KATHRYN BOND STOCKTON: I'm going to do a preamble. So that'll give you a chance to see whether my voice is loud enough or not. Just for about five minutes, I want to take some time to set up this talk and where I'm going and how this one is, in some respects, linked to the piece that you'll read on Thursday.
These are two think pieces. Amanda made the mistake with me of encouraging me to think and think anew, which is what I did. And I hope I'm not going to give thinking a bad name. But these are two pieces kind of new out of the box.
I'm trying to think about queer theory in relationship to poverty, which is not usually done, and queer theory in relationship to subaltern studies. So the new project is headed somewhere down that path. And in particular, I'm trying to move from where I was in the book on The Queer Child to challenging my own ideas-- reframing them, shifting them, possibly auto-critiquing them-- by taking them into a larger globalized frame of childhood and racializations that are not strictly US rationalizations. The Queer Child book had two substantial chapters on race. But the new book is going to be more centrally about that.
Now, how does this relate to where we've been in our conversation so far? Possibly, the word "agency" can be used for where I'm headed today. But I'm going to kind of leave that up to you.
I want to dial in the question of latency, which will sound sufficiently post-structuralist, to sort of out me as a post-structuralist among fabulous liberals this summer, all right? But I am going to try to think inside the resources of post-structuralism towards some issues that we generally associate with liberalism. And that's true for the piece you'll read on Thursday as well.
With latency, you can think Freud, if you like. You do need to think about signification. So if you just think about Lacan's notion, the latency with which everything, signifiable, is struck as soon as it's raised to the function of a signifier, all right-- just take that old chestnut. And get that out in front of you because, in part, what I want to ask today is what kind of agency-- again, if that's the right word-- can be found in structures of delay that we associate with childhood and developmental notions?
So let me just say a word about where I was in my last book as a kind of jumping-off point to where I go today. In that book, I am trying to show the queerness of children generally-- the strangeness of them, the way they will not reduce the US public cultural notions of who the child is. And in particular, I try to focalize my investigations through the figure of the ghostly gay child.
And if that sounds like having a child and not having one at the same time, you're exactly right. I'm arguing that throughout the length of the 20th century, the gay child is an impossible category, which sort of bends it in a sort of Derridian direction. Talk about deferred effect, this notion of [INAUDIBLE], in many ways, would be interesting in relationship to the gay child.
Here's what I mean. Throughout the length of the 20th century, there are no established forms for the gay child to hold itself in a public legal field. Thus, that child is intensely unavailable to itself in the present tense. In fact, it really only has a backwards birth, through retrospection on the one hand and through death on the other.
Now let me make this very simple, in case you're getting lost. When you come out in your teens or your 20s, you put to death your own straight life. At least let me tell you, in the eyes of your parents, they believe the child they knew has died. And there is bereavement around that event for many of us, all right?
But it's a moment when you can finally say, having come out at 15 or having come out at 25, I was a gay child. This has been the only grammatical formulation allowed to gay childhood throughout the length of the 20th century, all right? And the phrase "gay child" has operated as a gravestone marker for where or when one's straight life died. Straight person dead. Gay child now born.
However, at the point at what your childhood has expired, all right? So you see the difficulty. You can be one, but you can't be one in the present tense. So when are you ever one?
Now my question to you-- and if you don't have questions for me in the Q&A, I will tell you I have questions for you. So get ready. I might even call on you. So just be prepared.
At any rate, I'm wondering to what extent this dynamic might be radically changing, even at this moment. Already in this new century, is the gay child becoming a present-tense category? I'll tell you why I say so.
New York Times, gay kids coming out in middle school. The bullying thing that just sort of broke into public discourse last fall had lots of famous Hollywood people talking about their gay childhoods. I wonder to what extent this would've seen of the confab over bullying actually began to produce a gay child in the present tense.
And then this starts to slide me where I need to go. If we are starting to believe in a gay child in the present tense, are we starting to believe that children are sexual in a way that we haven't believed before? I'll give you another index of this.
You probably saw a big piece in New York Times-- pre-Anthony Weiner, let me tell you-- about sexting, all right. And indeed, the headline was called "A Girl's Nude Photo and Altered Lives." It was about a girl texting her body and that text going viral and all the harmful effects that came from it, all right?
So I guess what I want to say, I want to give us a radical hypothesis. I believe the gay child is starting to become present tense. I believe we are starting to believe-- or worry that we do believe-- that children are sexual. And therefore, I want to ask about the effect of this for where we go, where we might locate, where we might rediscover our lost child.
This is going to take me to some very strange claims about the genre of world documentary and its effects on this front. It's going to lead me to the thing I call kid Orientalism. And then towards the end, I'm going to read some aspects of Push, the novel Push, the film that it became, named Precious, as antidotes to those very effects in world documentary, all right? And believe it or not, that's going to take us back-- beautifully, I trust-- to the agency of latency, children's libidinal relationships with signifiers.
Those who are in my seminar, I invite you to think about the Katherine Franke piece about putting sex to work. What happens when we too easily call things sexual? Do we miss other effects that generally don't appear under sex? And do we sort of miss forms of eroticism that do not go in the usual sexual direction, all right? And I invite everybody to think about that as well.
You should have in front of you a handout, or cozy up with somebody who does. It begins with the body of Gabourey Sidibe. And what I'd like you to do, just take a quick look at that picture. And then flip the page to where I'll begin with two epigraphs.
So as I say, this is the picture of Gabourey Sidibe, Oscar-nominated actress from Precious-- Based on Push. Just wanted you to see her body and how that body looks, all right? Now first epigraph from Roland Bart.
"That the voice, that writing be as fresh, lubricated, delicately granular, and vibrant as an animal's muzzle." My second epigraph is from the novel Push, by the poet Sapphire. "Every Morning," by Precious J. "Every morning I write a poem before I go to school, 'Mary had a little lamb. But I got a kid and HIV that follow me to school one day.'"
Part one, children's passion-- passion that is coming-- coming out on paper. What a child is, is a darkening question. The question of the child makes us climb inside a cloud, a shadowy spot on a field of light, leaving us in moments to cloudiness and ghostliness, surrounding children as figures in time. Child sexuality and sexual relations surrounding children are part of these shadows.
So what might come with a sexual child? Something that doesn't look sexy at all-- a passion for the signifier, which Lacan and Derrida have said is doomed to latency, something that marks where longing and longings to mean reside, where they lurk and linger, fattening, if also hiding, on a page. Every day, I write a poem."
Lyrical lurking? Lyrical lingering. Lyrical lard, fat, and even a leaning sideways into a longing for language, with all of its latency and the right to literacy. Picture for a moment a large black girl, pregnant by her father for now the second time, infected by him with HIV, abused by her mother, and functionally illiterate. That is, picture Precious.
On screen, these matters are carried by-- bam-- an image sequence out of nowhere, hitting film viewers upside their heads. The mother throws an object at her daughter's skull. Cut to sweaty father loosening his belt.
Precious on bed now. View of bed springs creaking, rocking. Eggs are sizzling and grease in a pan. Vasoline. Rape. Precious launching fantasy of herself as movie star, sashaying down an expanse of red carpet.
Strikingly, for all of the sexual sensation, novel and film smartly depict how this abuse interferes with literacy. How this sexual abuse is matched by state neglect of children's education. And as we'll see, how a girl's longing-- her sexual agency-- comes out on paper as a form of latency.
Quote number one-- just the dictionary definition of "latent." Present or potential but not manifest, says the dictionary, as in latent talent, latent sexuality, latent meaning, or latent period, the incubation period of a disease. Synonyms-- dormant and quiescent.
Another Precious poem, quote number two-- "Among the vacant trees is secret plots of green diamonds call grass." Precious sees dormancy and speaks to it poetically, making scenes of vacancy secretly jeweled with growth and fertility. And in the novel, this passion is pushed. With death lurking, while she's getting bigger, deep in her pregnancy and HIV, Precious longs for poetry. She would write poems.
Thus, in the character of Precious are dramatized the sexual and economic politics and passion of children's latent relationships with signifiers-- writing, for example-- which allows for meanings to linger on a page and for these meanings to fatten as they linger in their suspension, a seeming suspension of time and space. A poem is where time hangs, grows wide. And something else emerges in poems, as we know.
Something intensifies and makes vitality trump longevity and even clarity. It also undermines grammatical correctness. This certain something is the sonic pulse of signifiers, their alluring sound and their tickings of time granular and vibrant. Or as Precious puts it, quote number three, "Go into the poem, the heart of it, beating like a clock, a virus. Tick tock."
Part two, viral clock. Slide with me now to a certain kind of child that Precious represents. The HIV child. The child with a signifier, signifying sex or drugs or blood and often race. A sexualized child in a racialized world. A child with a bomb that may go off inside.
Given this potential ticking away, this kind of child dramatizes latency in a threatening way. First of all, HIV can be a threatening latency, since latency or interval forms a distinguishing medical feature of the medical category HIV positive. HIV is medically conceived as the interval between infection and the onset of symptoms. For this reason, HIV in the absence of symptoms can be a strange and haunting state of latency in which you are ill with an idea-- the lurking idea of your possible death.
This kind of latency makes you enter a strange temporality. It may make you nostalgic for yourself even before you begin to decline. You find you fall ill with nostalgia for a future-- a time in which you clearly saw a future before you, before you felt the tick-tock of a viral clock. And yet now there's dormancy, as the path that HIV might also take, since HIV can lie dormant indefinitely, in the words of Harvard's William Haseltine, "hidden from a person's own immune system but still lurking inside their cells."
How does the HIV child or teen intensify this drama? By growing with the virus. In 1996, around the time of Push, almost half of HIV children in the US were growing up with AIDS and HIV, living with and through their viral infection, which was making them strangely threatening.
Here's what we read in The New York Times as early as 1993, in a piece entitled "Growing Up in the Shadow of the AIDS Virus." This is a quote four. "In a medical building in the Bronx, two girls and a boy sit around the table drawing with crayons and chattering about summer camp, Michael Jackson, and in between, the virus that has haunted each of them since birth. Once, growing up with HIV meant mostly repeated trips to doctors. But the boy is now 13, and the girls are 11, old enough that the virus has now become a cause for fears about infecting others, about having a future, about premature death."
Perhaps like me, you're completely struck that first in this list is sexual threat. The HIV teen child may threaten others. And oh, by the way, mostly the focus is on the black child, who is the face of the HIV child.
In another piece, also from The Times from 1999, we meet a black boy and his siblings who we are told are part of a maturing, little understood population of infected children who because of medical advances are living far longer than anyone expected. Quote five-- "As these children grow," we are told, "the normally turbulent issues of youth are colliding with their chronic terminal illness." Now just hold on to that fascinating phrase, chronic terminal. That will do a lot of work this week, all right-- chronic terminal.
"Now, instead of planning funerals," says The Times, "parents worry that their children's behavior could hurt them, and if unprotected sex is involved, others. Parents face a whole new set of problems. They thought the child was going to die, explains a medical director in the Bronx.
"There's ambivalence that the kids are doing well. They have invested so much to try to keep the kids healthy. And now the kids are taking their fate into their own hands. They're making risky choices."
Ambivalence that the kids are doing well. Here, evidently, is a latency scarier than HIV-- the manifest latency, the not-so-latent latency of child sexuality that US culture is being forced to reckon with ever more steadily in this new century. Increasingly, in fact, old-style denials of children's sexuality are fraying at the edges, a circumstance leading perhaps to the paradox-- but is it paradoxical?-- that some people argue the child is disappearing just as the gay child appears to be emerging.
And yet for a century, Anglo-European cultures have deemed the child to be a latency, a certain kind of interval we think we can protect. By our delaying children's access to sex, labor, and adult linguistic codes, we have made the child a creature of delay. I'm speaking, of course, of the child made strange though appealing to us by it's all-important innocence.
Here is why innocent children are strange. They all share protection from what they approach, the adulthood against which they must be defined. Adults walk the line-- the impossible line-- of keeping the child at once what it is-- what adults are not-- and leading it toward what it cannot, at least as itself, ever be-- what adults are.
Innocent children are seen as normative but also not like us at the same time. And this normative strangeness may explain why children, simply as an idea, are likely to be both white and middle class. It is a privilege to need to be protected, and thus, to have a childhood. Because of privilege then, the all-important feature of weakness sticks to these markers-- white and middle class-- and helps to signal innocence.
Here are two problems. By making children innocent, we've made children foreign, obscure to us. So in some respects, the innocent child is the queerest child of all, the one least like the adults who retrospect it.
Nonetheless, this foreignness finds itself beloved in the US. Thus more troubling to normative views are notions like the gay child or the child of color-- who may be the same child-- and here the HIV child, children who spotlight the drama of every child's darkness, every child's queerness through their propensity for growing astray inside the delay that defines who they are. Dangerous in their surprising movements from within their latency, these kinds of children outline the pain, closets, emotional labor, sexual motives, and sideways movements that attend all children, albeit in highly various ways.
How then do we, the general public seems to be saying, protect ourselves from our realizations, our growing hesitations surrounding children's sideways growth, surrounding the dangers they present to us? By doing something odd. We seek their endangerment ever more fervently as something we can protect them against.
Pedophile hysteria, as you know, has been quite good for this. But so has the somewhat recent documentary urge to film the child in peril in various places around the globe. And this endeavor, as we're going to see, returns us to the child's relationship to signifiers, which will return us to Precious and her poetry-- Precious as an antidote to a certain strain of world documentaries.
Part three-- emergence of kid Orientalism. This will sound outlandish and sound more intentional than it can be. New documentaries on the child in crisis-- in India, Malawi, Uganda-- depicting children endangered by poverty, sex trades, civil war, and AIDS are relocating our Western-style innocent child to foreign soil where with relief we can rediscover it. That is, these urgent films through a loving backslap grant their child protagonists the privilege of weakness-- generally the province of the white middle class-- which only these children's extraordinary peril can produce.
So paradoxically, through remarkable US forms of disavowal, where we deny what we know to be true, we're looking for our child-- our disappearing child, the child who needs protection-- where we should know, where we do know the Western child on its long delay cannot be found. More paradoxically, due to these films' obvious anti-orientalist impulses, they are forging a new Orientalism-- kid Orientalism, which runs along the track of a new kind of logic but reproduces Western obsessions.
How can this be? Recall that Orientalism, as theorist Edward Said defined it, involves the West's construction, to its own advantage, of the Orient as a negative inversion of the West, creating an ontological distinction between the Orient and the Occident such that all Eastern societies are seen as fundamentally similar to each other and dissimilar to the West. Moreover, Orientalist, as you'll recall, is fashioned by means of literary text and historical records that are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the East.
Are these films then-- the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels, the Academy-nominated and beautiful War Dance, and Madonna's art-house documentary, I Am Because We Are, focusing on children orphaned by AIDS, infected by AIDS in the African country Malawi-- are these films Orientalist by Said's definition? No, not really. None of these films makes its featured context the negative inversion of the West, nor do they use literary text and historical records that falsify the post-colonial histories of these countries.
Moreover, they do not craft divides, ontological or epistemological, between their settings and Western sensibilities. In fact, quite the opposite. Madonna, in her film, grandly connects all human experience through the suffering figure of the child, here the unifying figure of the child, whom she presumes we immediately recognize.
But this is not our innocent child, nor is this our troubling child who is taking her fate into her hands. This, I suspect, is our troubling child with its suffering turned back upon its head, where its harm can act like a wash-- soaping, rinsing, buffing suffering into a sheen we can read as weakness and thus as innocence. This is how we get this platonic child-- a child preserved in amber, fossilized or etherized but breathing and living in Malawi all along, we're led to believe, someone requiring no translation or explanation because we've known this child in Washington or Paris. Never mind we're currently bemoaning that our children, the presumptive models for Malawi's children, have fled the scene of US childhood, spurning the need for our protection.
Still, Madonna asks, aren't these the fears and hopes of any child, after her film has shown us a context that bears scant resemblance to anything we've known if we are not Malawians or those who know Malawi. Where the film instructs us 1 million children orphaned by AIDS out of the country's 12 million people seem to be everywhere, quote, "living on the streets, sleeping under bridges, hiding in buildings, being abducted, kidnapped, raped, circumstances leading to a state of emergency," end quote. And that's the crux of kid Orientalism, which is largely anti-Orientalism with a significant and perverse twist. Anti-Orientalism, in this case, comes through children's unquestioned universalism that denies the differences the films themselves imply-- historical, cultural, conceptual differences in the lives of children lived in these countries, the differences that make them of cinematic interest. And most perversely, it is these very differences in the lives of children, their unique forms and degrees of suffering, that make them for Madonna uber candidates for the Western-style innocent child, who above all needs our protection.
A flattened version of us childhood, one we have had to start doubting ourselves, is thus magically restored on foreign soil through of all things the sexualized, racialized, HIV child. Is this Orientalism? It doesn't really matter. It's a dilemma for signification.
In the end, Madonna's film cannot produce a signifier I haven't seen all of my life, though I've never seen these specific children. I mean that particular African image glazing our eyes, the ones many viewers will know from CARE or UNICEF ads since their childhood. Me on Halloween with my UNICEF box, collecting coins for this image in my head.
And of course, if you turn to the end of your handout, you see that I just happened to pick up that magazine recently. And there was that image. Did not go looking for it. It found me.
You know the image-- a glossy reproduction of a glassy stare in high definition. Lassitude with a resilience-- Madonna's favorite word-- resilience hard to see, even if I know it's there. Completely strange to say, each child's face-- its most personal, most tender signifier-- makes me not see the child I am viewing. I can't see these children because these children are blocking my view of them, themselves.
This grim tautology meets and defeats my gaze at every turn, making me try, as Madonna's viewer, to do an impossible visual maneuver-- stiff-arm the signifier, stiff-arm the child so as to slip behind its face, to see around what the signifier is showing me and not telling me. Stashed behind each image, or so it feels to me, is a vacant secret plot, as Precious might put it, a growing dormancy. What does it mean in this country for so many children to wear in their illness or their orphanhood a sexual and sexually stigmatizing signifier, HIV/AIDS, which is highly stigmatizing in their country? How do they think about it? What would they say about it?
At one fascinating point in the film, we hear the startling story of a young teen girl whose child has died of AIDS and who herself must now be cleansed, according to her tribe, by having sex with a married shaman three times a day until he says she's cured. The teen child asks, will I continue to live like this forever? There's a world of signification lurking here. But this is all we get.
In Born Into Brothels, there likewise seems a remarkable story to be told, possibly by the children themselves. What do they grasp about their mother's work, which is largely performed inside the home, just beyond a curtain's veil dropped inside a room? What do they think about the future's plan for them, which for the girls involved this work? When are they trained? What does it mean for their or their brothers' sexual imaginations as children?
Indeed, three lessons begin to emerge as one becomes immersed in the genre of these films. First, to the extent that these documentaries cannot forge new relationships for the film's viewer or for these children with their world as signifiers, these documentaries give us kid Orientalism. Second, one sees why documentaries of children capture less of children than do fictions of fictionalized children, a point I'll be returning to. And finally, we start to understand why these films all give us uplift narratives to soothe our encounter with these children's pain.
It's not just the wish to make children something other than victims, which of course is laudable. It's also a concession to Western heartbreak-- the filmmaker's fear of breaking our hearts, which we might feel threatened with and might cause our turning away, the filmmaker's nightmare. Eminently possible in this circumstance is an odd enactment of Lacan's assertion. That organic need becomes encased inside demand-- disappears into the soup of demand, as need is vectored by language to another, leading to desire, which is the gap between need and demand and leading to dynamics that for the film's viewer might go like this.
Now if this seems to be coming to you quickly, unfortunately, you will revisit this point full force in Thursday's paper. So you can listen lightly. Where I see need, I feel demand as a kind of language, a kind of desire directed at me that I can't answer.
So in this other piece I'm working on for Thursday, I will explore a novel, The Hour of the Star, by Latin America's premier woman novelist, Clarice Lispector, who adopts the voice of a male narrator who's writing a novel about a real girl from the poverty-stricken racialized backwoods of Brazil, whom he's glimpsed only once. His narration cuts to the heart of the "need always already aimed at me as demand" that I'm suggesting haunts these films. Here's how he voices it-- quotation number six.
"The girl worries me so much that I feel drained. She has drained me empty. And the less she demands, the more she worries me.
"I feel frustrated and annoyed, a raging desire to smash dishes and break windows. How can I avenge myself? Or rather, how can I get satisfaction? I found the answer-- by loving my dog, who consumes more food than she does."
Here is this logic in a nutshell then, the logic these films must struggle against. Here, I put it in quotation number seven. "I see need. I see a will to live.
"I feel it as demand that I cannot satisfy. I get angry. I turn to my dog." Does are doing a lot of work this summer. I've got a lot to say about dogs in the Queer Child book, so that may be why.
OK, part four-- how can these kids compete with dogs? No wonder these films each have their own way of keeping up our spirits with their kids' resilience long enough to move us toward these children's innocence, shown by the extremity of their experience. Born Into Brothels takes a clever tack. The children that we follow are each given cameras and taught still photography by the movie's filmmakers in the clear hope of showing these children's latent talents and showing them showing us how they see the world.
But the film begins with its own camera work, giving us close-ups of the children's faces-- close cropped, shadowed, then turned to the light-- that resonates strongly with African images and, I would say, impede our gaze. Then the movie camera snakes with an undulating sinister motion through the darkened alleys where the brothels hide, while a voice tells us, "It's almost impossible to photograph in the Red Light district." This confession makes us hope that what the children photograph will be especially telling, will take us beyond the intriguing hints of their thoughts embedded in fragments that we hear.
This is quote eight. So here's some little fragments you hear in the film. "One has to accept life as being sad and painful. That's all."
"I need to make a living and take care of my sister." "My father tried to sell me." "I know what my mother does for work, and I feel bad talking about these things." "My friend has talked to me about it many times and asked me not to tell anyone."
These oral fragments-- seductive, incomplete-- remain the film's most illuminating signifiers because the kids' cameras do not show us anything the filmmakers' cameras aren't showing, too. Here we hit the glass of tautology again, crashingly stopped by visual signifiers blocking our sight, a blindness now produced from a different angle. Think of a box inside a box inside a box.
In fact quite literally, the film's movie camera films a kid with camera taking a picture the film then develops before our eyes, as if the children's pictures are sophisticated Polaroids that nakedly suddenly reveal themselves to sight but only as the movie's camera lets them. And more inside the box, the photographs the filmmakers film as selections of the kids work as indications of their latent talent, often striking stills in burnished black and white or saturated color of some street scene, become indistinguishable from the aestheticized art house photographs viewers have seen of these locales in which the kids are sweetly and generously led with no bad faith to reinvent for a show entitled "Through the Eyes of a Child." Seeing through their eyes, therefore, leads us tautologically not only to what we've just been seeing from the movie camera but also to what we could see at Sotheby's, where their photographs are later sold.
The trailer to the film itself says as much. "Led by the compassion of one woman, from the streets of Calcutta to an auction block at Sotheby's. The story of a woman's courageous vision and the children who made it happen." Perhaps no surprise, the children's latent talent enacts the film's vision in a subtle reversal of purpose. And indeed, we realize that what the film captures more than anything else, what the kids capture with talent, with their cameras is the steady stream of signifiers aimed at them, entering them, coming through the view finder, penetrating children's eyes in this context in a kind of child invagination of sexual signification taking place through their eyeballs or their ear holes.
Therefore, if the children's wielding of their cameras shows us anything, it shows us something-- no small thing-- the photography theory-- keep your punctum; keep your studium-- doesn't theorize-- children's pleasure in the act of taking pictures with an instrument privileged adults treat as powerful and producing signifiers they or others value, even if pain rides the wave of the image. For as much as anything, these kids are drawn to what comes with these cameras-- trips to the zoo, to the beach, playtime, gallery exhibitions. And they blushingly learn to see that what you frame you somehow own, as they are possessed by the cameras that frame them.
War Dance almost seems hip to these problems. Upping the ante on narrative uplift, it follows Northern Uganda children as they prepare for a music festival in the nation's capital. These are children who have lost their parents to murders by rebels or themselves have murdered at the rebels' orders to kill or be killed.
Unlike Madonna, or Born Into Brothels, the filmmakers highlight their dearth of signifiers for what the children will directly tell us. In fact, each child stands firmly planted in front of the camera, slightly to the left of center of frame, with an unusual assurance, defiance, anger, unnerving matter-of-factness, or a "you don't know me" stance, or a posture of "let me stiff-arm you before you find yourself blocked by my face," as she or he narrates atrocities. As the stories hit our ears, unfolding there, the camera often takes us gently into the Ugandan bush just yards away from where the child is standing. Nothing looks directly sinister, just intense and at times intensely beautiful, even when the weather's storming, slamming, or the camera gives us a spider eating flies in gray silhouette.
Yellow-green grass is often framed against blue-black sky of remarkable density. A modeled moon shows up against cerulean. Most of the colors are bright, not hot. Only intermittently does anything look heated at the sky's rim. But the saturation of these colors is arresting, especially at metallic twilight.
And we have the children speaking to us, sometimes at the camera, sometimes as a disembodied voice that is speaking over the image of them, with them looking smack at us or standing with their backs to us. "The deaths I saw were terrifying." "I haven't had the courage yet to tell anyone what really happened out there."
One girl tells of being taken by a rebel to a place by a tree where a pot was cooking something. "When I saw my mother's head being pulled from the pot, the girl calmly states, I felt like I was losing my mind. There's nothing more I can say."
Later, a xylophone-playing boy with Donald Duck emblazoned on his shirt stands before us and narrates his abduction in chilling detail, with these same signifiers-- bush, trees, navy blue sky, and one abandoned building, along with a hoe-- to adorn his words. This is quote nine. "The rebels ordered us to kill some farmers with their own hoe. Anyone caught covering their face would be killed along with the farmers.
"We started beating the backs of their heads over and over. Their legs were kicking, but their heads were not moving. You are the first to know I have killed."
Several things are striking here. The African child stock image I'm familiar with is on the move in some new way. The same signifiers used for children seeing murder are used for children made to murder, coloring innocence, if we're still clinging to it, with new shades of tortured self-knowledge, even self-fragmentation and lifelong memories of bodily actions that will lurk inside one's skin, whatever one does with them.
If the topic here were sexuality-- rape, let's say, children raped or made to rape-- I doubt we'd get the chance to hear such deep-seated, highly textured narratives of trauma from these children. This film is PG. Born Into Brothels is rated R because some mothers use sexually laced profanity.
Finally, for all this film's bold use of trauma signifiers that confess their lack of visual signifying, even though they're visual-- grass and sky-- the film can hint at the children's latent talent. It does so by rendering their bodily production-- determined, consenting, disciplined, ecstatic-- of sonic signifiers, rhythmic and visual, as they dance and sing at length on screen and against the backdrop of many other tribally specific performances. True, their signifiers are held inside established genres, and the resilient story of their music is certainly aimed at audience uplift. But something is pointing to another level here. We are sensing that many kinds of signifiers incubate and hide inside a child until they become a passionate part of that child's intimate, even most sensuous bodily emissions.
Speaking of which, part five-- fiction's HIV child-- scaring us or thrilling us in the US? It's time to measure the least tame scenes of latent incubations and latent emissions involving children. They deal with poetry, HIV, and slavery. And they appear in fictions penned by black Americans who don't trade in kid Orientalism.
You would be forgiven if you had always thought that AIDS poetic surrounding children would be maudlin and scarcely queer. Yet two unusual lyrical novels may persuade us to think again. Moreover, by the ways they take on race, the dormancy of histories of violence and delay, they help conceptualize the issues of latency, sideways growth, and moving suspensions that at times accompany HIV status and battles with AIDS. Lending more surprise, we will find what is gleaned from reading HIV and detects where it's not-- Morrison's Beloved-- and reading through and past HIV where it is-- Sapphire's Push. Not just to be perverse, but that's OK.
Now step back. I don't need to tell you the good old saws about modernist poetry. It seems de rigueur to say in introductions that modernist poets writing in reaction to ornate diction sought to bring poetry to the layman and often favored forms such as brief compressed lyrics. Moreover, their technical innovation was their sound, achieved in free verse, matched by their complicated view of the self, the dislocation of a person from voice and expression through sound, a making of meaning from dislocation and fragmentation.
Paradoxically, complexity was achieved by brevity, simplicity, succinctness-- at least sometimes. Hence, Ezra Pound's The ABC of Reading and FS Flint's insistence on "direct treatment of the thing," "common speech language," and "complete freedom of subject matter" and hence the claim of William Carlos Williams that he made his poems from the speech of Polish mothers. The hyperliteral and the spare could point to found poetry found anywhere, poems hiding in plain daylight on the unencumbered surface of language.
Or as Precious writes in one of her poems-- this is quote 10-- "Downtown. Sky opened. Blue legs for sun." What kind of modernist poetry is this? Can a pregnant teen-- a child who is with child, who is HIV-- stand as the sign of the latency of poetry? Poetry is lurking inside in choate language, lurking inside the beats of time, and lurking in meanings that grow fat? Somehow poetry, HIV, and childhood-- never mind slavery-- share key concepts at their core.
One specific linkage is latency, of course. And as I've suggested-- metaphorically and, of course, literally-- children can stand for the vagaries of latency. What lies lurking in the body, in history, in words, in the mind? Beloved and Push each leverage the latency.
In a piece entitled "Prophylactics and Brains-- Slavery in the Cybernetic Age of AIDs," I've already fancifully read Beloved as an AIDS book, a novel set back in the 1870s just after slavery but birthed by Toni Morrison in 1987, the year the AIDS quilt also appeared. This is a novel about latency, the agency of latency, the viral spreading of slavery's latent haunting remains, the kind that down the line affect girls like Precious and any of us. Beloved herself, the novel's precious child, a signifier standing for slavery's faceless 60 million or more dead slaves, is the sign of this spread. As a tender signifier but a not less aggressive signifier, she is the face of slavery's threatening latency, showing that it's perversely intimate, familial, confusedly bound to things beloved, sometimes even the parent-child relations, which Morrison and Sapphire refuse to sentimentalize however they poeticize.
Or let me put it this way. Untimely death and the latency of deathliness-- the feeling that something suspended pursues-- adhere to this strange baby teen named Beloved in this novel. She is the poster child of untimely death.
She is a baby who was murdered by her mother in order to be saved from a future of enslavement. And she first appears as the ghost of a baby who is haunting her mother. Then in a more unusual form, Beloved returns as a teenage baby-- at the age she would have been had she lived-- to invade in a fluids exchange her mother's present life, opening her mother to viral memories.
Now you may or may not remember, only Toni Morrison. Would imagine a mother-daughter reunion as an outhouse scene, OK, so you remember, Beloved is sitting on the stump. Here comes Sethe. Things are just sort of starting to come together in her life. She's with Paul D. She's with Denver.
She sees this woman sitting on the stump, and for some reason she cannot understand, her bladder fills to capacity. Tries to run around to the outhouse. Doesn't make it to the outhouse. Just voids this urine in plain sight.
And at that moment, we're told Beloved is in the house drinking cup after cup of water because she's infected with cholera. So it is an infection scene. It's this sort of interesting kind of scene of fluids exchange. Indeed, Beloved infects her mother with memories of Beloved's future, making her mother ill with nostalgia for a future for a time when she thought her daughter had a future, sending her mother into symptoms-- fevers, lassitude, dementia, a general wasting away, all on the AIDS list-- while Beloved, the pregnant teen, pregnant from sex with her mother's boyfriend, becomes a dormant suspended force by the novel's end. She's run out of town but said to be endlessly roaming the woods, the sign of slavery's viral dormancy.
The focus of my reading was my wish to understand Morrison's making the mother Sethe have an autoimmune reaction to the face of her dead daughter, as if her memories make her ill with interval. I also wished to make sense of Beloved's poetic narration-- all of five pages-- of her aggressive seeking of her mother, as if Toni Morrison only momentarily had given voice to viral memory, making it speak as a halting, not quite literate child.
This is quote 11. Beloved-- this is her narration. "All of it is now. It is always now. There will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too.
"The man on my face is dead. His eyes are locked. I see me swim away."
Here, we encounter Beloved in her memory of the Middle Passage. She speaks of coming out of blue water. Beloved awash on the sea of the dead in a time that threatens to be only now.
More to the point, Beloved, it seems, has come back to her mother in search of her face-- Beloved's face in her mother's mind, where as a memory Beloved can be thought, be demanded as a thought, be a signifier in her mother's brain. This is quote 12. "I have to have my face. My face is coming. She knows I want to join. She chews and swallows me."
Now I want to lend the poetics of Precious very quickly and very just suggestively against this backdrop of Beloved and against the backdrop of The Queer Child. And let me just say, people who have read Push and the film Precious and so forth, a lot of people, if they go anywhere as an intertext, they go to The Color Purple because the character Precious is reading The Color Purple in the novel. And I think that completely misses the point about the deep-seated tethering-- I don't know if it's conscious or not-- between Precious and Beloved on this score of threatening latency.
All right, penned by a poet. And this part will go very quickly. You're almost to the end. Penned by a poet, the novel Push, which became Precious when it hit the screen, gives us, like Beloved but throughout the book, a narrating pregnant, poetic teen child, also like Beloved, pregnant by her mother's lover-- who in this case is her own father. This child is literally HIV in 1987 when the novel is set and, like Beloved, is locked in a titanic struggle with her mother. Here, a mother, who like the state, has passively and actively allowed her daughter's harm and, to the extreme, has owned her daughter's sexuality, robbing her child of sexual autonomy.
For this reason, the everyday lyrics and rhythms of daily domestic enslavement to the state, one's parents, and standard forms of growth appear in the vibrant speech of Precious in the signifiers I've here selected. So quote 13, I'll just confess. I've just sort of pulled some of my favorite lines from the text. So you can just sort of hear the different tonalities that range. I suppose it makes a little poem of its own. But I leave that up to you.
This is, again, Precious speaking. "I was left back when I was 12 because I had a baby from my fahver." "I ain' did nothin'." "I disappears from the day. I see me, first grade, pink dress, dirty sperm stuffs on it."
"Mama's hand creepy spider, up my legs, in my pussy." "Eyes gone." "First he mess up my life fucking me. Then he mess up the fucking talkin'."
"My twat's jumping juicy, it feel good. I feel shamed." "Carl come over and fuck us'es."
"Sometimes fuck feel good. That confuse me. Everything get swimming." "But something like birds or light fly through my heart."
"We's ignorant. Farrakhan say, problem is not crack but the cracker. I go for that shit."
"Come in 8:55 AM, sit down, don't move till bell ring to go home. I wet myself. Don't know why I don't get up, but I don't. I jus' sit there and pee."
"I wonder what reading books be like?" "I feel panicking, panicking. I don't know alphabetical order. What's that?"
"Problem not just HIV. It Mama, Daddy. I escape them like Harriet Tubman." "Mama give me orders, Daddy porno talk me, school never did learn me."
"But then I get the hot sauce hot cha cha feeling when he be fucking me." "Feel like killing Mama, but I don't. Instead, I call little Precious and say, come to Mama. But I means me." "Something stuck in me, growing in me, making me bigger." "I think my mind a TV set smell like between my muver's legs."
Fascinatingly, this is not the voice of a frail, bruised innocence. The expected phrase, "First he mess up my life fucking me" is followed by a line you never would have guessed, "Then he mess up the fucking talking." This is not the voice of a vanquished sexuality-- girl as only eternally damaged sexual goods.
True, there's confusion, disappearance, shame, and even self-hate, self-dislocation. There's uncompromising, unprettifying metaphorical trackings of her mental struggle. "I think my mind a TV set. Smell like between my mother's legs."
But there's also her bold confession of her sexual response, the "hot cha cha feeling." God knows in all of its problematic mix, moving in and out of her longing for a boyfriend-- "Fucking a cute boy. I think about that"-- running alongside her passion for the alphabet-- "What's that?" Surely, you can see sexual abuse sticking to her signifiers, what she describes. And you can clearly perceive state neglect sticking to them, too, in the literacy level they reveal.
But throughout the novel, especially by the end, her signifiers also indicate such libidinal longing for signification. Some strange version of a "hot cha cha feeling" shows up in her passion for reading, for learning how meanings wind themselves around the arbitrary signifiers that comprise the alphabet. And the undeniably pleasurable but confusing ecstasy of sexual orgasm seems to slide over the ecstasy of letters, becoming not fully distinguishable from them.
Push, that is, refuses to separate the sediments of this vertical din. Vertical din is a phrase from Roland Barthes that I just love. And on Thursday, you'll see me sort of try to push it towards the idea of a tonal stack to see what work that might do.
It won't let you desexualize Precious by signing her sexualization only to her parents, nor will it allow you to sexualize her along one plane, solely through abuse. Book length then, this girl's longing for sexual autonomy wed to literacy comes out on paper as a form of latency, something stuck in her, growing in her, making her bigger. Even more fascinating is the fact that only much deeper in the novel do we get to see what her push toward writing first looked like in its most latent and choate state.
Here are some of her first written lines, her teacher's translations running beneath them. Her lesbian teacher, poetically named Blu Rain, is helping her push. I mean, it's not like this book is without its sentimentalisms around the edges, all right? At any rate, here's the last quotation. We're almost to the end.
"Little Mongo on my mind. Little Mongo is my child. A is for Africa. B is for you, Baby.
"C is colored. We black. D is dog.
"E is evil, like Mama. F is fuck." And these go on in a really sort of complicated rendering. I've given you sort of the simpler ones to look at.
The effect, I would say, is a strong pull back to the signifier, intensifying sonic force even for the eye, if that's not too strange to say. If you look at these lines, you're sort of tempted to try to figure out how you would sound them out. And you're thrown back and forth between ear and eye, tongue and eye as a way to try to render these things on the page.
I suggest making a new kind of language poetry out of a girl's attempts to mean and have her meanings seen, meanings which revolve around her baby from her father, a baby who's her brother in a kinship growing sideways. Just as she's gaining ground, however, in entering into a progress narrative-- she's had her baby and won an award for her literacy-- Precious discovers she's HIV. Her father's died of AIDS.
HIV is a bold plot turn and a kick in the heart. You don't see it coming. When it comes in the film, at the moment you and Precious hear her mother say it, the screen breaks into fantasy, dissociation, and swelling sonic pulse. The music amps to a vibrancy almost threatening to your ears. And Precious appears in fluorescent colors as she auditions to play the part of Precious, a cell-splitting scene that puts your hair on end, wedding your heartbreak to this girl's most assertive in-your-face representation of herself to herself.
True, at this point in book and film, HIV washes like a wave over everything, over every aspect of this story back and forth, swamping any sense of assured growing-up you've assigned to Precious, knocking the narrative onto its side. But then you realize something. Powerfully, you recognize that these texts depict that Precious's swing into her latent talent for poetry has temporally coincided with her HIV, with her knocked sideways into a life of lyrical nows.
Moreover, the novel, written by Precious in her own voice, has been told from this possession, so you now realize. All of the perceptions we've received from Precious have been soaking in her status, HIV positive. "Mary had a little lamb," the banalyzed poetry of projected childhood, has been each day dropping into lines we've never heard until we hear them now.
Therefore, what we hear in the words of Precious-- fresh, lubricated, granular, vibrant-- is something rare, the voice of latency, sideways growth, and the ambitious but tipping-sideways futurity that the character Beloved could only largely point to through poetic silence. Precious, importantly, is something less ethereal, less abstract than the ghost Beloved. Precious is Beloved as a dormancy we hear. Thanks very much.
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According to Kathryn Bond Stockton, professor of English and director of Gender Studies at the University of Utah, there's a child that
Push and Beloved dramatize (the latter quite surprisingly): the HIV child: a sexualized child in a racialized world. Indeed, Stockton proffers two more surprises in this talk.
First, she shows how the HIV child becomes the face of the threatening more than the threatened child, messing with the narrative of childhood innocence that the U.S. general public has long favored but is increasingly starting to question. Second, she demonstrates how, in an almost opposite dynamic, world documentaries of the-child-in-peril-in-the-third-world (a genre enjoying conspicuous success on the art-film circuit) are working to restore the "Western"-style innocent child through, of all things, the sexualized, racialized, HIV child.
What can explain these dueling dynamics? How are African-American fictions an antidote to these world documentaries? How does the answer rest in part with children's passion for signification, children's libidinal relationship to signifiers? These are questions Stockton answers as she pits this passion against what she theorizes (in her words) as Kid Orientalism, showing that documentaries capture less of children than do fictions of fictionalized children.