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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 215-238

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Notes on Gridlock:
Genealogy, Intimacy, Sexuality

Elizabeth A. Povinelli


We're tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicals. They've made us suffer too much. . . . Thought is not arborescent, and the brain is not a rooted or ramified matter.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Why does the recognition of peoples' worth, of their human and civil rights, always seem to be hanging on the more or less fragile branches of a family tree? Why must we be held by these limbs?

The two archives prompting this meditation are not new to me or to anyone else. Moreover, the social worlds and visions of these two archives are, geographically speaking, worlds apart. Stacks of land claim documents sit to the left of me. Some of these documents concern an Australian indigenous claim I am currently working on. Others compose the archives of claims already heard that I hope to use as a precedent for what I am trying to argue in the current case. All of them demand a diagram of a "local descent group." That is what I am doing right now, drawing a genealogical diagram, a family tree, using now-standard icons for sex and sexual relationship: a diamond represents a man; a circle, a woman; an upside-down staple, sibling relations; a right-side-up staple, marriage; and a small perpendicular line between these two staples, heterosexual reproduction.

The book I am currently reading, Family Values: Two Moms and Their Son, lies to the right of me. Family Values is a first-person account of the radicalization [End Page 215] of a lesbian mother as she fights to adopt her partner's son. The author, Phyllis Burke (1993: 6), figures lesbian motherhood in terms of a morbid chiasma: "Eight thousand gay men were prematurely dead in San Francisco by the time Jesse [Burke's son] was two, and yet behind what was almost a shadowy membrane there was a lesbian baby boom. Lesbians were giving birth, adopting children, and building families with gay men" (see also Lewin 1993). As I read across these texts I remember a T-shirt that the Society for Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (SOLGA) printed a few years ago. It schematically represents gay families with the same kinship iconography I am using in these land claims. When I finish Family Values, I plan to reread Querelle, Jean Genet's (1974: 4) tale about a "sailor's mortal flesh," about the sea, murder, and criminality, and about love against nature. The values in Querelle are hardly about the families gay men build. Whenever I read Genet I think of Alexandre Kojeve's (1969: 6) carnal description of human desire: "Man 'feeds' on Desires as an animal feeds on real things. And the human I, realized by the active satisfaction of its human Desires, is as much a function of its 'food' as the body of an animal is of its food."

Clear differences separate the two family archives in which I am immersed. The family diagrams I am drafting for the land claim do not indicate the love, desire, affect, or intimacy that exist between indigenous persons reproductively related. Nor do they document nonsexual corporeal relations. There is no standard icon for "intimacy," "desire," or "love." What makes these indigenous families felicitous in law is the principle of descent that regiments them (e.g., patrilineality, matrilineality). In contrast, Burke argues that true families and just nations are made by love--not by laws of adoption and descent or social, sexual, and gender status. Can Genet's vision of a world of sailors take root in this queer kinship?

What follows are notes on how we might examine the presuppositions and global circulations of what I call genealogical and intimacy grids, some suggestions about their connectivities and irreducibilities, and a few comments on the social worlds made possible and interrupted by their functionings. Why are these the grids that appear across such diverse social and geographical spaces in the public...


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pp. 215-238
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Archived 2004
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