American Ethnological Society
Oral Presentation Session
Two images predominate when the modern state is conjured in metaphor: the heterosexual nuclear family and the biological body. Both invoke innocence and inviolability, and suggest that any transgression against the state is necessarily an act of corruption—a form of violation that is at once political, legal, and sexual. Thus, public figures who are understood to be corrupt are satirized with sexualized exaggerations and representations.
Journalists around the world have written with open censure and barely disguised admiration of Mobuto’s “bulging pockets, ” directly referring to the ill-begotten cash he accumulated during his presidency, while also implying the size of his sexual organ. Likewise, Mugabe’s fiercest supporters have suggested that during the decades he ruled Zimbabwe, he succumbed to the “jungle of temptation” around him, indicating both his extramarital affairs and his illegal appropriation of diamond mining profits. Arguably, the tendency to situate political corruption in developing democracies and to equate the practice with sexual deviance is a legacy of the “carnal knowledge” that fortified imperial power.
With this imperial legacy in mind, my work examines the developing erotics of power in the United States, where narratives of corruption center on sexual impotence (clumsy passes, wayward penises, and small hands) rather than sexual prowess. It asks: What do these emerging stories and potential metaphors say about the changing nature of patriarchal power--and its relationship to entitlement, insecurity, and desire? Drawing from examples in national politics and from Hollywood, my work explicates the connections that hold this devil’s triangle together.