Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History

Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History

by Kadji Amin


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Jean Genet (1910–1986) resonates, perhaps more than any other canonical queer figure from the pre-Stonewall past, with contemporary queer sensibilities attuned to a defiant non-normativity. Not only sexually queer, Genet was also a criminal and a social pariah, a bitter opponent of the police state, and an ally of revolutionary anticolonial movements. In Disturbing Attachments, Kadji Amin challenges the idealization of Genet as a paradigmatic figure within queer studies to illuminate the methodological dilemmas at the heart of queer theory. Pederasty, which was central to Genet's sexuality and to his passionate cross-racial and transnational political activism late in life, is among a series of problematic and outmoded queer attachments that Amin uses to deidealize and historicize queer theory. He brings the genealogy of Genet's imaginaries of attachment to bear on pressing issues within contemporary queer politics and scholarship, including prison abolition, homonationalism, and pinkwashing. Disturbing Attachments productively and provocatively unsettles queer studies by excavating the history of its affective tendencies to reveal and ultimately expand the contexts that inform the use and connotations of the term queer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822368892
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/22/2017
Series: Theory Q Series
Pages: 268
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Kadji Amin is Assistant Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University.

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At the heart of this book is the question of how queer theory selects its historical examples. What historical forms of relation must be forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed so that contemporary queer theory can sustain its key critical and political commitments and imaginaries? To illustrate the stakes of this question and the book's method of attachment genealogy, this chapter restores the centrality of pederasty to Genet's contemporary, Michel Foucault, in his interview "Friendship as a Way of Life" ("De l'amitié comme mode de vie"). It goes on to theorize the centrality of modern pederasty to the history of sexuality as well as to modern Western (post)colonial power.

Queer theory has embraced "Friendship as a Way of Life" as being about the utopian potential of uninstitutionalized relations to generate reconfigured and antidisciplinary bodies, selves, and collectivities. We might therefore look back at this interview — given before the advent of an activism or scholarship that names itself "queer" — to get a sense of what has been left behind in the canonization of queer as a conjunction between alternative futurity, uninstitutionalized relations, and a utopian world-making project. One underappreciated element of the interview, Heather Love has argued, is Foucault's point that a position outside sanctioned social and familial relations might be terrifying or even anguishing as well as exhilarating. "What is it," Foucault wonders, "to be 'naked' among men, outside institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie? It's a desire, an uneasiness, a desire-in-uneasiness that exists among a lot of people." Love uses this passage to critique the ways in which sustaining "the stabilizing role" of a positive and caring version of friendship in imagining queer community depends on ignoring the "unease" that Foucault associates with uninstitutionalized relations, along with all that might be disturbing, terrifying, and destructive about lives lived outside widely held values and intelligible codes of conduct. It is, after all, a banal observation that queer communities and relationships have nurtured addiction, abuse, and outsized sentimental longings for marital normalcy as well as alternative and resistant world-building possibilities.

"Unease," however, might also describe the feeling underlying the neglect within Queer Studies of a theme fundamental to Foucault's reflections in this interview. To the interviewer's question, "Can you say that desire and pleasure, and the relationships one can have, are dependent on one's age?" Foucault responds, with apparent enthusiasm:

Yes, very profoundly. Between a man and a younger woman, the marriage institution makes it easier: she accepts it and makes it work. But two men of noticeably different ages — what code would allow them to communicate? They face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other. They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.

Age differences between two men not only come readily to the mind of the interviewer, but are enthusiastically affirmed by Foucault as central to the theme of exhilaratingly uninstitutionalized queer friendship for which this interview is remembered. Why was modern pederasty — by which I mean an erotic relation structured by a difference of age and generation between two men, two boys, or a man and a boy, rather than the more rigid Ancient Greek relation between a pubescent boy and an adult man — such an obvious referent for the interviewer as well as Foucault? Why, despite David Halperin's acknowledgment of its importance, has its presence in this interview been ignored by subsequent work in Queer Studies? Finally, what difference would it make to the idealization of friendship and uninstitutionalized relations within queer theory to remark that "Friendship as a Way of Life" is largely about pederasty?

The pederastic referent lends a different meaning to Foucault's critique, immediately afterward, of a certain increasingly popular idea of homosexuality: "two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other's asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour. There you have a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease." This passage is normally read as a critique of the notion that homosexual sex, in and of itself, is either oppositional or world building and as a node in Foucault's thesis that what is potentially interesting about same-sex practices are the relations that can be invented around them. When the referent of pederasty is restored, however, the passage might simultaneously be read as a critique of the emergent norm, which historian Scott Gunther has located as solidifying in Gai pied hebdo, the 1982 incarnation of the French gay magazine in which Foucault is being interviewed, of homosexuality as a relationship between two gay-identified adult men of roughly the same age. This norm emerged as part of a concerted effort by French gay rights activists, beginning around 1979, to combat the discriminatory 1942 law that fixed a higher age of consent for homosexual than for heterosexual sex. The political stakes of this strategy would have been a matter for public debate at the time of Foucault's interview, given that, during the late 1970s, more radical activists and intellectuals, including Foucault himself, had been active in a campaign to decriminalize noncoercive adult-child sexual relations entirely rather than merely equalizing the heterosexual and homosexual ages of consent. This campaign to decriminalize noncoercive adult-child sex overlapped with a veritable discursive explosion — in well-regarded novels, journal special issues, and letters and editorials published in the national newspaper Libération — proclaiming pedophilia and child sexuality the last frontier of the movement for (homo)sexual liberation and the leftist cultural issue of the day. I am proposing, therefore, that "Friendship as a Way of Life" can be read as a commentary on same-age male homosexuality, not as the natural essence of homosexuality once freed of pre-gay liberation social strictures, but as an ambivalent historical achievement in the contentious process of being secured in France during the very moment of Foucault's interview.

Foucault goes on to elaborate two reasons why the popular image of a sexual pickup of two young men on the street might be incapable of provoking the unease that functions, in this interview, as the affective symptom of all that is potentially disturbing about queer relations. His first remark, that such a pickup responds to a "reassuring canon of beauty," might be understood in implicit contrast to the "ugly" pederastic image of the older man seducinga youth, or, as Gayle Rubin wrote in 1981, "drooling old sickies corrupting or harming sweet innocent children." During this time period, both Rubin and Foucault comment on the recent media fervor, in the United States and France, respectively, around the dangers of child pornography and pedophilia and the imperative to protect the sexual innocence of children from predatory pedophiliac monsters. Resituating Foucault's remarks in this discursive context suggests that he is not only critiquing a familiar gay male obsession with youth and beauty; he is also, more interestingly, reflecting on the ways in which the gay male canon of beauty is coming into line with that of the mainstream by disavowing cross-generational relations, increasingly, though not exclusively portrayed as monstrous and ugly in the French popular press. Second, Foucault claims that the sexual pickup of two young men "cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship, things that our rather sanitized society can't allow a place for without fearing the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force." Foucault's emphasis on "new alliances" and "unforeseen lines of force" in this quote suggests that the kinds of relations he values as having the potential to disturb the social order have more to do with the differences, inequalities, and dissymmetries of pederasty than with a friendship between two young, white, gay men of the same class status. Indeed, Foucault notes that the homosexual "way of life" that gives rise to uninstitutionalized and affectively intense relations "can be shared among individuals of different age, status, and social activity." Foucault's repeated returns, throughout the interview, to the dissymmetry of age differences suggests that "Friendship as a Way of Life" is better read as a speculation on the potential of pederastic relations that cross one or more significant social differences to create "diagonal lines" in the social fabric that allow "virtualities to come to light" than as a more general case for the world-building potential of uninstitutionalized queer friendship. Foucault ascribes to pederasty the same capacity to move transitively athwart or across social categories that Eve Sedgwick will later champion as distinctively queer.

In his reading of the interview, David Halperin relates Foucault's discussion of age differences to differences of class and race that may also produce imbalances of power. He goes on, importantly, to connect the issue of inegalitarian erotic relations to Foucault's better-known interest in S/M as a means of using power to produce pleasure. Subsequent queer critics, however, have "forgotten" the centrality of cross-generational sexual relations to Foucault's thinking in this interview. If Queer Studies has enthusiastically picked up on Foucault's suggestive statements, in his late interviews and essays, regarding the potential of both BDSM and uninstitutionalized relations to produce new pleasures, remapped bodies and selves, and transformative social alliances, while "forgetting" the centrality of modern (as opposed to Ancient Greek) pederasty to these reflections, this is not a chance oversight. In Rubin's "Thinking Sex," a landmark 1984 essay often credited with founding Sexuality Studies as a field and inaugurating the queer theoretical commitment to the critical analysis of sexual hierarchies and oppressions of all kinds, Rubin predicts that, twenty years hence, the sad and practically unquestioned persecution of boy-lovers, who lack "defenders for their civil liberties, let alone for their erotic orientation," will become visible to all as the injustice it is, leaving many ashamed of their complicity with the current "witch hunt." Reflecting on this prediction upon the essay's reprint in 2011, Rubin admits that "this assessment was, to say the least, overly optimistic" and alludes to ways in which the context had "changed beyond all recognition" since the time she wrote the essay. Again, while Rubin's comments in this essay on the politically motivated persecution of consensual gay BDSM have had an extensive and largely favorable afterlife in Queer/Feminist/Sexuality Studies scholarship, her parallel and equivalently weighted arguments about boylove have received far less attention, tinged as they now are with untouchability and taboo.

I will take a moment to briefly sketch some of the ways, explored in greater detail in chapter 4, in which the historical context of politics of pederasty "changed beyond all recognition" during the 1970s and 1980s in France. During the French gay liberation moment of the early 1970s, male "homosexual revolutionaries" widely accepted that the liberation of pederasts would be the cutting edge of the sexual revolution agenda. As the Groupe de Libération Homosexuelle 14 writes in a 1976 publication, "The fight for the liberation of pederasts ... is essential, perhaps, more fundamental than that of homosexuals, perhaps even more than that of women. It radically questions all of society; subversion par excellence." French gay liberationists valued pederasty as a radical challenge to the bourgeois nuclear family, understood to be the fundamental disciplinary unit of a society founded on repressive sex and gender normalization. They theorized pederasty/pedophilia as a crucial means of contesting parents' possessive investment in their children and of championing minors' free exercise of their sexuality. The 1970s saw, more broadly, a coalition of leftist intellectuals and cultural producers reclaiming pedophilia — a pathologizing but barely used late nineteenth-century term — as, variously, a legitimate form of love, a potentially ethical means of relating to children as agential erotic beings, a vanguard cause sure to shock the bourgeoisie, and an increasingly critical node in the changing landscape of disciplinary, pathologizing, and securitizing power. However, during the late 1970s, as French gay activists increasingly embraced a rights-oriented strategy and sought to win legitimacy in terms of existing legal and cultural norms, they gradually muted the longstanding connection between homosexuality and pederasty. When testimonies of adult survivors of incest and a series of horrific rapes and murders of girls were spectacularly mediatized during the late 1980s, comparatively few voices were willing to defend the 1970s vision of pedophilia as an erotic love for children with no necessary relation to child sexual abuse. The "sex panics" that have raged since then have durably installed the pedophile as a figure of fear and loathing and an alibi for the extralegal extension of neoliberal surveillance, control, and regulation. As a result, it is now difficult to remember modern pederasty, within gay counterpublics, except as the sad remnant of a less liberated past, if not a homophobic invention altogether. Nevertheless, as is suggested by the existence of Quintes Feuilles, a French press dedicated primarily to the theme of pederasty, and the publication of a critique of efforts to categorically separate pedophilia from homosexuality in Gay pied hebdo as late as 1991, pederasty remains a living, though largely silenced, cultural practice.

The story of pederasty is thus, in part, the history of how age-differentiated sex went from being, within the span of the twentieth century in France, a dominant male same-sex relational form, to an avant-garde sexual practice containing the shape of a liberationist future, to the dusty and sad relic of a sexual past imagined as both distant and repressive. The twentieth-century career of pederasty is illustrative of one of the central questions of this book: how do queer relations becomehistorical, in the sense of being made retrograde and forced to signify earlier historical periods? I posit that it is only when queer relations become political — in the sense of being seen as pregnant with the shape of a utopian future to come — that they are permitted to become theoretical — to be taken up as something of interest to politically and temporally avant-garde queer theory — rather than being left to the domain, implicitly dismissed as "merely documentary," of gay and lesbian history. Remembered, due to the vicissitudes of history, as irredeemably old-school, inegalitarian, abusive, and without any bearing on political futurity, modern pederasty does not appear to constitute a promising object for contemporary queer theory.


Age-differentiated sex was, until as recently as the mid-twentieth century, both a dominant and a common form of male same-sex practice, one documented and analyzed by historians and anthropologists alike. For scholars of literature, it should be striking that virtually all late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century canonical authors now remembered as "gay" — including Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde (whose famous "love that dare not speak its name" was pederasty), Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Jean Genet, and even James Baldwin — participated in and, in some cases, wrote about age-differentiated same-sex erotic relations. This fact has not received the critical or theoretical attention it warrants, even within queer scholarship. In his 2013 book, Brown Boys and Rice Queens, Eng-Beng Lim characterizes the native boy/white man dyad as at once ubiquitous and yet curiously "under the critical radar." Alan Sinfield titles his chapter on the modern and contemporary literature of age-differentiated sex "Boys and Embarrassment," asserting that the improbable pairing of the age-differentiated couple has proven embarrassing even to queer theorists. But why should pederasty be considered embarrassing within Queer Studies, a field attuned to sexual nonnormativity in all its forms, skeptically critical of all claims about the harmfulness of consensual sexual practices, and particularly responsive to the functions Foucault and gay liberationists associated with pederasty: affronting the nuclear family, challenging sanctioned forms of kinship, association, and relation, and potentially tracing "unforeseen lines of force"? The response to this question reveals much about the field norms of Queer Studies, its unacknowledged historical imaginaries, and its continued indebtedness to a liberal egalitarian tradition it nonetheless continually sets itself against.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Attachment Genealogies of Pederastic Modernity  19
2. Light of a Dead Star: The Nostalgic Modernity of Prison Pederasty  45
3. Racial Fetishism, Gay Liberation, and the Temporalities of the Erotic  76
4. Pederastic Kinship  109
5. Enemies of the State: Terrorism, Violence, and the Affective Politics of Transnational Coalition  141
Epilogue. Haunted by the 1990s: Queer Theory's Affective Histories  176
Notes  191
Bibliography  235
Index  249

What People are Saying About This

The Erotic Life of Racism - Sharon Patricia Holland

"Queer studies desperately needs this book. Cogent, timely, and pathbreaking, Kadji Amin's work disrupts the genealogies of queer attachments while simultaneously interrogating, and at times relentlessly, the shape of the political in queer theory and the idealization of the queer erotic."

Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History - Heather Love

“Kadji Amin has written a crucial book, one that no one invested in queer thought or queer history can ignore. Elaborated through a reading of Jean Genet’s pederastic and cross-racial desires, Disturbing Attachments reflects on the permanent dissonance between politics and erotic and psychic life. Amin explores the contradictions of queer studies, which pairs its commitment to radical anti-normativity with a commitment to world-building, and argues that the field must deidealize without abandoning its attachments to queer coalition.”

The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France - Todd Shepard

“Kadji Amin upends foundational presumptions in queer theory by grappling with the passionate attachments that tether queer studies to the radical French writer Jean Genet. The resulting discomfort allows us to think differently about theory, politics, and queer relationships.”

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