Deseos / رغبات was presented on Monday, September 12, 2016 at the Hollywood Theatre as part of PICA’s 14th annual Time-Based Art Festival.

“Deseos / رغبات” is a film and research project that is grounded in transnational and interdisciplinary histories that may or may not have happened. Our stories emerge from archives and fantasy, history and fiction, the 18th century, 19th century, and 21st centuries, theory and in feeling, and from Beirut and Bogota. The film was written and conceived by myself and by Carlos Motta, who also directed the film. In our independent fields, both Carlos and I are interested in archival research and theory, legal systems and their moral and institutional frameworks, and in the social, political, and epistemological possibilities of desire. Bringing these interests, histories, and ultimately, our characters Martina and Nour together, Carlos and I were moving across our own institutions of knowledge production and of creativity— institutional worlds that rarely converse but that often turn to each other for inspiration: art and academia.

Throughout the film project and its making, we work through several themes that orbit desire. These themes are not only related to the sexual registers of desire, but instead are directed towards thinking about the multiple ways that desire structures every day life, research, and academic and artistic production. We think about the presence and need for desire and fantasy in relation to the archive and its absences—particularly archival absences related to “unnatural” female-bodied desire. We ask if the object of desire must be embodied, and if it could instead be an affect, action, or relation that one can orient oneself towards. Can the object of desire be a desire for an archive, or for history itself?

We suggest that the unnatural order—including what we today refer to as the “queer,”-structures the so-called natural order of law and of society. How can we use the concept of the unnatural, and of unnatural lives and bodies and desires, to teach us about history, about law, about archives, and about both individual and shared life? Throughout the film we also insist on avoiding the trope of tragedy that is often used in conjunction with the telling of queer and “unnatural” lives. Joy, friendship, and intimacy—and the desire for these relations and emotions— are political and radical acts. This is particularly true for lives and desires that are constructed as selfish, miserable, and lonely by technologies of law and archiving, and discourses on family, morality, society, and the “natural”.

We present law and history as a space of negotiation and as a lived temporal and multi-dimensional framework. Law is a cosmological and moral site where multiple actors— institutional, relational, or individual—may find both an aporia and a cage, both possibility and repression. Some of our guiding questions are: What are the possible lives and travels of desire? How can we think and write and represent desire in history while actively trying to dodge the historical stickiness—the assumed trans-historicity— of sexuality? What is the role of fantasy in history, in theory, and in art? Can we not imagine that the body—that desire—has its own logic, one that cannot be captured or understood by thinking about desire?

There are no answers to these questions. The lives of desire, both in history and in the contemporary moment, are perhaps not knowable as much as they are approachable. Through this film and our writing, we approach desire, and the telling of history, as one might approach a lover: with tenderness, wonder, anxiety, anticipation and urgency.

“Deseos / رغبات” fantasizes the every-dayness of a correspondence between a person accused by her female lover of being hermaphroditic in late 18th century Colonial/Catholic Colombia and a female bodied person in Beirut who is navigating life, love, and desire for a female bodied person in the late Ottoman, Islamic/Arab context. Their names are Martina and Nour. These characters do not have desires that are considered “natural” by their surrounding worlds, and yet these unwelcoming worlds form the terrain of their intimacies, their capacity to love, to be in pain, and to be social actors. This estrangement from the worlds you are closest to—the worlds that make you— is familiar. This estrangement, moreover, cannot be captured by the analysis of an oppressive apparatus or the fantasy of an autonomous individual who is the sum of their rational thoughts, an individual who can be uprooted without being severed. Rather, this estrangement from the worlds that make us is melancholic: it is productive, it is compulsive, and it is passionate.

Critical theory teaches us that there cannot be a normative sexuality or desire without a queer or unnatural one, no “good life” or “fulfilling life” without a “bad life” or a “wasted life.” The “unnatural” is the structural condition of the “natural.” The myth of the social contract is in fact the moment of the “unnatural”—the pledge to live together within the unnatural state of law. It is a queer coming together of disparate interests and personalities in the desire for order and social reproduction. Here, “queer” is not an embodied form or sexuality, but rather the disavowed condition out of which society, social reproduction, and kinship emerge. The disavowed queer condition of the natural and of society, and of the naturalness of society, is what engenders and disciplines both normative and non-normative sexualities and genders across different historical periods and locations.

In thinking about how people live, and have lived, “unnatural” desire or lives, we are inspired by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project prison post-card/letter writing initiative. The SRLP matches letter correspondents with one of the most incarcerated, and most alienated and vulnerable to violence while incarcerated, populations in the United states— queer and trans youth and adults (particularly non-white queer and trans peoples). This prison writing initiative insists on the political potentials of solidarity and friendship. Thinking about the world making potentials entailed within connections between people who are often alienated from the promises of the “good life,” we asked ourselves to imagine a history of the desire to have a correspondent, an intimate, a friend.

“Deseos / رغبات” imagines historical pleasures of this sociability—of knowing one is never solitary with their desires. The social life of unnatural desires—what we call in the contemporary moment “queer life”—is not (only) anchored or made possible by individual will, or the thwarting or fulfilling of sexual desire and love. Rather, it is made possible, given a life, in the moments when one can share our lives without explanation or metaphor or analogy—the moments when our desires become mundane, the background picture of our conversations and intimacies, not the substance. Queer life is made possible by those starved and inadequate words: friendship, family. Desire, whether “unnatural” or “natural,” is never alone—although it often feels lonely.

Carlos and I wrote letters to each other in character as Martina and Nour over a period of months, producing pages of correspondence that were eventually pared down to a script. As we wrote to each other, we were corresponding through a historical longing, enacting a desire for history itself: Our desire for a world that was always inter and transnational, for alternative archives. We were writing our desire for historical presence, for a historical resonance of our own feelings of rooted out-of placeness.

Attuned to ways our own historical longings structured “Deseos / رغبات”
we worked against the notion of “unthinkability” as it relates to histories that would, in the present moment, be called “queer.” This unthinkability is magnified when discussing desire between female-bodied persons. The majority of historically inclined academic research on non-normative desires focuses on male-bodied persons, with notable exceptions. The same holds true for artistic production and circulation. This trend is related to the historical record itself, a record that is gendered and classed. History, through technologies of recording and archiving, has always been a site of privilege. This is true for both the formal (state, religious, imperial archives) and informal (family records, historical/travel accounts, correspondence) registers of history. Still, the presence of categories such as “unnatural” are records of power and of the very constructed-ness of the natural, much more than they could ever be a record of lived life. What happens if we refuse that the measure of history is the presence or absence of historical/written documents? How might we read absence in the archive as narrative, and what is our responsibility towards people, lives, arrested in the archive? The choice of the word “arrest” is not accidental. Our character, Martina is twice arrested. She is arrested by colonial authorities on charges of having an unnatural body. She—her life—is arrested again by the archive, caught within a discourse of the natural, of criminality and of the state. A researcher’s pull towards the archive is not coincidental. This pull, this desire, is itself melancholic. The archive is a temporal order: what we find in the archive, what we want to find in the archive, shifts as what it means to be a reader, a researcher, a person in the world, changes.

We refuse the logic that a life ends when a case file ends—that the person is no longer knowable because a state or a courtroom has reached a decision. The closing of a case is not the end of a person’s historical or contemporary significance. In Deseos we approach these files, and our characters, with the ferocity it takes to insist and to dwell on the fullness of lives and desires considered “unnatural.”

While finishing the script Carlos and I were surprised that somehow we both insisted on that unexpected and surprising thing: happiness. After the fact, we realized that imagining joy and avoiding the trope of tragedy—particularly for desires constructed by legal, medical, cultural and religious structures and discourses as “unnatural”—can be a political act. As artists and as academics and as researchers interested in sexualities, desires, and their histories, we often find ourselves studying non-hetero-normative desires, sexualities, and sexual practices through the lenses of criminality, regulation, and oppression/repression. The social lives of unnatural desires, and the lives of queer people in the contemporary moment, are too often constructed as unhappy, as anxious, as saturated in disappointment and as disappointing and discomforting to families, friends, and social orders. We are attuned to these lenses and structures, we live within them— but throughout the making of “Deseos / رغبات”, we choose to imagine—and fantasize— otherwise. Our characters live lives that are ordinary, and full: filled with joy and tragedy, friendship and solidarity, love and heartbreak, passion and fulfillment, oppression and opportunity, ecstasy and pain.

References/Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara. The cultural politics of emotion. Routledge, 2013.

Ahmed, Sara. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press, 2006.

Amer, Sahar. “Medieval Arab lesbians and lesbian-like women.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18, no. 2 (2009): 215-236.

Arondekar, Anjali. “Without a trace: Sexuality and the colonial archive.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, no. 1 (2005): 10-27.

Babayan, Kathryn, and Afsaneh Najmabadi. Islamicate sexualities: translations across temporal geographies of desire. Vol. 39. Harvard CMES, 2008.

Berlant, Lauren. Desire/love. punctum books, 2012.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel optimism. Duke University Press, 2011.

Butler, Judith. “Melancholy gender—Refused identification.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 5, no. 2 (1995): 165-180.

Butler, Judith. “Is kinship always already heterosexual?.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13, no. 1 (2002): 14-44.

Edelman, Lee. No future: Queer theory and the death drive. Duke University Press, 2004.

El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world, 1500-1800. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Eng, David L. “Melancholia in the late twentieth century.” Signs (2000): 1275-1281.

Foucault, Michel. The history of sexuality. Allen Lane, 1979.

Foucault, Michel. The archaeology of knowledge. Vintage, 2012.

Foucault, Michel. “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom: An Interview with Michel Foucault on January 20, 1984 in The Final Foucault: Studies on Michel Foucault’s Last Works.” Philosophy & social criticism 12, no. 2-3 (1987): 112-131.

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time binds: Queer temporalities, queer histories. Duke University Press, 2010.

Habib, Samar. Female homosexuality in the Middle East: histories and representations. No. 13. Routledge, 2007.

Halberstam, Judith. The queer art of failure. Duke University Press, 2011.

Million, Dian. “Felt theory.” American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2008): 267-272.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. NYU Press, 2009.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. “Notes on gridlock: Genealogy, intimacy, sexuality.”Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 215-238.

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: the archive and cultural history. Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Along the archival grain: Epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense. Princeton University Press, 2010.