Eating the Other.Posted: October 21, 2014
Photo: a cup of saffron ice cream on Heaven Street, Tehran.
There’s a famous essay of this name, by bell hooks, written in 1992. It describes the tendency of young white Americans both to consume other racial heritages and to seek out sexual encounters with other races as a means of personal transformation, i.e., just another reassertion of white dominance. I resisted reading it for a long time because I’d read the beginning and thought, “Well shit, this is what I do.”
In Tehran I went to House of the Artists, in the center of a beautiful sculpture garden in the middle of the city. There was an elegant restaurant where I ordered a latté served in a tulip glass. Later I wandered up and down the stairs, in and out of photography exhibits, in and out of an art opening, where the painter seemed to be explaining his work to fawning students; then up to a cinema where there seemed to be a grand film premiere, with the director posing for smartphone pics. I didn’t understand anything except by context, ambiance, and body language. But I was just manically, wordlessly happy, and had the very intense feeling that I needed to come back—to the House of the Artists, to Tehran, to Iran itself—because I have important things to learn here. Something about austerity and longing. Something about restraint and decadence. Something only a very ancient culture could teach me.
And then I think of bell hooks’s essay. I fear it explains my motivations completely. Am I just eating the Other, sampling cultures a la carte, unable to enact any social dynamic other than consumption? I want to argue with hooks and say, “Doesn’t everyone have their own agency?” And of course they do have full agency, but from within different spheres of privilege. Or I might say, “Am I not just as willing to be eaten as eat?” But again, of course that doesn’t mean the same thing, coming from me. I belong to the white American capitalist hegemony. There’s no risk of loss; except the continued constant one, of whites’ own humanity diminished by other races’ dehumanization.
The way travel feels to me is not that I’m eating a culture, but that I’m remembering it. Like segments of my genome are lighting up, or my cells are remembering other phases of being, the atoms themselves remembering all the paths they’ve taken before they became a part of my body, and maybe seeing all the paths they’ll take in the future.
But in that formulation, there’s no regard for the Other, just myself and my feelings. Moreover, hooks describes it, too: “The [desired] message again is that ‘primitivism,’ though more apparent in the Other, also resides in the white self.”
I am a racist person, as we all are; products of a racist society. I crave absolution from bell hooks, of course, and permission to travel and seek contact with people different from me. But it’s not my place to ask that, and not her—or anyone else’s—place to give. So I have only my own counsel, and that of the individuals I meet. I hope it means something, at least, to understand the landscape. That it will help me to cause least harm in my travels, and even some good. I’m vividly aware of this in Iran, especially, a country that’s been so long estranged from my own.
In the essay, hooks hopes for a middle way:
“Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other…whether or not desire for contact with the Other, for connection rooted in the longing for pleasure, can act as a critical intervention challenging and subverting racist domination, inviting and enabling critical resistance, is an unrealized political possibility…acknowledging ways the desire for pleasure, and that includes erotic longings, informs our politics, our understanding of difference, we may know better how desire disrupts, subverts, and makes resistance possible.”
That is a possibility I am trying to realize.