- Area ImpossibleNotes toward an Introduction
“Let me cry out in the void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Casmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?”—Agha Shahid Ali, The Country without a Post Office
When a journal (such as GLQ) does a special issue on a topic as hoary as area studies, there may well be cause for alarm, curiosity, even consternation. One could ask, what is the novelty in such an engagement? Have we not already been there and done that? Isn’t area studies precisely the “void” we want to avoid? After all, the past decade or so has seen the publication of a veritable cottage industry of special issues, omnibus reviews, anthologies, and collections engaging the nexus of geopolitics and sexuality. Variously articulated through the language of transnationalism(s), regions, hemispheres, or more directly as a supplement to the conventional forms in which geopolitics has been explored, queer studies has incited a vast traveling archive of commentaries. GLQ, specifically, has over the years opened itself up to special issues that have wrestled with questions of geopolitics and representation. As early as 1999, a special issue coedited by George Chauncey and Elizabeth Povinelli addressed the conceptual knots and representational [End Page 151] flows through which spatialities were fashioned in queered genres. Focusing largely on contemporary predilections and repositories, the issue tuned in to the frisson between global traffic and local habits, urging readers to attend more vigilantly to the political economies underwriting such conversations (Chauncey and Povinelli 1999).
Yet even as such perverse implantations jostle settled notions of geopolitics, some pointed collusions emerge between the various publications. (1) With a few exceptions, the citational underpinnings that provide the theoretical conduit for such explorations were and continue to be resolutely contemporary and drawn primarily from the United States; that is, geopolitics provides the exemplars, but rarely the epistemologies. (2) By invoking non-Euro-American sources, settings, and epistemes as exemplars, queer theory mostly speaks to US mappings of queer, rather than transacting across questions from different sites, colluding and colliding along the way. Thus such concepts as loss, margin, normative, and nonnormative, to name a select few, animate many of these writings, without an attentiveness to them as productive and theoretical formations that concatenate US political projects. (3) One notes a studied avoidance of any engagement with area studies.1 Most of the writings we read and researched around the queer-geopolitics nexus for this special issue do not name area studies as the form that they are working against, if that indeed is the case.2 On the rare occasion that a collection, such as the excellent Islamicate Sexualities, does invoke the specter of area studies, it appears as a burdensome geopolitical category (incarnated, for example, in the term Middle East), to be jettisoned for a broader and more robust understanding of the cultures of Islam (Babayan and Najmabadi 2008).
Given such a strident refusal of area studies in the scholarly engagements with sexuality and geopolitics, why are we attempting to mine a formation so charged with obsolescence? Any quick review of the establishment of area studies in the United States would highlight its emergence as an intelligence-gathering force for consolidating US power, especially between World War II and the Cold War (Szanton 2004). The post-9/11 resurgence of a revised area studies further emphasized the linkages between state power and research on “sensitive” areas such as South and West Asia, the Levant, and North Africa, with money flows from foreign agencies and governments making the knowledge of such “areas” a new marketplace of speculation and profit (Miyoshi and Harootunian 2002).3 Surely, returning to such a moribund and corporatized form would then seem futile, even dangerous, given the fraught legacies of its emergence. Yet how could we not? If area studies is a moribund form, it is outmoded in the same ways that empire is. At a moment when the celebration (or even complication) of concepts such as transnational and global in queer...