Paper Proposal for ‘What is the Contemporary?’, St Andrews, Sept 2014
Panel Title: Queer + Contemporary in European Culture
1. Derek Duncan (St Andrews), ‘Queer connections and the chrononormativity of the contemporary’
Abstract: At the Venice Biennale in 2010 one of the films premiered was The Leopard, a twenty minute short by the Queer Black British film-maker and artist Isaac Julien. The short which reprises his still installation work of 2007 Western Union focused on the small Italian island of Lampedusa and is an evocative meditation on the trauma of enforced migration that haunts the spaces and bodies of contemporary Europe.
The Leopard has as yet only been shown as yet a handful of times. The Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane put on three screenings of the film towards the end of 2010. At the same time, the gallery was also hosting a major Pasolini retrospective showcasing an impressive array of his well-known and less well-known features and shorts. It showed in addition a number of films about Pasolini such as Giordana’s Pasolini: un delitto italiano, but more resonantly it showed Julian Cole’s short film Ostia, a meditation on the life and death of Pasolini featuring Derek Jarman as Paul, a middle-class English intellectual figure fascinated by the boys of London’s East End in the 1980s (the short is also included in the DVD release of Julien’s Derek, his biopic of Jarman). Cole’s very low budget short contains some archival footage but mostly is shot on location with minimal dialogue and Jarman’s voice-over reading extracts from Pasolini’s essays and poetry. An archival curiosity, the bigger questions that the film raises relate to issues of cultural translation and the discordant notes that emanate from transpositions of sexuality and social class across nations and decades in ways which seem to instate the very impossibility of the contemporary as a heuristic category.
Julien’s work places the Mediterranean and Italy at the heart of twenty-first century Europe’s reawakened sense of postcoloniality. It also draws him into a fractured genealogy of queer displacement and affiliation extending over generations and finding its affective centre in the uncanny temporality of Italy as a belated, yet not anachronistic, postcolonial space. This paper explores the acknowledged debt of Jarman and Julien to Pasolini as a queer film-maker. It draws on the work of Carla Frecero, Elizabeth Freeman and other theorists of queer temporality to argue that the contemporary is defined through its affective relation to a past unrecognizable to itself.
2. Dom Holdaway (Warwick), ‘The ‘complicit’ contemporary: queer spaces in Italian film, then and now’
Abstract: This paper will investigate the connection between queer space and the notion of the contemporary, with reference to examples of Italian film. Drawing briefly on relevant films made during the 1960s/70s, the paper will first outline the relationship between queer space and a ‘complicit’ contemporaneity. Halberstam tells us that the term ‘queer space’ refers to ‘new understandings of space enabled by ... queer counterpublics’ (In a Queer Space and Time, p. 6). In films such as The Splendours and Miseries of Madame Royale (1970), the focus on a queer community that depicts (accurately) the Colosseum by night as a cruising ground offers precisely such an understanding. Critics such as Halberstam have rightly illustrated that queer spaces are often only fleetingly queer – as is the case here, where, the film dictates, men can cruise for sex only after 3am. Nevertheless, to expand this point, the spaces can only come into being as ‘counter’ or ‘queer’ precisely thanks to the contemporary and shared knowledge of the members of that counterpublic who use it. The queer space therefore has an implicit contemporariness.
With this observation established, the second part of the paper will consider how the use of space in more recent (post-2000) LGBT films in Italy has shifted. I argue that there is a tendency in what might be considered relatively ‘mainstream’ Queer Cinema – such as the films of auteur Ferzan Ozpetek, or recent comedy successes such as Diverso da chi? (2009) – situates LGBT publics in mainstream and non-fleeting spaces, such as re-appropriated, post-industrial monuments or public offices. These cases are certainly not universal, and many less mainstream queer films, such as Le Cocinelle: A Neapolitan Melodrama (2012), do rely on a contemporary complicity in the understanding of private queer spaces. Nevertheless, the success of the more widely distributed and acclaimed films demands that queer space be given a renewed appraisal. As such, this paper will ask: to the contemporary eye, does queer space demand social open-ness and freedom (and non-contemporeneity), or does this shift away from the fleeting and the complicit point to a broader ‘homonormativization’ of queer subjects in Italy?
3. Hector Kollias (Kings College, London), ‘Queer Destinies: of Psychoanalysis, the Law, the Father, the Son (in Law), and the Human Species at Large’
What could be more contemporary than that which the French designate as ‘actualité’? Not quite ‘the news’ and certainly not ‘the actual’, the word signifies something like ‘the present reality’, what has come to pass and to be and to inform our present, where we are in time: ‘nous y sommes!’
‘Nous y sommes!’ – that’s where we are. These are the final words of the back-cover blurb authored by Jacques-Alain Miller to accompany the publication, in June of this year, of Lacan’s (Miller’s father-in-law) 6th Seminar from 1958-59, on ‘Le Désir et son interprétation’ (Desire and its Interpretation). Where are we? It would seem that we are both in 2013, shortly after the French parliament passed a law that would – that will – inaugurate ‘le mariage pour tous’, or ‘marriage for everyone’ (and for everyone, of course, read: for homosexual couples); and we are also, by a quasi-miraculous Nachträglichkeit or après-coup, in the last furlong of the conservative 1950s when Lacan was pronouncing his thoughts on ‘the destiny of desire’.
In the interplay between destiny and ‘actualité’, between the contemporary legal recognition of homosexual couples and the parallel if not consequent demise of the nuclear family, and the presumed immutable ‘symbolic order’ which, according to Miller’s (and therefore Lacan’s) not only French but international School/brigade, has changed, or should change in order to accommodate what they call ‘the 21st-century Real’, something troubling is emerging. Is it a sea-change on the level of reality, such that Miller’s diagnostic on Lacan’s prognostic, namely that ‘the era of the Father is over’, and that ‘desire’s destiny does not conclude with Oedipus’ now comes to be read as our own ‘actualité’ and as the fate of the human after Freud? Or are we witnessing the pitiful family drama of the son-in-law’s psychotic break into the present of law-makers, court judges, tabloid journalists and citizens of the blogosphere, taking with him not only the internationally most rapidly growing (but within France most attacked) psychoanalytic association, but the very legacy of the father-in-law (Lacan) and the almighty Father (Freud) with him? There is good reason to think of this cotemporary shift, this sea-change of destiny, as monstrous, but even if it is not, it is, as I aim to show, decidedly queer.