Mark Aguhar’s Critical Flippancy

4 Aug

By Roy Pérez

Somewhere deep in the Call Out Queen archive, Mark Aguhar quotes a line from another artist’s film: THINKS HE CAN NARRATE MY LIFE BECAUSE I TAUGHT HIM ABOUT FIRE AND WHEELS.*  I encountered this entry while putting together a zine of Mark’s writing and it triggered my already lurking anxiety of authorship.

Mark was an art student in the MFA program at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  We met and got to know each other through a coincidence of connections, online and off, through which we admired each other’s work and fueled each other’s rage. Like many of her fans, my primary point of contact with Mark was on Tumblr, where she blogged as Call Out Queen.  And she blogged constantly, producing dozens of posts a day: one-liners, long rants, performance videos, porn, responses to fan mail and hate mail, and whatever other form of journaling she needed to survive a long trip, a day at school, a night at home, or the next few minutes.

Mark committed suicide on the weekend of March 12, 2012. Maybe the only thing you need to know about that weekend appears in the last thing she posted on her blog: LOL, WHITE MEN BORE ME.

Originally called “notheretomakefriends,” the Call Out Queen blog spans three years and begins here. A combination of grad school, women-of-color theory, new friends and a major falling out with old ones, led Mark to take up the name Call Out Queen and galvanize a new objective: “blogging for brown gurls” that called out white, male, thin privilege and affirmed brown, fat, femme agency.

The first post that blew up with likes and reblogs, TALK ABOUT THE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY, lists “the benefits of sun exposure” and “having a healthy relationship to food” in an itinerary of radical brown, fat self-care. The entry is an early version of Mark’s catalogs of affirmation, like her LITANIES TO MY HEAVENLY BROWN BODY or the Axes.  Artistic remixes and republications of these manifestos of care by fans, curators and activists will place them among her lasting written legacies.

But her posts were also magnets for the resentment of folks who could not stand to see privilege challenged in Mark’s many voices—cuttingly flippant one second, heartbreakingly and radically vulnerable the next, and always floating on an undertow of misandry. Anyone with a healthy Tumblr feed will eventually encounter a Call Out Queen post, and her posts would frequently drift into the crosshairs of Internet trolls and haters. Mark would sometimes post the hate mail she received to hilarious, deflating effect. In my favorite of these, an anonymous writer asked Mark to account for the increasing visibility of fat positivity. Mark posted the full message, then isolated one line—”You look like a whale, ok?“—and reposted it with degenerating locution. The final iteration, U LOOK LYK A WALE OK, belongs on a t-shirt, as one commenter suggests. The broke down txtspk relays the casual inanity of everyday hate speech and invites us to laugh in its face. The strategy typifies one of the most powerful things about Mark as Call Out Queen: the confidence and discernment with which the blog’s voice learned to channel its critical energy.  Mark would read and flatten patriarchal and racist bullshit without diverting power from the work of brown, queer reflection and affirmation.

What she called flippancy was less about refusing to take things seriously and more about shutting down the mode of bad-faith elliptical debate that reigns on the Internet in order to carry out real talk about day to day survival under white male supremacy. The Call Out Queen’s way of switching registers when she needed to—from confessional, to theoretical, to capricious, to sneering—gave critical substance to her flippancy, mocking a hater while empowering the one who dared to laugh it off. The hair flips themselves added artful glamour to the otherwise boring work of ignoring you on purpose.

Her art, her arguments, her experiences as a queer person of color, a geeky teenage gamer (did you know that?), a logic and philosophy nerd, the kid of immigrants growing up in public schools and strip malls and cheap stucco houses, are not mine but close to mine and are some of the avenues by which we recognized kinship. They also seem like important but unseen facets of Mark that surface here and there, particularly in the early months of the blog, and whenever Mark blogged from Houston. All the reading too much, shopping too much, feeling too much that defines the life of a ghettonerd appears there in the glamorous looks she turned out of her messy studio, not underneath but laced right into the hair tutorials, the scientific precision of the hair flip, the deconstructions of chicken adobo and rice, the fragile and fleeting vanity that gives a person what the world won’t.

Call Out Queen was learning and teaching the fire and wheels of fat, femme, brown survival and cultural analysis. She was also exposing the contradictions that survival requires, in particular the emotional and tactical oscillations between flippancy and heartbreak, boredom and rage.  So when I read that line—TRY TO NARRATE MY LIFE—while trying to do nothing other than impose some narrative arc on the Call Out Queen’s body of work, I felt like Mark was telling us to tread very fucking lightly.

The same healthy anxiety seems to bother all the ongoing conversations about Mark taking place in queer corners of the web right now. Posts about Mark’s death revealed how big her readership had grown and how far her art, ideas, criticism and confessions were reaching.  Many were written with tones of defense that seemed like urgent echoes (sometimes red-hot, sometimes witless) of Mark’s own rage.  In the weeks after Mark’s death it seemed like every blogger who followed her would take up arms to defend her memory against any other blogger who dared write about her.  “grief,” Mark wrote after her sister’s suicide in 2011, “is violent, selfish, painful, and necessary.”  The flame wars in defense of Mark’s legacy were all those things. They constituted a kind of public mourning for her that ranged from presumptuous to tender to luminous in their admiration for Mark and in their borrowing from Mark’s vernacular.

Blogger Julie Blair’s post for PrettyQueer.com (“Everybody Missed Mark“) was one of the first hints that the Call Out Queen was reaching more people than many of us in her life had been alert to. Blair’s eulogy is sincere, deferential, and anxiously humble. It’s also discomfitingly authoritative in some parts, speaking from some tacit and universal sense of queerness where she might have spoken more personally. Her strings of declaratives regarding Mark’s politics in particular may have been what rubbed a bunch of commenters the wrong way:

She questioned every facet of queer culture, which is a natural response for someone like her, who saw herself nowhere. She took on the things she liked and was never seduced into any one faction. She didn’t feel the need to be aligned with the things that appealed to her, she didn’t expect anything to be perfect, and challenged the very notion that anything could be.

You can find Blair working hard in the comment section at the foot of the post to account for the subjective disclosure missing from prose like this. Mark’s mode of queer questioning did not seem natural, it was well-read, complex, and hard won. Mark didn’t see herself nowhere, she saw herself in Mariah Carey and Audre Lorde. She aligned herself with femme misandry and she saw perfection all over the place. I could go on with my own chain of she-statements, but what’s at stake here is recognizing that the language we have for talking about Mark and her point of view, her craft and her politics, seems profoundly insufficient.

A fundamental snag is that Mark’s politics were evolving. One of the paradoxes of Mark’s style of critique is the intellectual vulnerability and contingency she maintained even as she raged against masculinity and whiteness with unapologetic generalization. These extremes are not performance. Or rather Mark’s ambivalent extremes are no more performative than other modes of critique and no more empty or less earnest for being deliberately performed. They are a demonstration of a politics guided by something bigger than the argument, a politics that can learn, feel, and change its mind.

It should feel difficult to write about an artist who deals with power by talking right over it. The politics of speaking for Mark—of declaring her significance, of too-personally stating her meaning, of writing in declaratives about what she stood for and represented like Blair and I do above—are complicated by Mark’s own resistance to circumscription. It’s easy to self-police and police others when writing about her. You can find a Call Out Queen post to contradict any other post. These are the perils of speaking for Mark, after Mark. But perhaps we can be freed by the possibility that what we lost in Mark, everything she showed us about power, pleasure, and beauty, exceeds the discourses we have available to us. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, but that we should perform the trying, and the vulnerability it requires, as part of our own work. The language for transmitting the Call Out Queen’s message might be insufficient but it’s our responsibility to keep failing at it.

§

About a month after Mark died, a group of queer activists threw stones through the stained glass windows of a notoriously anti-gay megachurch in Portland, OR.  That morning on PugetSoundAnarchists.org a group of “angry queers” claimed responsibility for the action under the headline, “Anti-gay church smashed in memory of Mark Aguhar and Paige Clay.”  In the article they also name “Duanna Johnson, a black trans woman who was in all likelihood murdered by the police in 2008; Agnes Torres Sulca, Deoni Jones, and all other trans women who have been murdered by this cissexist, femmephobic, racist, and transmisogynistic society.”

On its own site, the Seattle-based Mars Hill church attributed the vandalism to “a gay rights group,” but Portland’s middle-leaning Q Center, having already dedicated weeks to “a process of respectful dialogue” with the controversial church and probably feeling implicated by the loose inclusiveness of the phrase “gay rights group,” quickly distanced themselves from the activists by snagging and rhetorically smearing the phrase “angry queers” in their own apologist statement, characterizing the activists as a mindless fringe group and leaving out any mention of trans justice. The “act of violence,” wrote executive director Barbara McCullough-Jones, “in some ways has brought our communities closer together.”  Here the white, middle-class constituencies of Mars Hill church and the Q Center find common ground in their wilful inattention to violence against trans women of color.  When they borrowed the term “angry queers” from the anarchists’ press release without mention of the group’s political message, the Q Center missed an important opportunity to articulate their stance on the current streak of reported violence against trans women of color. And calling property damage at a wealthy corporate megachurch franchise an “act of violence” in light of this erasure makes even clearer how far the national LGBT movement currently stands from the issues of working and poor queers of color.

Seeing Mark’s name appear in this flashpoint of anglocentric Northwest gay politics only weeks after her death was uncanny and uncomfortable.  With this incident Mark had gone from being a friend with some modest degree of Internet notoriety to a name on a growing national roster of queer deaths demanding political redress. Linking the names of trans women to a political action in the way these angry queers did does not leave room for the complexity of each death, each person’s gender, and in Mark’s case, her thoughtful and critical grappling with suicide. The language is insufficient. At the same time, the Q Center’s erasure of these trans women’s names in their accommodationist response seems like exactly the kind of white, gay slight against queers of color that Mark raged against daily. Throwing stones might not have been the Call Out Queen’s style, but there’s her name, doing some queer work, calling out white privilege through the volition of strangers.

§

Mark’s antagonism with whiteness complicates many of the narratives into which some queer bloggers and activists have written her. These are folks who do the important work of keeping track of queer murders and suicides and reminding us to honor our losses.  As much as it pained some of us to see Mark used as a queer avatar by anarchists in the Northwest, for example, I can’t help but notice how swiftly Mark’s memory can be silenced by the white, liberal gatekeepers of the LGBT political field.  Mark is explicit about her antagonism with white culture, especially gay-identified white men (THINKS HE CAN NARRATE MY LIFE). And, despite sharing a great deal with other trans women of color, it’s hard to watch a white-dominated movement either tell the story for her or refuse to tell it at all.

The issue is not that Mark was special, but that the very things that most enraged Mark, such as the character-defining degree of transmisogyny and racism perpetuated by the gay community itself, get smoothed out every time Mark is spoken for. Even more difficult to think about than the silencing of Mark’s politics is the silencing of her unequivocal defense of suicide for queer/femme/fat people, complexly articulated theories about choice and agency that Mark mulled constantly since her sister’s death. In scrambling to depict Mark as a victim we might accidentally overlook Mark as a thinker.

In light of conversations and events like these, it seems important (if immensely difficult) to recognize that Mark’s decision to commit suicide does not conflict with her self-love. It seems important to see her suicide not primarily as the endpoint of victimization but as critique, her death itself as a political act, no matter how much we wish she had found another way. She articulated her self-love as something that was at odds with the world’s very real ugliness, ugliness that took the shape of constant racist, queer-phobic and fat-hating character assaults of the kind she logged daily as Call Out Queen.

We can turn to Mark’s concept of ugliness to parse this out, and its potential for materializing the personal bonds we need to survive. Depression, anger, hopelessness and other ugly feelings linked to suicide are symptoms of a very ugly social world not an individual weak spirit.  Mark was not broken by her own lack of self-esteem; she was the reluctant but explosively visionary medium for a broken world that had routinely proved too weak to hold her up. The way Mark explains it, “I don’t need to be strong, I need for the world to stop being so fucking weak, that my sisters are being swallowed up before my eyes.” That world is us, alive as we are, and we’ve got work to do.

*Ryan Trecartin, I-BE AREA.

A zine of selected posts from the Call Out Queen blog is available at the group tribute show The Dragon is the Frame: Inspired by the Life and Work of Mark Aguhar at Gallery 400 (400 South Peoria Street, Chicago, IL), which closes on August 11, 2012.

Thanks to Michael Aguhar, Juana Peralta and José Esteban Muñoz for lending their words, feedback, and encouragement.

4 Responses to “Mark Aguhar’s Critical Flippancy”

  1. Mandy Berry August 6, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    This is so smart and beautifully put–a difficult pleasure to read and think–it seems so suitable to its subject and buoyed by the vibrations of the person about whom it is written. Thanks.

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