Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Queer Tango in the eyes of Marta Savigliano

Marta Savigliano is a theorist of dance especially focused on Argentine tango and author of an unusual book - "Tango and the Political Economy of Passion" [Westview Press, 1995]. In that book she describes the mechanisms of that create a structure of power out of the elemental human desire for sexual connection. In the country populated by excess numbers of men women fell into the possession of those who were materially better off while the revenge of the lower class of men was that of capturing the hearts of the scarce group of women by the superiority of the love drama expressed by the figures of tango. Marta Savigliano describes how the product of that "political economy" became an object of admiration of the rest of the world making the tango culture into an exotic good suitable for touristic consumption and for export abroad. The book is an excellent collection of observations that allows us to see tango as a laboratory of heterosexual love relations and their impossibility envisioned by Lacan. One of her most interesting ideas is that of exotic gaze and has ramifications both for Lacanian psychoanalysis and for aesthetic theory. But this is now left aside.

In the article "Notes on Tango (as) Queer (Commodity)" [Anthropological Notebooks, 16(3): p135-143] Marta Savigliano takes on the question of the newly arising phenomenon - that of queer tango, queer milongas (milonga=tango dance event), where apparently the heterosexual pairing paradigm is abandoned. She asks: in favor of what? why would individuals with queer interests seek tango - the quintessential expression of heterosexual love drama? And it even happens in Buenos Aires - the capital of heterosexual polarization through the culture of tango.

In order to answer these questions Savigliano reaches to observations about incidence of same-sex pairings in the classic tango culture. She makes remarks about the male-male tango performances that appear to be more acceptable than the female-female pairing. The first one appears to have a better aesthetic value than the latter. Also male-male tangos never make use of cross dressing and yet deliver an aesthetic value whereas female-female couple looks very much for a masculine sort of lead and quite often generates one - by subtle cross dressing. She explains that by the incompatibility of female alliances with the culture of tango while the men create and uphold the system of power that delivers the women into their embrace. I don't quite agree. To me it seems that male-male tango performance can be aesthetically pleasing because tango as a movement style came out of fights between males where one has to keep an eye on each movement of one's opponent. The impossibility of women's alliances on the tango scene is caused, on the other hand, by the submission to the gaze of men, the sexy dress - the high heels, that deliver the woman, crippled as it were, as a high fetish object into the arms of men, and disqualify her from community with other women.

Explanation for the queer milongas is sought in the interest of newcomers in the formal aspects of tango rather than in an expression of the "political economy of passion". Savigliano says that indeed many newcomers, especially foreigners, are purely aesthetically oriented and are not interested in joining the melodrama of the traditional tango scene. The formula for tango indeed expresses, in my view, a highly original plan of approaching another human being, a new erotic style. These newcomers do not want to submit to the traditional Argentinian "education of desire" into an intensely heterosexually polarized affair. They are attracted to tango by its novel aesthetic and erotic qualities.

However, there are definitely actual homosexual individuals and couples that are attracted to the queer milonga style. This poses the most difficult question - why would they be interested in a cultural environment insistent on the heterosexual separation of gender roles. The author has rather unconvincing answers: "relationality through touch and bodily responsiveness drive their interest in tango." Or "tango queer desires are sensual, aesthetic and romantically playful." If it is so in my view it would point into the direction of a certain dilution or dissipation of desire. But I dont think this is the case. I think queer, homosexual, or sexually ambivalent individuals are attracted to tango because it demonstrates a strong definition of gender roles which is necessary for a robust sexual relation.

In my view tango is a demonstration of the prerequisites for a strong sexual relationship - which is not to say a happy one, but more likely dramatic and conflictual, - one showing the hallmarks of the truth of desire. Savigliano says at the end of the essay: "Queer tango, unmarked by heterosexual tensions,...". Maybe at some level it can be unmarked, but I suspect that queer individuals are attracted to tango precisely in order to be marked with the polarizing male-female gender difference. I do think that the homosexual lifestyle longs for that difference and frequently seeks to regenerate the male-female polarity. It is easily seen among gay and lesbian couples that they desire to produce the gender that is excluded on the basis of anatomic sex. Thus gay couple has one of the men more effeminate and among lesbian couples we typically observe one of the women stepping eagerly into the male role. The desire of homosexual individuals to introduce a fantasy of the excluded sex into their culture cannot be unnoticed. All the drag queen and king shows, as well as many everyday behaviors, testify to the role of the excluded sex as a fantasy in homosexual culture. Tango is another cultural innovation along the path of regenerating the male-female polarization in queer culture.

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