Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

30 Rock - Season 7

I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

  • warning-humor
    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt



You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma

5 Jul your_trigger_warnings_are_triggering_me_by_meiharu-d5j2mey

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

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Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

feminist_humor_fbDebates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

 

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At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.

Starsearch

 

Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!

And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.

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As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.

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Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.

k5715Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.

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What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina978-0-8223-5470-3_pr
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.

And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.

I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”

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Transfeminist Marcos By Beatriz Marcos Preciado

11 Jun

Marcos For Ever

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On 25 May, Subcommander Marcos sent an open letter to the world from the “Zapatista reality” announcing the death of Marcos, who was constructed to act as a media representative and voice of the revolutionary project of Chiapas. “These will be my last word in public before ceasing to exist.” The same statement announced the birth of Subcommander Galeano, a name borrowed from José Luis Solis “Galeano” – a colleague murdered by paramilitaries on 2 May. “One of us has to die”, explained the Subcommander, “so that Galeano can live. And so that the impertinent death can be satisfied. In the place of Galeano we put another name so that he may live and death takes away not a life but just a name, a few letters emptied of all meaning, all history and all life.” We know, of course, that José Luis Solis Jose borrowed his own name from the writer of Open Veins of Latin America. The Subcommander, who has always been miles ahead of the egotistical elders of French poststructuralism, operates within the realm of the political production the death of the author that Barthes proposed in the realm of a text.

 

In the last few years, the Zapatistas have constructed the most creative option for confronting the (failed) necropolitical options of neoliberalism, as well as those proposed by communism. The Zapatistas, unlike any other movement, is inventing a political methodology for “organizing rage”. And reinventing life. In 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ELNZ) – through the figure of subcommander Marcos – began to conceive of a new means of doing decolonial philosophy for the twenty first century that distanced itself from the treatise (inherited from the ecclesiastic and colonial culture of the book that began in the sixteenth century and declined towards the end of the last) in order to act from an oral-digital techno-indigenous culture that is whispered across the social networks as rituals, letters, messages, stories and parables. The Zapatistas are showing us one of the central techniques of production of political subjectivity: deprivatizing birth names with borrowed names and undoing the individualist fiction of the “real and natural” face.

 

Amos Mac

Amos Mac by Elisa Shea

Not so far from the subcommander, resides another political space where the stability of one’s given name is also challenged in the same theatrical and shamanic gesture – a space where the truth of the face as an ultimate reference of personal identity is disrupted: the transsexual, transgender, gender-queer, drag king and drag queen cultures. Every trans person has (or had) two (or more) names: the one they were assigned at birth by the dominant culture seeking to normalize them and the one that marks a process of dissident subjectivity. Trans names are not so much an affirmation about belonging to another sex, rather they are the detonators for a process of dis-identification. The subcommander Marcos, who learnt more from the pen of the queer Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais than the manly beard of Fidel, was a drag king personality: the intentional construction of a masculine fiction (the hero and the voice of the rebel) through technical performances. A revolutionary emblem without a face or ego: made from words and collective dreams, constructed with a balaclava and a pipe. The borrowed name and the facemask are methods of political parody that work to denounce the masks that cover the faces of the corrupt police and the hegemony: “Why is there so much scandal about the masks?” Said Marcos “Is Mexican Society really ready to take off its own mask?” Just like the balaclava undoes the individual “truth” of the face, the given name is unraveled and collectivized.

 

Photo by Del LaGrace Volcano

“Gender Optional: The Mutating Self Portrait,” Photo by Del LaGrace Volcano

For the Zapatistas, given names and balaclavas work in the same way that the wig, the second name, moustache and heels work in trans culture: as intentional and hyperbolic signs of a political-sexual transvestism as well as queer-indigenous weapons that allow us to confront neoliberal aesthetics. And this is not through a notion of true sex or an authentic name, rather through the construction of a living fiction that resists the norm.

 

The experiments of the Zapatistas, queer and trans cultures invite us to deprivatize the face and the name in order to transform the body of the multitude into a collective revolutionary agent. From this shared common body, I would like to respond to Subcommander Galeano with the proposition that from now on I will sign with my trans name – Beatriz Marcos Preciado – harnessing the performative force of the political fiction created by the Zapatistas and letting it live in the queer guerrilla of a decomposing Europe: so that the Zapatista reality is.

 

Beatriz Marcos Preciado.

For José

20 Dec

by Tavia Nyong’o

 

José, I’m calling up thunder.

Through so many tears

Today, I’m knocking on your door.

Can you hear?

I’m listening for your laughter through the wall

That separates and connects your office and mine.

I’m eavesdropping for the murmur

of your quiet counsel.

Give me that counsel today.

 

Gimme, gimme the words,

help me name

what you were to us.

Because there are no words

without you here to help me find them.

 

José, I’m totally fucked up

In a way that especially you could see.

I’m calling up thunder

for you, for us

for the punk rock commons

whose unauthorized entry

into the Ivory Tower

tooks its stolen wealth

And sold it in the streets for love.

 

José, you know me:

Most days I go for something pretty

Something pretty and well-spoken

And tomorrow,

I’ll say something pretty

but today,

for you José

I’m calling up thunder

to say something true.

 

12.7.2013

 

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José Esteban Muñoz – 1967-2013

6 Dec

José Esteban Muñoz, 1966-2013

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This week, we lost a fierce friend, a comrade, a wry and trenchant critic, a brave and bold queer voice and a true utopian in a world of pessimists. As we try to reckon with his absence and learn to live with the loss of such a magnificent thinker, such an enormous spirit, we can find all kinds of solace in the work that José left behind. “Queerness is not yet here,” he cautioned us at the beginning of Cruising Utopia, and he continued: “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”

These words are strangely comforting now that José is truly no longer in the here and now but dwells instead in a then, a there, a new world that we cannot reach from here, this prison house of life, the body, the present. José’s work, his craft, his social worlds, his teaching all reached out for the “forward-dawning futurity” that, he felt, harbored other ways of being, other forms of life, other worlds. These other worlds, alternative forms of life, could be glimpsed only through the cultural landscapes that queer people create out of love, desperation, hilarity, performance, perversity, friendship, sex, feelings, failings, pain and communion. And so José made it his life’s work to live in and with and alongside the brilliant, talented, queer performers about whom he wrote and with whom he collaborated: Vaginal Davis, Carmelita Tropicana, Nao Bustamente are just a few of the gorgeous, glittering talents who built worlds with him and made crazy, hilarious, expansive performance spaces with him, spaces where he could find his “then and there” at least for an evening.

And let’s not tame José as he leaves us – he was brilliant, sweet, loving, for sure, but he was also bitchy, camp, and tough. He knew well how to tease and be teased, how to give as good as he got, how to pick a fight and how to step out of the way once the fight really got going. José, as so many people have said, was socially promiscuous – he was friends with everyone – people who did not speak to each other remained best friends with José, so much so that when he came to Los Angeles, he would have to negotiate his time between the “Lesbian Warlords” who all set up camps that could include him but not each other!

José would often quote Jack Smith’s barb about Maria Montez (or was it Allen Ginsburg?) that they were “walking careers”: this was a high ranking insult from José and it was reserved for people who could not remember why they were in academia – people who sought out the “stardom,” the attention and forgot the pleasure, the collaborative potential, the sheer joy of writing, thinking and being in proximity to performance – those people were ‘walking careers.’ As for José, rock star and legend as he was, he was not in it simply for the career, the profession, the attention – José really did believe in something bigger than personal acclaim and that was the queer utopia he continued to cruise until his death.

“We must vacate the here and now for a then and there…” he wrote at the conclusion to Cruising Utopia. “What we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality…Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else that we can feel, that we must feel. We must take ecstasy” (185). I am pretty sure that José knew plenty about taking ecstasy and about feeling something beyond the here and now. And, because he taught us all how to feel “queerness’s pull,” we are all here now, sitting on the shore, alone, bereft from his loss, squinting towards the horizon and hoping to see the shape of the queer world to come that he insistently pointed us towards. José we miss you, we love you, nothing will ever be the same without you.

Bully Bloggers

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Bully on Forever

5 Dec

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Atlas Shrugging

21 Oct

By Lisa Duggan

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The government shut down has ended and the threat of default has passed.  Ted Cruz and the House Republicans have been defeated.  But they don’t seem to know that.  According to recent press reports, Cruz is being greeted in parts of Texas as a hero for fighting the good fight.  Despite widespread suffering during the shutdown and global fear and trembling over the threat of default, Tea Party Zombies walk the land.  Denying the death of their scorched earth strategy, they declare victory and vow to fight on.

The current zombie phenomenon echoes the astonishing aftermath of the post 2008 financial crisis and recession.  At the time, it seemed that neoliberal rhetoric and policies might be thoroughly discredited almost overnight.  How could extensive deregulation and privatization be defended in the wake of a serious crash so clearly related to the failures of those policies?  How could the social safety net be further shredded with so many people newly jobless and impoverished?  Well, surprise!  Neoliberal rhetoric bounced back on steroids, underwriting ferocious efforts to defeat new regulations of Wall Street, attack Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and especially to defeat President Obama’s mild mannered, market oriented health care reform bill (itself a thoroughly neoliberal piece of legislation, without even the public option supported by a majority of Americans).

These radicalized zombie versions of neoliberal capitalism have not triumphed, but they have lived on to fight another day, and then another, powerfully shaping debates on the political and cultural fronts in ways that can seem, well, puzzling.  We’re way past Tom Frank’s plaintive 2004 question, “what’s the matter with Kansas?”  To ask now “what’s the matter with congress?” is only barely to scratch the surface.

There are many paths of analysis useful for understanding how we have arrived here, with a thoroughly dysfunctional end-of-empire mode of government by manufactured crisis.  After careful attention to Marx, Foucault and company, I would like to suggest that we all turn our attention momentarily to…  the plot of Atlas Shrugged.  Many of us read this cartoonish tome in high school, when its portrayal of sexy heroic rebels going on strike against mealy mouthed corrupt controlling weaklings had the capacity to thrill.  But as recent biographies of Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns and Ann Heller, along with journalist Gary Weiss’ Ayn Rand Nation have shown, the influence of this pulpy novel extends far beyond the kind of adolescent fandom that has energized the Twilight series.  Surveys and sales figures reveal Atlas Shrugged as a broadly read and deeply influential text.  In 2009, sales of the novel tripled over the year before, and GQ magazine called Rand the year’s most influential author.  In 2010 a Zogby poll found 29% of respondents had read the novel, and half of those readers said it affected their political and ethical thinking.  David Frum noted that the Tea Party was reinventing the GOP as “the party of Ayn Rand.”

Numerous journalists have outlined the influence of Rand’s writings on politicians from Rand Paul and Paul Ryan to Ron Johnson (who defeated beloved progressive Russ Feingold in the 2010 Wisconsin senate race) and Mike Lee of Utah, a collaborator with Ted Cruz in the recent shutdown/default strategy.  But if we go a bit beyond tracing Rand’s “influence,” to tracking the feelings and fantasies drawn from her fiction, we may be able to further illuminate the energies propelling our current zombie infestation.

Recall:  In Atlas Shrugged, the mighty producer class upon whom the welfare of all depends is drawn into a fierce war with the moochers, looters, corrupt bureaucrats and crazen corporate sellouts.  All the latter are sucking on the tit of the creative titans, the job creators.  Finally, the only way to win this war is for the producers to withdraw from the political and economic landscape controlled by the moocher hordes and their enablers.  In a reversal of the labor theory of value and an appropriation of the workers’ strategy of the strike, the producers prove that all value is ultimately generated by the titans.  As the world collapses, pushed along by producer sabotage and violence, chaos and widespread suffering ensue.  The crucial point here is:  how are readers to feel about this fantasy scenario?  Does the collapse and the suffering and death tar them as immoral, and lead to reader shock and abhorrence?  Well, no, of course.  This is a Rand novel.  Readers are meant to cheer the apocalypse, because it is deserved by the stupid and weak masses and those who pander to them.  The destruction is thrilling, as are the sexy heroic titans who have caused it.  Atlas shrugs, and we are left panting lustily at the spectacle of his (or her, Rand includes female titans) glittering muscularity, while the boulder smashes those who would hold him back.
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Of course Rand didn’t invent any of this.  She was an especially canny appropriator and combiner of social darwinism and Hollywood romance (she was herself a screen writer for a time).  And the readers and politicians who take up her banner do so with massive inconsistencies—rejecting much of her version of atheist libertarianism, her support of abortion rights and opposition to drug laws, her contempt for marriage and positive portrayal of adultery, her penchant for sadomasochistic imagery.  But it’s not really her ideas that are most in play in current political dramas, it’s the affect and images drawn from her fiction that suffuse the Tea Party zeitgeist.  Were people hurt by the government shutdown?  Might a default, or even serious threat of default on the debt of the U.S. government generate a global economic crisis?  YES!  For some on the radical right, the Bible is the source for imagining the worst and finding it good—the End Times and the Rapture are here!  But for others, the relevant book is Atlas Shrugged.  The titan heroes will stand sexy, heroic and tall as the world around them collapses, as it should if “Obamacare,” sign of the world historical disastrous dominance of collectivism, remains the law of the land.

Henry and Grover, Drowning in a Bathtub

12 Oct

hes-funny

By Tavia Nyong’o

“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” — Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform

“My thoughts are murder to the state.” — Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American writer, conservationist, and proto-anarchist.

Teaching Thoreau’s great essay on ‘Resistance to Civil Government‘ during a partial shutdown of the US federal government is an occasion for feelings of great ambivalence. The scholar Henry Abelove has called Thoreau’s prose persona seductive. And I, like Abelove, very much want to be seduced. But how can I extol the worldview of this fearless forerunner of queer anarchism while the anti-government wing of the governing party allows the sick and needy to go uncared for, the statistics on the jobless to go uncollected, the safety of our food supply to go unverified? There is a great deal of interest today, post-Occupy, in anarchist political philosophy and horizontal modes of organizing and action. This anarchist resurgence inspires me, even as it disquiets. I wonder: could I be mistaken in my conviction that, however much leftwing anarchism can sound like rightwing libertarianism, they ultimately form distinct and opposed political traditions?

Thoreau

For answers, I turn to Thoreau, and his queer little errand into the wild a century and half ago. Every American school child knows how Thoreau went to live in a cabin by a pond in Walden forest, and how he epitomized the search for a more basic and independent way of life. But, if we take too literally his descriptions of how he lived, and what he lived for, we can sometimes forget that the society he temporarily distanced himself from was, by today’s standards, itself incredibly spartan. Even those enjoying the heights of antebellum civilization that Thoreau rejected, did so without electricity, telephones, televisions, cars, the highway system, airplanes, or the internet. There was no federal income tax, no Social Security, no FBI or NSA. So, lest we be hopelessly anachronistic in our reading, we must keep in mind all that Thoreau could not have meant, when we try to recover what it meant for him to dwell apart from his society, what prompted him to utter his famous animadversions against government and to pronounce our individual duty to resist it.

The famously combative opening sentence of his essay on Civil Disobedience is memorable. “I heartily accept the motto–“That government is best which governs least”…Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe–“That government is best which governs not at all.” These are words to thrill a modern Tea Party activist. But just a page later we find Thoreau reformulating: “But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” This idea is different: Thoreau’s expectancy for improvement, his call to better government, is less often heard, even from left anarchist circles, than his call to do without it.

Thoreau was unlike the “no-government men” or at least, he wanted to be. Much rightwing rhetoric today pronounces itself with vitriol equal to Thoreau’s against government programs they oppose, like health care, public education, and regulation (versions of government Thoreau scarcely knew). But vehemence alone does not establish a shared affinity. Libertarians like to claim him, but Thoreau’s experiment in Walden was not so much a “going off the grid” like today’s survivalist fringe, so much as it was an effort to find a way to live against state-thinking. The right forgets that when Thoreau went to jail rather than pay his poll tax, he was motivated by outrage against specific state actions: the war against Mexico and the Fugitive Slave Law, a law that made the entire union hunting grounds for slavecatchers, and mocked the vaunted freedom of states like Massachusetts. It was against the states crimes against humanity and its imperial wars specifically, not government as such, that Thoreau theorized his proto-anarchism.

Consider this: today’s “government shut down” is itself actually an act of state. It was planned and put into action by a governing party at the behest of its radical Tea Party fringe. Shutdown is, as Malcolm Harris noted, a euphemism for accelerating the ‘austerity‘ being implemented across the world currently. It is not a shutdown of all state functions, least of those having to do with the conduct of wars or surveillance, and many of even the “non-essential” have been ordered back to work, sometimes without pay. Threatening to send the nation into insolvency if pet agenda items are not enacted is not “getting the government off our backs.” It is the pursuit of neoliberal governmentality by other means. As with austerity elsewhere, the target of the shutdown is not ‘government,’ but the social welfare state and popular sovereignty. Just ask the people of Detroit, who have had their elected government suspended in order to allow predatory creditors and lawyers to loot their remaining assets.

A sectional interest abusing constitutional mechanisms to hold the nation at ransom to forward a divisive agenda built, around the protection of a form of property, even at the cost of ruining lives. That describes the Fugitive Slave Law of Thoreau’s day, and it describes the attempt to defund the government and Obamacare now. The real comparison to be made is not between libertarianism and anarchism, but between the reactionary agenda, then and now, to withdraw protections from those who are seen not to matter — slaves and Mexicans then, the sick, poor, people of color and marginalized today — and to instead focus the resources of the state on the policing and imprisonment necessary to keep this drastic upward distribution of wealth from exploding into violence. It was this sort of state, the very one dreamt of by the likes of Grover Norquist, that produced thoughts of murder in Thoreau. This was the sort of state he called on us to resist through direct action.

Thoreau

I am not among those who imagine queers and other anarchists can simply recreate Thoreau’s wild way of life. Anyone who sought to live in such precise antagonism to his own particularly day as Thoreau did can hardly have thought highly of those present day communities who idealize an arbitrary point in the past, beyond which they refuse to develop. True, Thoreau scorned the pursuit of wealth, the coveting of consumer items, the longing for marriage and family. He even scorned reading the newspaper: keeping up too closely with the revolting deeds of his fellow Americans was, he remarked, like a dog returning to its vomit. His idea of revolutionary action was certainly individualistic. But what he meant by individualism was different, almost antithetical, to the possessive, endlessly flexible individual so valorized today. There is an astonishing image at the end of his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts,” where Thoreau directly links wildness, contemplation, and anarchist belief with a profound sense of entanglement with affairs of state:

I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?. The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.

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As Pete Coviello points out in a fine new book on Thoreau and his era, Thoreau’s discontent with society was paradoxically motivated by powerful desires to connect, to love and be loved. The persona of his journals is different from the persona of his essays and Walden, but they are recognizable facets of a single, complex being. Thoreau’s queerness lay in his determined avoidance of the love, marriage, family, and property accumulation that were then, as now, extolled as the principal aims of white, bourgeois life. He refused to be heteronormative then, and would have not tried very hard to be homonormative now. But even as Thoreau rejected institutionalized forms of relationality, Coviello insists, he did so in order to allow himself the lifelong struggle of articulating another form of being, one that was, like friendship itself, forever without institution. Coviello quotes from Thoreau’s Journals:

Ah, I yearn toward thee my friend, but I have not confidence in thee. I am not thou—Thou are not I…Even when I meet thee unexpectedly I part from thee with disappointment… I know a noble man; what is it hinders me from knowing him better? I know not how it is that our distrust, our hate is stronger than our love…Why are we related—yet thus unsatisfactorily. We almost are a sore to one another (Coviello, 30-31).

Thoreau is here able to say, with pitch perfect ambivalence, that the experience of friendship is one of simultaneous expectation and disappointment, love and hate. I love him, Thoreau says of his friend, and yet I hate him. Contrast this to the stance of the libertarian who says: I hate him, and I love me (and mine)! Thoreau offers a stunning insight here, in the decades before the modern hetero/homo divide was solidified. It is one that may begin to make new sense now that there are tentative signs that divide it may be crumbling. He points out that friendship exists almost everywhere without institutional support or government sanction. Not that friendship is pathologized. Indeed, it is probably universally extolled as an anodyne to the ravages of consumerist, competitive society. But even where extolled, friendship always lacks an apparatus. Thoreau’s insight into the undercommons of the affections is at least as valuable as his demonstrations on how to grow without neighbors. Here is Thoreau’s queer path into the wilds, wilds that are as much between us, whoever and wherever we are, as they are along some romantic horizon, always just beyond reach.

Further Reading

Henry Abelove, Deep Gossip (2005)

Pete Coviello, Tomorrow’s Parties (2013)

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons (2013)

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Slavery in Massachusetts

GAME OF THRONES: THE QUEER SEASON by JACK HALBERSTAM (HOUSE OF NEMO)

8 Apr
Live by the sword and die by the sword

Live by the sword and die by the sword

Every couple of seasons, like warriors of an ancient cult or like the antagonists in Games of Thrones, scholars arm themselves for battle over the ownership of the term “queer.” These battles have pitted historians against literary critics, empiricism against abstract theory, those with investments in the normative against those with investments in resistance; Foucaultians against Deleuzians, boys against girls, gender queers against cis-genders, people who watch Project Runway versus people who watch women’s tennis, Broadway musical lovers against performance art fans, people who want the freedom to marry against people who want freedom from marriage, pet lovers versus pet haters and so on. It seems to be a queer rite, in addition, to claim that, queer is over! Or, no, it has just begun! We might also hear that: it has not yet arrived; it will never arrive; it would not be queer if it did arrive; it has not been queer and so never was here and cannot therefore be over; it will never be over; it cannot be over nor can it ever begin…to be over. You get the picture.

photo_17522_wide_largeJust last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a perennial warrior, Michael Warner (House of Queer Publics), took stock of the state of queer theory on the occasion of the ending of Duke’s famed Series Q and used Jasbir Puar’s work to signal “queer theory’s ambivalence about itself. ” While he accepted the ambivalence as part of a sign of the vibrancy of the field, Warner still took time to land a few well-placed jabs at a critical queer theory that had, according to his calculations, gone beyond ambivalence and that reveled in a “queerer-than-thou competitiveness” while investing in “postures of righteous purity.” Such a model of queer theory could be found, he claimed, in a special 2006 issue of Social Text titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” This special issue, edited by myself, fellow Bully Blogger José Esteban Muñoz, and David Eng, was itself an attempt to make a survey of the field, and its mission was to highlight new work in queer theory—by Martin Manalansan, Gayatri Gopinath, Jasbir Puar, Hiram Perez and others of the House of Poco Queers—that saw the intersections of race and sexuality to be axiomatic rather than marginal to another larger narrative centered on the sexual identity practices of white males. Such a project, for Warner, was evidence of a whiny competitiveness and perhaps indicated, as far as he was concerned, that queer studies might be over.

Game-of-Thrones-Infographic-Houses-OnlyAnd so it goes, like an episode of the fantasy HBO series Game of Thrones, there are more battles between more houses than the human brain can keep track of! This house sets up against that house, old feuds carry over into new feuds, battles are won and lost and, to quote a Game Of Thones saying, “what is dead can never die.” While Game of Thrones is a remarkable study of power, sovereignty, territoriality, terror, kinship, sex and violence, it also offers a close reading of fantasy and desire in a possibly medieval but at any rate distant historical time. While the action, the political machinations, the sexual intrigue and the multiple forms of perfidy might be transhistorical, the success of the series actually hinges upon its ability to render the past in all, or at least some, of its pastness. The question of what constitutes the past, what relation it has to the present and how it can be read from a historical remove is the subject of one of the most recent skirmishes between queer theory households and it merits a closer look if only so that we can get back to the queerness of Game of Thrones, having settled some thorny historical questions about anachronism, teleology, chronology and genealogy.

In January 2013 issue of PMLA, Valerie Traub, queen of the House of English Studies at Michigan in Game of Thrones speak, takes aim at the “new unhistoricism in Queer Studies.” Traub, who has not, in her earlier work, ever been mistaken to my knowledge for a Marxist (House of UMass Amherst), begins her polemic with a familiar phrase: “Since around 2005 a specter has haunted the field in which I work: the specter of teleology” (21). We all know of the mythical creatures in Game of Thrones that lie beyond the wall and scuttle in and out of the kingdoms creating fear and mischief. But Traub is not worrying about what lies beyond the walls of her kingdom; rather, she is casting her own brand of historical scholarship and that by her merry band of characters, many located in Michiganlandia, as the specter, that, like communism in the mid-nineteenth century, apparently haunts queer studies.

In a weird twist that places teleological thinking—or the belief that the past can be read as an inevitable drift towards a fixed endpoint in the present—in the position of the radical threat offered by communism, Traub raises her flag for genealogy, periodization, chronology and the work of David Halperin. traub-halperin_gay_shameShe dedicates her essay to Halperin and she defends his genealogical historical methodology from the hoards at the gate that come to “undo” his “history of homosexuality.” Along the way to mounting this defense, Traub also implicitly argues, as other queer houses have recently (the House of Anti-Anti-Normativity for example –see the bullyblogger account of their recent MLA panel), that we need to return to some key foundational texts by David Halperin but also by others such as George Chauncey, Steve Epstein and Janet Halley in order to counter this “unhistoricism” with empirical research, real, authentic scholarship, in other words, grounded in proper disciplinary locations with appropriate methodologies and canonical archives of evidence. Thus, using a neo-liberal logic by which the hegemonic (teleological historicism) characterizes itself as the marginalized and outlawed, Traub allows her enterprise of historicizing to be cast as an upstart methodology which uses radical methods to bring down the prevailing order. In fact, the historical methods she defends are far from either radical or Marxist (although Marxism does have a teleological spin to it), far from a specter that is haunting anything, her periodized historical narratives, with their investments in normative temporalities, disciplinary regulation, continuity and destinations, constitute a castle on the hill, the manor house, the oldest and most royal house of all. Traub pretends to be the rebel at the gate but in actuality she is sitting safely and warmly inside, on the throne, and at the very heart of power.

How Soon Is...

How Soon Is…

Traub, reasonably enough, wants in this article to undo some of the logics that have cast two houses of queer history at odds when she thinks that they may potentially share some projects: “My aim then,” she writes even as she lifts her crossbow, “is to advance a more precise collective dialogue on the unique affordances of different methods for negotiating the complex links among sexuality, temporality, and history making” (23). A noble aim, we might add, but one that nonetheless, for all of its tone of moderation, takes no prisoners. The main targets of Traub’s “aim” indeed are Carla Freccero (House of Mid Century Modern), Jonathan Goldberg (House of Sedgwick) and Madhavi Menon (House of Queers Off Color but also House of Edelman). Traub also throws Carolyn Dinshaw (House of Queer Medieval and House of NYU) under the bus charging that while all of these scholars do interesting work on temporality, “none of these scholars set themselves the task of writing a historical account that traversed large expanses of time” (26).

And this gets to the heart of Traub’s critique – the House of Unhistoricism, according to Traub, challenges periodization and genealogical history but itself remains bound to one, or in a few instances two, time frames making it impossible for this work to track either changes or continuities across time. Ultimately, Traub seems to be saying, the anti-teleological queer histories are too invested in deconstructive readings (“readings, however, are not the same thing as history” [30]), too quick to dismiss empirical research and periodization, wedded foolishly to “analogical thinking” and “associational reasoning” (which works through presumption, according to her, rather than argumentation), and too critical of the tools of the trade (chronology and periodization). Once they have offered their readings, undone teleologies, made the present strange and the past multiplicitous, rejected periodization and sequence in favor of “multitemporality, nonidentity and noncorrespondence of the early modern” (Traub’s characterization of Goldberg), Traub offers, these scholars are left with a murky understanding of history under a tarnished banner of queer critique that has become so “free-floating” and “mobile” as to mean everything and nothing. Traub clearly feels that the House of Unhistoricism has declared war on the House of History and she charges that they have “demeaned the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity,” charged historians with “normalization,” and disqualified “other ways of engaging with the past” (35).

In past skirmishes between queer houses as much as in this one, a name is used over and over to guarantee the honorable intent and rhetorical superiority of one house over another: that name, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is used here by Traub both to signify a critique of genealogy that she rejects and to indicate a “generative legacy” to which she paradigm-shift-cartoontethers her steed. Sedgwick, she tells us early on, had critiqued Lord Halperin (House of Homosexuality and House of Joan Crawford) for investing in a Foucaultian model of genealogical thinking that placed too much emphasis on the notion of the clean break, or the Great Paradigm Shift. Sedgwick, in her emphasis on the coexistence of different models of sexuality, obviously leans more to the house of Unhistoricism than that of Historicism. But because Sedgwick is such a powerful player in the Game of Thrones, she cannot so easily be ceded to the other side. And so, Traub both acknowledges the critique of Halperin in Sedgwick and yet claims that “Sedgwick did not endorse a particular form of historiography” (25) – in other words, she may have been opposed to the House of Halperin but she did not therefore stand with the House of Unhistoricism. And so the essay ends by folding Sedgwick back into the House of History and Geneaology by claiming her multiple legacies as part of this essay’s genealogical reach, and it also marries that legacy to the bounty that Lord Halperin has bestowed upon the field: “No less at stake is how this debate bears upon David Halperin’s evolving contributions to queer theory and queer history” (36). While the House of Unhistoricism is more interested in a haptic history made up of anonymous figures brushing up against emergent categories of being, the House of Traub would trace a line of kings and queens and find their true and authentic bloodlines in order to make sure that at any given moment, the right person is on the throne.

Jay-Z-Kanye-West-Watch-the-Throne-Behind-the-ScenesBut, as Jay Z and Kanye remind us in their joint album, you always have to “Watch the Throne” because no king/queen is safe, no house is secure, no wealth lasts, no love is past, no success is sure, no church in the wild and the wild things are always just outside the door. The House of Michigan can hold onto History with a capital H; it can have disciplinarity, chronology and sequence; it can misspell the names of its postcolonial critics (footnote #12) and still make a claim on accuracy; it can cast aside the analogical thinking of the queers who come to undo history, but it cannot police what lies beyond the walls and scuttles around the edges of the House of MLA – the creatures outside the walls are the real specters haunting the field and what is dead can never die.

Jack Halberstam (House of Nemo)movies-finding-nemo-3d-poster-gallery-8

Queer Genealogies (Provisional Notes)

13 Jan

By Keguro Macharia

I am seduced by the prospect of queer conference panels. I anticipate their erotic charge, their intellectual promiscuities, their fleshly abundance—so many queers in one space. I crave their sustaining energy, which enables me to inhabit less queer-friendly and distinctly queer-hating spaces. So I arrived at the MLA panel, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity,” featuring Anamarie Jagose, Robyn Wiegman, and Elizabeth Wilson, with a deep sense of anticipation. I have been struggling to find a language to describe what I experienced as the familiar violence of a field I desire and claim, to name that stubborn attachment Lauren Berlant describes as “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011). It is a strange thing to experience oneself being absented from view—I must, wrongly, personalize this—even as the terms “we” and “our” and “us” were used at the panel often, a lot, extremely.

The panelists mused on the limits of antinormativity as an organizing principle for queer scholarship. Antinormativity, claimed Wiegman, functions as an “engine” that drives queer thinking as intervention, permitting those who invoke the term, and who critique norms and normativity in general, to believe their work is necessarily political. The critique is well taken, for, as the panelists argued, we need to be able to think more deliberately about what constitutes the political and, also, how to distinguish between the norms with which we cannot do without and those that punish and destroy.

While their papers followed different trajectories, they all agreed that “we” needed to return to queer foundations: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, and a distant Foucault.

I was nagged by the familiarity of this archive: white women. How had we come to the (familiar) point where as a rich body of work has proliferated—known, variously, as Black Queer studies, Queer of Color critique, Postcolonial Queerness, Transnational Queerness—we are urged to go back to our (white) roots? Back to our white mothers, who, we were told, we had not yet understood, not quite. Who we had misheard, and misused in the service of something that was dismissed as “the (prematurely) political.”

In case anyone dared to raise the complications of other geo-histories, we were told that this was about the history of the West.

I want to take up this challenge of the West and its queer roots by multiplying our queer genealogies through two key figures: Frantz Fanon and Hortense Spillers. Against what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes, in another context, as a “single story” of queer origins, midwifed by Sedgwick, Butler, Teresa de Lauretis (an absent name), I want to offer other, complementary myths of how we enter into the space called queer. I hope the “our” and “we” and “us” produced by this complementary genealogy includes (as it must) the “our” and “we” and “us” imagined through white mothers. Learning from Sharon Holland, I want to persist “in the stubborn insistence that we do belong to one another despite our every effort at home and in the institution, to lose track of, if not forget altogether, such belonging.” (2012: 15)

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Let us proceed with Sedgwick’s own strategy: by insisting that this is about the history of the West. Fanon’s West.

By the late 1990s, as Queer studies took disciplinary shape and gained muscle, the field had decided to abandon Fanon. While Fanon was understood as a theorist of blackness and an interruption into psychoanalysis, he was homophobic, unavailable for Queer studies. Proclaimed as such by Diana Fuss, Lee Edelman, and Kobena Mercer, Fanon became an impossible figure for Queer studies (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996). And here, I must borrow more language from Holland: Fanon could be dismissed with “glee” (2012: 14). While Darieck Scott (2010) has made the Fanon of Wretched of the Earth newly available, Black Skin, White Masks remains safely bracketed.

This bracketing has been strategic, as it means certain strands of Queer studies have ignored the problem race presents for something called the homosexual. If, following Fanon, the Negro represents genitality within colonial modernity, and if the term “homosexual” names a desire for genitality, then desire itself must be directed toward—or routed through—blackness understood as that which incarnates desire for/as genitality. One could claim this is a flattened reading of the homosexual within colonial modernity, but, with Robert Reid-Pharr, I want to insist that “If there is one thing that marks us as queer . . . then it is undoubtedly our relationships to the body, particularly the expansive ways in which we utilize and combine vaginas, penises, breasts, buttocks, hands, arms, feet, stomachs, mouths and tongues in our expressions of not only intimacy, love, and lust but also and more importantly shame, contempt, despair, and hate,” (2001: 85). If such embodiedness rubs the wrong way, then one might simply go with Holland’s claim that “having a right to our queer desires is a fundamental tenet of queer theorizing” (2012: 45). If one reads Fanon a particular way, desire must be routed through, worked through, approached through blackness as that which makes desire possible within colonial modernity, which is to say, modernity.

If a certain strand of Queer studies has been too willing to abandon Fanon, Fanon remains stubbornly attached to Queer studies, demanding an accounting of how blackness comes to figure within and as desire, as the portal to homosexuality as desire. And if the materiality of blackness forces a mad dash for psychic figuration, Fanon has already been there: the Negro and the Negro’s genitality are psychic figurations within colonial modernity that the homosexual cannot do without.

*

If Fanon poses a problem for the homosexual, Hortense Spillers poses a problem for sex and gender. In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers complicates certain queer strategies: the distinction between gender and sex, the undoing of this distinction, the role of the performative, the distinction between subject and abject, the idea of the dominant and the marginal, normativities and radicals, and so on. To these fine, necessary distinctions, Spillers, like Fanon, poses the problem of colonial modernity as the problem of “the thing.”

Here is one instance of the problem:

The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body – a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence, biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail, is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality [hear Fanon here]; 2) at the same time – in stunning contradiction – the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. (1987: 67)

The thing-making project of New World subject production (the “captive body” is “being” for the captor”) refuses the too-celebratory discussions of undifferentiated gender and un-gendering in Queer studies. The much-heralded “blur” and “undecidability” understood as conditions of freedom must contend with its longer genealogy in a thing-making project. One cannot uncritically celebrate gender or sex undecidability. Instead, one must work through the micro- and macro-positions created in the New World: “captive body,” “thing,” “captured sexualities,” “otherness,” “potential for pornotroping,” “sheer powerlessness.” How might these terms and their emergence from slavery provide other ways to approach Queerness? How do we work through the problem of the “thing” in that micro-transition from “captured bodies” to “captured sexualities,” where thingness becomes a mediating term, a filter, a catalyst, a door? How is sexuality within colonial modernity always (and only) approachable through the thing?

What might a Queer studies that begins with, or engages, the problem of the “thing” look like? How might the problem of the thing compel us to re-think and re-work Sedgwick’s powerful first axiom: “People are different from each other” to ask, instead, how we come to think of the term “people” and what that term brackets and makes impossible. How might the unthinkability of blackness direct our queer gazes?

*

Something radical—at the root—has happened in Queer studies over the past decade, sometimes, though not always, through Fanon and Spillers. Fred Moten (2008) has taken up the problem of the “thing” for blackness, charting blackness as “fugitive movement in and out of the frame, bar, or whatever externally imposed social logic,” including, I would add, that which governs Sedgwick’s useful distinction between homo and hetero within Western modernity. Moten tasks us to track what “escapes” that figuration of time and being. If we stay within the fiction of a hermetic West, something that Rudi Bleys’s reading of the ethnographic imagination makes difficult, but still (1996). If we stay with this fiction, then work by Christina Sharpe, Omise’eke Tinsley, Ricardo Ortiz, José Muñoz, Nayan Shah, Mark Rifkin, and many others has taught us that far from being close to exhausted, the project of reading queerness in the West remains to be done, remains radicalizing, always demanding a (re)turn to places and times we had not known to look or, having looked, we had not known how to think about.

If the paradigms we have relied on thus far—antinormavity, say—no longer suffice because of our increasingly multiply entangled and multiplying geo-histories, if we need to forge contingent tools that will allow us to keep speaking with each other across increasingly disparate times and spaces, if we must jettison everything we thought we knew to pursue the “not yet here” Muñoz so richly invokes, so be it.

But, to take language from Essex Hemphill, “don’t let loneliness / kill us” (1992:165) Hemphill’s “us” is what is at stake—the “us” I desire, the one I went to the panel seeking, the “us” that was pronounced through negation.

It could have been otherwise.

It should have been otherwise.

 


Works Cited

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Rudi C. Bleys, The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behavior Outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918 (New York: NYU Press, 1996).

Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994)

Diana Fuss, “Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification,” Diacritics 24. 2-3 (1994): 19-42

Essex Hemphill, “Heavy Corners,” Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (New York: Plume, 1992)

Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 15. (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996)

Kobena Mercer, “Decolonization and Disappointment: Reading Fanon’s Sexual Politics,” The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation, ed. Alan Read (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996).

Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50.2 (2008): 177-218.

José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009)

Ricardo Ortiz, Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

Robert Reid-Pharr, Black Gay Man: Essays (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

Mark Rifkin, When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, The History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (New York: OUP, 2011).

Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (CA: University of California Press, 2012)

Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)

Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987).

Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)

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