11/04/21: _Moonlight_ and the Contingent Encounters of (Queer) Touch


For Hortense Spillers, writing in her seminal essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” the theft and reduction of the (Black) captive body to flesh during, and consequently following, the historical rupture of the Trans Atlantic slave trade contributed to, what she describes as, the ungendering of the Black. Figured as the undifferentiated mass of viscosity, the ambiguously threatening and desired-upon desubjectivized body of jouissance, the Black (male/female) is thus, far from rendered in the petrifying discourse of the (white) world, removed from the nexus of Symbolic positionality. If the Black is abolished from (gendered) positionality, this is because the (white) Symbolic, metonymically associating whiteness with the patriarchal family, has detached the (Black) captive body from any resemblance of kinship, and consequently denigrates the matriarchal succession of the Black as the cause of “deviancy.” This denigration of the Law of the (Black) Mother, the cultural substitution of the Law of the Father (who has been erased from mimetic focus), is the derogation Spillers wishes to transvaluate in her essay, highlighting her desirous projected futurity, in which “the African-American male must regain [the heritage of the mother] as an aspect of his own personhood” (80). Speaking to the commonality of a psychoanalytic foundation, Spillers’ writing on the disavowal of the Law of the (Black) Mother operates closely with other feminist theorists’, such as Kaja Silverman’s, insistence on the presence of a (though non-racialized) “general cultural disavowal of male lack” (The Acoustic Mirror, 37). Spillers though, writing through psychoanalysis but not of it, particularizes her study on (fe)male lack through tracing the American Symbolic following the Trans Atlantic slave trade’s perversion of Black kinship relations, engendering the condensation of Black social life into a non-normative matriarchal, and horizontal, structure. This is to say that Spillers’ emphasis on the Black mother as the materialized imago of an obscene feminine phallus in the American Imaginary allows her to interpret the ways in which conceptions of identity, gender, and performativity affect the Black differently than (though intimately with) the white in the Symbolic Order.

If the (white) Symbolic disavows the Law of the (Black) Mother and repudiates it as a cause for Black “deviancy,” as symptomatically made clear in the infamous Moynihan Report, and this matriarchal relatedness of the Black is distinctly associated with slavery’s ungendering of the Black, it is easy to see how the (white) Symbolic queers the Black forthright, without any reference to a sexual orientation. The examination of motherhood and queerness’ intimate relation in Barry Jenkins’ critically acclaimed 2016 film Moonlight, then, speaks well to Spillers’ implications regarding Black positionality and identity. Firstly, it is necessary to highlight that the “queerness” I believe Moonlight to depict is one disassociated with a nominal identity, and instead designates a field of sexual desire sometimes, and sometimes not, consummated in non-heterosexual (specifically male-to-male) sexual behavior. The described link of “queerness” with male-to-male sexual behavior also necessitates noting that only since the eighteenth century has male-to-male sexual behavior been associated with the culturally essentialized figure of “the homosexual.” Thus, I follow Lee Edelman’s detailing of “the homosexual” as the signifier of an alien, and pathogenic, queerness in Homographesis, embodied as a male body that is violently read by a homophobic Symbolic that desires to project lack onto it, inscribing it with arbitrary signs of “homosexual” meaning. Still following Edelman, the reason why the homophobic (heterosexual) Symbolic (and body) must project lack onto the phantasmatically inscribed homosexual body is to disavow its self-difference with the homosexual body. The ambiguity inciting the investigation of the male body resides in the anxiogenic homosexual body’s homographic relation to the heterosexual body – both share the same form to be gazed at, and thus the homophobic Symbolic must distinguish itself from “the homosexual” through the construction of identities through the metaphorization of desire, synecdochally petrified through essentializing (as holistic) the various established “signs” (parts) to be deciphered, bodily or figuratively.

Moonlight does not narratively depict any white characters, and thus is interested in focusing on the facets of Black sociality in the film’s setting of Miami, Florida. As Spillers presents, however, the absent enunciator of whiteness, and the cut of the Trans Atlantic slave trade, remains the master signifier in the social and psychic lives of Black Americans. The (white) Symbolic’s immediate queering of the Black with relation to the Law of the Mother doubly marks the Black male with the (mis)recognition of the perceived lack of woman. The Black is, to reiterate, figured in mimetic relation to the condition of their mothers, a condition that “produces the human as man and everything else as, not even ‘woman,’ but non-man” (Teresa de Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative,” 46). As Edelman rightly describes, then, with relation to this prompted perception of the (feminine) lack of phallic authority and “the homosexual” then, the Black man, operating under the same structural logic of the (white) heterosexual patriarchy, “cannot afford to acknowledge, as it cannot afford to deny, the centrality of its narcissistic investment in, and hence the intensity of its desire for, the culturally institutionalized authority of the phallus that never fully distinguishes itself from the anatomical penis” (Edelman, Homographesis, 48; emphasis added). The jouissance of “the homosexual,” tainting the heterosexual’s (misrecognized) psychic desire for the phallus and threatening, through a homographic appositeness, bodily security, is thus deeply connected with the Law of the Mother. Due to “the homosexual” eluding the bodily difference of sexual difference, the homophobic Symbolic thus endeavors for the male body to be read and deciphered as text, transforming perceived “homosexual” differences metaphorically into the essential identity of “homosexual,” synecdochally recasting the partial factors of contingent differences as the whole of an identity. The putative violence of this logic is illustrated in the first three minutes of Moonlight, when boys chase the ten year old Chiron with sticks, one yelling at the other to catch his “faggot ass.” In fact, the constant homophobic bullying of Chiron in the first two acts of the film never occur parallel to Chiron’s own sexual self-identification: this is because the film is not interested in the narrative reclamation of a nominal sexual identity throughout its entire runtime. Chiron is named as “homosexual” by the heterosexual patriarchy that has read his (effeminate, non-reactive, and feeble) body as “homosexual,” or queer, since he was a prepubescent child. The “homosexual” figures the projected disavowed relation of the heterosexual patriarchy to (feminine) lack, but “the homosexual,” nevertheless, through the perceived homosexual desire of “opening” the man and penetrating him, signifies the phallus who “sodomitically unmans the very body through which that dominant order represents itself” (65). So, in Moonlight, when Chiron’s main bully, the sadistically homophobic Terrell, mocks him, saying “I ain’t with that gay shit, but if you fuck with me, I’ll give your ass more than you can handle,” Moonlight demonstrates the way in which the homophobic Symbolic depends on the enjoyment emanating from the irreducible conflict between “having” and “being” the phallus. More specifically, the (heterosexual) masculinized figure desires to be the phallus, while having the phallus, and thus desires to penetrate the feminized subject, the hole in the position of not-having the phallus. But the masculinized figure’s desire to penetrate the lack of the (feminine) Other in order to be the phallus is because, paradoxically, the (feminine) Other figures as being the phallus itself, as the (feminine) Other occupies the place of the desire of the (masculinized) subject. Terrell’s enjoyment in his homoerotic/homophobic comment to Chiron is thus produced because of the jouissance associated with oscillating between being figured as having and being the phallus. In the heterosexual Imaginary, “the homosexual,” with relation to male-to-male sexual activity, is mockingly figured as this oscillation – both opening up the male (which determines the jokes from heterosexual/homophobic/homographic male about being the desire of “homosexual” men), and being opened up (as shown by Terrell’s threat of giving Chiron’s “ass more than [he] can handle”). The position of “the homosexual” thus both threatens the homophobic man and provides a figural and (possibly) bodily enjoyment to be disavowed. Pertaining to the homophobic association of “the homosexual” with the phallus that “unmans” the male subject, in a chiasmus, the disavowed queer(ed) subject associates the heterosexual man with the phallus, through a linkage of the phallus with totalizing political and social power. The homographic male body, then, becomes the site of a performative (heterosexual) masculinity for the male subject then, as clearly shown in Chiron’s bodily transformation into a muscular, rugged, and “hard” body in the third act of Moonlight, a rendering of the (illusory) phallus in form.

Moonlight‘s attention to the disavowed violence of metaphorically produced essential identities thus makes space for inspecting the contingency of (sexual) desire, and its continual slippage that defers the (impossible) telos of a master signifier. The film never places a nominal identity on Chiron (the closest encounter being when Juan tells a prepubescent Chiron “You can be gay, but you can’t let nobody call you no faggot,” which precedes Chiron asking how he would know if he was gay), nor on Chiron’s lover Kevin, who is shown to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman as a teenager and grows up to have a child with a woman. Instead, the sexual encounter between teenage Chiron and Kevin, as well as the other scenes linguistically/physically depicting slippages between “having” and “being” the phallus, figures queerness as both excess and kernel of sexual desire, and as being contingent in the subjective histories of each of Moonlight‘s character. More specifically to Chiron and Kevin’s sexual history together, the erotic moment came and went, on the shorelines of a prohibited jouissance, and its eroticism returned in a future that, while potentially implying the potential of a sexual reunion, instead eventuated itself as a scene of touching that remains as resistant to any interpretation as the queerness inherent to any proclaimed “selfhood.”


“the African American male has been touched… by the mother… in ways he cannot escape…” (Spillers, 8)

Spillers connects disembodied Black flesh with, what she describes as, the “cultural vestibularity,” a liminal space with no inside or outside, “where ‘kinship’ loses meaning, since it can be invaded at any arbitrary moment by the property relations [that enforce the desubjectivization of the captive body]” (74). Ungendered Black flesh then, queered by the (white) Symbolic, is nebulous, disarticulating identity, and figures the impossible dissolving of the boundaries between self and Other, a (Symbolic) impossibility, as described by Edelman, such as the conception of “the geometry of two non-identical objects each of which contains the other while being contained, at the same time, within it” (Homographesis, 70). Moonlight‘s fixation on the (physical) touch (of Black flesh), as the film’s imagistic “vestibularity,” disintegrates the binary opposition between eros and violence, exposing both as being situated as the self-difference of a more undefinable intimacy, the specter of queerness. In the third act of Moonlight, an older Chiron, now living as a masculinized drug dealer in Atlanta, resembling his father figure mentor Juan, is haunted by queerness specifically through the memories of touching. This ghostly touch is a touch ungendered, engendered through contingent encounters between Chiron and Kevin, and Chiron and his mother. Both Kevin and Chiron’s mother are emblems of a disavowed queerness that manifests from contigency, not from any illusory metaphorized claim to an identity. The sexualized eros of (queer) touch is firstly figured for Chiron through his sexual encounter with Kevin on the beach, where Kevin (in an almost paternalistic image) holds Chiron’s head to his shoulder while simultaneously masturbating him (figure 1). This erotic image of touch is annihilated immediately after this scene, when Kevin is egged on, by Terrell, to assault Chiron as part of a sadistic “game.” As visible in my attempts to capture the image of Kevin’s violent touching of Chiron (figure 2), the framing of the two scenes of touch are blatantly different. While Chiron and Kevin’s sexual encounter is shot from behind the two, fitting both bodies into the frame, Kevin’s assault of Chiron is shot frantically, with either only Chiron or Kevin in the frame, the camera never framing them together. In the erotic (queer) touch, Chiron and Kevin are faceless, blending into the nebula of undifferentiated Black flesh in the mise-en-scène of the formless, grey beach. In contrast, Kevin’s assault of Chiron, in its delirious framing, implicates a touch founded on a violent homophobic logic splitting the heterosexual body from the anxiogenic “homosexual” body, in contradistinction to the touch consummating a queer(ed) eros. Now, this interpretation of these two widely differing scenes of touch may seem to underwrite my emphasis on touch as vestibular, and as a specter of queerness; however, the differences in the narrative logics of the touches illustrated in the film are self-differences of the extimate queerness that cannot be a grounding of any logic attempting to make itself, and its produced identity, as coherent. Once again, I highlight queerness not as a particular sexual desire, or identity, but instead as the field of a disavowed desire, the drive, that necessitates the production of a (misrecognized) identity, and yet generates an illicit (and possibly sexual) enjoyment. In this way, (queer) touch as Moonlight‘s vestibular emblem, in the scenes analyzed, is figured as a transitory space between eros and violence, dissolving the stability of the two signifiers, and thus further intensifying the anxiety of the (bodily and psychic) (non)presence of an extimate, and contingent, queer(ed) sexuality running through both Chiron and Kevin, threatening to obliterate their own subjective stabilities. It makes sense, then, that Moonlight ends with a shot of an older Chiron, after reuniting with an older Kevin in Miami, being held by Kevin in the same way that Kevin held Chiron on the beach when they were adolescents (figure 3). Both men are situated in the vague darkness of the frame, and the differences between this conclusive shot and the shot of the beach encounter are that the mens faces are now shown to the camera, and that, narratively, the final shot of the film does not imply any sexual connotation, nor any purely non-erotic connotation. This conclusive scene of touch is, (im)purely, an illustration of an indefinite queerness (impossibly) held, at least in the fleeting moment in which the touch, the joining of Black flesh, transpires. The violent (heterosexual) reading of the inscribed-upon male body disappears for an instant, and meaning ceases to be produced from the (queer) touch, instead remaining just another extension of metonymic desire.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

This (queer) oscillation between eros and violence, “having” and “being” the phallus, through touch is also figured by the interactions between Chiron and his mother Paula, thus re-emphasizing the primary queering of the Black through the (white) Symbolic’s metonymic association of the Black with the “deviant” Law of the Mother. During act two of Moonlight, when an adolescent Chiron must psychically survive, amongst his other psychic pressures, his crack-addicted mother, a scene of touch occurs where, when returning back home from his sexual excursion with Kevin, Chiron covers his drug-addled mother with a blanket, who is sleeping on a couch. Paula, half-waking up from an intoxicated sleep, holds Chiron’s face in her hands, telling him that he is the “only one” for her, and vice versa (figure 4). Disavowing the intense psychic trauma she has caused Chiron, Paula’s figuration of Chiron as the sole object of her desire is a scene of emotional violence and manipulation towards Chiron. In act three, however, when an older Chiron visits Paula at a rehabilitation center, the scene climaxes with Chiron accepting Paula’s remorseful apology for the irreversible trauma she caused Chiron to carry throughout his life. Chiron engulfs Paula with a hug (figure 5), a touch figuring an eros that, not endeavoring any task of psychic reparation for the contingent effects of Paula’s past jouissance, represents the Imaginary unity of the infant and the figure of the Mother; however, in the context of Spillers’ deformation of psychoanalysis through historicization, the touch of Chiron’s hug can be read as contributing to her endorsement of the Black male “regain[ing] [the heritage of the mother] as an aspect of his own personhood” (Spillers, 80), refusing to contribute to the (white and heterosexual) Symbolic “disavowal of male lack” (Silverman, 37).

Figure 4
Figure 5

The male body (and psyche), threatened by, yet garnering enjoyment from, feminine lack is shown to, in the dominant Symbolic ideology of homophobic heterosexual masculinity, be read into an illusory identity that misrecognizes the contingency of desire. The image of “the homosexual,” figuring the drive endlessly (and joyfully) circling around (feminine) lack, oscillating around, and thus annihilating, the purposed stability of identities, is truly a projection of an extimate lack that possesses the (heterosexual) male. Queerness, then, as the field of subject-annihilating desire, manifesting the imago of “the homosexual” in the homophobic cultural psyche, is, as described, both the excess and the kernel of (sexual) subjective positionality. As a historically produced phenomenon, the primary queering of the Black, through the (white) deprecation of the matriarchal structure of a Black sociality removed from kinship, coupled with the founding psychic dimension of male anxiety, produces the Black male subject as having a double recognition of (feminine) lack, and, as Spillers writes, “embod[ying] the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself” (80). Moonlight, through the motif of the (queer) touch of Black flesh, views the specter of queerness as the cultural vestibularity oscillating the subject between “having” and “being” the phallus, disarticulating the violent essentialism of claiming identity. Edelman’s geometric elaboration on the impossibility of culturally conceiving of such a queerness that deconstructs the (non)relation between self and Other can be linked, though disparately, to Moonlight‘s held emblem of (queer) touch, and its imagistic movement away from, yet Real movement towards, the metaphor of “containment” that is (in the homophobic Symbolic) associated with male-to-male sexual activity. Edelman’s example illustrating the impossible conception of two geometrically non-identical objects “each of which contain the other while being contained, at the same time, within it” (Homographesis, 70) is irreconcilable with Moonlight‘s linkage of the Black flesh and queerness through the motif of touch. If Edelman means to metaphorically connect two “non-identical objects” with the two (queer[ed]) subjects of male-to-male intercourse that open up and “contain” each other, Spillers’ reading of the undifferentiated, and practically speaking, in the (white) Symbolic, identically (un)gendered, complicates this conception, making it not of use to the Black queer(ed) subjects Moonlight filmically represents. Furthermore, Moonlight shows no male-to-male anal intercourse, instead showing the touch of male-to-male masturbation, and thus the geometric metaphor of the touch of two lines intersecting into an irreducible, and conceptually impossible, point is more apt for an analysis of the film’s Spillerian reading of (Black) queerness. The Oxford English Dictionary defines touch, geometrically, as “a point of contact between two lines… [especially] one at which neither passes through the other (even if extended).” The two lines described, undifferentiated in imagistic form, akin to the undifferentiated form of marked Black flesh, intersect and touch at a singular point. The point of contact, however, is defined as especially a point in which neither line passes through the other, which is an interesting element of the proposed definition, as the touch would not relate to an intersecting line, per se. As a sort of refraction of two undifferentiated forms on one irreducible and self-contained point that does not allow a passing of trajectories, then, the proposed touch as a Black, queer touch is a pure jouissance, and impossible reduction of self and Other, though purely contingent and not maintaining a similar passing of trajectories. While this geometric metaphor proposed is not impossible to conceive of, as is Edelman’s, the imp(oss/ass)ible point of touch is, in its very minute particularity, a fleeting, and ultimately illusory, contact that resembles the contingent vestibularity of the touch illustrated in Moonlight. A Black queerness, then, is the plane of a culturally unfeasible enjoyment – there is no possible project to integrate a Black queerness into the Symbolic Order. Neither “neither,” nor “nor,” escaping the coherence of every binary opposition, a Black queerness is antithetical to the world structured by the heterosexual patriarchy, as part and parcel of the longue durée of slavery. And yet, as Moonlight demonstrates, a Black queerness is held in the diminutive moment of touch that escapes time and space, floating in a nether region that both threatens and eludes the grasp of the subject founded on the kernel of jouissance.

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