- A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire by Hiram Pérez
Hiram Pérez's A Taste for Brown Bodies, a recent addition to the Sexual Cultures series from New York University Press, has at its heart a provocative thesis that invites further development by future scholars. In his work, Pérez draws on queer theory and critical race theory to examine the inflection(s) of gay identity in a variety of texts. Through such representative (and historicized) exemplars of masculinity as the sailor, the soldier, and the cowboy, Pérez argues for their "queer cosmopolitanism" as the basis for a gay modernity uniquely suited to deployment by the forces of American imperialism.
In his lucid introduction, Pérez rightfully takes queer studies to task for its failure to sufficiently incorporate race into its critiques. The role of whiteness in relationship to an erotic politics of gay modernity provides a lever by which to destabilize naturalized and institutionalized accounts of the development of homosexual identities. Structurally, Pérez's text consists of five chapters, each a close reading carefully attuned to the complexities of the intersection(s) of sexual, racial, and political economies.
Chapter 1, a close reading of Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative, centrally positions nostalgia as part of that which "defines the gay cosmopolitan imagination, staging exotic miseen-scènes vital to the emergence and perpetuity of gay modernity and its collusions with U.S. empire" (25). To this end, the "brown bodies" of Pérez's title often manifest as representative(s) of an idyllic primitive state, sometimes literally "brown," sometimes only figuratively so. In this reading, even Billy's blondness serves as a stand-in for the primitivism that serves as an object of desire for gay cosmopolitanism. Understandably, this occasionally makes the complex parsing of racialized identities [End Page 328] in Perez's argument somewhat challenging, though this challenge doesn't blunt the edge of his argument.
Chapter 2 focuses on the juxtaposition of James Baldwin's short story "Going to Meet the Man" with the (in)famous photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Here Pérez provides a compelling examination of "the relation between the homoerotics of racist violence and modern gay identity" (51). His reading of the Baldwin text convincingly argues for a triangulation of "homoerotic interracialism" as foundational to modern male identities, both heterosexual and homosexual (66). This insight provides the basis for a reading of the Abu Ghraib photos that argues their homoerotic content as indicative of the instrumentalization, rather than the marginalization, of modern gay identity.
Although at nineteen pages it stands as the shortest chapter, chapter 3's close reading of the film Strawberry and Chocolate provides a clear example of the importance of critically situating works within their historical and local contexts. Indeed, Pérez argues that to fail to do so occludes an understanding of "how … local sexualities already form part of a more historically dynamic erotic circuitry" (80). Here Pérez's approach serves as an effective rejoinder to dominant critical voices that efface the local in favor of the global.
Chapter 4 is perhaps the most tantalizing and the most frustrating for those interested in performance. Pérez offers an account of his experience as a panelist at 2003's Gay Shame conference at the University of Michigan. As the only invited queer panelist of color present at the conference, Pérez offered a critique of the conference's "unacknowledged centering of white gay male experience" that met with resistance from some of the conference's participants. While his account of the conference clearly centers on his own experience, and while that experience makes for some troubling reading, particularly in his relating of how "brown" bodies were performatively deployed through visual and verbal constructions related to the conference presentations, I found myself longing for a more thorough accounting of how Pérez's challenge to the conference presenters, and their resistance to that challenge, manifested physically. Despite...