Queerness, postcoloniality and time

On the 10th of December 2020, the Institute for International Law and the Humanities (Melbourne Law School) hosted an event on Dr Rahul Rao’s new book, Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (Oxford University Press, 2020). The event featured Dr Rao himself, as well as Professor Sundhya Pahuja (Melbourne Law School), Mr Danish Sheikh (Melbourne Law School) and Dr Ntina Tzouvala (ANU College of Law). The Dialogue below, between Rahul, Danish and Ntina, draws from and expands upon this discussion.

Danish: Starting with a point you raise towards the end of your book, you speak about how your aim has been to disorient the reader. Can you tell us a bit more about this strategy, and how you place it alongside your commitment to clarity, which is also something that undergirds your writing?

Rahul: I set out to tell the story of the Ugandan Anti Homosexuality Act (AHA) at a time when much of the discourse around global LGBT rights was structured by what Jasbir Puar in Terrorist Assemblages (2007) has described as the assemblage of homonationalism. As Puar’s readers will know, homonationalism structures the way we think and talk about sexuality such that particular attitudes towards sexuality (and indeed particular sexualities) come to be sutured to particular places, producing tight linkages between sexuality, place and affect. I wanted to understand how this had produced discourses of and about ‘homophobia’ in Uganda. My Ugandan interlocutors were virtually unanimous in their view that homophobia had not been politically salient in Uganda till the late 1990s, so I knew that there had to be a fairly specific historical story of how and why it had come to be so. In telling this story, drawing on work that had already been done by Sylvia Tamale, Stella Nyanzi, Neville Hoad, Kapya Kaoma, Kevin Ward, Miranda Hassett and others, I found myself describing a series of transactions involving Ugandan and Western political and religious elites unfolding between the early colonial period in the 1880s and the ‘present’ (itself a period that stretches from the late 1990s to the literal present). 

In describing these transactions it was possible to identify influential actors as well as the interests that were at stake for them. But questions of agency and responsibility were much murkier. Here the language of ‘mutual constitution’ that postcolonial theorists since Edward Said have tended to deploy in order to describe relationships between cores and peripheries was useful but only up to a point, because it did not capture the asymmetries of this mutuality. Materialist accounts that insist on measuring agency in terms of power or money and that predispose us towards seeing ‘weaker’ actors as less influential are also less than adequate to the task of specifying where agency lies, particularly where the power of ideas is at issue. The classic Marxist question ‘what is to be done?’ typically requires a prior account of what structural forces and agents are responsible for bringing the present into being. Yet I was encountering a fundamental and, it seemed to me inescapable, ambivalence that lies at the heart of any endeavour to apportion responsibility for a given state of affairs between the colonial past and the postcolonial present. The transactions were simply too circular, mutually reinforcing and overdetermined to provide a singular account of agency. It is this ambivalence that I am trying to get at when I write about disorienting the reader. I am playing with the meaning of ‘disorient’ here, following Sara Ahmed, by thinking about it as a strategy of dislocating something that has hitherto been located squarely in the orient (‘homophobia’), but also as a strategy of confusing, leading astray and especially leading the reader away from questions that demand singular accounts of responsibility. But you’re right that I have a ‘commitment to clarity’ (I’m glad that came through!). So I guess I am trying to point to ambivalence without in any way being ambiguous.  

Ntina: As the title of your book indicates, time is a central feature of your story. Your analysis is broad, ranging from using past injustice to justify present British interference in queer politics abroad to the politics of futurity inherent in capitalist defences of queer subjects and the distinctive temporality of Pentecostalism. What is it that you find theoretically and politically productive in thinking about queer politics in relation to time? 

Rahul: As my response to Danish’s question above probably suggests, we have been very preoccupied with thinking about space and place, especially in popular and media discourses about queer rights. And yet queer activists in the global South are always also talking about time. They do so especially when they attempt to rebut conservative claims about the putative cultural inauthenticity of queerness by venturing into the archive to retrieve signs of same-sex desire in the precolonial past or by reminding us about the colonial provenance of queerphobic laws. Time is also in play when they argue amongst themselves about the futures by which they feel interpellated. So one part of what I am trying to do in the book is to make explicit the ways in which time is implicated in ongoing queer postcolonial struggles. I’m struck by how Anna Agathangelou and Kyle Killian describe the political work that time does in their introduction to a recent edited collection entitled Time, Temporality and Violence in International Relations (2016). Time, for them, is ‘a limit, a resource, a site of exploitation and ultimately antagonism’ (14). I think Out of Time illustrates how time functions in all these ways in contemporary queer postcolonial struggles. It limits what actors say and do, but it also offers resources and terrains for struggle, some of which can be more conducive to victory than others. Just as geographers have alerted us to the politics of scale, in which actors might ‘scale’ their struggles up or down in order to achieve their aims, we might think of the politics of time as entailing struggles over whether and how to engage on the terrains of past, present, future or some other temporality. Finally, to be queer is also to be placed, sometimes quite violently, outside of hegemonic time – an experience of abjection that can be, and sometimes is, transmuted into a new kind of agency.  

There is of course a well-known queer theoretical literature on time and temporality, which forms an important point of departure for me—departure both in the sense of a starting point (because I find it helpful in enabling me to think through the links between time, psychic life and political transformation) and in the sense of a deviation (because I find this literature too tethered to the project of offering a critique of the chrononormativity of mainstream US LGBT politics to be very helpful in other geopolitical contexts). In this latter sense of departure, it seemed to me that the temporal anxieties of queer postcolonial movements-some of which I have alluded to above- were so distinct as to necessitate novel theorisations of time and temporality that I felt were lacking in the extant corpus of queer theory. Drawing on postcolonial critiques of historicity and linear time, I wanted to think through what it might mean to take seriously the heterotemporality of the global queer political present. This required making visible the various ways in which queer postcolonial movements navigate their lack of synchronicity with ‘local’ straight time, ‘global’ queer time and a range of other temporal measures against which they are judged.   

Danish:  In terms of your sources, the way that you use memory and the idea of haunting as opposed to conventional historiography is quite productive – can you talk a bit more about what memory and the way that you draw upon it give you that other forms of navigating the historical archive might not?

Rahul: I’ve long been fascinated by the queer turn towards the past because of the faith that queer activists in the global South have tended to place in this move as a strategy with which to counter conservative claims about the putative cultural inauthenticity of queerness. This faith in turn has been premised on the assumption that the production of convincing historical evidence of same-sex desire in the precolonial past might, once and for all, silence conservative portrayals of queerness as a Western ‘import’. Uganda offers a particularly fascinating context in which to think through these questions because the founding myth of both Christianity and colonialism in the country contains, at its heart, a rumour about the bodily intimacies and same-sex desires of its last precolonial ruler Kabaka Mwanga. I narrate the story and its many afterlives in chapter 3 of the book. In its bare bones, the story suggests that when Mwanga’s pages no longer satisfied his amorous demands upon their conversion to Christianity, he had them executed, setting off a series of civil wars that culminated in his overthrow, the establishment of British rule in the region and the canonisation of the murdered pages as Christian saints who are venerated to this day. When I first came across this story, which is almost universally known in Uganda thanks to its sacralisation by the Catholic Church, I expected it to be used far more than it actually was as clinching evidence of precolonial same-sex desire, given that colonial sources not only record the ‘facts’ of Mwanga’s desire but also their antipathy to what they clearly regarded as a native barbarism. I believed that my work could be politically relevant if I were to find incontrovertible archival evidence of Mwanga’s same-sex desires with which to undermine Ugandan elite protestations that such desire was culturally inauthentic. 

A number of things disabused me of such pretensions. Anjali Arondekar’s For the Record (2009) persuaded me that rather than seeking to emerge from the archive with the smoking gun of historical truth, it may be more important to attend to the subject-making effects of the archive (or, to put this slightly differently, to attend to what archives do rather than what they have). I began to see that all the historical sources that I was reading about the events of Mwanga’s reign were produced by actors with deep investments in particular political outcomes that shaped their account of his desires and their putative (non-)normativity. I began to be more interested in what contemporary Ugandans thought had happened in 1880s Buganda (memory?) and in how their accounts of these events might shape their attitudes towards sexuality, than in telling a story of what might actually have happened (history?). In part, this shift was prompted by an intuition that memory might be politically more consequential than history. In part, it was also prompted by my positionality in relation to the people I was working with. Working in a context in which anything that appeared to come from outside the nation was stigmatised as culturally inauthentic, I grew increasingly wary of becoming yet another external voice purporting to offer a didactic account (in the register of History or Human Rights) of how Ugandans ought to think about belonging within the political community. Instead, I began to think of myself as playing the role of a curator of the multiple versions of the Mwanga story that Ugandans tell themselves, with a view to exploring what possibilities for queer dissidence lurk within already existing public memory and what genealogies of amnesia (or even ‘homophobia’) we might extract from a study of public memory. 

Even as I attempt to distinguish memory from history, I acknowledge the instability of this distinction in the book. There is no way of giving an account of what actually happened without relying on someone’s account of what they think happened. History may simply be the most hegemonic account of memory that we have. Yet to collapse the distinction altogether would be to leave us with no ability to distinguish truth from special pleading or, in the discourse of our time, ‘fake news’. Drawing on Paul Ricoeur’s suggestion that the historical trace has a two-way temporality, Victoria Browne’s Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History (2014) offers us a way out of this conundrum by reminding us that the past leaves behind material traces that constrain the meanings with which it can be imbued even if those meanings are always also responsive to the present. 

Danish: You engage with a range of activist literatures which you use on the same plane often as theoretical material – and you’re careful with situating your different interventions in terms of conversations in the academy.  At the same time, it feels like you’re also in conversation with activists, the activists whose work you engage with, the activists whose work you sometimes critique. What do you think this text might offer as a resource to people who are engaged either more peripherally with academia or academics who are ingrained in activist struggles?

Rahul: I hope that the two categories of people that you identify in your question might be reading constituencies who recognise this book as continuous with their work. In both Uganda and India, I have learned the most from figures who straddle the academic/activist divide – ‘activists’, writers and artists whose work has been foundational for thinking about sexuality and desire in the contexts with which they are most closely engaged, and ‘academics’ who have never seen themselves as writing purely for the academy. Indeed in not differentiating too clearly between these constituencies, I hope to have shown that ‘theory’ can be, and is, produced on a variety of terrains and to have resisted, in some small way, the gentrification of queer theory as it becomes more professionalised and sequestered in the academy. Although I have no formal training in it insofar as it is a disciplinary field, I have found it liberating to think of myself as doing a kind of cultural studies rather than identifying too strongly with the disciplinary fields in which I can claim some formal training (law, international relations). This might explain why this book has been nourished as much by literary and cinematic texts, popular culture and the everyday, as by the historical and political theoretic sources on which it draws.  

Ntina: Chapter 4 of your book discusses the gap between Britain’s reckoning with the colonial origins of anti-sodomy laws in many post-colonial/Commonwealth states and its constant negation of any responsibility for the transatlantic slave trade and racialised slavery. Taking this observation one step further you discuss the potential political economic roots of this disjuncture as well as its role in maintaining the false but politically generative split between race and queerness. Can you walk us through this argument? 

Rahul: Out of Time can be read as an account of the global reverberations of the Ugandan AHA. Some of these could be felt in Britain, the former colonial power and now an influential donor state, where the salutary reminder that anti-queer laws in Commonwealth countries like Uganda are relics of colonial penal codes originally imposed by Britain has provoked a peculiar discourse of atonement for colonialism. What makes this discourse peculiar is that voices from the highest echelons of the Conservative Party – not typically known for their remorse for British imperialism – seem keen to seek atonement for the homosexual legacies of colonialism but not for its racial legacies. I suggest that one way to make sense of the startling differences in the way British political elites (dis)engage from/with different aspects of the colonial past is to consider the very different forms of reparation that a meaningful reckoning with the past might entail. In the case of slavery and associated racial legacies of colonialism, the prospect that the British state might be called upon to fork out enormous monetary sums by way of reparation (claims for which were advanced by CARICOM states at the World Conference Against Racism in 2001) has so spooked political elites that they have not been able to bring themselves to make a formal apology. In contrast, the relative costlessness of apologising for the export of antisodomy laws has meant that the expression of shame and contrition for the sexual afterlives of colonialism has been more forthcoming. 

While this is persuasive enough as a first cut at distinguishing between the discrepant discourses around the sexual and racial legacies of colonialism, I suggest that it is not an adequate explanation given questions about whether the recent spate of apologies for the penalisation of homosexuality might open the door to compensation claims. As such, a more powerful motor for the expression of atonement for antisodomy laws might be an implicit metonymy between queerness and whiteness that runs through these discussions, produced by the knowledge that anti-queer laws harmed white men with political, economic and social capital, the ghosts of whom loom large in Western queer political imaginaries (think Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, Jean Genet, Harvey Milk). It occurs to me that the expressions of concern that we hear from political conservatives across party lines for the homosexual legacies of colonialism in the contemporary developing world might be the runoff or remainder of tears shed for these injured white queer heroes. Yet, more damaging and enduring than the question of who says sorry to whom and for what are the conjunctions of race and gender congealed in these narratives in which the spectres of aggrieved queers are white and those of the enslaved and their descendants are straight. I wonder how the memory of the queer enslaved might productively unsettle these constrained imaginaries in the queer political present. 

Ntina: Chapter 5 of your book situates your story about Uganda within a broader context of the global capitalist economy and you offer a very interesting reading both of the rise of global homocapitalism but also of queerphobia as political economic and not ‘merely cultural’ phenomena. Can you explain how the political economy lens is helpful in trying to understand ‘the queer politics of post-coloniality’? 

RR: The political economy lens that I attempt to offer in the book operates at several levels. It has become commonplace to use the notion of ‘moral panics’ to describe the eruption of political homophobia at particular junctures. While this concept does useful work, as Stuart Hall and his collaborators note in Policing the Crisis (1978), the crucial question is less why political elites produce the phobic rhetoric that they do than why subaltern audiences are receptive to this rhetoric thereby endowing it with political salience. In addressing this question in relation to the Ugandan AHA, I felt that I needed to explain why political homophobia made sense to many ordinary Ugandans by purporting to account for and remedy problems that they were experiencing, without portraying them as guileless and easily duped by wily elites. It seemed to me that only a structural explanation that took into account the major upheavals in Ugandan society produced by war, neoliberal structural adjustment and HIV/AIDS and the consequent popularity of Pentecostal Christianity was adequate to this task. Such an explanation would also require us to view with considerably greater scepticism the pious protestations against the AHA of the World Bank, IMF and other financial institutions that bear considerable responsibility for putting in place the conditions in which such moral panics thrive. Indeed, I suggest that these protestations are indicative of the fact that global queer liberalism now relies less on the punitive civilizational chastisement of homonationalism and more on the seductive inducements of homocapitalism which holds out the promise of stronger economic growth as reward for the recognition of LGBT rights (even as it holds in reserve the threat of capital withdrawal as punishment for non-recognition of such rights). More fundamentally, I offer this political economy lens as a way of reinserting materialist analysis into the heart of queer theory. It may be too much to expect that this modest effort might do anything to repair splits within the left between materialist and cultural analysis – but that is certainly the animating spirit of this book.