fixture, age, and stasis on the other, and that those two opposite sets of connotation seem to reflect at least a part of the relationship between perceptions of racism from the interpersonal versus institutional levels. At the interpersonal level, experiences of racism are often highly circumstantial and subject to criticism and disbelief for that very reason. From an institutional perspective, it is often possible to perceive a web of racist structures and instances as absolutely and unequivocally coherent.

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One Response to race/desire/likeability

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes, great analysis of Matuk’s formation of desire as essential to racism both at an individual and institutional level. Especially you’re inclusion of unity as part of the violence of desire – the erasure of difference and distance between autonomous self-determining beings. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about this – does this seem like a useful formulation? Is desire a way to explore the manifestations of racism in literature and poetry? Can desire function outside of this? What about the desire of racialized and oppressed subjects for autonomy, self-determination, and liberation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    I’m especially intrigued by your quesiton about race being intregal to desire. Could you imagine a non-racialized desire? A non-violent desire? A non-consumptive, possessive, or destructive desire? What would that look like, in terms of poetry? Is that maybe what NourbeSe Philip is attempting to manifest through Zong!? A desire to embody a history without consuming it? Such a fruitful way to explore these works!


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