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Comparative Literature Studies 40.2 (2003) 142-158

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Politicizing the Sexual, Sexualizing the Political:
The Crossing of Political and Sexual Orientations In Stephen Frears' and Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (1986)

Vinay Swamy

In her 1988 book, Étrangers à nous-mêmes, Julia Kristeva explores various ways in which one can resist the myth of the often over-used oppositional dyad of the indigenous citizen and the foreign individual within contemporary multicultural social space. 1 In a remarkable departure from the impasse that such an opposition has been seen to create, she states the following:

Mais c'est peut-être à partir de la subversion de cet individualisme moderne, à partir du moment où le citoyen-individu cesse de se considérer comme uni et glorieux, mais découvre ses incohérences et ses abîmes, ses étrangetés en somme, que la question se pose à nouveau: non plus de l'acceuil de l'étranger à l'intérieur d'un système qui l'annule, mais de la cohabitation de ces étrangers que nous reconnaissons tous être. (11)
[But it is perhaps on the basis of that contemporary individualism's subversion, beginning with the moment when the citizen-individual ceases to consider himself as unitary and glorious but discovers his incoherences and abysses, in short his "strangenesses"—that the question arises again: no longer that of welcoming the foreigner within a system that obliterates him but of promoting the togetherness of those foreigners that we all recognize ourselves to be]. 2

In this article, I would like to pursue Kristeva's remarks by recasting them in light of the much discussed problematic of so-called "minor" literature and its relation to its "mainstream" counterpart. By parsing out the [End Page 142] various possible fractures that one can perceive even within the national arena, one could perhaps, as Kristeva suggests, discover the "strangenesses" that are inherent even within such a system. In this light, I would like to examine one example of "minor" cultural production, as it plays itself out in the context of a postcolonial, multicultural society. My analysis centers around one case study: the 1986 British film My Beautiful Laundrette directed by Stephen Frears, for which Hanif Kureishi wrote the screenplay. 3 In particular, as a basis for a discussion of these issues, I will argue that intuitive understanding of the interaction between various identificatory models that the protagonists wield helps them navigate through different social hierarchies. Furthermore, the constant negotiation between the so-called "minor" and "mainstream" modes of interaction effected by the protagonists renders evident the fact that this film questions the basis of national and cultural identities by exposing both their constructed and imbricated nature. I will examine the (not-so) implicit claim made by Kureishi, that a well-defined sense of the nation-state—instituted hitherto as a permanent, organic entity—is no longer a viable model in the context of contemporary (postcolonial) British society. In order to elucidate these issues, I will focus on the intersection of the "political" and "sexual" orientations of Kureishi's characters that seem to so define their identification tactics.

One of the most serious challenges that the notion of a nation-state— upon which a great number of traditional cultural institutions and values have been founded—has had to face is the coming of a "new economy." In this day of the "new economy," powered by tremendous strides in the realm of technology and the advent of the Internet, "globalization" is a term that is often used and touted as the answer to the problems of society at large. The impact of this globalization of the economy on cultural values, and thus, identities as such, is the subject of much discussion. The sentiment that "old" ways are being eroded and are giving way to "new" ways of thinking (interacting, being, . . .) at a pace that has never been seen before, is being trumpeted by the media. But what is the nature of the change being brought about...


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