white reading & (queerness)
We’ve been told that a text is sometimes more than just an assemblage of ideas, feelings or sentiments. Occasionally, a text becomes an assistant and colleague, an instructor and guide, a friend or companion – the text comes to resonate as Jan, Piet, Koos and Jakob. The poems resonate with layers of Afrikaner whiteness: the obsessions over sport, farming references, steam rooms at the gym, Afrikaner manners, the strictures of social ‘etiquette’. These poems are built around sentiments encapsulated in a white skin; exemplify ‘universalising’ views of contemporary South Africa living that often correspond too closely with the worldviews of a white, Afrikaner male. The collection itself has an eggshell-dirty-white paper skin. There is no telling where my own (white) skin ends and the book cover begins.
The whitenesses of the text is accompanied by elements – ‘Jakob Engelstoeier’, ‘Studentikoos’, ‘Retro cruising’ – that are clearly sketched images of eroticism in a gay modality. In certain cases, the poems themselves seem to come close be being queer – deviating, subverting.
Again, I try to discern the distinction between my own experiences and those portrayed in the poems, trying to identify the cut-off between (my) person and the personified. The text is locationed between whiteness and queerness, like the presence of a queer person in an otherwise unqueer room.
However, queerness here – as is often the case in a room full of people – is made to be subservient to whiteness, seemingly serving or reinforcing whiteness expressed as a predominant trait. In this case, the ‘queer’ text is first and foremost a ‘white’ text, consistently centring (and re-centring) whiteness. Between reader and text, there is an (non-reflexive) agreement that ‘white’ comes before ‘queer’. The only time ‘queer’ can be legitimate is when it also fortifies ‘white’. And, as the distinction between ‘white’ text and ‘white’ reader cannot always easily be distinguished, the text’s centring of whiteness is also a readerly centring of whiteness. As if the conversation with the text is conveying an unsettlingly clear – and un-queer – message: You are white first, don’t forget that.
The white skin holds the queer potential captive, and demands subservience. The text does not allow for ‘non-white’ as a readerly position. Reader and text (as almost situationally inseparable entities) perpetuates this. I’m reminded of Hook and Truscott’s (2013:159) claim that so much of postcolonial whiteness is accompanied by an active disavowal of perceived difference: Black conceptualisations of queerness is seen as threatening – white queerness not as much – and the white reader disavows the perceived difference of ‘non-white’. A defensive collective disavowal becomes an individualised readerly strategy.
Melissa Steyn (2005) argues that in all cases where “positionalities [are] constructed from privilege, whiteness in South Africa is characterized by ignore-ance” (129). This seems to ring true for the readerly relationship here: leading to a situational, but obscured, blurring between white reader, ‘white’ text, ‘white reading’.
The ignore-ance of white reading results in a disavowal of the possibility of a non-white readerly position, paradoxically in a text that seem to revel in detailing sexual difference. This kind of disavowal opens up uncomfortable opportunities for the white, gay reader. But if such disavowal of difference is allowed – or even invited – by the text, this vicissitude also affects queerness: to disavow difference is to put queerness in the service of whiteness.
This brings to light something frightening about white reading. Whiteness always seems to hierarchize the world – even in a single person – to hierarchizing various ways of existing or modes of experience. Far from endowing an abstract concept (‘whiteness’) with person-like capacities, what I mean by the ‘predominance of whiteness’ is the perpetuation of the mythical status of superiority that is historically and existentially assigned to white skin.
In addition to the supposed and mythical superior status of the white skin, whiteness is insidious in the sense that it is positioned as the default mode of existing. This makes it easy for any reader to fall prey to the exclusion of anything ‘non-white’. If being white is taken as the ‘standard’ way of being, then it is easy to overlook the exclusionary and hierarchical attitude that stems from being white.
Whiteness has the unique feature of silencing other experiences and forcing certain modes of existence to assist in subtle hierarchizations and artful ignore-ance. Marais’s poems are not dangerous – not queer in that sense – in and of themselves. The ease with which they have been canonised – made mainstream – belies queerness, so does the ease with which they blur the lines between white reader, ‘white’ text, ‘white reading’.
When I bring a text to life, I must be aware of the kind of ‘life’ I give it. An assistant and colleague, an instructor, guide, a friend or companion easily cements our drive towards taxonomy and exclusion. Jan, Piet, Koos and Jakob can easily become cheerleaders of a reading where ‘queer’ seems to be little more than a reinforcement of ‘white’.
Hook, D. & Truscott, R. (2013). ‘Fanonian Ambivalence: On Psychoanalysis and Postcolonial Critique’. In: Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 33(3), pp. 155–169.
Steyn, M. (2005). ‘” White Talk”: White South Africans and the Management of Diasporic Whiteness’. In: Postcolonial Whiteness. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 119-133.
Jan, Piet, Koos en Jakob (2019)
Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau, 64 pp.