Queer Angels of History (was RE: Butler....)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Thu Feb 11 19:55:51 PST 1999

Catherine wrote to Steve:
>>I don't see any material reason to believe that Foucault et al. really
>>advanced these movements.
>It depends who you ask, but a great many 'non-academic' people highly
>invested in changing the lives and contexts of gays and lesbians and other
>groups kept on the outer by ideas about heterosexual normality have found
>Foucault's own work and/or the work of people influenced by Foucault
>exceptionally useful. The same appears also to have been true of Butler. I
>am not sure on what grounds you are dismissing this.

Any oppressed group wants to know its own history. Mastering history, it seeks to recover, master, and work through subjugated knowledge (how it came to be the object of oppression) and suppressed popular memories (how its forebears or predecessors lived, struggled, survived, and sometimes even won some victories). Foucault spoke very eloquently of how (and to whose benefit) popular memories of rebellions have been erased from history.

The ruling class and its dominant ideology always seek to deny us our history and memories. Walter Benjamin's comments on the 'angel of history' are an urgent reminder, a warning even, that history is forever threatened to be 'disappeared' under capitalism, just as marxists and other leftists have been 'disappeared' so many times: "The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again." One of the most important duties of intellectuals on the Left is to help us see, to help us remember.

There are, for instance, wonderful documentaries about Chile, directed by Patricio Guzman: _The Battle of Chile (Part I: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie and Part II: The Coup d'Etat)_ (1975); and _Chile, Obstinate Memory_ (1997). _The Battle of Chile_ documents what people--workers, peasants, students, political activists, and also reactionary bourgeois agitators against Salvador Allende--did and said from the period just before the election to the last days of Allende and democracy. Guzman almost lost his life filming what was happening in an atmosphere of increasing right-wing terror. In fact, in one extraordinary scene, the camera records the death of the man behind the camera, focusing on a group of revolting soldiers as one of them takes aim and shoots directly at the photographer (who was an Argentinean TV cameraman. Guzman's own cinematographer Jorge Muller will also eventually be killed in one of Pinochet's torture camps in 1974). Even though the film is about the defeat of the working class and of a dream of socialism in Chile, anyone who cares about democracy, not to mention socialism, cannot but be deeply moved and inspired by powerful pictures of immense masses of people, filling up streets after streets, waving banners, shouting, "Allende, we will protect you!" The film is subtitled "The Story of People Without Arms." Across time, the documentary allows us to receive a gift of arms from people without arms, for memories are weapons for struggles in the present and for the future. (But will we accept the gift? For as Benjamin says, "Gifts must affect the receiver to the point of shock.")

_Chile, Obstinate Memory_, on the other hand, depicts a tragedy of people denied popular memories, even a proper time and place to grieve the loss of friends, comrades, and their own dreams. Guzman returned from exile and visited Chile with the film _The Battle of Chile_, which he had not been able to show there before, in search of obstinate memories he might uncover. One of the most striking sequences shows a woman whose images were captured by _The Battle of Chile_. When asked if she could recognize her in the film, she hesitates and cannot answer the question. She goes on to deny that it was her, even. Then, in the next shot, she recounts the names of her disappeared family members, as the camera focuses on her face. The sequence (as well as the entire film) is an eloquent testimony to the difficulty, possibility, and finally necessity of recovering history.

The same arduous task of uncovering our own history (wihtout knowing how to do so properly, for sexuality has not existed 'out there,' merely waiting to be discovered) still faces all of us who refuse to be 'straightened out' by the heterosexual mystique (to use Jonathan Ned Katz's words): the idea that heterosexuality as we know it has always existed and will remain till the end of the earth. Foucault's genealogy & archeology of course did not give us all answers, but they were not meant to yield any such things. He told us (along with Marx & Engels, only in a different way) how to look and where we might search. That is more contribution to our struggles than we have the right to expect from one intellectual. We'll need more queer angels of history.


More information about the lbo-talk mailing list