Desiring Colonial Bodies in Mayra Santos-Febres’s Fe en disfraz
Wayne State University
Fe en disfraz, the 2009 novel by the Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos Febres, constitutes an important examination of themes that have been present in all the author’s works: the role of history and memory in the articulation of identities and interpersonal affective connections; the weight of past histories on the possibilities of the present; and the difficult process of excavating voices and perspectives that have been buried under official historical narratives. The fact that the novel’s protagonists—Martín Tirado, a white man and first person narrator of the story, and Fe Verdejo, a black Venezuelan woman—are two professional historians engaged in a passionate relationship with the past and with each other, establishes the link between the text’s overarching concerns. On the one hand, the text insists, history is never evoked from a neutral, objective position. Even historians write—or, to use Hayden White’s now classic formulation, “emplot” their historical narratives—from specific locations and moments, with their concomitant political agendas and ideological compromises or commitments. On the other hand, the relation of individual or collective subjects to both past and present power structures goes well beyond the rational, the expository, and the ideological. It is in fact articulated by each subject’s capacity to be affected (that is to say, to be touched at an affective level) by forces, bodies and events, and to respond to them in similarly multifarious ways. It is on this second dimension of the novel that I want to focus in this article, by exploring the text’s important connections to contemporary affect theory as expressed in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
Over the last decade, affects have received renewed attention from social and cultural critics. In fact, the title of one important collection of essays from 2007 refers to an “affective turn” in theorizing the social (Ticineto Clough, ed.). In this paradigm, affects may be broadly defined as those “visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion, that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension” (Gregg & Seigworth, eds. 1), and which therefore play a central role in the generation—or sometimes repression–of new forms of relation between individuals or groups of individuals in society. Patricia Ticineto Clough succinctly defines affectivity as “a substrate of potential bodily responses, often automatic responses, in excess of consciousness,” and affect as “bodily capacities to affect and be affected or the augmentation or diminution of a body’s capacity to act, to engage, and to connect…” (Ticineto Clough, ed. 2). Although affect theory has many sources and ramifications, it has been greatly influenced by the works that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote individually and as a team, and it is to their work that my analysis in this article will refer. As I will illustrate in the following sections, their description of individuals as desiring-machines that generate and channel intense affects beneath and alongside conscious knowing (yet always intertwined with conscious political agendas), can illuminate important dimensions of Santos Febres’s Fe en disfraz. (1)
As I show below, most critical examinations of the novel have appropriately addressed the text’s most explicit themes: the lingering yet often unacknowledged (or even repressed) influence of the past in the present, and the need to uncover and bring to the light voices and perspectives hidden by official historical narratives. In the text, the most significant examples of both phenomena are the fate of African and Afro-descendant enslaved women in Latin America, who constitute the object of study in Martín’s and Fe’s historical research, and the impact of that legacy on contemporary Afro-descendant women. Thus, for Mario Cancel Sepúlveda, the novel “expresa una tesis muy simple: el pasado es irrenunciable y se impone como un tatuaje al fuego” (n.p.), and Melanie Pérez Ortiz explains that in the text, “la piel conecta a la protagonista con sus ancestros” (n.p.). While the presence of the past in the present is undeniable in its effects, it is often unacknowledged, because that influence mainly affects subjects who have been systematically erased from colonial, racist histories. As Zaira Rivera Casellas indicates, in Fe en disfraz “la narrativa se informa de las fuentes de la historia oficial para rellenar el pozo oscuro de las omisiones y silencios de las vidas de las mujeres esclavas durante la esclavitud...” (112). One of the purposes of recovering those repressed voices would be, as Radost A. Rengelova suggests, to produce “a modern subversive slave narrative that inverts racial and gender hierarchies and critiques contemporary Caribbean white male privilege” (150). In her unpublished dissertation on Afro-descendant Caribbean women novelists, Maria Leda Souza Hogan aptly proposes that texts like Santos Febres’s novel
decolonize via history, memory, myth, and sex by challenging the construction of the colonial patriarchal rule and rewriting a new history to include the marginalized voices. Decolonization here implies a deconstruction of the image of colored people, especially black women in colonial time where they were deprived of their culture, personhood, and subjectivity” (vi).
In his review of the novel, Efraín Barradas suggests that, in the novel, “la sexualidad que se presenta es una que trasciende lo meramente erótico y se convierte en símbolo, hasta en alegoría, de una visión de mundo que sirve para formular y concretar los planteamientos ideológicos que sustentan el texto […] Como en sus obras anteriores, en esta nueva obra se reconoce que la sexualidad es una metáfora social que hay que descifrar para entender nuestra historia, nuestra sociedad y hasta para entendernos nosotros mismos” (n.p.). Barradas’s formulation of “sexuality as metaphor to be deciphered” certainly addresses an important aspect of the novel, and it is in agreement with the recurring pattern brought up by the critics quoted above, which emphasizes the search and recovery of hidden or repressed voices and perspectives. But it is precisely at that juncture that I would like to propose an alternative reading that does not invalidate that of Barradas, but rather complements it. For sexuality in the novel is not merely a metaphor or symbol for something else that needs to be brought up to the light. Sexuality and other affects are themselves, in Deleuzian fashion and by virtue of their being forms of desire, vehicles in the struggle for liberation, and spheres that need to be liberated in their own right.
In the novel, certain images, concepts, and encounters produce intense flows of desires and affects (some below the level of the individual, as in bodily affects; some above, at the body politic level), whose free movement is persistently restrained and politically encoded to perpetuate dominant power structures, such as the globalized capitalist order that has its roots in the history of colonialism. “Liberation” then entails not simply the “unveiling” of repressed historical perspectives, but the de-territorialization and re-terriorialization of those affective flows and intensities. (2) In what follows, I will argue that Santos Febres attempts to portray political engagement as primordially (though not exclusively) operating at the level of flows of desire and affect moving through and between desiring machines that operate beneath and beyond the level of individual subjects. These are the levels that Deleuze and Guattari refer to as “molecular.” Although the novel acknowledges a more traditional concept of the intellectual (in this case the historian) who endeavors to unmask ideological constructions that hide the truth of conflicting histories and enduring oppressions (specifically, slavery and the fate of Afro-descendants in the Americas), the most significant political and ethical engagement in the text occurs not at the level of representation (the historians’ recovery/retelling of the experience of slaves) but at the level of the creation of what Deleuze and Guattari would describe as new affective singularities, that is, the creation/opening of new expressive paths for desires that are deemed illegitimate or perverse in a racist and sexist society.
Colonial Subjects, Caribbean Bodies, and Molecular Flows of Desire
In the novel, Fe Verdejo is a black Venezuelan woman from a humble background, who since early childhood has struggled with the view of black women as mere objects of sexual pleasure for white men. Now, as a historian, Fe feels a strong link to a long history of enslaved black women from Latin America. The connection that Fe feels to those enslaved women is not naively based on some kind of essentialist identification with the fate of all black women. It is based on the more mundane fact Fe still faces racism and sexism as a contemporary black woman: racism and sexism that are contemporary permutations of that long history of slavery and imperial domination. Fe’s task as a black woman and as a historian is to explore how the wounds of that colonial history still inhabit and cripple her body, her life, and the lives and bodies of other black women. It is from that very specific socio-historical position that her scholarly research takes place.
In the course of her research into the lives of female slaves, Fe discovers, in a convent in Brazil, a dress that will become the “disguise” that gives the novel its title. The dress was believed to be the property of Xica da Silva, the famous 18th-century enslaved woman who became rich and powerful as her master’s lover. Xica’s daughters wore the dress when they were presented in society, as part of their mother’s attempt to gain respectability and honor for them. Those efforts yielded limited results: racial and social prejudices confined Xica’s daughters to the margins of high society, and they all became, at best, the lovers of white men who would not take them as legal wives. (3). The experience of Xica’s daughters parallels and constitutes the historical ground for the living experience of the women in Fe’s family, who still struggle with the stereotype of black women as sensual objects of white desire. Fe’s female relatives, including her mother, have ended up having children at a very young age, as the result of the fleeting infatuations of several men. Fe’s grandmother attempts to “save” her from that fate by locking her up in a convent school, where she can be protected from male predators. There, Fe remains keenly aware of the specificity of her position:
Yo quería ser como aquellas monjas, blancas, puras, como aquellas princesas; vestir trajes hasta el suelo, hechos de terciopelo bordado con hilos de oro y pedrerías. Pero, en mi fuero interno, sabía que aquello no era para mí. Me lo recordaban las alumnas del colegio y el color de mi piel. Mi piel era el mapa de mis ancestros. Todos desnudos, sin blasones ni banderas que los identificaran; marcados por el olvido o, apenas, por cicatrices tribales, cadenas y por las huellas del carimbo sobre el lomo. Ninguna tela que me cubriera, ni sacra ni profana, podría ocultar mi verdadera naturaleza. (89)
Fe’s description of what one might call with Fanon her “lived experience of blackness” captures the racialized universe created by colonial domination, a racist history that still shapes the formation of subjects like Fe in the present. The passage distinguishes between what Fe, as an individual “subject,” desires, and what her environment and history codify as a legitimate object of her desire given her “skin” and her “ancestors.”
However, in terms of the economy of affects that dominates the novel, Fe’s words actually reveal a more complex phenomenon than a contemporary subject struggling with the legacy of the past. In fact, her desiring is less cohesive than it might appear at first—it consists of diverse flows moving toward specific figures (monjas, princesas), colors (blanco, oro), shapes (trajes hasta el suelo) and textures (terciopelo bordado, pedrerías). It might seem self-evident to reduce those elements to symbols of just one thing, the privilege of whiteness, and indeed that reading is appropriate and necessary at one level. At another level, a more productive reading would not reduce the multiplicity of flows in Fe’s desiring to just one desire, and would read those plural desires as constitutive of her subjectivity, rather than as the desire for one thing arising from one pre-existing subject. In this regard, the novel’s representation of Fe’s subjectivity has clear affinities to the thought of Deleuze and Guattari. As Guattari eloquently states,
Rather than speak of the 'subject', we should perhaps speak of components of subjectification, each working more or less on its own. This would lead us […] to reexamine the relation between concepts of the individual and subjectivity, and, above all, to make a clear distinction between the two. Vectors of subjectification do not necessarily pass through the individual, which in reality appears to be something like a 'terminal' for processes that involve human groups, socio-economic ensembles, data-processing machines, etc. Therefore, interiority establishes itself at the crossroads of multiple components, each relatively autonomous in relation to the other, and, if need be, in open conflict. (The Three 24-25)
What colonial domination achieves is the constriction of those multiple vectors and flows into the parameters of a sexist, racist social order, which attempts to pre-determine the “nature” of Fe as a "subject," thus imposing an essential “true nature” (“mi verdadera naturaleza”) through the repression of her multifarious, open humanity (which functions as a “terminal” or crossroads of plural impulses and components). (4) As Guattari also indicates, any revolution against this order of things "must not be exclusively concerned with visible relations of force on a grand scale, but will also take into account molecular domains of sensibility, intelligence and desire" (The Three 20). Thus, Fe’s liberation will have to be accomplished at multiple levels too.
Fe has already been deeply marked by her childhood experiences when she discovers Xica’s dress in the convent. The jeweled dress is a prodigy of beauty and luxury; however:
Por debajo, Fe descubrió que el traje se sostenía por un complicado arnés de varillas y cuero. Las varillas estaban expuestas, su alambre corroído levantaba crestas de herrumbre filosa. Por ellas, también, Fe pasó las manos. Las cortó el arnés. Corrió la sangre entre las palmas, por los dedos. El cuero frío se bebió el líquido rojo, gota a gota, y se tensó, como si recobrara una esencia primigenia que hacía tiempo echaba de menos. (25)
With its outer splendor and its inner wires and harsh leather, the dress becomes an emblem of colonial societies built on slavery: blinding luxury and riches built upon blood and broken flesh. A nun in the convent tells Fe, “Te recomiendo que nunca te lo pongas...Ese traje está habitado. Los arneses y la tela han bebido demasiado sudor y demasiadas penas” (77). Indeed, it is impossible to wear the dress without being cut and tortured by the rusty wires and rods that sustain it. In spite of this, or rather, precisely because of this, Fe wears it, in an attempt to experience in her own skin the suffering of her ancestors. Here again the text moves toward a solidarity not based (at least exclusively) on abstract notions of justice, or identity. Those principles do not lose their validity, but they are mediated by bodily intensities of pleasure and pain that operate underneath the level of the subject. It is at the level of what Deleuze and Guattari call molecular flows that the transformation of Fe’s subjectivity begins to occur. The subject itself is a molar construction imbricated in a political order that attempts to freeze and regulate those destabilizing intensities. As both thinkers indicate, that molar structure does not preclude “the existence of an entire world of unconscious micropercepts, unconscious affects, fine segmentations that grasp or experience different things, are distributed and operate differently. There is a micropolitics of perception, affection, conversation, and so forth” (Thousand 123). Fe’s experience with the dress, as well as her later incorporation of the dress into her sexual ritual with Martín—both of which involve unconscious desires, bodily contacts, and plural affects—occur precisely at that molecular level of the micropolitics of perceptions and affects. However, that dimension does not exclude the historical and ideological implications of the dress, which Fe studies as a historian, and which constitute its macropolitical, or molar, dimension.
In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari elaborate the notion of human beings (more precisely described as “desiring machines”) and their desires as always functioning between the molar level of socially codified forms and the molecular level of flows of desire and intensities of affects:
In the first instance one studies large molar aggregates, large social machines—the economic, the political, etc.—and this entails searching for what they mean by applying them to an abstract familial whole that is thought to contain the secret of the libido: in this way, one remains in the framework of representation. In the second instance one goes beyond these large aggregates, including the family, toward the molecular elements that form the parts and wheels of desiring-machines […] For desiring-machines are precisely that: the microphysics of the unconscious, the elements of the microunconscious. But as such they never exist independently of the historical molar aggregates, of the macroscopic social formations that they constitute statistically. In this sense, there is only desire and the social. (Anti-Oedipus 183).
In its description of Fe’s efforts toward self-liberation, the novel addresses both levels. In their roles as historians, Fe and Martín explore and challenge large historical and ideological molar aggregates—the essentialist colonial representation (and construction) of black subjectivities. The exploration of the second level, that of “the microphysics of the unconscious” and its plural affects, happens primordially through their sexual encounters.
Wearing the dress, experiencing the excruciating physical and spiritual pain it provokes, turns into a ritual for Fe, a ritual that becomes inseparable from her experience of desire and pleasure: the dress becomes a mediator between her subjectivity and the outside world; between her desires and the world’s precarious ability to fulfill them; between her past, which includes all of those slave ancestors, and the possibilities of her future. Martín becomes part of that ritual when he becomes her lover: every 31st of October, on Halloween, a festival associated with children in disguise but which is rooted in ancient pagan celebrations of ancestors, Fe waits for Martín in her apartment, and they make love as she wears the dress that mutilates her body. The sado-masochistic exercise joins the two lovers in guilt and desire, pain and pleasure.
Martín’s role in the novel’s plot and concerns is ambiguous: his desire for Fe comes wrapped in stereotypes about voluptuous, sensual black women. However, as a historian Martín is also committed to the exploration, and presumably the critique, of that past which has placed him and his white ancestors in a position of privilege. To his credit, he willingly follows Fe’s lead, both at work where she is actually his boss, and in their sexual encounters, where he submits to her ritual and calls her “mi dueña,” “my owner.” On the other hand, Martín perversely identifies Fe with the enslaved women that she researches, and in an unsettling scene masturbates in front of the computer as he reads files that describe the rapes and tortures of female slaves at the hands of their masters (Fe 42). Like Fe, but from the position of the victimizer, Martín must navigate through a sadistic attachment to privileged power inherited from history, and his desire to open himself up to an ethical relation to Fe. (5) The text never assumes that identity—whether based on class, gender, or race—leads to automatic enmity or solidarity between individuals. However, through that erotic dance of pleasure, pain, and surrender developed by Martín’s and Fe’s Halloween ritual, the novel poses the possibility of mutually fulfilling flows of desires that may at least partially corrode, and thus transform, the subject positions determined by colonial histories.
In this regard, it is important to point out that Fe en disfraz continues a tendency that dominates all of Santos Febres’s earlier novels: all of these narratives privilege molecular forms of rebellion. In other words, Santos Febres’s social critiques refuse to be restricted to codes legitimized by official ideological flags or liberation models at the molar level, but rather they privilege diffused tactics that de-territorialize and re-territorialize spaces, practices and affects colonized by power. This, naturally, does not deny that in those novels we find recognizable critiques of the neocolonial capitalist order in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. As indicated before, “molecular” forms of rebellion and resistance are not necessarily in opposition to more traditional forms of revolt and critique. But it is Santos Febres’s emphasis on the fact that bodies and affects operate and establish connections at their own levels, without the need of translating and codifying those connections into discursive language (that is to say, without becoming “metaphors” for something else), which gives her work its distinctive power.
For example, on the role of the body in Caribbean literature (and by extension, we might add, in her own work), Santos Febres explains:
Por ello, otro uso del eros en el Caribe es mantener la opacidad del cuerpo, su imposible traducción, discursividad total. El cuerpo siempre se queda afuera, nunca podrá ser poseído del todo, mantendrá así la llama del deseo, esa hambre que jamás será saciada y a la vez señalará hacia otros tipos de saberes que no son necesariamente lingüísticos. Que requieren de la experiencia como lugar de obtención y validación de conocimientos. (Sobre piel 93)
Thus, in Sirena Selena vestida de pena, queer desire and travestism work as vehicles for movement across class and race barriers, and help create pan-Caribbean links between islands that have been pushed apart by their shared colonial histories, such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. (6) In Cualquier miércoles soy tuya the marginal space of the motel allows for exchanges and encounters (some of them officially illegal) that are repressed, yet remain constitutive of the official spaces of the house and the family (“la gran familia puertorriqueña”). Nuestra señora de la noche uses a similar strategy as it traces the streams of desire, repulsion, and attraction that link members of the respectable households of Ponce’s bourgeoisie and Isabel’s house of prostitution, spaces whose socially codified meanings become de- and re-territorialized.
Of course, it is important to remember here that such molecular forms of resistance do not exist in a “pure state”—all intensities, desires, and affects operate within fields and levels of molar structures, and are constantly reified and reappropriated by the dominating structures of power. Thus, it is not surprising that Santos Febres’s novels tend to remain open-ended with regards to the ultimate direction their rebellious characters must follow. Sirena, Martha and Leocadio in Sirena Selena; Julián in Cualquier miércoles; and Isabel in Nuestra señora, all three challenge in diverse ways the conventions, power structures, and colonial cultural logic of their societies. However, in all three cases their rebellions take them into spheres (the world of drag queen spectacles, the world of drug trafficking and writing, the world of prostitution) that are easily appropriated and codified by the forces and structures of a market driven economy that is always eager to transform all desires (no matter how “subversive”) into marketable and exploitable commodities. (7) As we will see in the next section, in Fe en disfraz we have a full fledged open ending with important implications—is Martín’s role in the novel a liberating one, or is he in fact ultimately complicit with a long history of colonialism, slavery and prejudice?
Desire as Revolt
Can a relation of solidarity arise between individuals or groups placed by history in positions not only of mutual antagonism, but also of domination of one over the other? Can one willingly let go of privilege? Can one forgive centuries of oppression? The novel does not offer simple answers to these questions, but the erotic relation of Fe and Martín revolves around them, and opens the door to a potentially affirmative answer. To be sure, this should not be interpreted in a naive way, as if the erotic relation and mutual desire between two individuals of different races locked in a long history of violence and oppression could somehow heal those enduring collective tensions. Indeed, one might possibly criticize Fe en disfraz for seeming to offer such a naive reading of the significance and impact of individual agencies in collective historical struggles. (8)
However, the text is ambivalent and complex enough to suggest a more productive reading along the lines I have been proposing in the previous section: the point is not that the desires of two or more individuals are sufficient to bring about transformation and justice, but rather that reflections on transformation and healing too often stop at the level of ideological unmasking of repressed histories and social/economic structures, the construction of alternative narratives, and the development of new normative models that serve as the predefined goals of human action (even if those goals are presented under unobjectionable rubrics such as universality, democracy, and inclusion). Although admittedly through a focus on two main characters, the novel seems to propose the need to also acknowledge the power of affects, intensities, and desires occurring at molecular levels not necessarily codified or codifiable under preconceived models. Those flows may create new connections, links, openings and virtual possibilities between individuals and groups, thus fracturing historical, social, and political structures that are deeply embedded and invested in exclusion and exploitation. From that perspective, these possible connections are potentially revolutionary as they operate beneath, above, and on the margins of such traditional structures—the structures of the Western Cartesian conception of the autonomous subject, and those of a global capitalist order still linked to a racist colonial logic. That revolutionary potential, however, may not be possible to categorize under traditional notions of what a revolution should look like.
In many ways, the character who has to most clearly open himself to the liberating potential of such molecular flows is Martín. In fact, the novel works as a sentimental education for Martín, in which Fe becomes the teacher. That education can be traced in the three ritual encounters that Fe imposes on Martín during three Halloween nights. In their first encounter, he is simply too shocked by Fe’s dress: he submits to her ritual, but is too scared to fully accept it. In their second encounter, his attitude has already evolved, and we read: “Con las caderas, aguanto el traje, el arnés. No me importa que los fierros también se entierren en mi carne...Del otro lado de mis movimientos, el arnés raja la carne de mi dueña. Yo empujo, ella sangra, arde y gime. Me abandono al roce. Sufro con ella y sonrío” (102). The ability to suffer with Fe—to actively participate in, partake of, the Other’s suffering, constitutes a significant evolution from the first encounter. Moreover, we should notice how the narration gradually shifts from Martín as a unified subject relating to another subject, Fe, to an emphasis on body parts (caderas, carne), actions (movimientos), fluids (sangre), and abandoning the self (“me abandono”) to fluid connection (el roce), rather than an attempt to control.
We actually do not get to witness the third ritual Halloween encounter: throughout the novel Martín prepares for it, as his flashbacks narrate the rest of the story. Part of the novel’s suspense lies in the fact that he has a “plan” for that third encounter, one that will make it the last encounter of its kind between them, a plan that involves a razor blade that he received as a gift from Fe. An ominous scenario is foreshadowed, until we reach the last chapter and Martín reveals:
Sacaré la navaja toledana. Sé lo que haré. Lo exige el rito. Lo exige el tiempo enquistado en el dolor de Fe, que ahora es el mío. Lo exige mi carne que ya no puede distinguir, no quiere distinguir de quién es la sangre que mana […] La navaja en mis manos […] La desnudaré completa. Cortaré las telas de ese traje. Mi navaja rasgará el peplo, el pasacintas, destrozará las mangas y los holanes. Fe gritará, le taparé la boca. Entenderá que debo hacerlo; deshacerme de esa barrera que frena nuestro encuentro definitivo, duradero. Espero que no se resista demasiado. Que me deje ver, de la cintura para arriba, sus pechos al aire, de pezones anchos, oscurísimos. Y que, a sus pies, acepte el traje desgarrado. En la memoria de mi dueña, sonarán latigazos y carimbos. Se desvanecerán cicatrices y humillaciones. Entonces Fe, liberada, entenderá y se abrirá para mí. Ella misma lo ha querido. Me lo ha pedido todo este tiempo: “Rompe el traje, desgárralo, sácame de aquí”. (114-15)
How do we interpret Martín’s decision at the end of the novel? Is it an attempt to participate actively in Fe’s liberation? Is he willingly giving up, partially at least, his white male privilege? Has Fe “asked” for what he is going to do? It is true that in a previous sexual encounter, while wearing the dress, she had said, “Entra en mi carne, rómpeme la carne. Sácame de aquí” (102), which Martín interprets in the last chapter as, “Rompe el traje, desgárralo, sácame de aquí” (115). Some of the language in Martín’s description of his plan keeps moving in the direction of fluid intensities that interact beyond or beneath the control of the colonial self (“mi carne que...no quiere distinguir de quién es la sangre que mana...”). However, one could equally read the ending as still another imposition on Fe, still another instance of a white man assuming that “he knows best,” and that he will liberate “the oppressed” on his own terms, a perverse mirror image of the colonial “white man’s burden.” The violence of the language —“Fe gritará, le taparé la boca”—, points in the direction of the second reading, resembling more a rape than a liberation.
Does Fe need Martín to “save” her? It may be the case that she does not need him to save her, but can only be with him if he is willing to collaborate with her struggle for liberation, which also entails his own. That solidarity, as we have seen, must occur at two levels: at the level of a critique of the logic of coloniality that sustains the social order in which Fe and Martín live (this would be their task as historians), and at the level of molecular flows of desire through which new as-yet uncodified ways of connection might arise (or singularize, as Deleuze and Guattari might call it) from their desires. The second level is explored in their erotic relation, and particularly through their Halloween ritual encounters. By placing Fe’s and Martín’s sexual ritual at its center, it is clear that the novel does not predicate any possible (though never assured) “liberation” exclusively on the rational or detached understanding and decoding of history on the part of Fe and Martín as historians, even though that dimension of their project is a fundamental aspect of it. Liberation is not achievable exclusively within the realm of either character’s subjectivity either, as in some new existential understanding of their places in history. While all of those elements are necessary, the catalyst that makes possible (though not certain) a liberating praxis in the novel is the array of desires that Fe’s and Martín’s bodies exude toward each other.
It is from this dual perspective that one can see more clearly the role of Xica’s dress in the lovers’ ritual. At the molar level of social institutions, the dress represents the historical context in which Fe and Martín find each other: the legacy of past injuries against female slaves, the persistent prejudices against black women in the present. At the molecular level, the dress quite literally deconstructs their bodies so that every sexual encounter is not simply one between two pre-defined subjects who are lovers. The participants in these encounters are portions of flesh, organs, fluids, pains, pleasures, impulses, and constraints—surely a more accurate description of both the precariousness and the unpredictable potential of their relation, a description only revealed by the dress’s mediation.
To the extent that Fe's and Martín's bodies desire each other and that desire breaks professionally and historically imposed limits, the novel poses the liberating potential of desire itself. Desire is potentially liberating inasmuch as it will find its way above, under, and alongside prescribed pathways of expression. Moreover, desire also tends to break with prescribed models of liberation. As Guattari indicates,
I propose to denominate as desire all forms of the will to live, the will to create, the will to love, the will to invent another society, another perception of the world, and other value systems. For the dominant modelization--what I call "capitalistic subjectivity"-- ...desire can only be radically cut off from reality, and […] there is always an inevitable choice between, on the one hand, a pleasure principle, a principle of desire, and, on the other hand, a reality principle, a principle of efficiency in the real. The problem is to find out whether there is not another way of seeing and practicing things, whether there are not ways of fabricating other realities, other references, which do not have this castrating position in relation to desire, which attributes a whole aura of shame to it, a whole kind of climate of culpabilization that creates a situation where desire can only insinuate and infiltrate itself secretly, always experienced clandestinely, in impotence and repression. (Molecular Revolution 318)
It is impossible to know what actual forms the virtual flow of Fe's and Martín's desire will take, but the novel's ambiguity on this issue points toward unforeseen singularizations rather than adaptation to pre-conceived models. Fe and Martín are aware of the restrictive limitations that a long history of colonialism and racism imposes on their desires. They rebel, but not in the name of any pre-established ideal, identity, or model of liberation. Such a position is in fact “perverse” from the perspective of a traditional understanding of liberation struggles—as “perverse” as their ritual sexual encounters. (9)
However, the novel, particularly in the doubtful wisdom of Martín's seemingly well-intentioned final plan, also points to the danger of assuming a naive attitude towards affect and desire. It is easy to mistakenly regard any concrete expression of affect and desire as fully emancipated, when in fact all such expressions are always already codified forms, even if they represent a clear improvement over previous, more limiting forms. Therein lies another important aspect of the ritual of the dress. What Fe makes sure through her use of the dress is that, periodically, their sexual encounters (or desires) are explicitly confronted with the forms (Fe’s blackness and Martín’s whiteness in the context of the legacy of racism and slavery) they want to break. The dress wounds and restricts the desiring bodies just as historically inherited reifications of identities constantly limit the free flow of desire. Fe is not naive about this, and her ritual is a constant reminder. Affect wants no limits; therefore, it is important to always keep in sight the inevitable imposition of limits even as the struggle against those impositions continues. From this perspective, Martín’s final plan to destroy the dress by force, even if well intentioned, is indeed dangerously naive at best, disturbingly imperialistic at worst. He codifies and imposes a pre-determined objective to Fe’s desire, a desire that he confidently and vainly assumes he has fully apprehended and interpreted. In that regard, the novel also points to Gayatri Spivak's deconstructive critique (in “Can the Subaltern Speak?”) of Foucauldian/Deleuzian celebration of the un-restricting of desire: rather than moving too quickly to ascribe a definite content or object to the Other's desire, it is often wiser to pause and examine the silencing foreclosure of otherness that the impulse to “fulfill” (and therefore end) once and for all the Other’s desire can provoke. (10)
Fe en disfraz poses more questions than it can actually answer; indeed, that is its power as fiction. It never idealizes or demonizes its characters, and it never loses sight of the power games that may creep into even the best intentioned attempts to confront colonial and racial injustice. At the same time, it dares to imagine the possibility of partially extricating the present of inter-subjective relations from the overwhelming weight of the past, and it conveys the urgency to acknowledge forms of binding and connecting that go above, beneath, and alongside pre-approved or recognized individual and collective agencies. Desiring is never sufficient or beyond potential for corruption. But desire itself, extricated from repressive structures built by racist colonial histories and perpetuated by globalized capitalism, may operate as an ethical horizon (always imagined, never fully achievable) against which the remembrance of past injustices becomes a vehicle to address the injustices that persist in the present.
The novel does not propose the naive notion that eroticism and liberated desire automatically constitute, or lead to, political and social liberation. However, in the parallel development of Fe’s and Martín’s actions as historians and as lovers, the text does seem to propose that such liberation of affects and desire would be an important component of a different way of conceptualizing political action and the ways political groups come together. As we have seen, in spite of being a novel about a black female historian investigating slavery, Fe en disfraz does not privilege identity (whether based on race, gender, or class) as the main category of political engagement (although it does not reject it either). In that regard, the text points to the distinction Deleuze and Guattari make between “subjugated groups” and “subject groups.” The former are characterized as “extensive multiplicities,” in which the commonalities that tie the group together are defined a priori; the latter constitute “intensive multiplicities,” in which the nature and character of the group change with the addition of each new unit (A Thousand 33). As Deleuze and Guattari maintain:
[A] revolutionary group at the preconscious level remains a subjugated group, even in seizing power, as long as this power itself refers to a form of force that continues to enslave and crush desiring-production. […] A subject-group, on the contrary, is a group whose libidinal investments are themselves revolutionary, it causes desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinates the socius or the forms of power to desiring-production… (Anti-Oedipus 348-49)
Thus, Fe and Martín together are not struggling for what either of them would fight for individually, and they do not come together only to assist each other toward a pre-determined objective. Ideally, each is changed by the other’s affects, and those mutual changes do not lead to a stultified equilibrium, but to furthering still unforeseen forms of desire, and to constant opposition to political and social powers that would limit not only the current form of their desiring, but also the ongoing creation of new forms of desiring. This ongoing process of liberation has no prescribed blueprint, and appears as a utopian horizon toward which concrete steps are taken. At no point the novel suggests that any given sexual encounter (between the lovers) or any given recovery of an enslaved voice hidden in history (by the historians) constitutes a final or decisive victory. Fe’s ritual operates as a vivid reminder that all expressions of affect and desire, just like any unveiling of repressed truths, occur within constraining historical forms. However, Fe en disfraz constitutes a significant exploration of political affect and the politics of affect as important dimensions in contemporary engagements with struggles for liberation.
(2). For a useful examination of how the social and the somatic are intimately imbricated in intricate networks of bodies, minds, and social institutions that operate “above, below, and alongside the subject” (Protevi 3) without necessarily obliterating the subject’s importance, see Protevi.
(4). By “colonial domination” I refer to what Aníbal Quijano calls “the coloniality of power,” that is to say, what we might describe as the cultural and philosophical logic of modern colonialism, which goes well beyond the direct physical occupation of foreign territories that are militarily and politically dominated, economically exploited, and culturally and socially restructured. That colonial logic regards the colonized as inherently inferior. For Quijano, a principal (though not the only one) structuring axis of the coloniality of power is the category of “race,” with its concomitant racial/racist distinctions. Race, described by Quijano as a “a mental category of modernity” (534), becomes “a way of granting legitimacy to the relations of domination imposed by the conquest” (534). Thus, “the conquered and dominated peoples were situated in a natural position of inferiority and, as a result, their phenotypic traits as well as their cultural features were considered inferior” (535). As Quijano emphasizes, even after the end of formal colonialism the structuring matrix of coloniality remains in place (now embedded in the structures of international capitalism), both in global relations and internally, in “postcolonial” nations.
(5). Chrissy B. Arce provocatively proposes that the novel in fact places the reader in a voyeuristic position that is complicit with that of Martín. In her article, she states: “[el] lector es envuelto sin querer en un juego de seducción que, al igual que la protagonista, se imprime en su piel al provocar el cuerpo con la narración de violaciones seguidas por escenas de maturbación y coito punzante. El contrapunteo entre la narración del abuso sexual y la gratificación sexual por medio del sadomasoquismo histórico acaba desdibujando las barreras entre el pasado y el presente, la “moralidad” y el erotismo (hetero)normativo. El erotismo de la mujer negra caribeña termina por contener las estrategias que desarman al lector inerme a la vez que recuperan un poder históricamente patologizado” (239). As a result of this, one may argue that the text poses ethical questions to the reader that are similar to those that Martín faces in the novel.
(7). Celis Salgado has compellingly shown how Santos Febres’s fiction privileges “heterotopic” spaces (houses of prostitution, motels, drag queen shows) that foreground precisely the undecidable tension between the radical rebelliousness of desiring bodies and appropriation of those “liberated” desires by market forces that have always hyper-sexualized and exoticized Caribbean bodies as colonial commodities. For the similar role of drugs in Cualquier miércoles soy tuya, see Figueroa.
(8). Santos Febres’s novel could be placed in a long tradition of Latin American fictions that allegorically use inter-ethnic and inter-racial romances as allegorical commentaries on social and political tensions in diverse countries. In Foundational Fictions, Doris Sommer has examined important nineteenth century Latin American novels that deal with lovers from different races, ethnicities, or social groups. As the lovers in these novels struggle against diverse obstacles and prejudices in order to come together, the readers become invested in their final victory, which would join romantic/erotic fulfillment and national unification. In Fe en disfraz, the inter-racial couple of historians study the world of nineteenth century prejudices that Sommer examines, while becoming a contemporary iteration of inter-ethnic erotic union.
(9). For Deleuze and Guattari, it is the repressive coding of desire under capitalism that is truly perverse, and it is significant to notice that the language they use in their description of this process resembles Fe en disfraz’s description of the inscription of slavery on the slaves’ bodies: “All the stupidity and the arbitrariness of the laws, all the pain of the initiations, the whole perverse apparatus of repression and education, the red-hot irons, and the atrocious procedures have only this meaning: to breed man, to mark him in his flesh, to render him capable of alliance, to form him within the debtor-creditor relation...” (Anti-Oedipus 180).
(10). While Spivak’s objections to Deleuze (and Foucault) in her classic essay remain pertinent, particularly as a warning about the dangers of the Eurocentric neocolonial impulse that may lie hidden in the desire to help “the subaltern” speak, Robinson and Tormey have also offered a compelling argument against Spivak’s reading of Deleuze.
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