Recent outpourings around the Gay Girl in Damascus/Lez Get Real hoax have returned me to the relationship between activism and fetishism that I spent some time considering in my PhD thesis. The striking thing to me is the hurt, disappointment and betrayal registered by many western readers of GGID; this mingling with the outrage and frustration of gay and lesbian activists in Syria and elsewhere, to which many readers have hopefully turned. (For myself, I hadn’t heard of it until the story of Amina’s disappearance hit the networks, but I certainly don’t intend any smuggery here!).
In the ‘activism as fetishism’ chain the disappointment of western readers may be explained as a consequence of the fetish revealing itself as an attempt to bridge the distance between experiences, places and longings. That is, the blog spoke directly to the attachments of the western reader with queer-feminist-left-liberal sympathies, we who want to understand life in certain brutally securitised spaces in North Africa and the Middle East that we’re hearing so much about; whose detractors and victims we want to show solidarity with. In this way, as Nada Akl writes, “rather than an interactive exchange between two regions, a monologue is taking place in front of the mirror.” Colonial Inscriptions has aggregated some of the other analyses.
In the pamphlet I argued for a pondering of “the way in which activists identify with their fantasies of how they want the world to be” as a source of ethical engagement, and against a one-dimensional reading of fetishism which would only have it met with “pious deunciation”, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it — that is, as though our desires and fantasies of a better world are so pure as to be infallible to their own incompleteness.
Tom MacMaster, one of the men behind one of the women, identified with his fantasies in an entirely reductive and self-solidifying fashion — apparently getting off on his success in speaking on behalf of a figure he had invented and who spoke so well to particular first-world-global significations. This is the psychoanalytic fetish, a simple filling-in of lack.
An alternative fetishism-for-solidarity is gestured to by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jo Tovey, who writes:
MacMaster’s deceptive blog presented a candid, palatable face of the uprisings throughout the Arab world, one that did turn out to be too good to be true.
But there are thousands in that region: gay girls, straight men, youths, the elderly, all of whom are fighting their governments and fighting to be heard.
For those of us who have lost our convenient heroine, the question is now whether we are willing to listen to them, even though they may be harder to hear.
In the spirit of this gesture, the other versions of fetishism that I pondered are queer fetishism and radical anthropological fetishism — fecund, unfinished fetishes that make us work for their meaning and make us do the work of meaning; that can move out of the blockages created by ego-monologuing, self-policing, and such. Queer theories of fetishism (e.g. Nikki Sullivan’s chapter) emphasise the multiplicity and complexity of desire, championing “a creative, oppositional response to cultural circumscription”. Correspondingly, in the radical anthropology of Michael Taussig and David Graeber, the final task is “not… to [find] the truth behind the fetish, [but] to expose it as a mediator for a question, and as something questionable.”
In this way, the questioning around solidarity and domination is kept in motion. How can we share our resources, our privileges? How do we extend our selves? What do we need for collective discernment in the noisy, populous fields in which these questions arise?