- Queering Area Studies, Archives, and Aesthetics
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. xii + 236 pp.
In the spirit of Gayatri Gopinath's mobilization of autobiographical archives in Unruly Visions, I begin with myself. I come from a community of global Hindu merchants permanently displaced from Pakistan during the 1947 partition. I was born in Gibraltar, raised in Ghana, completed higher education in the United States, and research and perform across India and the United States. Forever struggling to emplace my analysis and aesthetics amid these global circuits, I found important revelations in Gopinath's book: any singular geopolitical rubric is insufficient to understand minoritarian life and critique governance. Queerness loosens area studies' attachments to cartographic imperialisms, which narrow the lens of area-specific analyses and fix scales of study foreclosing "other histories of global affiliation and affinity" (6). Considering the scopic regimes of imperialism, Gopinath argues that visual artists offer insightful interrogations of imperial frames by folding and contrasting geographies and temporalities. These artists exemplify a "queer diasporic aesthetic": art making that nimbly guides viewers across scales of empire, nation, region, landscape, and body, sometimes obscuring the journey, getting us stuck, or leaving us in suspension. Not captured in the title but central to her argument is the ubiquity of archives—photograph, memoir, land, government document—as material for invention and innovation.
In her first monograph, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005), Gopinath introduces "queer diaspora" as object of study (South Asian people and cultures that cross national borders) and analytic (diaspora loosens queer's attachment to nation, queer reckons with diaspora's investment in heteronormative futurity). In Unruly Visions Gopinath develops "queer diasporic aesthetics" to credit artists as theorists who make apparent multiple loci of power and violence. Some artists, like Delhi-based Sheba Chhachhi, work from the global South to comment on transnational imperialisms such as the racialization of disease (avian flu) by coupling the safe orientalism of white Buddhist [End Page 206] robes with sinister hazmat suits. Allan deSouza, a Goan Kenyan based in the United States, layers indigenous critiques of land settlement and Asian American understandings of the United States as a site of global transit by obscuring the second "a" in "Indiana" on a flight map with a plane. The abundance of images in the book allow us to co-analyze with Gopinath and to appreciate her robust and evocative readings of complicated visual texts.
Each of the four chapters engages three or more artists to explore a major conversation in queer theory's engagement with geography and temporality. Chapter 1 attends to region as a productive and undertheorized rubric for queer analysis. Our field has seen multiple interventions in the geography of "queer": metronormativity and queer rurality, global divas and global gay, suburban relocations and gay gentrification, erotic islands and the archipelagic, borderlands and sexual migrations. Gopinath insists on the importance of region, in tension with the national and supranational, in queer analysis. Approaching David Kalal's queer reinventions of Raja Ravi Varma's canonical paintings and Ligy Pullappally's lesbian film Sancharram through their evocations of the south Indian state of Kerala, Gopinath nuances how queerness is indexed through region. Pairings such as US-based Kalal and Indian Pullappally critique the provincializing tendencies of area studies. "Area studies" commonly focuses on geographies of interest to the United States during the Cold War that were studied with the support of state funding. Staging its intervention on area studies, the book implicitly challenges the unmarked borders of American studies by subsuming it into area studies.
Chapter 2 takes up queer critiques of visibility politics. Queer studies has evidenced how teleologies of coming out are bound to spatial narratives: gay migrations to the city, leaving the family, appeal to the state for recognition. Gopinath demonstrates how queer diasporic aesthetics function "in place" (84), rooted in the material contexts of place while forecasting queer life as both here and elsewhere. For example, in Aurora Guerrero's film Mosquita y Mari, two young Mexican immigrant women imagine very different queer futures for themselves. Gopinath pairs Guerrero's film with Chitra Ganesh...