The article linked to above is: a). homophobic b). racist c). Orientalist d). incredibly offensive e). fucking hilarious f). all of the above.
Obviously, the answer is “f.”
There are a whole bunch of things going on here.
First, it is indeed the case that those little army short shorts do a really nice job of displaying and emphasizing a man’s ass. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
Second, it’s fully possible for something to be hysterically funny and “offensive” or “inappropriate” at the same time. In this recent post I alluded to the importance of distinguishing the affective value of a text or speech act from the conceptual value of a text or speech act; in other words, the importance of distinguishing the immediate effect something has on you personally, whether positive or negative, from its broader situation in the discursive and material network of relations that produces meaning and value. This is not an ontological distinction, since there’s no clear line between the two, it’s just a distinction of convenience, a way of dealing in situ with the problematic overlap between structural violence and personal indignation. So first things first - yes, something can be hilarious and homophobic at the same time. (If you’ve never seen Eddie Murphy’s Raw, you’re seriously missing out).
Incidentally, the distinction between the conceptual and affective value of a text or speech act also circumvents another problem that tends to twist queer theorists up in knots, namely, the tension between the quality of representation and the quantity of representation (the question of what’s worse: no cultural representation, or negative cultural representation). In other words, as a politically conscious homosexual, should I be more happy that alternative, queer sexual practices are being exposed to the world, or should I be more indignant that this exposition is so homophobic and racist? Both, and neither. My personal indignation or outrage is related to but not the same as the discursive structures that attempt to hide non-normative sexual practices from the world.
Next, a few predictable, cliched binarisms that I will dismiss rather than take seriously. Nothing about the treatment of Afghans and Islam in this article is original, interesting, or surprising:
- Cultural ignorance: Why, yes. Other countries than America do have different sexual and relational habits and practices, and there are places where things considered highly inappropriate in American culture are not considered highly inappropriate. Surprise! - Racism, homophobia, and chauvinism are overlapping and interrelated forms of oppression: “ANA soldiers are also fond of dressing up like pretty little ladies”; “Afghan men will fuck anything”; they have “bizarre gay encounters.” (Apparently what makes them ‘bizarre’ is the fact that the men in question have a different skin tone, because in gay terms a blowjob is, let’s face it, not very exceptional). In the introduction to Between Men, Sedgwick discusses this overlap with typically sharp lucidity. Basically it boils down to this: sexual practices are used as a “measure” of masculine normativity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural prejudice is necessarily situated within the logic of phallocentrism (“My country is more butch than your country” has no meaning unless “butch” has a meaning before “country”). - The historical relation between Islam and homosexuality is considerably more complex than a simple opposition between unrestrained buttsex and “a strict Islamic code forbidding a limp-wristed lifestyle”: The Muslim world is a big place, composed of many different cultures. The history of homosexuality in Afghanistan and Persia is not the same as the history of homosexuality in Morocco and Sudan. More importantly, just as in the “West,” homosexuality and Islam have had a complicated relationship that shifted and changed at various historical moments. Duh.
All these points are just preliminaries. What I really want to focus on is my favorite part of the article, the Canadian artillery gunner with the great ass who’s apparently wearing nothing but short-shorts.
Aside from the sexual appeal of the imagery, what I love about this article is the indignation expressed by the soldiers interviewed for this article. Sex in the military! Sex between men! Attention drawn to the fact that military outfits highlight the male physique! Outrageous!
This is where the Sedgwick quote on the card comes in. There’s nothing surprising about homophobia in the military. There’s nothing surprising that foreign cultures are compared to American prowess through emasculating and phallocentric tropes. There’s nothing surprising about ignorance and racism in discussion of foreign cultures and ethnicities. So what’s interesting about this article? Just what Sedgwick says: “Even when the project of that diachronic rescasting is to conceal those very contradictions, [it] can have just the opposite effect of making them newly visible.”
At the very same time that this article situates the terms of the debate through the grindingly familiar language of homophobia, racism, and chauvinism, it also opens up, almost despite itself, a window for thinking through the cultural and material relations that make these bigotries possible.
A few questions, if you will.
- Why does the Army make its standard-issue short-shorts so form-fitting and sexy? I mean, really. Not only can loose, baggy fabric achieve the same range of motion and comfort, it also allows air to circulate, which I can assure you makes a big difference when your balls are dripping sweat in the Middle-Eastern sun. Maybe instead of blaming the Afghan soldiers for admiring your ass, you should ask your commanders why they want you to walk around showing your ass off in the first place? Phrased more abstractly, what history of material and cultural relations has produced this particular object as the locus for sexual tension?
- What does it mean that a military base is constructed as a space where men can (or should be able to) stroll around nearly naked as a matter of course? The problem here, obviously, isn’t nudity or homosociality; the problem is that the openly homosexual activity of the Afghan soldiers draws attention to and forces into the open what is intended to be a tacit, unspoken feature of military life, namely, the tension between homosocial interaction and homosexual activity. As long as this tension remains beneath the surface, the system works fine; things only plunge into crisis mode when the tension is made explicit: this is exactly what Sedgwick means when she talks about the “opening-out of contradictions within the status quo.”
- What is the relationship between desire, activity, and cultural origin? To put it more bluntly, why are Afghan soldiers fucking each other on their home turf where, presumably, Afghan women are equally available? A tantalizing hint appears towards the end: “This is a land where vaginas can kill you. ‘Sleeping with a woman can end up with a very costly honor killing,’ Luongo says.” In other words, the opposition between the homosocial tension of the American military and the homosexual practice of the Afghan military can serve to “make newly visible,” as Sedgwick says, the ways in which cultural difference and social formation produce the distinction between homosexual activity on the one hand and homosexual identification on the other. Is there any clearer evidence that being “gay” and being “homosexual” are not the same thing?
For identity politics, as for thetic or dialectical philosophy, both of which assume a “correct” or “true” form of representation, the bigotry evident in both the form and the content of the article decrease from its truth-value, make it less “correct,” less valuable. Practical or rhizomatic philosophy doesn’t have that problem, because its measure of conceptual validity is not truth but utility (1234). The point is not to judge the article and accept or dismiss its claim; the point is to look at the unfolding of the concepts and to ask, as Sedgwick teaches us to, “What becomes visible?” What relations do these concepts open up onto? How does it work and what does it do?