Sometimes writing can feel like a solitary affair. But writing is not solitary. When I write the texts I am citing become my companions; they are with me, often noisy, clamouring for attention. I have in my writing often worked with specific figures (feminist killjoys have become a key figure, this blog is organised around them, after all!). They too feel like my travelling companions. These figures not only come with me as I follow this or that trail; they often lead the way. The figure of the willful child, for instance, led me to materials I had not and probably would not have otherwise encountered. Even when sometimes I feel like I have arrived at this or that figure, or even that I have “come up” with them, I have in truth been following them; they are my leaders. I find that sense of being behind what one is writing about deeply suggestive for thinking through the (rather queer) nature of authorship. We often think of the author as behind the text in too limited a sense (say: the author as the originator or cause of an idea). But we can be behind texts in the sense of coming after them; we can even lag behind them. I often find myself hurrying just to keep up!
The first figure I wrote about was the figure of “the stranger” in my book, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000). The image on the front cover (it is my least favourite of my book covers, but maybe it is right for it not to be favoured) evokes this figure: the stranger as a shadowy figure.
The stranger is a dark shadowy figure. I add the word “dark” deliberately here: any attempt to use dark as if it can be disentangled from its racial history is to be entangled by that history. The book explored these tangles; how racialisation works to make strangers, who then appear as if they are not already racialised, as if they are “anyone.”
In this book I was cautious about what it means to follow a figure. Borrowing from Marx’s description of commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital, I described “stranger fetishism” as a “fetishism of figures.” I suggested that the stranger can appear as a figure, one we assume has a life of its own, by being cut off from the history of its determination. To write about this figure is to give it a history; but of course, it is always possible that in following a figure one can retain it as fetish, as if the qualities it has acquired can be contained by its form. In my introduction to Willful Subjects (forthcoming, 2014) I discuss this possibility as a methodological challenge. The figure of the willful subject, I suggest, becomes a container for perversion. My aim in the book is not only to open but to spill the container. No wonder that messiness then becomes part of the process!
Strange Encounters proceeded from a rather simple observation. The stranger is not somebody we do not recognise; rather we recognize somebody as a stranger. I became interested in the techniques (we might think of these as bodily as well as disciplinary techniques) whereby some bodies are recognized as strangers, as bodies out of place, as not belonging in certain places. These techniques are formalized in Neighbourhood Watch or in discourses of child protection, in which the stranger is the one who must citizen/child must recognize, in order to protect themselves (their property, their bodies). Recognizing strangers becomes a moral and social injunction.
It is worth me noting here that I became fascinated by the figure of the stranger in trying to account for some of my own experiences of being stopped (by police, by neighbours) whilst walking near my home in Adelaide. I was stopped by two policemen in a car, one of whom asked me, “are you Aboriginal?” It turned out that there had been some burglaries in the area. Aboriginality is figured as intrusion and criminality. It was an extremely hostile address and an unsettling experience at the time. As memory, it was an experience of being made into a stranger, the one who is recognized as “out of place,” the one who does not belong, whose proximity is registered as crime or threat.
The racialization of the stranger is not immediately apparent—disguised, we might say—by the strict anonymity of the stranger, the one who after all, we are told from childhood, could be anyone. My own stranger memory taught me that the “could be anyone” points to some bodies more than others. This “could be anyone” thus only appears as an open possibility, stretching out into a horizon, in which the stranger reappears as the one who is always lurking in the shadows. Frantz Fanon taught us to watch out for what lurks, seeing himself in and as the shadow, the dark body, who is always passing by, at the edges of social experience. To give this figure back its history is to begin to hear how the stranger is pointed.
I have been thinking and writing all the time in the company of strangers; those deemed not only as not belonging but as threatening those who do belong, or even as threatening to belong. It was the saturated or “sticky” nature of this figure of the stranger that led me to write The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) and then to think explicitly about how worlds become homes for some bodies and not others in Queer Phenomenology (2006). Most recently in writing about non-attunement for a paper, “Not in the Mood,” the figure of the stranger has again appeared. I became interested in how the experience of being attuned to others might create strangers not necessarily or only by making the stranger into an object of feeling (the stranger as the one we recognise as not being with), but as the effect of not leaning a certain way. Strangers thus appear at the edges of a room, dimly perceived, or not quite perceived, lurking in the shadows. Strangers become shadows: an effect of what and who our attention lights up.
I have been in the company of strangers. I am following their lead.