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‘Ethereal Bisexuals’ and Why We Really Read Marx…

by Fionna Farrell

[originally posted December 2020]


Academic posers come in many different forms. Take, for instance, your humblebrag professor who constantly references their own studies from thirteen years ago to dopey-eyed 9 a.m.s. Or perhaps that hat-wearing pomp in your literature seminar, who consistently seems to have something smart-sounding, yet not quite relevant to say. Or take, even, dare I say, former president of the United States of America, the honorable Mr. Barack Hussein Obama II.

Now, when I say Barack Hussein Obama II, the first thing that comes to the reader’s mind most likely isn’t “that depraved, good-for-nothing pseudo-intellectual.” Make no mistake - I don’t think Obama was (or is) depraved, and he was definitely good for many things.

As recent investigative research would have it, maybe reading a book cover to cover wasn’t one of them (try to come back from that one, Obama). In his latest memoir, A Promised Land, the former president gives us a glimpse into his intellectual proclivities during his college years. And these proclivities certainly include “reading” books by Big Brains - we’ll give him that. But, let’s just say, Obama’s reading was not entirely for the sake of knowledge attainment. He writes: “Looking back, it’s embarrassing to recognize the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was attempting to get to know: Marx and Marcuse so I had something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm; Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for the smooth-skinned sociology major who never gave me a second look; Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black.”

Yikes. ‘Long-legged socialist?’ ‘Ethereal bisexual?’ What does that even mean, exactly? Were these women hailing from another planet - did Obama somehow like us to believe that they were? Someone certainly seems to have had a worldview - or, better yet, a women-view - erring on the side of the mystical. Maybe we can let this slide for a 19-year-old. But it’s comparatively difficult to read these words, which were written by and reflected over by a man who is nearly 60, without, at best, a cringe, or, at worst, a grimace.

What exactly is it that does the trick? The word “ethereal’? The image of our former president gawking and ogling (at, let’s not forget, women who likely had no romantic interest in him)? The very idea that someone would read Marx or Fanon for something other than their own intellectual ingratiation - and that others would buy it? What is the defining nerve in us that this passage so strikes? Just why does it peeve us to our cores?

These are interesting questions to consider. Especially as an Oberlin student. I know that, the first time I read this passage, it was as though a weight had dropped; a subconscious chord was stricken within me. A chord that immediately alerted me to the “badness” of this passage - a “badness” that distorted my face and left my stomach knotted. This was my brain’s way of telling me: We have detected latent principles present in the material digested that run contrary to our core values, namely the objectification and mystification of catch my drift. So what was next? Alert the presses? Cancel Obama? No, a futile and stupid gesture that would be - he’s already been “cancelled” for plenty of other things, most of which are far less petty than the contents of his memoir. Nevertheless, the floodgates were still opened on Twitter. That is just the natural way of things.

I hope the reader won’t mistake my tone here for that of some sort of Obama apologist. Believe me, I think a critical response to his unsettling little anecdote was perfectly called for. Because it’s hard for anyone who identifies as a woman to read this and not be at least a little bit creeped out. Obama reads as the type of insinuating man we are warned to remain cautious of when we pass in the hall or on the street - not a man that we, politically, or personally, or both, are supposed to look up to. That creepiness will never fade here.

Is that the full answer, though? One that truly captures all of my feelings? It’s definitely the righteous one, and the one I’d feel most comfortable sharing. But I think there’s more to the story than I would initially expect - or like to admit.

When is the last time I’ve read Marx? I asked myself. That’s an easy one - never. I’m a sophomore here, and not only have I not read Marx for any of my classes, but I have also not read him for fun. There’s definitely a little shame in that. Or maybe there’s not, and I’m just convincing myself that that’s what exists in the hole where there should be, because of how perfectly it would fit the Oberlin paradigm. Someone attending a “Marxist” (i.e. liberal arts) school who hasn’t read any Marx! Straight to the guillotine.

But I have read a bit of the Others. Like, who else does the ‘Rack mention? Foucault? Oh yeah. I’ve read a ton of him. Both in class and for fun. I read Discipline and Punish just for kicks. Just for kicks! But was it really...was it really just for kicks? Maybe my subconscious, at the time, knew something about this article being written - I was hyping myself up to learn about the panopticon in order to acquire future bragging rights.

I look around the room - I’m starting to get paranoid. Who, exactly, am I trying to impress? I am writing this alone; there are no ethereal bisexuals in my midst (although it’s not like I could point one out on the street). No “long-legged socialists” itching to discuss French socio-political theory. Who is there, then? Who has there been?

Maybe it’s not just one person. Or maybe, it’s not even a person at all. Maybe it’s more of a feeling. Not necessarily one with malignant roots - the will to feel intellectually “superior” to another person or group (although, unfortunately, in some cases, that still exists) - but, rather, a much more basic feeling: the simple desire to belong. To not only feel like you’re not missing out, but that you’re actively joining in - whether it’s in a book discussion or entire cultural movement at large. And when we want to be a part of something that is meaningful to us, we are willing to stretch the truth a bit. If the truth is usually something we value.

Of course, that doesn’t make the act in itself right. One shouldn’t lie. Or read Marx just to pick up that dour hottie across the hall. Certainly, one should definitely excuse themselves from using phrases like “ethereal bisexuals,” and for thinking in ways that would allow this phrase, and the practices it nourishes, to remain permissible. These things should go without saying. It is stupefyingly tedious, and very tiring, that they don’t.

All things considered, though, I’m not going to look at Obama as something less than human for reading big books just as an excuse to introduce himself to someone - and giving them a reason to remember his name. I’ve done essentially the same thing. Haven’t we all?

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