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Todd Haynes’s Poison and Queer Cinema

Issue 01: The Worlding of Cultural Studies (Winter 1998)

Norman Bryson

I would like to begin by outlining a distinction between gay and lesbian studies and queer studies, as related yet distinct strands of thinking within art history and visual/cultural studies. I would not want to be divisive here; both modes of inquiry get important work done. Yet, their basic strategies could hardly be more different. The aim of this first section of the discussion is to create at least a provisional sense of the aesthetic and political aims of queer cinema. Later, I will be discussing Todd Haynes as pioneering throughout his career a particularly interesting kind of queer film-making, though our focus here will be on a single film, Poison, from 1990.

In his introduction to the landmark volume Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History (1994), Whitney Davis explains that the intention of the anthology is to present “important but little known or new evidence, accompanied by original documentation and interpretation, as well as reconsiderations of relatively familiar events, objects, images or texts;” to rectify the historical record, which has been “so constructed, arranged and published that materials of direct interest to lesbian and gay studies have often literally dropped out of immediate view or have completely disappeared;” and to cover as wide a historical range as possible, “from the ancient through the medieval, early modern and modern worlds.”1 I must say that I have no quarrel with any of the stated aims of the collection–and wish there were a dozen more anthologies like it. But it is clear that the position from which the volume is conceived is “minoritarian”–that the emphasis is on doing justice to art that by virtue of its content or authorship can considered lesbian or gay, and that because of that has been ignored or repressed in academic discussion. The minoritarian strategy in art history means restoring to visibility the culture of a social group that, having been cut out of art history virtually since the inception of the discipline, now rightly seeks inclusion and a place at the table. In the same way that a certain strategy within feminist art history sought to bring the work of women artists into the canon, and to interrogate the ideology of the discipline that had excluded them in the first place, gay and lesbian studies are concerned with overcoming prejudices so deep that even in the case of such central figures as Leonardo or Michelangelo or Winckelmann the question of sexuality has until now been systematically silenced within scholarship.

When gay and lesbian art history sets out to transform this dismal situation, who could possibly be against it? And yet there is a classic problem with minoritarian thinking: that once the record has been revised and the canon extended, once the visual expressions of gay and lesbian desire can be as freely explored as their heterosexual equivalents–end of story. Minoritarian tactics turn on precise and delimited goals; that is their strength, but also their disadvantage. As Michael Warner puts it in his introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet (1993), “there are many people, gay and straight, who think that . . .discrimination should be eliminated, but that [once this is achieved] gay people have no further political interest as a group.”2 Yes, art historians should be free to write about Paul Cadmus, David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, and so on; there should be more attention paid to the aesthetic consequences of same-sex desire in the work of Leonardo and Michelangelo. But once this is accomplished, the campaign is over.

Queer art history and visual studies proceed differently, from a majoritarian position: the stigmatization of gay and lesbian people and culture is regarded not simply as a local issue, to be resolved through a politics of inclusion; rather, stigmatization is thought of as massively overdetermined, as connected to all dimensions of cultural normalization. “Every person who comes to a queer self-understanding,” writes Warner, “knows that her stigmatization is connected with gender, the family, notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care, and deep cultural norms about the bearing of the body.”3

Since aspects of homophobia are to be found in virtually every domain of cultural life, questions of gay and lesbian visual culture are too narrowly conceived if they are simply a matter of ending discrimination, adding gay or lesbian artists to the canon, or acknowledging the gayness of the artists–Leonardo, Michelangelo, et al–already canonized. The stakes are considerably higher: not supplementing the literature with a monograph on such-and-such a gay or lesbian artist, but investigating the ways in which structures of heteronormativity pervade the whole of the canon and its organization; not petitioning for membership in the club so much as investigating the ways the club itself has been profoundly determined by a compulsory heteronormativity that affects and shapes its entire visual field. The majoritarian outlook of queer art history and visual studies cannot settle for adding anything–artists, works, styles, iconographies. The difficulty with a politics of formal inclusion is that it is not necessarily motivated to question the status quo. For queer art history, the status quo, by contrast, emerges as a prime object of knowledge.

I feel obliged to mention a further distinction between gay and lesbian art history and visual studies, on the one hand, and their queer counterparts, on the other, over the issue of what might be called indigenous versus discursive understandings of the relation between desire and representation. An acute problem within minoritarian cultural politics is the tendency to dramatize and to valorize authentic expressions of the minority in question: the minority is thought of as embodied in a particularly radical or foundational way, as possessing a ground of being that is then, as it were subsequently, expressed through art and other cultural forms. That is, an essential x, whether this be femininity or negritude or gayness, is thought (i) naturally to express itself unless (ii) such self-expression is blocked by phobia and discriminatory practices; in which case (iii) the task is to clear away the screens and distortions imposed by the dominant regime, and to return to a vision of x–in this case, gay or lesbian desire–in its authentic mode, as a direct expression of the body: female body, black body, gay or lesbian body.

Belief in spontaneous or indigenous self-expression may be the chimera of minoritarian inquiry in general, but in the case of art history and visual studies there are additional factors that make the cult of authenticity especially insidious and hard to think beyond. It would be difficult for a cultural historian to start talking about a timeless Africa or the essential Japaneseness of Japanese art without this move being noticed and questioned as heavily ideological. Yet in the modern sexual dispensation, that is, ever since the creation of a scientia sexualis as a key component of modernity, the categories of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality,” together with the whole zoology of the perversions, have been understood as culturally non-specific and invariant. Sexual behavior might be stylized or elaborated in different ways in different periods, but its principal forms are conceived in universal terms, so to speak, as prime numbers, incapable of further reduction or explanation in terms of anything else. Such categories might be inflected by history, but they are thought of as standing essentially outside the historical process, as they also stand outside structures of class, wealth, education, ethnicity, and so forth. Transposed into visual terms, this has meant that, for instance, in Michelangelo’s or in Winckelmann’s way of idealizing the male body, a system of erotic emphases could be found that expresses or enacts same-sex desire in a basically timeless way. In Michelangelo’s Captives and ignudi, as in Winckelmann’s response to the erotic allure of Greek sculpture, the selections and emphases around the male body cut across the centuries, forming a recognizable, familiar set of idealizations that can be recognized, and maybe appreciated and enjoyed as such, by gay viewers even today.

Queer art history typically harbors a deep skepticism over the question of timeless desire: it may or may not be true that sexual acts and fantasies stay more or less constant over the long haul; but the place of sexuality in the culture, whether it is accorded a major or a minor role, how it is taken up by other social agencies, what discourses move in on the prima materia of sex, how they articulate and transform the sexual impulse, all that is a matter of history, and the history, specifically, of discourse. For queer art history and visual studies, gay or lesbian desire cannot so easily be isolated from discursive history, or approached as an authentic ground of being. From the time that the categories of heteronormativity came to be instituted in their modern form through the new juridico-medical apparatus of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, stigmatization of the category “homosexuality” has been profoundly constitutive of the heteronormative order, in all of its forms. From this perspective, central questions to be asked of gay or lesbian desire concern the latter’s positioning vis-à-vis discourse, its articulation with the institutions of law, medicine, religion, the family, the school, art, literature, cinema, television. Queer art history and visual studies have no less an ambition than to take on heteronormativity’s entire visual field.

In all of this, there is a close parallel with cinema, for films too have choices to make. For instance, one choice is to follow the minoritarian route, whether as a separatist, independent gay and lesbian cinema, with its own aesthetic conventions and visual languages, an indigenous cinema designed expressly for gay and lesbian spectators, or as a project of including gay characters, plots, and themes, not to mention actors, directors, and producers, inside mainstream Hollywood production. Queer cinema traces a rather different course: its aims include developing an understanding of the visual field of heteronormative film, the discourses with which the compulsory heterosexuality of nearly all cinema is constantly secured and re-secured, and the central role that the stigmatization of gay and lesbian visuality plays in constructing the cinematic dominant. The figure in queer cinema I will focus on in a moment is Todd Haynes. But first I want to look more closely at homophobia as a visual operation.


In a key passage in The History of Sexuality, Volume I, Foucault argues that with the advent of the scientia sexualis and the medical formalization of the hetero/homosexual system of categories, for the first time the homosexual

became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away.4

In fact the historical shift that Foucault posits, from sodomitical acts to the homosexual type, is part of wider epistemological transformation in which the ability to recognize the essential and definitive marks of “difficult” social groups becomes vital to the agencies of social management. The emergence of social typology, and of a new visual mastery of the populations of greatest concern to administrative power–the colonial subject, the criminal subject, the poor, the prostitute, the orphan, the insane–coinciding as it does with the arrival of industrially produced photography as a tool for social management, leads to the creation of a many-branched archival project in which it is the image that now forms the center of bureaucratic intelligence. Such archival images have been extensively studied by Allan Sekula and John Tagg, among others: the colonial archive, in the anthropometric form that it took once the Lamprey scale could be introduced into the visual field;5 the archive of poverty, represented by the photographs used by the parliamentary inquiry into slum conditions in Leeds;6 the archive of the orphanage, seen in the famous “before” and “after” pictures made by Dr. Thomas J. Barnardo;7 the archive of insanity, medical records such as J.W. Diamond’s photographs of patients suffering from mental disorders;8 and the police files of Bertillon, designed to facilitate the identification of the criminal suspect.9

Particularly revealing are the case studies by Francis Galton, of “Jewish” physiognomy and of the “criminal” and “tubercular” types, produced through Galton’s unique method of composite photography, in which a set of between eight and twelve shots of individuals are superimposed in order to make apparent their hidden family resemblance, the essence of the type, presented now in visual form.10The origins of social typology as a mode of administrative knowledge can be traced at least to the eighteenth century, when for the first time the metropolitan police force began to make systematic records of criminal suspects and to institute a conception of criminality that moved from an emphasis on isolated individual acts to the criminal person, understood very much in the terms that Foucault invokes: the criminal becomes a past, a case history, a biography, with an inherent disposition toward crime, but at the same time a potential for reform and rehabilitation under state supervision. The shift from acts to persons and from individual criminals to criminality as essence and biography had already been accomplished during the Enlightenment; we can see its traces in Daniel Defoe’s and Henry Fielding’s “rogue” biographies (Moll Flanders, Jonathan Wild) as well as in the social types that populate the prints of Hogarth (the rake, the woman of fashion, the country lass turned prostitute, the idle apprentice). What was new was not the typological paradigm itself so much as its mode of operation, the central shift from textual hermeneutics (court reports, penal records, fiction) to positive visual knowledge. The impulse that motivates Galton’s research is a new way with the visual field, an all-purpose scrutiny of the bodily surface, a penetrating administrative gaze.

Francis Galton, “Specimens of Composite Portraiture, from Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development.”

What is uppermost is the need to produce abnormality in a form that manifests it directly to the naked eye: deviancy or degeneration as a face. The transition from sodomitical acts to homosexual persons can be thought of as an epistemological turn or swerve into the visual as the place where the signs of deviancy are now to appear. Under the previous dispensation, it was the crime itself that constituted the site of transgression, not the criminal. Investigation of the crime was accordingly a matter of spoken or written testimony, to be judged in terms of forensics and proof. In the new regime to which Galton belongs, forensics itself becomes visualization. Before, the actions of the authorities proceeded according to a logic of narrative: what was the exact sequence of events, when and where did they take place, who acted, how did they act, and for what reasons? Now narrative as the explanatory mode of social inquiry yields to the image. There is no longer any need to reconstruct sequences of events, chains of causal connection, syntagms of deviancy: deviancy comes all at once, as the face that involuntarily expresses it in a form transcending time, space, and causal or narrative chains. With respect to the urge to produce the essence of deviancy in visual form, it is immaterial whether the face in question is that of the tubercular type, the Jewish type, the criminal, or the homosexual; in each case the central operation is to make manifest these essences in clear and distinct characters, legible markers that can be read, indexed, and absorbed into the system of administrative taxonomy.

It is already clear enough in Galton’s work that the secure, positive knowledge that he claimed for his composite views involved a certain measure of hallucination. Galton’s method of superimposition was able to produce the essentialized face, yet only in spectral form: the face flickers in and out of true; at the center of the face, along the eyes, nose and mouth, there is more solidity, but toward the sides, for instance in the sitter’s blurred cheeks and pixified ears, the forms become more uncertain and ectoplasmic, with the irresolution of pentimenti. Even with highly identifiable groups, such as tubercular patients, the visual procedure constantly risks petering out into a shadowy, apparitional zone, a penumbra. How much worse, then, in the case of that notoriously elusive type, the homosexual: for in contrast to the legible–you could say the honest–face of the criminal, the signs of homosexuality were themselves penumbral and deceptive. Here is Proust, in the magnificent, paranoid passage from Sodome et Gomorrhe where he describes the “freemasonry” of the gay demi-monde:

a freemasonry far more extensive, more effective and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, vocabulary, and one in which even members who do not wish to know one another recognize one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his kind to the beggar in the person of the nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting, to the father in the person of his daughter’s suitor, to the man who has sought healing, absolution or legal defense in the doctor, the priest or the barrister to whom he has had recourse; all of them obliged to protect their own secret but sharing with the others a secret which the rest of humanity does not suspect…a reprobate section of the human collectivity, but an important one, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and immune, where its existence is never guessed; numbering its adherents everywhere, among the people, in the army, the church, in prison, on the throne . . .11

The markers of homosexuality are everywhere, and yet except to those who themselves already belong to the gay demi-monde they pass by unnoticed, unread by the unsuspecting majority. Among the myriad forms of deviancy, it is homosexuality, in fact, that tests the powers of the normalizing gaze to its limits. If homosexuality’s signs of existence are not clearly present in physiognomic terms, this is because the influence of the majority’s modesty and decency has caused such signs to seek concealment; they go underground. For this reason the gaze that would identify the homosexual type must redouble its efforts, must look to subtle details of expression and movement; it must enter deeply into the body of the one who is of that kind, get up close, as close as the man shutting the nobleman’s carriage; it must become intimate and familiar with this obscure yet compelling code. But as a consequence of this redoubling of the efforts of the homophobic gaze, such increased vigilance exactly puts itself on the line, in ways that seem not to be the case with the “honest” criminals or those whose consumptive disease manifests in direct and unambiguous symptoms.

In order to track the one suspected of inversion, the gaze must bury itself in the nuances and details of the body; it must itself go underground, into the density of the flesh that harbors such strange desires; it must travel deep within the intimate, overlooked signs that deliberately or unwittingly betray that which the flesh craves. What is perilous is that in tracing to their imagined source the signs of deviant desire, the gaze must itself come to the same knowledge of the sign-language of this masonic brotherhood that its members and initiates themselves possess; the gaze must leave behind the terrain of decency and respectability and venture out into the zone of forbidden and clandestine communications. Only then will the knowledge that is looked for be acquired. This is the double bind of the visual field of homophobia: in order to establish and secure heteronormativity as a stable edifice, that gaze seeks out its enemies; yet so fleeting, deceptive, and indistinct are the signs of homosexuality that the gaze of the stigmatizor comes dangerously close to entering those forbidden bodies, groupings, postures, expressions, as an insider. The goal is to establish a clear line of demarcation between us, the majority, and those others who are to be surrounded by a juridico-medical cordon sanitaire; but the mode of detection and stigmatization is such that at the very moment when the line is to be drawn the distinction between the two sides approaches the point of collapse.

Consider the field of vision in which this troubled and troubling operation is to take place from the stigmatizor’s point of view. What are sought are tell tale indices, clues that are barely perceptible to the uninitiated. But, the moment when these are found, shall we say at the moment when they are about to be found, is one of acute visual disturbance. From the stigmatizor’s viewpoint the stigma is intended as a brand, an inscription of the sign of criminality; but at the same time the stigma is the very point closest to desire, where complicity becomes inescapable, and alien desire irrupts into the visual field of the stigmatizor.

I would like here to invoke Sharon Lockhart’s film Kahlil Haper-Bowers (1993), because it seems to me a brilliant analysis of this visual panic, this disruption of the visual field that lies at the foundation of heteronormative visuality.12 In Lockhart’s film, the body of a young boy, who faces the camera directly, gradually begins to display what at first seem slight discolorations or abrasions of the skin. The film, which gives the impression of being a medical, diagnostic record of a series of clinical visits over time, hovers intently at the point of indistinctness: what are these dark shadows on the skin? Bruises? Lesions? Are they real, genuine dermatological symptoms–or just stage make-up? And, of what condition are these the symptoms: AIDS–or not? As the marks begin to multiply, Lockhart skillfully intensifies the pressure of the visual field around the deviant body, to the point where the spectator is able to experience the stigmatizing gaze in itself. The film brings all of that gaze’s contradictory elements into play: the quasi-medical, quasi-legalistic imperative to explore the body intimately and diagnostically; where the diagnostic gaze is at the same time a sadistic, invasive procedure that seeks to brand the body it explores; where at the point or punctum of branding the whole visual field suddenly buckles and bends around;13 where instead of the stigma acting as a seal, a cauterizing process, a protection against disease, something seeps through the stigma from its other side, something sickening, like a secretion, the secretion of the secret, something that dissolves the membrane separating us from them, a point of merger where the two sides commingle, a point of infection or contagion; a point that is experienced throughout this process entirely at the level of Galtonesque hallucination, of not being sure what it is, of not being able to apply the normalizing categories for the precise reason that at the very point of the stigma the categories hang suspended, leaving the subject floundering, unable to impose the distinction that was the goal of its activity, losing the distinction, losing it all round, becoming for a moment a subject unable to apply the dividing line that is the founding axiom of the heteronormative order, for the duration of the panic unable to successfully abject what is to be abjected in order for the subject to be, and is instead invaded and attacked, in the ricochet of the brand-become-infection that typifies homophobic panic as a visual field.

Now consider the same set of signs, this time from the point of view of the one who is stigmatized. In a famous passage on gay resistance, Foucault writes that

There is no question that the appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and “psychic hermaphrodism” made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of “perversity;” but it also made possible the formation of a “reverse” discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or “naturality” be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified. There is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite it, another discourse that runs counter to it. Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in…a multiple and mobile field of force relations, wherein far-reaching, but never completely stable, effects of domination are produced.14

An exemplary case of such reversal would, indeed, be the word “queer” itself, in its arc of development from an insult, a taunt, a strategy of dehumanization, that is now turned back on itself, made to buckle, is redirected and made into a flag, a rallying-point, a weapon.

In terms of the visual field of emergent gay and queer cultures, what would be the fate of stigmatization, of those specific, semi-hallucinated points of horror/desire that structured the homophobic gaze? If not to become the basis for erotic and critical re-appropriation, at least for a time, the stigmatization could itself be treated as modality of desire, whose origins lay ultimately in the brand, the mark, the seal. For the stigmatizor, the brand had been intended as a means of rejecting and casting out the psychosexual presence of gay desire, both internally, within the purged and normalized interior of heteronormative subjects, and externally, in terms of a social erasure and rendering invisible of gay and lesbian culture. Yet, the whole operation tends toward the crux at which it collapses, threatening the stigmatizor at least as much as the stigmatized. In the “reverse” movement, the stigmas become primary points of libidinal reconfiguration. This was already true in the passage from Sodome et Gomorrhe, where those elusive signs of infamy that the race maudite seeks to hide from the world serve a double duty. To the policing, heteronormative gaze they are the marks of shame, but to the infinitely extensive community of inverts they also serve as a code of mutual recognition and salutation, an esperanto or lingua franca known to all. For queer cinema, at least as we see it in Todd Haynes’s Poison, the stigma becomes the very locus of queer desire.


In Poison, the centrality of stigmatization as the basis for eroticism is perhaps clearest in the Genet sequences, where the rule that governs the sexual games among the prisoners is that they always return to and re-enact conditions of originary homophobic persecution. In our first introduction to these games, the head honcho of the penal hierarchy is found being serviced by one of the lesser prisoners while he meanwhile subjects the latter to a torrent of abuse whose main expressions–pussy, scum, crawl for it–come straight from the repertoire of homophobic taunting. Subsequent sexual scenes follow much the same pattern. The regime of the prison is hardly austere; opportunities for sexual contact are abundant, for in Genet it is as if the whole persecutory apparatus of the law has been internalized and sexualized, and the subject’s attachment to the law made into the prime source of libidinality.

An extreme statement of this principle is the closing scene of Poison‘s Genet section, which takes the form of a flashback to the penitentiary where the protagonist, John Broom, served time as a teenager. The scene depicts the young offenders lining up to aim their spit at the open mouth of their victim. This inset scene is presented in a different style from the rest of the narrative, with more schematic sets, brighter colors, and a heightened, plasticated artificiality that suggests that the scene, and others shot in the same Pierre-et-Gilles idiom, stand for fantasy, and specifically for the prisoner John Broom’s autoerotic fantasy. As the projectile volleys multiply and become more rapid, the camera angles change and the mise-en-scène becoming increasingly lyrical. When the teenage prisoners first file in, we see them from above, against the highly stylized prison garden; once the spit games get underway, the same crew is shot from below, against a background of heavenly azure. The shower of spit that the victim opens his mouth so wide to receive then turns into a cascade of rose petals, and the story ends in a close-up of a rose. Debasement and humiliation, a movement down into the abjection, turns around, in this extreme moment of reversal and transfiguration, into a movement up that ascends toward bliss and jouissance, with the celestial rose as the climax of the aspiring or resublimating movement.

Clip 1

Similar conditions of eroticized persecution prevail during the scenes in which the protagonist, John Broom, and the object of his affections, Jack Bolton, eventually have sex together. The two have become buddies, in the guarded and offhand way of Genet prisoners. When Bolton thanks Broom for a favor, the reply is of course “forget it;” it is a point of honor among the prisoners that any current of attraction or even friendship among them is instantly denied and covered over. This indeed makes life difficult for a prisoner like Broom: just when Bolton seems to be thawing a little, growing somewhat less stiff and distant, and has even started talking to Broom about his past life, a slight innuendo from Broom concerning Bolton’s relationship to one of his former partners in crime has Bolton flaring up and ready for a fight. That is the ongoing problem for Genet’s lovers of tough guys: just when they seem to be warming to you, because they are warming to you, they start beating you up. This, though, may be just what Genet’s lovers of tough guys want.

In a nighttime scene in the prisoners’ quarters, Broom and Bolton are sleeping side by side. Broom begins to wonder whether this may be an opportunity for sexual contact between them, especially if they both maintain the fiction–since tough guys should not be mistaken for faggots–that Bolton is actually asleep, and so not actually taking part.But the inevitable happens: there is a disturbance elsewhere in the cell, Bolton “wakes up,” and the moment he does he seizes Broom’s hand and stops what he has been up to. This is followed by an intertitle that reads:

My heart is in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand is in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught.

Clip 2

Both in this passage and the scene that precedes it, the sexual advance is thought of as a crime, and specifically as theft: when Broom tries to reach inside Bolton’s pants without waking Bolton up, it is exactly as if he were a pickpocket. Love in Genet needs this coloration of transgression, of breaking the law, to count as love at all. In this context a key word is pierced: “my heart is in my hand, and my hand is pierced.” In Genet’s prison world expressions of love are instantly stigmatized and severely punished. The piercing, the stigma, is love’s own wound; a wound that is at the same time a humiliation (getting caught red-handed, with your fingers on the goods) and a peak erotic experience, often with sacramental overtones: the heavenly rose, the sacred heart of Jesus, the stigmata of Christ. The scene where Broom and Bolton finally make out follows a similar logic: the sexual act is conceived as a punishment, for no crime in particular, except perhaps the crime of same-sex desire itself. Broom punishes Bolton for possessing such desire, and for provoking comparable desire in himself: where the crime (homosexuality) and the punishment (more homosexuality) are virtually interchangeable.

A second sequence in Poison concerns stigmatization of a rather different kind; we move from the construction of homosexuality in terms of crime and punishment, in the discursive register of law, to the other term in the medico-juridical schema, science. The protagonist, Dr. Graves, is a sexologist who has devoted his career to discovering the hormonal basis of human sexuality; when his claim to have distilled the essence of the sex drive is rejected by his colleagues as medical nonsense, Graves retreats to his laboratory, which is crammed with retorts and alembics. Absent-mindedly mistaking a beaker containing the hormonal concentrate for a cup of coffee, he instantly begins to change from doctor into sex-fiend, his face gradually dissolving over the following weeks into a leprous and pustulous miasma. Unable to control his sexual impulses, when approached by a hooker in a bar, he kisses and then kills her, in the first of a series of sex attacks that the newspaper headlines bill as “Leper Sex Killer on the Loose.” His condition is both irreversible and contagious: within seconds of embracing him, the hooker has about her mouth the same, festering sores that are eating his own face away; eventually it seems that the whole of the city, at least on the wrong side of the tracks, has become a hotbed of infection. Even Graves’s loyal intern, Nancy Olson, contracts the disease and shortly thereafter expires, though not before whispering to Graves the consoling ecological message, “Don’t blame yourself, doctor…toxins…in the atmosphere…caused the contagion to spread.”

Clip 3

In a sense, the plot here is governed by a certain fantasy of revenge: the social agency that has been so central in constructing homosexuality as a disease and a pathology, modern scientia sexualis, is itself infected and pathologized. As in the classic moment of reversal that structures the homophobic gaze, the attempt to isolate a sexual essence and to control its manifestation leads to a point of breakdown where the stigmatizor himself becomes contaminated and abject. In some ways the narrative resembles earlier stories where the power of the science rebounds against itself, or where sexuality is visualized as a disease that corrupts the face and body–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Portrait of Dorian Grey: narratives that date from–and vividly dramatize–the historical emergence of the medical construction of sexuality as disease.

Yet, there is no question that these older stories are invoked in a way that measures the intensification of their themes in the era of AIDS. The core of anxiety concerns fluids that enter the body via sexuality: Dr. Graves ingests the fatal elixir just as he is being distracted by the charms of his new amanuensis (the wiggle in her walk affects his concentration, he reaches for the wrong beaker); the fluid instantly starts to devastate his system; the resulting infection spreads like wildfire, and there is no cure. What is telling in Haynes’s narrative is that the ultimate source of the epidemic is science itself: it was scientia sexualis, after all, that isolated and distilled homosexuality, named it, in a sense invented it. The implication is not the paranoid folktale that has it that HIV was actually synthesized by scientists, in an experiment that went wildly wrong. Rather, the context of visuality into which AIDS was first assimilated was already structured by a specific medico-juridical gaze that was bound to interpret the advent of AIDS in terms of its own, homophobic gaze. It was science that built that gaze, with its diagnostic compulsiveness, its avidity for signs of a sexual essence that are at the same time symptoms of a dread pathology, and its tendency to experience deviancy as a Medusa-like image with the awesome capacity to attack those who gaze upon it (in one of the funniest black-humor moments during the manhunt that closes this section of Poison, the assembled townsfolk are shown wincing in horror at Dr. Graves’s face, screening out the terrible apparition, as though a person could get infected just by looking).

Poison‘s third strand concerns the strange case of Fred Beacon, the child parricide in the town of Glenville who one fine day came into his parents’ bedroom to find his father battering his mother, shot his father three times at point-blank range, and then–according to his mother, sole witness of this miracle–climbed out the window and flew up to heaven. Stylistically, Haynes conjures up the style of television pseudo-documentary and the outlook of the tabloids, but his target here is probably pop psychology; that is, the debased and formulaic guise assumed by psychoanalytic thought once the latter has come to saturate the culture right down to tabloid level. For it turns out, as the television inquiry proceeds, that young Fred is gay. No one in Glenville is able to say so directly, but in the course of the interviews with neighbors, teachers, counselors, the school nurse, doctor, and sports instructor, the stigmatizing phrases pile up: intelligent but withdrawn, always coloring his books, always making up stories. In school, he is the target of repeated attacks by his classmates, with a grand total of no less than forty-seven visits to the school clinic by the time of his disappearance. What strikes the other kids as altogether strange is that throughout these attacks Fred never once fought back; he seemed to deliberately provoke their animosity, to be asking for it. As one attacker puts it, in hesitating and troubled tones, “he…made me.” And we cannot rule out the possibility that the attacks involved a sexual dimension: the school doctor speaks darkly of certain “complications” surrounding the attacks, for which three schoolmates have been expelled, of the presence of certain bodily discharges, discharges of a genital kind.

As Eve Sedgwick has shown, popular psychology has indeed been particularly prone to pathologizing the gay male child.15 Fleeing the schoolyard for the sanctuary of the school counselor’s office, such a child is likely to come up against the whole coercive edifice of heteronormative child psychology, with its diagnoses of “Childhood Gender Identity Disorder,” its management of children in terms of “gender-appropriate behavior,” its talk of a “naturally occurring fit between the male social world and the boy’s inner object world.”16 In terms of its effects on the direction that the television-style pseudo-documentary takes, even more powerful than the concepts of ego-psychology is the battery of concepts developed by Freud, and gradually filtering down to National Inquirer level. Fred’s crime is portrayed in ways that suggest a Freudian medley of the primal scene, mixed in with the Wolf-Man, and “A Child is Being Beaten.” When Fred fires the gun, explains his mother, his face wore exactly the same sexually excited expression she had once noticed when his father was spanking him. To indicate that the fantasy of being beaten by the father is indeed the kernel or nucleus of Fred’s disorder, the film shifts into a different mode: on one side of the screen, Fred being spanked, and on the other a screen-projection showing the horrified mother witnessing his beatific expression. Similarly, when Fred opens the door to his parents’ bedroom, just before he fires the gun, the image splits again in two, reality and fantasy: for what we are witnessing, through Fred’s eyes, is the trauma of the primal scene, to which Fred responds by enacting the Oedipus a la lettre, killing his father not only in fantasy but in actuality.

We might conceivably fall for it, for the version of Fred’s childhood that patterns it in terms of psychoanalytic discourse. But, this is also the spoofiest, most parodic (and entertaining) of Poison’s three narrative strands. Visually it is the least graceful, the furthest from art cinema, and the closest to television. The Genet section is handled in a heroic idiom, with the sets, costumes, and acting style of the action movie or “men’s picture,” all singlets and stubble, a la Bruce Willis, interposed with the high lyrical kitsch of Pierre et Gilles. The section that recounts the tale of Dr. Grave’s accidental ingestion of the essence of sexuality is played in a style that is campily affectionate toward the Twilight Zone, fifties B-movie models it looks to. But the docudrama is relentlessly banal; it has the idiom of investigative television journalism down, but seems to find in it few redeeming features, as though the discourses of psychology and psychoanalysis, at least in the United States, are too powerful and too close to be distanced or aestheticized easily.

Distanciation is indeed Poison‘s great antidote to cinema’s normalizing powers. Haynes’s direction makes sure that we never for a moment experience the film as a direct statement of any kind: each narrative arrives together with its own visual style, which is so highly foregrounded that we have no choice but to experience it as thoroughly mediated. The film is in fact entirely composed of quotations: from Genet, the action movie, Pierre et Gilles, or from Twilight Zone, or television tabloid journalism. Haynes’s strategy is resolutely neo-Brechtian:

So long as the arts are supposed to be “fused” together, the various elements will all be equally degraded, and each will act as a mere “feed” to the rest. The process of fusion extends to the spectator, who gets thrown into the melting pot too and becomes a passive (suffering) part of the total work of art. Witchcraft of this kind must of course be fought against.17

For Haynes, as for Brecht, the insidious power of spectacle lies in the process of fusion that extends toward the spectator, suturing him or her into its visual and ideological field, gluing him or her to the heteronormative subject positions that are Hollywood’s staple diet. In the same way that Brecht called for the destruction of the total work of art by means of a radical disaggregation or separation of the elements of theater, Haynes disaggregates the movie, breaking it into three, non-totalized parts. Just as Brecht encouraged his actors to observe rather than to fuse with their role, to present their role as if it were a mask, Haynes encourages his actors to hyperbolize: to overdo their role, to go right over the top, even to perform as though mocking the part they play. For Foucault, the project of the queer historian is to denaturalize the present, to understand it as constructed, and to see ourselves as the products of discourse, right down to the supposed core of our being, the bedrock authenticity of sexuality. In Haynes’s queer cinema, distanciation is the equivalent of Foucault’s geneology. Above all, the film must block the spectator’s identification with what appears on screen, in a strategy of resistance to interpellation whose consequences are further explored in Safe (1995) and in Velvet Goldmine (1998). But, discussion of those must wait for another time.

© Journal of InVisible Culture, 1998

  1.  Whitney Davis, ed., Studies in Gay and Lesbian Art History (New York: Haworth Press, 1994), p. 2
  2.  Michael Warner, ed., Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xi.
  3.  Warner, xiii.
  4.  Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 43.
  5.  See Emmanual Cooper, Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 55-71; and Christopher Pinney,Camera Indica: the Social life of Indian Photographs (London: Reaktion, 1997), 17-71.
  6.  See John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 117-52.
  7.  Tagg, The Burden of Representation, 66-102.
  8.  Ibid., 78-81.
  9.  See Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter 1986), 3-64.
  10.  See Sekula, 40-56.
  11.  Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe), from Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (New York: Vintage, 1982), Volume II, 639-40
  12.  Sharon Lockhart, Khalil Harper-Bowers, 16 mm film transferred to video; produced at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, c. 1994.
  13.  On the epistemological panic of homophobic knowledge, especially the aspect that might be called the it-takes-one-to-know-one effect, see Lee Edelman, “Homographesis,” in Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 3-23, in particular 4-9.
  14.  Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 101-2.
  15.  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys,” in Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 154-64.
  16.  Richard C. Friedman, Male Homosexuality: A Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspective (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 198), 237; cit. Sedgwick, 159.
  17.  Brecht, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 14.

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