Queer Complacency without Empire

22 Sep

Lisa Duggan

When I teach undergraduate Queer Studies, we begin by listing all the meanings that students can generate for the term queer. Then we group them into three categories: (1) Identity, or queer as a synonym for LGBT populations; (2) Practice, or queer as a broad umbrella term for dissenting sexual practices and gender expressions, and (3) Politics, or queer as a designation similar to feminist that appears quite independently of an advocate’s identity or sexual/gender practices. Our discussion of these divergent meanings usually leads us to understand that they all exist simultaneously, often used by the same individual at different moments. Though I prefer the third usage, I often find myself unselfconsciously using the first two. In the context of Queer Studihttps://i1.wp.com/www.theory.org.uk/queermap2.gifes, it’s important to sort these meanings out in our readings and conversations. Each has different resonances and implications.

The most recent special issue of differences, “Queer Theory without Antinormativity,” volume 26, number 2 (May 2015) edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, runs through all these meanings without much attention to the distinctions among them. In the introduction to the volume, Wiegman and Wilson alternatively refer to queer theory, queer studies, queer inquiry and queer critique, also without any noted distinctions. But perhaps most fatally for this issue’s project, they use the terms norm, normalizing and normativity also with little effort to map the historically shifting and overlapping meanings of the terms.

It’s not that they make no effort to historicize. They do point out, via Foucault and others, that the juridical meaning of norms as rules that order and restrict shifts to a biopolitical, statistical meaning of norms as averages at the beginning of the 19th century. Their critique of queer theory (or studies, critique, inquiry etc) rests on the arguments that (1) queer theory is universally underpinned by a foundational antinormativity, and that (2) this antinormativity is dyadic and oppositional, based on the earlier notion of norms as rules, rather than on the more generative, expansive, individualizing concept of norms as averages that require variation.https://i0.wp.com/blogs.worldbank.org/files/publicsphere/norm2.jpeg

What is wrong with these arguments? Everything. Though the editors’ introduction provides a wide-ranging and inclusive survey of work in queer theory, their grasp of what underlies the scholarship published after 2000, especially in the field of queer of color critique, is faulty. They seem deeply familiar with work published in the 1990s, but when they extend their critique of that work forward in time they run rapidly off the rails. For instance, beginning with Licia Fiol-Matta’s Queer Mother for the Nation, published in 2002, much new work in queer studies abandoned the notion that queer identities or practices are somehow inherently radical, or that queer politics is necessarily oppositional to historical forms of political and economic power.

Fiol-Matta’s study of the deployment of the queer figure of Gabriela Mistral as a support for the dominant forms of racial capitalism and nationalism in Latin America decimated those assumptions of inherent queer subversiveness, and deeply influenced the flood of work to come in queer of color critique and transnational queer and feminist studies. Wiegman and Wilson’s readings of that post 2000 work are flattening and distorting; in describing it all as underpinned by a dyadic antinormativity they are blind to the major developments in queer thinking that emerged with this work over the past 15 years.https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/413FN1JS7WL._UY250_.jpg

But that isn’t the only stream of queer publication that they get wrong. They also search out instances of dyadic oppositional antinormativity in work that they otherwise acknowledge does not fit that frame. In discussing Lee Edelman’s NoFuture, after acknowledging that he generally evades the oppositional framing they argue underpins the whole field, they find one footnote where he appears to fall into that trap. Via that footnote they include him in their survey of the field united in their version of antinormative error.

In addition to misdescribing “the field” that they variously name as queer something, Wiegman and Wilson also offer a narrow and ahistorical definition of norms and normativity by which to measure the adequacy of those terms in the work of queer writers. They hew to the Foucauldian definition, and chide queer authors for using a “wrong” notion of norms as restrictive rules. In this they are wrong on two counts: (1) There is no historical supersession of statistical norms over rule based norms, both are in wide current use in the social and political world, and (2) They totally neglect the civilizational, imperial history of norms as racial ideals used to measure the “development” of inferior races. Developmental norms are pervasive in the history of empire and settler colonialism, and they appear in psychology also as “developmental” norms drawn from the highest racial “achievements” of prosperous male Europeans. Queer work that engages with racial capitalism, empire, transnationalism, and decolonial movements invokes these kinds of norms as ideals—the nuclear monogamous family, the “democratic” capitalist state, the rise of rationalist science, etc. These of course include sexual ideals as norms, appearing as the very logic of racial, class, gender and religious hierarchies. This work does not propose any simple, dyadic form of queer antinormativity as opposition. Nayan Shah, Roderick Ferguson and so many others map complex forms of aspiration for inclusion as well as modes of exclusion in a constantly shifting historical political economy.

(My own use of the term homonormativity does not focus on dyadic opposition to dominant norms, but rather maps a complex set of changing historical relations to an unstable political economy—homonormativity only becomes possible during the 1990s in the capitalist “democracies.” It takes an unsympathetic, even hostile reading to reduce this term to one pole in the abstract dyad norm/antinorm.)

So far I have concentrated on the introduction to the special issue. (For more, see Jack Halberstam’s previous Bully Bloggers post.)  Only a few of the other essays in the issue actually echo or support the framing offered there. Essays by Annamarie Jagose on Judith Butler and Wiegman on Eve Sedgwick continue the stuck-in-time 1990s focus of the issue. Heather Love provides a historical frame, offering post WWII sociology of sexual deviance literature as a site for productive excavation for queer scholars. She seems to be addressing scholars in the literary humanities only, as those of us trained in history, anthropology, sociology or the interdisciplinary fields are generally quite familiar with this literature—and perhaps more critical of it than Love? Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black draws from his PhD training in sociology to offer a critical framing that brings together sociology of racial and sexual deviance to produce a wide ranging critique of the normalizing work of sociological knowledge production—normalizing in the racial imperialist, developmental sense, not the dyadic rule bound or statistical sense. Anthropologist David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender provides an observational, empirically based ethnographic study that probes the racial and class meanings of language shifts in political context. Love’s isolation of the work on sexual deviance, and her largely uncritical observational stance, give her article an unintended overall tone of political, especially racial complacency compared to the vigorous critical lens provided by Ferguson. And when she cites Sharon Marcus to critique the “dominant” deviance paradigm in queer studies, and argues that the field is invested in the idea of an impossible absolute withdrawal from the social (p. 89), I honestly have no idea what work she could be talking about? That paradigm went out by 2002 (in the queer studies “field” that I read), and the withdrawal from the social characterizes only a tiny archive at this point.https://i0.wp.com/orig04.deviantart.net/298e/f/2008/257/7/a/antisocial_avenger__g_by_asylumactas.jpg

The last three essays, by Madhavi Menon, Erica Edwards and Elizabeth Povinelli, seem not to belong in this issue at all. These three essays are confined to the section on “Case Studies” in the issue, perhaps because they bring in the political economy and the state? They position their discussions of normativity within a complex historical, racial and imperial frame that cannot be reduced to the abstract framing norm/antinorm. In “Sex After the Black Normal,” Erica Edwards draws upon and extends the long bibliography in black feminism and queer of color critique to make an important contribution from within those fields. In her richly documented article, she argues that black women’s sexuality has been used to facilitate neoliberalism in the U.S., and also to support collective alternatives that expose its instabilities. This is precisely in line with the arguments that Rod Ferguson and others make, and does not flatten those contributions, or elevate her own as somehow so much more complex as to be different in foundation.

Elizabeth Povinelli’s article “Transgender Creeks and the Three Figures of Power in Late Liberalism,” is in my humble opinion outright brilliant—original, provocative and important. Drawing on new work on the nonhuman world and the active environment, Povinelli extends the possible meanings of “queer studies” in hugely productive ways. But in doing so, she also draws upon, incorporates and extends earlier work, and invokes the normalizing force of neoliberal markets and extractive capitalism, via a discourse of sexual pathology and normalization in a settler colonial context. In these usages of the notion of the norm, she blends the Foucauldian meaning with the imperial one. She is working from the complex multidimensional work on norms, that Wiegman and Wilson reduce to simple dyadic oppositional antinormativity.

It’s hard to understand the motivation behind this issue that works so hard to diminish work in queer studies through reductive readings and via a singular definition invoked as an abstract standard. I have the uneasy feeling that the motives are political, that the work being reduced to unrecognizable simplicity is somehow too left, too committed to the critique of racial capitalism for these editors. They don’t seem to be offering renewed vitality or renovated methods and approaches in their return to the work of the 1990s in particular. They seem to be calling for a new queer complacency, where we revel in the norms that, in averaging differences, reflect our beautiful diversities (cough, gag):https://i2.wp.com/m5.paperblog.com/i/57/572241/when-is-minority-political-activity-represent-L-QKSsND.jpeg…..more Queer Theory without Empire than without antinormativity.

Straight Eye For the Queer Theorist – A Review of “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” by Jack Halberstam

12 Sep

Straw-man-argumentStuart Chase’s 1956 Guide to Straight Thinking is sometimes credited with the first use of the term “straw man.” He used the term to describe the rhetorical practice of basing a strong argument on the misrepresentation of another position. The straw man/person represents a figure without depth or dynamism that is easily knocked down. And so if one represents feminism in terms of a unified group of man-hating, chainsaw wielding, separatist lesbians, rather than as a wide array of positions held by many different groups with or without chainsaws, then it is relatively easy to persuade a neutral audience that feminism is dangerous. Straw men, or in this case straw womyn, stand in for the complexity of a flesh and blood opponent. The term draws upon the image of the scarecrow on the one hand and on fairground games on the other – the term “Aunt Sally,” for example, is often used as a synonym for Straw Man and comes from the fairground game where a target (often an “ugly” woman or racialized in someway) is set up for others to knock down.

A recent issue of the journal differences engages in the production of straw people and does an Aunt Sally on queer theory. The issue, differences Volume 26 #1 (May 2015), edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, and titled, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” asks the question: “What might queer theory do if its allegiance to antinormativity was rendered less secure?” The answer goes something like this: if its allegiance to antinormativity were rendered less secure, queer theory would be…more complicated, more dynamic, and, broader because other important and pressing concerns that have been obscured by this singular focus would come to the fore. What are those concerns? What does this new, shiny, more complicated (queer) theory look like? We never find out. More interested in critique than in outlining new methodologies, archives or theories, this volume is content to say, repeatedly, that oppositionality is not all its cracked up to be; that the humanities orientation of queer theory has concealed the fact that the social sciences are important too; and that queerness as a category has an increasingly elusive relationship to activism, political change and social transformation. None of this is controversial, and it could even be the basis of some interesting new directions in the study of sexuality and gender. But this issue does not lead us there.


What is queer theory without antinormativity, we may ask with the editors of this special issue? Without a critique of normativity, queer theory may well look a lot like straight thinking. And, without these clear alternatives, that is what this volume threatens to become.

Inexplicably sharon wasn't interested in a second date.

Inexplicably sharon wasn’t interested in a second date.

It draws sexy energy from a title that proposes a new kind of queer theory namely, a queer theory without antinormativity but, like a date with a lover who promised hot sex but falls asleep by 9pm, or like an iphone update that claimed it would transform your gadget but actually just ate up all the battery, the issue titillates only by virtue of nestling up to titillation, it thrills only by offering to declaw what is thrilling, it excites by promising to name the fugitive source of an entire genre’s critical excitement. But when push comes to shove, and there is a lot of shoving in this issue despite its seemingly civil tone, queer theory without antinormativity might just be…well, theory, theory about theory.

What’s the basic argument? Queer theory has been characterized by an antinormative stance that has gone unquestioned (until now) and that is the basis for the claims that queer theory lays to a radical political project. This commitment to antinormativity, Wiegman and Wilson say, characterizes the work of all kinds of queer theorists who might otherwise disagree. The problem with antinormativity, as far as Wiegman and Wilson are concerned, is that it derives from a fundamental michel_foucault_by_ivankorsario-d5qvsbtmisreading of Foucault’s theory or norms; it makes certain positions seem inevitable – a critique of disciplinarity for example; and, antinormativity’s uncontested rightness eliminates the possibility of taking up any other relations to norms or normativity. Furthermore, antinormativity, they propose, has become “canonical” in the field and therefore has acquired, ironically, the status of a norm, proving once and for all that norms are unavoidable and cannot be opposed.

Let’s take the first point in Wiegman and Wilson’s critique – the idea that antinormativity emerges from a misreading of the norm in Foucault. They write: “Even as it allies itself with Foucault, queer theory has maintained an attachment to the politics of oppositionality (against, against, against) that form the infrastructure of the repressive hypothesis” (12). By contrast, Wiegman and Wilson propose to offer a different methodology for reading the norm and they will do so through a return to the idea of the norm as it is found in Foucault “in order to revivify what is galvanizing (indeed what is queer) about its operations” (12). This is an odd claim at best – first, is it even possible to “revivify” what is not dead but is in fact “galvanizing”? Just asking. But, second, I cannot find this mythic other methodology anywhere in their text. Their anti antinormative methodology seems to amount to the claim that we are all subject to norms. Norms, they remind us, neither restrict nor ostracize, they are neither “controlling” nor are they “tyrannical,” and we are all equally subject to their powers (“we question the political common sense that claims that norms ostracize, or that some of us are more intimate with their operations than others…”). This claim is then followed by a series of quotes from Berlant, Edelman, myself, Sedgwick all clustered under the leaky umbrella of “queer theoretical ambitions” and organized by the common belief that norms are bad.


Few of the theorists mentioned in this essay, if any, have advanced the theory that norms single out certain people or that they target only certain bodies and then tyrannically restrict their capabilities or legitimacy. Instead, the rather impressive group of theorists gathered under this capacious and yet nonsensical heading of antinormative queer theory (Berlant, Butler, Duggan, Edelman, Eng, Ferguson, Halberstam, Halperin, McRuer, Muñoz, Puar, Reddy, Sedgwick, Warner) have all published extremely complex accounts of the relations between nationalism and norms, sexuality and terror, identity and repetition, race and disidentification, sexuality and death, pessimism and optimism, negativity and utopia, recognition and failure. No single theory of norms unites these works either through their embrace of the antinormative or through their understanding of the political. They have no single object, they do not share a goal, they follow multiple methodologies and none of these theorists unambiguously embraces a singular, critical stance from which it unfairly draws energy and through which it proposes to change the world. The antinormative position is, I will say it again, a straw queer, an Aunt Sally, a rag and bone target for any straight thinkers who want to score points in an academic marketplace of diminishing returns.


Like the bad critical theory essay in which everyone is wrong because the author is right, or in which the author notices something that everyone else in the history of critical thinking has ignored, or in which an intrepid and insightful author uncovers a fallacy upon which an entire area of study has depended, this journal issue requires big targets, thinkers united in their false assumptions who can finally be revealed for what they are – naïve, blind, simple folk who see tyranny where there is only discourse, who confirm the status quo through opposition, and who create a new canon while claiming to bring the house down.


What, I ask you, do Wiegman and Wilson want? They tell us they want to “channel the energies of queer inquiry otherwise.” Ok – point us in the direction of “otherwise.” And I really mean that  – I want to understand the project here, but it feels elusive. They tell us they will promote scholarship that moves “athwart” rather than “against” (although they are clearly against antinormative queer theory, not athwart it…what is athwart, critically speaking?). And they offer to “rethink the meaning of norms, normalization, and the normal” while imagining “other ways to approach the politics of queer criticism altogether.” Let me translate dear reader: we critics, who read athwart not against, who offer critique without solutions, who know something is wrong but cannot offer to replace it, will keep thinking about this in the hopes of generating something that is not more of the same.

Ok, that sounds harsh so let me break it down:


1. Most of the theorists assembled under the heading of the anti-normative produce the very 51TjyujvLxLscholarship that Wiegman and Wilson call for – namely a critique of simple notions of the political as oppositional . Consider Lauren Berlant’s idea of a relation of “cruel optimism” that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Or think of Lee Edelman’s reminder that the impulse to call for a politics around the figure of the child ensures the reproduction of the status quo. Or look again at Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black and his analysis of the way that canonical sociology requires the Black body as a foil for the production of the truth of statistical norms.

2. If you don’t want to commit to some kind of critique of norms you may be doomed to “straight

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

thinking.” Straight thinking is characterized by a matrix of rhetorical operations that support the common sense of the moment, commit to foreclosing on critiques of the status quo and reinvest in the ordinary, the good and the true. Such rhetorical operations have propped up the very distinctions between straight and gay/lesbian/trans or between abled and disabled or between whiteness and of color that have allowed for legal, social and political benefits to accrue to one group at the expense of the other. Abandon antinormativity and you slip quickly into acquiescence.

3. Antinormative thinking, as represented in this issue, simply means scholarship with an urgent, complex, politically explicit agenda. It is the opposite of the seemingly objective “deviance studies” scholarship that Heather Love writes about in this issue but it is in line with some of the writings by Evelyn Hooker, Mary Macintosh and others that she claims queer studies has rejected. Like other essays in the issue, Love’s piece works around a false claim and a false dichotomy. She claims from the start that there are “ongoing conflicts between humanists and social scientists” within the field of queer studies and that these conflicts turn on “the question of whether the empirical study of sexuality should be understood as social recognition or as epistemological violence” (77). Such conflicts were very common in the 1990’s but disciplinary skirmishes have long since diminished under the pressure of new insights about the arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries (Latour). Critiques of the social sciences from within queer studies by Rod Ferguson and others are not disciplinary quarrels so much as they are historically situated accounts of how non-heteronormativity gets located firmly at the heart of U.S. racial formations and links the “multiplication of racialized discourses of sexuality and gender” to the “multiplication of labor under capital” (12). By separating an account of sexual deviance from its imbrication in the production of knowledge on racial deviance in her essay, Love straightens the lines between sexuality and race in a way that literally undoes the work of queer of color critique. What Ferguson had intricately described as meshed, Love unties and analyzes separately.

And later in Love’s essay, she takes aim at the romanticism of The Undercommons to reveal how attached humanities scholars can be to their own subversive potential. What Moten and Harney describe as the role of the “subversive academic” in The Undercommons, Love rejects as a kind of unconscious political violence: “if we are in, we are also of” she writes. Championing the “queer ordinary” and describing the queer academic as a “professional knowledge worker,” Love settles into and accepts her role as observer of ordinary life. Her stakes are clear: the antinormative queer scholar or the fugitive scholar of the undercommons are just engaged in a “romantic disavowal of our position as scholars.” With no account of the activist worlds that informed early queer studies research, no recognition of the disciplinary violence that goes into establishing a definitive split between the “truth seeking” missions of the social sciences and the “civilizing” goal of the humanities in the first place, with no references to the difference that race makes to either professional knowledge production or the definition of deviance, this is an essay that refuses to grapple with its own site of enunciation – for whom is the ordinary smooth and even? For whom is it absolutely unattainable? For whom is it unacceptable?


And so it goes, the straw person argument allows for the wholesale ransacking of several decades of exceptional work from a range of positions and disciplinary locations, emerging from different activist histories and focused upon various political and even utopian horizons. This issue claims to re-evaluate but it comes to eradicate; it claims to survey a field but it creates a position to lambast; it claims to speak for the ordinary but it colludes with the status quo. So, to clarify the argument here: if you still believe in the socially engaged academic and if, like them, your work continues to circle back to performativity, cruel optimism, intersectionality, queer of color critique, queer negativity, critiques of homonormativity, disciplinary critique and the undercommons, this mini-movement is not for you. And for those of you who are still wondering what the answer is to the question posed by this volume of differences in the first place, namely “what is queer studies without antinormativity,” I think I have an answer for you – it is disciplinary, neoliberal, no stakes, straight thinking. You’re welcome!

Triggers and Lions and Vegans, Oh My!: From a Comment War to a Conversation about Cecil and the Ethics of Eating

27 Aug

By Will Stockton and Karen Tongson

[A little disclaimer from your friendly neighborhood Bullies: We don’t usually host debates on this site, but when we do, they always involve tofu! Read on.] 


On July 1 2015, an American dentist and big game hunter named Walter Palmer killed a lion named Cecil in the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. According to widely disseminated reports, Palmer and his guide  lured Cecil out of the sanctuary, wounded him with an arrow, tracked him for the next 40 hours, shot him with a rifle, and then skinned and beheaded him. The killing of Cecil sparked outrage across much the world, with Palmer and his guides accused of grossly poaching an animal who was well known to park visitors and not aggressive towards humans.

In the middle of this wave of outrage, much of it on social media, I posted a question – or, honestly, more of a declarative statement – on my Facebook page. “Remind me,” I wrote, “what the difference is between killing a lion named Cecil and killing any cow, chicken, pig, or fish?” I had in mind animal rights philosopher and law professor Gary Francione’s 2007 suggestion that there is no significant moral difference between the actions of Michael Vick, the widely condemned NFL player found guilty of dogfighting, and anyone who barbeques a pig.[1] In both cases, animals die for the sake of human pleasure, be it the pleasure of sport or the pleasure of taste. What ensued in response to my post was nonetheless not the discussion about the ethics of veganism in which I often engage. Whereas I am accustomed to arguments about the relative immorality of killing legally protected animals and animals one does not eat, Karen Tongson averred that there is a crucial ethical difference between illegal ecotourist hunting and the consumption of animals for cultural purpose. “Eating meat,” she wrote, “actually brings people more than ‘pleasure.’ For some it is a deep expression of their cultural heritage and belonging; a spiritual homage to our families, tribes, regions; a ritualistic celebration of a time when we couldn’t afford protein, or were deprived of it in times of war, occupation and conflict.” Debate ensured regarding the presumptive white universalism underwriting my advocacy of veganism.

Because Facebook and similar social media forums do not always lend themselves to the most considered and sustained dialogue, Karen and I decided to engage in this exchange again over email. We did so because we both believe much as it stake: for myself, the status of animals, and indeed of all sentient creatures, as ends in themselves; and for Karen, the need to preserve cultural traditions, especially minority cultural traditions, against blanket assertions that the killing of animals is wrong.


I’d like to begin by thanking Will for transferring our exchange from the hot-button, quick-trigger setting of social media to a format more akin to an old-fashioned, analog correspondence between thinkers. That said, I’d like to begin by exploring how—in the quick-take environment of social media—we each had to address some pretty sweeping, starkly defined opinions amongst a motley assortment of our Face friends, not all of whom share the same codes, references and systems of understanding.

When the Cecil news broke, I shared the story on my own Facebook page with a one-word remark about Palmer, the dentist by day, big game hunter on vacay: “Asshole.” Like many lesbians, I am a stereotypical pet lover, more specifically, a lover of cats, so commenting on the big cat-related viral news of the day wasn’t out of character. When I noticed Will’s post, and some of the commentary afterwards, I felt hailed. I decided to enter the fray after Bully Blogging editrix extraordinaire, Lisa Duggan, appeared to be taking fire for suggesting that there might be a difference between Palmer’s arrogant display of killing for sport, and the indisputable horrors of mass meat production. I posted the comment Will mentioned above about the different cultural reasons people consume meat, to try to break us out of what felt to me like a closed discourse about the morality of veganism vs. other practices of eating. A slew of dismissals and comments came as a result of my remarks, many from people I didn’t know. I won’t reproduce those comments here. Suffice it to say that the comments on Will’s initial thread ranged from the simply dismissive, to a casually racist quip about not eating meat because it gives us fond memories of “living under thatched roofs.”

Sure, I understood some of the contradictions and conundrums in my defense of my right to “grieve the lion,” given that I’m a notorious carnivore who likes to post pictures of the meat I make and consume. My careful preparations of this meat, the amount of time I’ve spent learning how to prepare it properly, and to use as much of it without waste, combined with my efforts to learn and teach courses about foodways and the heinous practices of Big Ag, is, I believe a way of honoring my food and my cultural and familial relationship to eating. My efforts to purchase more ethically cultivated and produced meat (once I attained a certain level of economic solvency), are also part and parcel of “honoring” the meat.”

More broadly, my Filipino upbringing informs my relationship to food. We are a food-obsessed culture, if largely because of the ways in which we learned to subsist and survive through over half a millennium of colonialism at the hands of Spain and the United States. I was born in the Philippines and lived there for most of my childhood until I turned 10, when my family immigrated to the U.S. At our home in Manila, which had a little bit of land attached to it, we always kept chickens and the occasional goat. I recall we even had a pig at one point, though not for very long, since it was brought over for the sole purposes of prepping it for a large, celebratory feast. Unlike most urbanites in my age range raised in the United States, I don’t have a purely mediated relationship to my food from farm to package. I’ve spent time with animals killed for my consumption. I’ve seen them slaughtered right before my eyes, even if I didn’t participate in killing them myself. And I still ate them.

Given this experience that might seem unique to many Americans, but certainly isn’t on a global scale, especially amongst those of us who are from, or were raised in the so-called “developing” world, I got pretty pissed off when my efforts to make a simple statement about cultural differences determining our food practices was characterized as ignorant, naïve and merely compensatory. This is why I continued to participate in the thread on Will’s page, getting into a conversation about ethics, morality and veganism that is, for the most part, “beyond my pay grade,” as they say. Much of what I had to contribute did, however, come from my extensive reading in scholarship about race, foodways and food culture (most of it for my own edification, or for my teaching, but not for my research). While I comprehend the philosophical nature of the debate—i.e. the need to inhabit “strategic essentialisms” around moral claims of what food-practices are “right” vs. “wrong,” as one commenter remarked in a sub-thread—I just can’t endorse the way this framing of the debate forecloses anything that contradicts the moral superiority of vegan practices.

Perhaps this is why we were talking across but not to one another.


Although it probably won’t shield me from charges of self-righteousness, let me go ahead and own “the moral superiority of vegan practices.” But let me qualify for whom I think they are morally superior. Let me also clarify that I understand “superior” as a synonym for “best” rather than “perfect.” I am not going to claim that veganism abolishes all violence against animals. Rather, I argue that going vegan is the least most people can do.

For most people, too, food has emotional and familial connections. We bond with family and friends around a shared meal. We learn to cook by having our parents teach us. Cultural differences also help determine food consumption – the kinds of food we eat and the way we prepare it. I grew up in Atlanta, and although most of my meat came from factory farms, I would suggest that my southern culture is no less food obsessed than your Filipino one.  I’ve hunted, fished, and crabbed. I’ve killed, gutted, cleaned, cooked, and eaten animals in an effort to both bond with friends and family and “know” my food. Now I’m a dog-rescuing queer with a menagerie that rivals Michael Vick’s pre-fight barn, but with no need to differentiate the rights of my pit bulls from the rights of a chicken or a cow. The choice to make no such differentiation accordingly causes minor strains with friends and family. People worry about how to cook for me. I am routinely teased for not eating the Thanksgiving turkey or the Fourth of July barbeque. Some of this teasing is passive aggressive; some of it stems from a sense of loss about my refusal to participate fully in a norm; and some it is defensive, coming from people who are uncomfortable with their own consumption of animal products. But bonding over a meal or participating in cultural rituals need not cease because someone tries to make that meal or ritual less violent. Diminishing violence against animals more than justifies amending our cultural and familial relationships to eating.

I also want to clarify why I’m a vegan as opposed to someone who eats “humanly raised” meat. Maltreatment is one kind of violence against animals. Death is another. Because both violate an animal’s interests, I pause over your claim that you are “honoring” your meat by making sure it’s ethically sourced. More precisely, I worry that you are romanticizing brutality. There’s no honoring an animal in a slaughterhouse – especially not when that animal is being slaughtered well in advance of its natural end-of-life to feed people who don’t need to eat it. You and I are two of those people. As tenured professors, we are both people of considerable privilege. We have the financial means to eat vegan (which the latest economic research shows to not be prohibitively expensive[3]) and the ready availability of vegan food. Every time we chose not to eat vegan – as I did for many years – we are choosing to prioritize our pleasure or convenience over an animal’s life.


I’ve always been very clear about respecting people’s chosen food practices, if largely because, as you acknowledge in your own comments our region, race, religion, class, politics etc. determines our relationship to food. And I appreciate you clarifying that what you see as the “moral superiority” of vegan practices is as much about what you personally construe as the “best” practices for eating and consuming amongst the classes and communities who are afforded choice—i.e. whose “choices” might actually be ascribed the attributes of “morality” and “consciousness.”

But this is where I think our priorities diverge, especially when it comes to discussing the status and sanctity of “the animal” while underscoring the moral failings of the humans who continue to consume them. This is when we start getting into the irksome (at its most benign), and fascistic (at its worst) neoliberal rhetoric about choice and consumption in veganism gussied up as the only acceptable set of practices if we strive to for ethical and moral relationships to eating. I personally don’t aspire to any practices or systems of belief framed through the discourses of “ethics” or “morality,” where there is little room to express alternate foundations for our systems of belief. To me veganism, as a chosen lifestyle in the name of the animal (at least as it manifests in the Anglo-American-Euro context), has come to assume the status of a moral imperative to the detriment of other peoples, nations and classes even though it purports to reduce harm in general.

Much of what chafes me about the “superiorities” of veganism are the hypocrisies covered over in keeping its “bestness” in place as a moral directive. For example, in another thread related to the one you and I began on FB, some of us questioned how we could even begin to hierarchize the harms caused by our practices of consumption, and our global foodways, since most global farming and agricultural practices are unquestionably brutal: brutal for the environment, brutal upon laborers, brutal towards the communities—animal and human—in its immediate geographical radius, etc.

I think about the numerous ways the same standards of “suffering” applied to animals, and righteously trotted out in debates about veganism might also be usefully applied to the horrendous labor practices and indentured human servitude inherent in nearly all forms of Big Ag, whether or not its at the slaughterhouse, or at the vegetable processing facility. I visited one of these vegetable facilities in Ventura County with my class on food cultures last year. Its carbon footprint and the political orientation of its proprietors were both horrifying, yet they remain one of the largest and most profitable distributers of organic produce nationally, for retailers popular with vegans like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and even local co-ops.

All vegans, in other words, aren’t consuming “consciously” or ethically, or even reducing harm to animals, let alone humans who are caught in the radius of these violent, profit-driven food ecologies. Many vegans happily support odious, unethical businesses like Whole Foods, or “craft” quinoa importers who have reinforced class divisions in the Andean region, or Big Ag almond growers who have wreaked just as much havoc on the ecosystem—animal, vegetable, mineral—as some so-called “ethical” meat producers who participate in the same artisanal and creative economic production models that source vegan lifestyles.

In fact, this rather thoughtfully considered piece on the quinoa controversy of a couple of years ago does an excellent job of highlighting what I would characterize as the narcissism of small differences between say, your practices of creative class consumption (though I don’t purport to know exactly what they are beyond what you’ve shared with me here), and my own.[4] (hyperlink to URL in footnote)

One of the marked differences is that your eating practices boasts its “superiority” (through the ethos of “bestness” you described above): it’s “the least most people could do.” You seem, in that remark, to be arguing that the rest of us should follow those practices. I, meanwhile, am inclined to concede how fucked up it is to feed humans on a large scale, while remaining disinclined to assume that any one set of practices is fundamentally more “moral” than another. We all consume plenty of things we don’t need and which cause tremendous harm in this world.

I hope some of what I’ve said also addresses your question about whether or not I’m “romanticizing” the brutality of processing and eating meat in my earlier remarks. To the contrary: I acknowledge the brutality that inheres in feeding humans on a mass scale in general. Indeed, I would propose modifying the last line of your previous comments to say that every time we choose to eat, we are choosing to prioritize our pleasure or convenience over others’ lives, both human and animal. Unless one is proceeding with some of the same painstaking precautions certain Buddhist sects use to minimize harm to all other lifeforms; unless you are growing your own vegetables in a sustainable manner, and subsisting entirely on what you have cultivated; unless you have given up quinoa and almond milk, and have forsaken the pleather shoes or car seat covers you’ve bought from a company that outsources its production to child laborers in the developing world, I cannot abide by the notion that my non-vegan practices are fundamentally more destructive, or driven only by “pleasure” and “convenience.”

Finally, my position would be to encourage us to learn more and to find approaches to our foodways and consumption based upon an expansive set of criteria, including the economic, ecological, cultural, spiritual, and healthful; in other words, a holistic approach.  I would eschew “the moral” altogether as a fundament for how we should imagine our relationship to eating unless we have an orthodox relationship to our religion and are proscribed to do so.

At base, Will, we are obviously not invested in the same things. I see no need to persuade others to eat in the manner I do, and have engaged in this dialogue, because I felt I was “shut down” (as they say) from expressing a dissenting opinion in a vegan-centric conversation about ethical priorities and contradictions. Personally, I am much more committed to seeking out justice for, and the ethical treatment of, our brethren whose brutalization continues to be ignored because of their race, class, gender or sexual status.

I’m curious what you think of our conversation in light of the #IfCecilWasBlack meme? I felt like I was sucked into the frenzy of all this—into a lot of anthropomorphic rhetoric about the protection of animals in our conversation and beyond—while failing to engage in some of the concerns members of our community in the #BlackLivesMatter movement have about the social media mobilization and uproar (pardon the pun), over Cecil the lion vs. the relative silence about brutality towards African-Americans in the U.S.



Let me take your closing question first, as I think it encapsulates what you perceive as one of the difference between us – that difference being that my concern for “the animal” trumps my concern for my fellow human animals. I understand the #IfCecilWasBlack movement probably much like you do: as a keen identification of how fucked up it is to mourn the death of one lion in a world where black bodies are brutalized on a mass scale without a similar outpouring of collective anger. I agree that this lack of perspective is entirely fucked up. I just think it’s equally fucked up to focus one’s outrage on the death of one lion when we kill 56 billion animals (excluding fish and other aquatic animals) annually for food.[5] So much about the outrage over Cecil’s death was wrong. To point out the latter wrong is not to endorse the silence over racial violence; nor is it to prioritize animal lives over human ones. It is possible to be both anti-racist and pro-animal at the same time. These stances – ethical and political – are deeply intersectional, as both stem from an opposition to oppressing sentient creatures on the basis of irrelevant criteria: skin color, ethnicity, and species.

Cecil the Black Lion

The real difference between us begins to emerge, I believe, when you state that you “don’t aspire to any practices or systems of belief framed through the discourses of ‘ethics’ or ‘morality,’ where there is little room to express dissenting opinions,”

Your comma after “morality” suggests that you find all discourses of ethics and morality equally forbidding. But you clearly haven’t abandoned these discourses or ceased to develop ethical/moral sets of practices or systems of belief. You object to “unethical businesses” like Whole Foods. And you state your commitment to “the ethical treatment of our brethren.” In both cases, the discourse of ethics is perfectly conducive to protesting brutalization against humans. On what grounds do you believe Whole Foods to be unethical in its treatment of humans if not an ethical one?[6] How can you measure “ethical treatment,” or even determine what constitutes “brutalization,” without a sense that some sets of practices – economic, cultural, political, etc. – are more or less ethical? I’m not just trying to catch you in contradictions; I’m trying to suggest that this kind of aversion to ethics only tends to crop up when one’s personal practices regarding and beliefs about non-human animals are called into question.[7] Indeed, I presume that you would have no problem terming human slavery unethical, no matter how deeply human slavery is ingrained in cultural practice or belief, and no matter how thin the line sometimes is between slavery and “ordinary” employment in a capitalist economy.[8] I’m also fairly sure you’d agree that rape is unethical, no matter how much the rapist dissents, no matter how much the victim believes that she deserved it, and no mater how much consensual sex is itself imbued with power differentials. I realize these comparisons to rape and slavery are potentially inflammatory, but I make them for the sake of pointing out that what we disagree on, most fundamentally, is the ethical status of the animal – whether the animal “counts” or not, or to what degree. Hence my reason for asking you whether you believe animals have an interest in not being harmed – a question you did not answer.

In any case, without a discourse of ethics or morality, the “holistic” approach for which you advocate approaching food consumption falls apart. Never mind that veganism goes a long way towards addressing many of the problems you raise, given that most of the food we currently grow, and the land we grow it on, goes to feed the animals we raise to kill.[9] How will you convince me, as you seek to do in the first part of your response, to even consider the injustices done to human workers, cultures, or the environment unless you presume, like me, that there are better and worse ways of relating to people and the planet? How will I determine what constitutes injustice? And how can I begin to set up this “expansive set of criteria” if I don’t know what goal or ideal those criteria are helping me measure?


I know that you are trying to characterize my veganism as a forbiddingly ethical practice or set of beliefs, but I would hope that this exchange testifies to my investment in not shutting you down. Looking back, I would argue that much of what went on during our initial Facebook discussion was just plain disagreement. Before it descended into red-herring charges of cultural imperialism and, far more bizarrely, mansplaining (this latter one not from Lisa Duggan, not you), this disagreement turned on the fact that you and I both hold that not all opinions or systems of belief or structures of reasoning are equally compelling. And, indeed, it ensued because we approached Cecil’s death with different ethical frameworks – mine, a framework that condemns violence against animals for reasons of pleasure, amusement, convenience, or cultural difference; and yours, to quote, a framework that condemns “paying thousands of dollars, destroying someone else’s ecosystem (economic, social, spiritual) with your crass tourism, and taking prideful photos of yourself slaying a physically superior beast with a weapon for actually NO reason at all.”  Although I would point out that Dr. Palmer did have a reason, and a very simple one – pleasure, he wanted to kill a lion – I otherwise don’t disagree at all with your framework. I was simply trying, and still am, to expand it.

When I claim that veganism is the “least one can do,” I hope I’m clear that I mean exactly that. Once could do far more to address the injustices within food production. You are right to point to the myriad forms of violence against animals and humans involved in food production.  You are right to point out that “we all consume plenty of things we don’t need and that cause tremendous harm in this world.” But it’s fallacious to jump from the bad employment and environmental practices of an organic produce manufacturer to the claim that vegans are not “even reducing harm to animals, let alone humans.” (You seem to equate “reducing” with “eliminating,” when I am not arguing that veganism is a panacea. Otherwise, it’s hard to argue that a vegan diet doesn’t reduce harm to animals when there’s no animal on a vegan’s plate.) It’s fallacious to respond to my claim that we shouldn’t eat animal products by claiming that veganism works to the “detriment of other peoples, nations and classes even though it purports to reduce harm in general.” (As noted above, the evidence is overwhelming that veganism does reduce harm in general, and while peoples, nations, and classes still do suffer new and various detriments related to increased consumption of plant foods, those detriments are not themselves arguments against going vegan.)  Finally, it’s fallacious to jump from my point that you have a choice about what to eat to impugning that choice as so much neoliberal rhetoric when your position on diet is essentially a libertarian one that maximizes such choices as personal or cultural.

To respond to the other Facebook thread you mentioned, I would hazard that we can begin “to hierarchize the harms caused by our practices of consumption, and our global foodways.” It’s important that we do so if we are to have any hope of diminishing these harms. At least we can hazard that one of the roots of all those harms within our foodways is our excision of the animal from the sphere of ethical concern. It is very easy to exploit human labor, adult and child, when you regard the laborer as less than human. That’s why it’s not enough to protest rampant dehumanization; we must ask ourselves why it’s somehow right to exploit, use, kill, and enslave sentient creatures just because they are not human.[10] That’s the debate we should be having.


Will, I hope you know that I’m not in any way suggesting that I know how you move through the world as a consumer, or that I have my own little window on your personal practices with craft quinoa, almond milk and Banana Republic button-downs. Nor am I suggesting that veganism as a philosophy or practice is necessarily hypocritical, though I’ve encountered more than my fair share of vegan individuals who are incredibly aggressive and ‘splainy about their viewpoints, while neglecting the other conundrums and dilemmas that arise in relation to all “first world” forms of consumption—including some of the ones I mentioned above.  In short, all I’ve tried to say here, and all I really tried to say by extension on that FB thread, is that non-vegans are NOT all stupid, ill-informed people who haven’t taken the time to learn about animals, industrial food production, the rhetorics of animacy, and the vicissitudes of ethics and morality.

I think you overstate the extent to which I, and others, were “focusing” all of our outrage on the Cecil the Lion incident. Again, what intensified this particular debate is the aggression, some of it rather masculine, scolding and ‘splainy, that was directed at myself and a few others who suggested that it might be OK to register the heinousness of that act, despite having different perspectives on food and eating.

I appreciate that you decided we should take the conversation elsewhere, though I do still feel like the moral universe you are advocating is an absolutist and narrow one. I don’t think, for example, that appealing to one’s cultural heritage or explaining (in short form, mind you) some of the socio-cultural foundations for my own diet necessarily equates to a “neoliberal logic” or the advocacy of personal choice. In fact, what I tried to explain is that how one eats for most of his or her life is rarely a personal or individual choice: there are entire affective, economic, spiritual, historical, (post)colonial systems that undergird what we perceive as “choice,” and many of them actually have nothing to do with “pleasure,” as you keep referring to non-vegan ways of eating with a tone of dismissal. Though honestly—and I say this as a hedonistic Wildean maenadic type—what would be so wrong with using pleasure as our guide? Unfortunately, as an uptight Virgo, I don’t always live up to that aspiration.

But seriously: I have no investment in telling people NOT to go vegan. If you are committed to the practice, then more power to you. I have no interest in convincing you or anyone else to eat meat, dairy or the things that you have excised from your diet for political and moral reasons. Nor would I say you are “missing out” on anything. What I’ve made an effort to do in this exchange is to point out some of the hypocrisies that have fueled certain expressions of vegan vehemence, especially those that manifest in as moral directive and rhetorical aggression towards others who do not share the same priorities. I have also tried to reject the evangelical nature of veganism, at least as I encountered it in that thread and in other situations (I actually co-exist rather peacefully with plenty of vegans and vegetarians in my life—I’m a lesbian after all).

tumblr_miifpqwa7P1qgrxobo1_500Neither have I tried to suggest that you or other vegans are “prioritizing” the animal over human animals, and that we should focus our political efforts on “people” above all else, though I have tried to underscore the fact that for some vocal vegans, other political commitments to racial justice, reproductive rights, you name it, tend to fall by the wayside when “the animal” becomes the vector of projection and anthropomorphism—much as you and others have described happened with Cecil. I’m not saying you individually participate in this. I’m speaking from some of my other encounters with evangelical vegans who are capable of advocating so passionately on behalf of animals, but who refuse to acknowledge the racism and brutality of some of their other practices of consumption, or in their attitudes towards others who don’t share their principles of eating and being.

To finally answer the question you keep trying to get me to answer in this exchange: “Do animals have an interest in not being harmed?”

I really don’t know. I wouldn’t purport to understand how animal consciousness works. Nor do I think it would be the same across the board for all animals. Nor do I think it would in any way resemble human consciousness or affect. Some animals seem to be driven by a survival instinct, whereas others do not. But ultimately, who am I to know this? How am I to know this? I assume my cats have a whole range of feelings, many of which I understand are my own projections upon them. Do they avoid pain and hurt? In most circumstances they do, but in other circumstances they actually seem to seek it out. But I could be wrong because I have no real access to animal sentience except for lay-knowledge from articles in magazines at the vet, Nat Geo documentaries about the “secret lives of cats,” or 99 cent Reader’s Digest booklets on “how to communicate with your cat.” Mostly, I have to assume that whatever I’m interpreting about my cats’ behaviors is being generated by my own desires.

I want to close with a final note about morality and ethics. You might not know this, but I actually wrote my dissertation on ethics and excess in Victorian non-fiction prose, so I have a very specific take on ethics, morality, the differences between them, and their applicability to styles of living, and the cultivation of the subject.  This is a much longer, and separate conversation, but I want to clarify that I do not see ethics and morality as the same thing. To put it simply: morality denotes a set of imperatives and actions governed alternately by law, religion and culture. Ethics, meanwhile, describes the theoretical inquiry into these actions and helps us interpret the articulations that compel moral behavior and practice.  To assess the ethics of something is, from my standpoint, as much about assessing the form and style of articulation meant to incite moral behavior than it is to describe whether or not a point of view is “good” or “bad.” As I already said above, I am loathe to subscribe to a world view that is driven by moralism, precisely because moral claims cannot, by definition, be challenged. They are unassailable imperatives to behavior that—as the long history of the world has shown us—don’t always come from a good or righteous place.

Morality, for example, has been used to persecute and prosecute most of my “behaviors” as a queer person. It has been used to challenge my reproductive rights as a woman. And, by way of a response to your remark in footnote 5: the discourses of morality were also used to advocate on behalf of slavery, not merely to speak against it. Many scholars of African-American literature have argued that some abolitionist writings have a sentimental, patronizing and moralizing tone about slavery, and reject that kind of advocacy. W.E.B. DuBois himself rejects this manner of being spoken “about” and “for” by moral grandstanders who were allies. Personally, I am more interested in a Deleuzean “ethics after morality,” and in an encounter with ethics as a as a practice of reading and understanding the expressions that compel behavior. This is probably why much of what I’ve had to say in this exchange is hung up on the style and rhetoric of our disagreements and hostilities, and the manner of address that offended my sensibilities.

In the end, I hope that you feel you’ve derived something from this exchange, if merely that it strengthened your own resolve! I, meanwhile, will return to my brutal, savage, heathenistic, hedonistic and hypocritical ways (and I say this with a wink, and a smile, since tone is obviously very important to me).


Do I note the irony of being called an evangelical on “the queer bully pulpit” that is Bully Bloggers?  I’m already an evangelical faggot, so I’m happy to accept the “evangelical vegan” label, too. Most of us in academia, especially in the humanities, are evangelists for something. We just tend to give it a different name: activism. We also tend not to our arguments “’splaining,” We call it criticism.

In any case, I am glad we engaged in this exchange. Talking to people about veganism is important to me, and not as a means to strengthen my own resolve. As I said in my first round of remarks, much more is at stake: the many millions of animal lives we humans unnecessarily take each year in the name of what I will continue to “reduce” to pleasure. Honestly, I just get frustrated that efforts to engage in argument so often get hung up on questions of tone. But if there’s a more tonally appropriate way to persuade you to go vegan, please let me know! I’d happily re-engage.


[1] Gary Francione, “We’re All Michael Vick.”

[2] According to Jonathan Safran Foer, “96 percent of Americans say that animals deserve legal protection, 76 percent say that animal welfare is more important to them than low meat prices, and nearly two-thirds advocate passing not only laws but ‘strict laws concerning the treatment of farmed animals. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other issue on which so many people see eye to eye.” See Eating Animals (New York: Little Brown 2009), 73.

[3] Jayson L. Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood, “Some Economic Benefits and Costs of Vegetarianism,” Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 38.2 (2009): 109-24.

[4] Tim Philpott, “Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated.”

[5] The Animal Kill Counter, which takes marine animals into account, sets the number much higher, at more than 150 billion. http://www.adaptt.org/killcounter.html.

[6] You will not find me defending Whole Foods, one of the leading purveyors of “happy meat.”

[7] There’s a larger philosophical issue here regarding the Derridean provenance of animal studies, but that’s beyond the scope of this one response to explore. See Gary Steiner, Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism (Columbia: University of Columbia Press, 2013).

[8] I’m hard-pressed to imagine anyone on the Left agreeing that arguments for the abolition of slavery in US were too extreme or crassly moralizing or fascistic/absolutist, deafened by their own self-righteousness to complications that would ensure from abolition – mass unemployment, starvation, vagrancy, unchecked violence, etc.

[9] These figures are widely available, as is abundant evidence regarding the outsized impacts of meat consumption on environment, wealth inequality, and personal health. See, for starters, the 2010 UN report “Assessing Environment Impacts of Consumption and Production“; and their 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”

[10] I am reminded of Sunaura Taylor’s anecdote about the mother of an intellectually disabled child who objects to Taylor’s comparison of her own disabled self to an animal. For this mother, the animal deserves to be treated worse than a human, notwithstanding Taylor’s point that disabled “people and non-human animals . . . are often oppressed by similar forces” (762). See “Vegans, Freaks, and Animals: Toward a New Table Fellowship,” American Quarterly 65.3 (2013), 757-64.

Trigger Warning: Toxic Masculinity in the U.S. Gun Phallocracy By Eng-Beng Lim

2 Aug

If there was any doubt about the virulence of colonial machismo or its inoculation in U.S.-American white, supremacist masculinity, one need only look at how recent murders rely on three of its most recognizable tropes – the hunter, the gunsman, the police – that have turned decidedly murderous and terroristic against animals, women, kids, and people of color, particularly African Americans.

To say there is an epidemic of toxic masculinity in U.S.A, the world’s leading gun phallocracy, is to say the least. Week after week, we read about police officers as the lawless hitmen of Order (Ray Tensing, Brian Encinia, Darren Wilson et al), the rampage killer (Dylann Roof, John Russell Houser), and the animal torturer and killer (Walter Palmer). These men are getting their fifteen minutes of shame as they are caught in flagrante delicto but their capture or release only begins to tell many stories yet untold. The news isn’t so much that these murders are happening or would continue to happen. It isn’t even that the system is corrupt. We already know that. What is striking about their recent social media exposé is the sense of public outrage at discovering them, and learning how widespread they are.

That is to say, while the willful and anonymous execution of disposable lives is an everyday occurrence by the police state, racial capitalism and colonial violence, a history of the present well documented by thinkers and activists, bodycam, dashcam and videocam recordings of a few incidents are helping to generate a collective consternation:

“We didn’t know, actually didn’t want to know, just how bad it is but here is murder staring at our faces.”

To murder is to end another’s life or the conditions of possibility for life. It is to force the other to die, whether instantly or slowly and unbearably, by force or self-destruction, and then to perversely care that that death is justified in rational, economic or procedural terms. It is to disregard life itself and to strip away everything that constitutes a person’s humanity. For those whose lives are severely disenfranchised by systemic racism, compulsory heterosexuality, and cisgender privilege, historic and quotidian versions of this murder are all too common.

But to see through the eyes of the dead, the eyes of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose, is to see these murders (literally and figuratively) as simultaneously uncontrollable and targeted.

Toxic Masculinity

It is to see the workings of a toxic, supremacist white masculinity as ordinary and terrifying, self-centered and godlike in complex, cowardly and frightful in constitution. There is a silver lining even in this extreme violence. That these murderers would now grab the headlines as murderers indicates that the seemingly unimpeachable white masculinist complex is finally losing its absolute legitimacy, and subject to public scrutiny and judgment.

The much bigger problem about the gun phallocracy is the internalization of colonial machismo in U.S.-American psychic, institutional, regulatory and relational structures. There is more to do than catching or shaming a few of its murderers – U.S. gun violence is the worst in the world.


The chart above doesn’t include suicides with firearms that are twice as likely to happen than homicides. According to researchers at Harvard University and Stanford University, there is a correlation between gun availability, right-to-carry gun laws and firearm homicide. It is as simple as that:

more guns = more violent crimes = more homicide

Even though common sense gun laws significantly lower self-inflicted as well as homicidal violence, such studies advocating evidence-based gun safety are often successfully discredited by the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association. Much of this has to do with money, money that is also going into the militarization of the police as an apparatus of the neoliberal state. This includes university campus police units that are increasingly outfitted with the same militarized gear such as those at the University of California campuses during the crackdown against student protestors in 2011.

In particular, the pepper spray cop at UC Davis who casually assaulted student Occupy protestors became emblematic of cavalier, campus corporatization rising in tandem with a militarized police presence that is not only out of line but rewarded for their transgressions. For instance, the aforementioned cop was awarded $38,000 for the “emotional suffering” and “psychological injuries” he endured for pulling the trigger of his pepper spray can on 21 students. His notoriety was so widespread that memes ridiculing him and the morally bankrupt decision of the court’s disability settlement saturated the internet.
Pepper Spray Cop Meme

In spite of the public outcry, there is little reform in the police force or cutback from its brutal militarization. One could say that the unmitigated violation of students and their rights by the militarized cops on the campuses of California in 2011 abetted University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing’s violent extraction of Sam Dubose’s civil and human rights with a fatal gunshot in 2015. Both cops casually or involuntarily clicked on the triggers provided to them by the neoliberal state but it took four years and hundreds of other violations before any misbehaving cop was even deemed potentially criminal.

Meanwhile, civilian gun stock per capita has roughly doubled since 1968, from one gun per every two persons to one gun per person. The proliferation of guns has made the industry a powerful, profiteering bloc that is worth 31.8 billion dollars in 2012. Its initiads have more than the defense of the Second Amendment in mind when they do gun talk. The mean salary of a gun worker is $140k/annum (compare that with university pepper spray cop’s 120k/annum salary, which is well above what most professors make). But on the topic of money, what does gun violence really cost?

The human toll and direct and indirect costs of gun violence are estimated to be 229 billion dollars.

It does not even make economic sense to support the gun industry considering its costs. As the above video shows, this negative economic burden exceeds even Apple’s worldwide revenue in 2012. Who, one might ask, are the benefactors of this gun regime?

The entitlement and privatization of gun rights have reached such a point of phallocratic idiocy that cops and vigilantes like George Zimmerman are able to turn their guns at anyone they deem unlawful, and then claim self-defense or right-to-carry guns as their bullet-proof mantra. Everyone is sick of this morally bankrupt rhetoric. No student and kid should have a gun pointed at them, and no one should be walking in fear of cowardly men possessed by gun machismo. To police the police, counter-movements on the street like Copwatch are stepping up. Others are using social media as a kinetic platform to create swift public justice. While these interventions are effective in the performance of public outrage, so much so that Walter Palmer has gone into hiding, the righteous thrill of digital vigilantism has its limits. Predictably, the gun phallocracy’s pullback against the public’s pushback has rendered Palmer a sympathetic figure who has to “endure [the] latest onslaught from the social media mob.” The hunter, as many observe, has become “the hunted.”

The indistinguishable “social media mob” vis-à-vis the singular Walter Palmer only reinscribes the narrative of the white man as exceptional and blameless, which Palmer himself tried to invoke in a statement released by a PR firm he hired. (All PR firms have since distanced themselves from this case.) His defense is a form of colonial oblivion or high delusion – he has “legal” paperwork obtained with an expensive bribe ($50,000), he is unaware that Cecil is important, and besides it is all just game in the Safari. His fellow Great White Hunters have come to his defense saying the man is in fact protecting and preserving the “trophy” species: “Nobody is going to spend $50,000 to $75,000 on a photographic safari. All the parks in Zimbabwe are run on hunting dollars.”

But why won’t the rich use their wealth to fund research and sustainability projects rather than posing with their $50k exotic kills in Africa? The manner of Cecil’s killing provides some answers. Palmer shot the animal with a crossbow and tortured it for 40 hours before shooting, beheading and skinning it. He also tried to hide the GPS collar that a team of researchers from Oxford University had attached to Cecil, effectively destroying years of research and a local tourist attraction. A Zimbabwean law professor based in the UK notes that Palmer is part of a “lucrative hunting industry,” a “horrible blood industry” that operates like a “cartel” and “Mafioso.”


Donald Trump Jr, Eric Trump and Walter Palmer with their exotic, trophy kills in Africa.

Cecil the lion may be anthropormophised and even Disneyfied. But “the mob” is responding to the vileness of a cavalier machismo so ordinary and godlike, so violent in its method of killing and capitalist entitlement that there is little distinction between the hunters’s “We pay to kill” and the police officers’s “We get paid to kill.”

These kills are allegories of colonial violence in the transnational present.

To go after Palmer as a lone ranger is therefore to miss how the colonial hunting of African animals is part of a triumvirate of self- and system-justifying U.S. hunters, mass killers and police on the prowl for blood. These men are duly weaponized and ever ready to boost their frightened manhoods by hunting, hurting and hitting. For who would kill for sport, be triggered by imagined racial assault, and assert the law to shore up the schizophrenia of this unholy trinity? Who else but those threatened by the disappearance of their own relevance and entitlement, their bitterness at the myriad failures of compulsory heterosexuality, and structural inequities biting them back in their asses?

No law will change colonial machismo or the imperial white, male ego purchased with blood. For every Palmer, Roof and Tensing caught in the act, many others like them will continue to roam the streets under the radar. What, then, is to be done? Do we need more bodycams, more surveillance, and even more overwhelming evidence of excessive force to indict the bad apples of the state apparatus? Do we need more laws that are enforced by the lawless? Or do we need to dismantle the gun phallocracy by incinerating those damn guns and all macho b.s?

No Guns


“Why are you trying to make sense with crooks?” my dad asked me as the rogue movers from New Jersey held my things in hostage, and demanded twice, three times and finally quadruple the price of the original quote. Each phone call from the company sent me to the nearest town on my drive to Michigan where I had to wire them the money through Western Union. A few weeks later, as they dropped off my things, much of them broken, the movers acted like nothing bad had happened. I kicked myself for going with the lowest bidder but money was tight and the contract seemed binding. There was apparently no legal recourse because the move crossed several state lines, and all I could do was file a complaint with Better Business Bureau and write a really bad Yelp review. As with all good scams, the moving company staged such a flawless execution that fooled even my ex-boyfriend, an attorney in New York City who negotiated on my behalf only to turn on me for not paying them enough as if their quote was my fault. His indictment – “how could you? why didn’t you pay them more” – reverberated in my ear with resonances of our recent break-up.

Months later, an exposé news team did a segment on moving scams and shamed this rogue company on national television. It was unreal to see the company on TV. I felt vindicated though not much better. I was reminded of being attached to broken things. Besides, the corrective justice focused on one company out of thousands that used predatory and extortionist practices. For instance, over 8500 complaints were filed in 2012, and many more hoaxes go unreported. What does it take for institutions to take action? What the news segment did was to confirm my account all along but the power of televisual validation turned the tide against the rogue mover, which closed down. A year later, it morphed into another company.

Are the recent exposés of U.S.-American policing doing something similar or different? Are the cams making visible what has been concealed or are we simply refusing to see the actuality of lived violations?

The eyes of Sam Dubose, and the dash cam of the Dallas police.

The eyes of Sam Dubose, and the dash cam of the Dallas police.

Who’s looking – the eyes of the dead or the colonial gaze?

Is the camera a form of deterrent or deferment of justice? Is it an imagined corrective for bad behavior with no transformative effect on the culture of policing? As much as we think we know what we see, the Rodney King video in 1991 indicates that a visual economy of proof does not get at the “truth” of the matter. Like documentaries, surveillance cameras tend to promote empathetic responses about the verisimilitude of representation. They assume the seamless merging of the viewer and the viewed, or the character and the subject. We could understand this through Brecht’s account of the street scene, a cornerstone of epic theater. The demonstrator in the street scene is the one who “acts the behavior of driver or victim or both in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident.” But rather than being stuck in the “he did that, he said that” element of performance, the charge is to generate consciousness about difference by demonstrating through performative documentation, the “social function of the whole apparatus.”

As a window to the street scene of policing, the cam’s realistic frame is entrapped in the engendering of illusion, and its interlocutors have used its recordings as a matter of representation, or the truth, rather than as a resource for a direct changeover from representation to commentary. What the camera is demonstrating is the method of murderous policing coming undone because its agents are unable to contain the virulence of the racist and misogynist state. They are acting on its deadly colonial machismo as if its labile affects are beyond control. And they are out of control.

In the latest murder case, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing moved from monotonous flatness one moment to compulsive rage the next before blowing the face off Sam Dubose with one shot. Dubose is the 534th person shot dead by the police in the U.S. this year. Tensing joins a long line of angry white men who “lost their temper” at being disobeyed or disrespected, and then immediately pulled out their guns for self-protection.

If ever there was a need for trigger warning, this is it.

It does not take much for these guys to snap. While they may seem “senseless and asinine,” the pathology of pride and fear, panic and rage is the racial complex of colonial machismo trying to suppress its own terror by shooting away every schizophrenic episode involving an imagined, unarmed black assailant looming large like a criminal, a monster, a wild man. This paranoia and its hallucinogenic references have a long, colonial history, and they are deep symptoms of colonial guilt. As Alfred Métraux notes in his classic study, Haitian Voodoo:

“Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity: the anxiety which grows in the minds of those who abuse power often takes the form of imaginary terrors and demented obsessions. The master maltreated his slave, but feared his hatred. He treated him like a beast of burden but dreaded the occult powers which he imputed to him. And the greater the subjugation of the Black, the more he inspired fear; the ubiquitous fear which shows in the records of the period and which solidified in the obsessions with poison, which throughout the eighteenth century, was the cause of so many atrocities.” (New York: Schocken, 1972), p15.

The U.S. obsession with guns in the twenty first century substitutes for the colonial obsession with poison of the eighteenth century, and both are tied to the “anxiety… of those who abuse power.” Each murder in the U.S. gun phallocracy continues the atrocities of colonial violence. The falsehoods and fabrications of the police in their reports of murder echo the “imaginary terrors and demented obsessions” of the slave master. Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, for instance, characterized Michael Brown as a “demon,” and said he “felt like a five-year-old holding Hulk Hogan” even though both men were 6 ft 4. Perhaps Wilson is articulating a nation’s anxiety at being coddled by a black President or perhaps he is so shaken by the broken spell of colonial machismo that he has to murder to make the spell work again. Either way, the toxicity of white, supremacist masculinity has become an extremely dangerous contagion, and is in desperate need of medical, social and rehabilitative treatment.

“Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity”

May the ghosts of the dead rise up to forever haunt all deadly white man, the hunter, the gunsman, the police, and their imitators with their smoking guns in hand every minute of their waking days.

From Sister George to Lonesome George? Or, Is The Butch Back? By Jack Halberstam

16 Jul tumblr_n7al6lLULi1s6bxzqo1_500


While as recently as a decade ago, many butches could still be found in their natural habitats – dyke bars and softball teams – and while some could even be spotted in the wild, in recent years, their numbers have declined leading some scientists to predict their eventual disappearance. Indeed, like the passenger pigeon or Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise that died in 2012, the butch seemed like a category whose time had passed – a relic, a fossil, a victim of cultural climate change and an irredeemable symbol of past times that a new generation was eager to forget. But, in a kind of miraculous adaptation, the butch, like the Eurasian beaver or the Dalmatian Pelican, seems to have trembled on the brink of extinction and…made a remarkable recovery!


From the Broadway musical based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir of growing up butch with a closeted gay father, Fun Home, to Lea Delaria and the consortium of butches (what is the word for a group of butches? A Charm? A Pace? A Kennel? A Brace? A Barren? A Murder? A Parliament? Or, my favorite – a Bale? I am going with bale of butches) in Orange is the New Black, from Charlize Theron’s turn as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max to the hockey playing tomboy in Inside Out, we would seem to have a bale of butches in popular culture right at the very moment that the category has supposedly gone out of style.


Are the new representations of butches ghostly after-images of a recent past that has come and gone and taken its place within a pantheon of gay and lesbian histories relegated to the past by the recent triumphalism of the gay marriage era? Or, conversely, are they harbingers of a new future of gender variability that has expanded beyond man and woman into a wide ranging set of expressions of the gendered body? Is butch back or was it never gone? Has butch been around long enough to become trendy? Or, in an era of unprecedented visibility for transgender embodiment, does butch represent an obstinate fragment of an older paradigm, still capable of generating both fascination and fear?

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 27:  Amelie Mauresmo of France plays a backhand during the women's singles third round match against Flavia Pennetta of Italy on Day Six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

It was less than a decade ago at Wimbledon that French tennis player, Amelie Mauresmo was accused by Lindsay Davenport of “playing like a guy” and then described by Martina Hingis of being “half a man.” Now Mauresmo is the super effective coach for a male top ten player – Andy Murray. And, only six years ago, South African runner, Caster Semenya was subjected to a clearly racist “gender test” when her unapologetically athletic appearance led to suspicions about her masculinity, drug use and so on. Now, on the current world cup winning women’s soccer squad there are several visibly butch players and plenty that are openly queer. How, then, did we leap, in the last year or so, from uniform expressions of disgust, suspicion and dismay directed at the masculine female form to empathy, recognition and even acceptance?

17mag-17talk-t_CA0-blog427In an interview in The New York Times Magazine in May of this year, Alison Bechdel, who appeared in the photograph accompanying the piece dressed in a very smart tailored suit, was asked:

“In “Fun Home,” you wrote about becoming a connoisseur of masculinity at a young age. Today a young person like you would be more likely to identify as transgender than gay. Is the butch lesbian endangered?”

Well, first of all, great question!! Second, wow, in The New York Times? Really? Third, well, is the butch endangered? Bechdel answers adroitly:

“I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.


So, is butch the designation of a new space or an old space? The article is ambivalent and implies both that butch is an old-fashioned form of identification that is in danger of being eclipsed by transgenderism and that it is a “new space in the world.” And maybe that captures perfectly what shall hereafter be known as “the temporal paradox of the butch” – it is out of time and ahead of its time and behind the times all at once. Butch is simultaneously a marker of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag” or “the visceral pull of the past on the supposedly revolutionary present” and of certain forms of what Juana Maria Rodriguez terms “sexual futures.” The uncanny, uncertain, dislocated and indefinable terrain of the butch competes with our sense of the stubborn, recalcitrant, unmoving and unmoved essence of the butch. Butch was supposed to fade away as a category precisely because it encapsulated the ugly, the dowdy, the backward and the tragic (Stone Butch Blues not Stone Butch Ecstasy), but its calcified intransigence may actually have equipped the category for survival!

A close friend sent me the clip of young Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (thanks GG!). The show-stopping song, penned by the incomparable Lisa Kron, that has thrilled audiences on Broadway found an even larger audience when Lucas performed it at the Tony’s awards this year. While singing children are nothing new and generally kind of irritating, lesbian-themed Broadway shows and songs about youthful identifications with butch women are as rare as gay men on football teams or straight ladies in the power tools section at Home Depot. So, this song and this musical had few cultural traditions upon which to draw. Amazing then that the song is so effective, so moving, so…emotional!

“Ring of Keys” tells the story of an encounter between the young Alison and the adult butch who walked into the diner where Alison and her closeted father were eating. Sydney sings:

Someone just walked in the door, like no one I ever saw before, I feel…I feel…

I don’t know where you came from, I wish I did, I feel so dumb… I feel…I feel.

Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you’re wearing.

Your short hair and your dungarees, and your lace up boots and your keys, ohhh, your ring of keys!

“I know you,” she sings, “you’re beautiful…no, you’re handsome”! This song is just so…it’s…I feel…I feel…Ellipsis in the song conveys the unspeakability of this articulation of butch cross-generational identification. There are no words for such affect, no precedents for generations of butches past who may also have seen strong, gender-queer female-bodied women and who may have wanted to claim them. As novelistic descriptions by Leslie Feinberg and others of just such ghostly encounters between adult, abject butches and the young proto-butches who want to find their likenesses in the world demonstrate, in the past, the butch adult would have been more likely to spark terror and fear in the young queer’s heart than adoration, acceptance and identification.

What the young Alison feels for the anonymous butch who crosses her path has no words, cannot be culled from any archive of feelings, gay or straight, and so is captured in that open mouthed, soundless wonder that punctuates the song. The mouth, open and silent, mimics the ring of keys that say everything without speaking, that jangle a noisy song of their own without words, that say butch in a way that ordinary language could not.

The success of Alison Bechdel’s work, long overdue and so well deserved, both exemplifies and contributes to the evolution and repopulation of butches. Butches can now be found in sports and in the arts, on the soccer field and on Broadway, on TV (Orange is the New Black) and in movies. Only 7 years ago, we had an entire TV series, The L Word, that represented butchness as “the B word” that dare not speak its name. Despite the fact that the character of Shane (Katherine Moennig) drew heavily on the history of butch sexiness, she never could claim that history, name it or own it. And when a butch character was introduced, Moira played by masculine of center actor Daniela Sea, they quickly transitioned to trans leaving the category of butch stranded like a missing link, like a bad memory to be Pousseypromo_croppedexpunged from queer representation.

But now, in Orange is the New Black, Lea Delaria’s character “Big Boo,” has the letters B-U-T-C-H tattooed on her arm and is not the only butch on the prison block either. Black butches on the show, including Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) represent a much longer history of non-traditional Black genders that may or may not be captured by the term “butch” at all.

Game of Thrones has its own bale of butches including Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) who represents a tall, strapping, princess-saving heroic knightly butch, and Arya Stark (Massie Williams) a renegade princess turned sword fighter and monk. For more comic butches, think Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) of Glee who plays a gloriously mean, bully butch athletic coach competing with the Glee club for school funds.


The butch is, to continue our wildlife conceit, neither fish nor fowl. But to introduce another rhetorical device, the butch is neither cis-gender nor simply transgender, the butch is a bodily catachresis. The Greek word, catachresis, means the rhetorical practice of misnaming something for which there would otherwise be no words (I feel I got this formulation from bullyblogger pal Tavia Nyong’o but not sure from where). Butch is always a misnomer – not male, not female, masculine but not male, female but not feminine, the term serves as a placeholder for the unassimilable, for that which remains indefinable or unspeakable within the many identifications that we make and that we claim. For Derrida, catachresis captures the inherent linguistic instability in all signifying practices and for Spivak it names the inherent colonial violence lurking in the practice of naming and identifying, systematizing and translating. And so, in this era of LGBT rights and recognition, let the butch stand as all that cannot be absorbed into systems of signification, legitimation, legibility, recognition and legality.


Even as the butch seems to be back in circulation, I do not think this representational presence is a marker of social acceptance, rather, the butch, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, survives or fades away depending upon the levels of toxicity in the air. Unlike the canary however, and now I wish I had never introduced said bird in the first place, the butch thrives in toxic conditions and fades away in the clear air of apparent freedom. The butch is back, in other words, and here the butch is not canary like at all, in fact forget the damn canary, because we need a reminder that recognition is NOT freedom, that the absorption of the few at the expense of many others is not liberation and that the illegible, the unassimilable, the inconsolable, the illegitimate multitudes still await a coming emancipation. The society that embraces the butch will be ordered in a way that we cannot yet imagine. Our current social order, after all, with or without gay marriage, with or without mainstream images of transgender bodies, is the one that rendered the butch as the anachronistic, useless, dowdy misfit in the first place.

To quote a smart rapper, don’t call it a come back, we’ve been here before. Butches have flickered in and out of cultural visibility for at least the last hundred years. They have survived wars, economic depressions, homophobic panics, gentrification, petrification, Andrea Dworkin and Camille Paglia, stupefaction, French cinema, the 80’s, and both film versions of Sex in the City. Despite flannel shirt shortages, shifting fashion trends towards androgynous looks, the trendiness of transgenderism, a severe height disadvantage in relation to many femmes, and new levels of emotional sensitivity in queer communities, the butch has survived and lives to wear another ring of keys.


Whether, in the future, the butch will hit a rough patch in the evolution of sexual ecologies and die out like the Golden Toad, or whether the butch has the capacity to replicate under precarious conditions remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, live or die, the butch, represents a piece of queer history that remains unspeakable and unspoken and all the more resilient for it.

After the Ball

8 Jul

By Tav Nyong’o

One of my favorite albums growing up was the soundtrack to the reggae classic The Harder They Come, and I loved in particular the song “By The Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians. It’s lyrics adapt Psalms 19 and 137, which lament the bondage of the Israelites, and issue an ethical challenge that continues to haunt makers, documenters, and critics of black performance to this day:

For the wicked carried us away captivity
Require from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?

In words a seven year old can understand, this sung lyric performatively stages the constitutive ambivalence of coerced performance. How can we sing when we are oppressed? How can we sing when that singing is required by our oppressors? How can we sing without somehow colluding in our oppression in a strange and hostile land?

One might think this question is paradoxical or beside the point: if you don’t want to, or can’t, sing for in a strange land, then why are you? But if you dwell on the question a little, if you let the song settle into you, I think you will see that the question only makes sense if you are singing it. It only resonates when couched in the very idiom it challenges. It is a question about complicity that is immanent to the scene of complicity. Singing or not, we remain strangers in a strange land.

Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s classic work of new queer cinema, screened at Prospect Park over Pride weekend, before a crowd through which the day’s news of gay marriage for all was rippling. Sometimes one is lucky enough to be in the right place and time to hear the hinge of history turn. There in the heart of gentrified Brooklyn, on the day the president eulogized the slain in Charleston, all kinds of queers and othered gathered in a park, and there was an opportunity to wrestle with the ways we are and aren’t one community. Park Slope lesbians and Bushwick hipsters, socialists and liberals, homeless youth and homeownersexuals. Black, Asian, Jewish, Latino, and possibly a transracial or two. The defiantly and the demurely gender nonconformist. Transgender and not, people of color and people of pallor, all gathered to watch a film that is now 24 years old (in one more year, it will be able to legally rent a car).

When this public screening was announced earlier this spring, a vehement internet campaign arose against the program, which featured no living members of the ball community. It quickly extended to screenings of the film itself, which are seen by some as furthering exploitation and catering to a white gaze. Why should the filmmakers continue to be lauded, critics demanded, and continue to profit off the lives and creativity of the film’s subjects, many of whom died in poverty of HIV/AIDS-related causes? In response to criticism, the original opening act for the film backed out, and, after several days of impassioned and sometimes vituperative exchanges on social media, Celebrate Brooklyn announced it was going back to the drawing board.

Paris is Burning is a film that, over the years, has remained a flashpoint of the very issues it sought to document and explore: racism and self-worth; transphobia and transgender worldmaking; families of origin and families of choice. The dreamworlds of work and ambition, opulence and violence, in New York City, circa 1987. It has drawn its share of detractors over the years, most famously in an impassioned but problematic takedown by bell hooks. Not stopping at faulting director Livingstone for exploiting her subjects, hooks criticized the ball children for embracing aspirational class, racial, and gender status in a white heterosexual capitalist patriarchal society. I was unpersuaded by this critique when I first read it over twenty years ago. It seemed to me elevate hooks’ personal reaction to the status of a representative feminist of color reaction, but this failed to account for the incredible thrill the film gave me and so many queers of color around me, despite our ambivalence. It also completely shortchanged the aesthetic merits of the film itself, which are substantial.

I came away from this and other critical reactions to the film thinking that it is always best to try to walk a mile in someone else’s pumps before you criticize how they choose to survive oppressive conditions. A more useful, if unfortunately less circulated, analysis came from Phillip Brian Harper, who pointed out that the real problem lay neither with the filmmaker nor her subjects, but with the economic and racial conditions that precluded working class people of color from making their own films, and thereby realizing the full benefits of creative control over their own community and art forms.

Harper’s critique has grown newly relevant in the intervening decades, as a technological revolution in communication has brought the means of representation into the hands of a wider and wider population of producers (albeit under highly problematic terms, as any student of new media knows). It has also changed our expectations of documentaries like Paris if Burning. Webcams and Reality TV have increasingly inured us to the idea that broadcasting our daily lives is a potential revenue stream, if only we make that life interesting/outrageous/abject enough. In this new environment, I suggest, in which performance is almost a default setting for everyone, a film like Paris is Burning just feels different than it once did. Octavia St. Laurent’s and Venus Extravaganza’s expectations of celebrity, that once seemed tinged with pathos, now seem like viable career ambitions. Dorian Corey’s world-wise wisdom about the illusions of fame seem to come from a vanished queer world now lost in the glare of mass media visibility. Everyone these days, it seems, is trying to serve executive realness, even actual executives. And to that extent its increasingly hard nowadays to understand the degree to which the film once gripped us as a powerful critique of wealth and fame, and as exemplifying the cultivation of queer and trans worlds as viable alternative modes of sociality. It is one of the many costs of our new incorporation into official national culture that what once looked like radical outsiderhood is now fodder for the latest crop of internet memes and reality show catch-phrases.

The Internet uproar that followed the initial announcement of the Celebrate Brooklyn had at least one positive outcome: the organizers did the outreach they should have done in the first place, brought the ball children to the table, and let their planned evening be upstaged by a Houses United ball. Watching the ball, I did feel the contradiction in having the solution to this performative dilemma be … more performance. Vogueing and walking on the Celebrate Brooklyn stage — welcome as it was — does nothing to transform the real conditions of poverty, racism, and transphobia. Understanding this, some activists are increasingly reluctant to countenance performance for the public in any setting, castigating all circulation of vogueing beyond the ball scene themselves as cultural appropriation. Even a pop star like FKA Twigs, who assiduously credits her dancers, acknowledges herself as a dancer who is learning the form, comes under fire for not being an authentic participant in the culture.

If the Houses United brought to public attention the ongoing vitality of the balls and the houses — reminding us that although many stars of the film have died, their houses are still going strong — it always did so under terms that José Muñoz once termed “the burden of liveness.” This is the burden under which queers of color are expected to perform liveness and vitality under conditions of temporary visibility that erase our histories and futures. This burden need not always weight us down entirely, it need not preclude us from ever singing in a strange land. But I do think a hint of it is always there on even the most glorious and celebratory occasions.


Perhaps it is by understanding Paris is Burning as part of our history that we can shirk the burden of liveness and come to a new appreciation of the film. The film wouldn’t still be controversial, after all, if it weren’t such an enduring classic. It is a testament to the achievement of both Livingston and her subjects that thousands of people would show up, a quarter of a century later, to watch and cheer, many of us having memorized every line. Rather than standing in for ball culture — an unfair expectation of any single film, no matter how amazing — the film could be understand as part of queer history, and specifically part of the ball culture’s history, and even part of its futurity as well.

After all, the widespread success of the original release led to the spread of ball culture beyond its New York City origins. My own first contact was with houses in green leafed Connecticut. Marlon Bailey’s prizewinning study Butch Queen Up in Pumps documents another such regional scene, in Detroit, Michigan. The circulation of ball videos online has led to the dance and culture spreading so far and wide globally that one choreographer, Rashaad Newsome, has called the culture “open source.” The idea that ball culture can and does circulate through open source modes of sharing, exchange, adaptation, and transformation will not please those who feel it to be the exclusive property of the ball children. And certainly, recognizing the open source basis of culture should also not be license to pillage, to take work without credit or compensation, or to only focus on minority culture when it is in the white glare of media hype. But shutting down screenings of the film, or shutting the culture off from outsiders, seems counterproductive in the long run, and overprotective of a culture that thrives precisely due to its own internal strengths.

Its all the more quixotic to seek to protect ball culture from commercial exploitation given how successful the ball scene has been at maintaining itself as a viable underground movement long after many other “subcultures” have burnt out or turned mainstream. Not even as powerfully a commercial force as RuPaul has managed to denature the art form, or alter the terms under which it sustains the communities to which it belongs. Watching the Houses United ball, I was reminded again why that is: while the form is very presentational and solicits the onlooking gaze, it possesses its own internal logic and aesthetic standards, and rarely stops to educate its audience about. To walk a ball is the only real way into the performative logic of vogue and runway, and that seems both right and just. Just because the ball is on display, just because a dancer is in your video or at your concert, it doesn’t mean that everything is on display. The right to opacity, as the poet Edouard Glissant put it, is still maintained (Teju Cole discusses Glissant’s theory of opacity here.)

The status of the ball as a rite of opacity was underlined to me at one point when the commentator told the audience: “If you don’t get the secret, well then, that’s the secret!” I knew what they meant, and I was okay with not knowing entirely what they meant. I knew the children were not walking for me, even if I was there and privileged to watch. If the wish to be in on the secret is part of what keeps the cool hunters forever sniffing around the ball scene, trying to break off and cash in on an iota of its glamor, the public performance and dramatic display of the openness of the secret is what keeps them clueless and forever guessing.

“The Republic of Love”

20 Jun

By Anne Mulhall

On the complex achievement of the same sex marriage referendum in Ireland

The importance of the political mobilization of working-class communities in Dublin in the process of building a self-organized and powerful anti-austerity movement cannot be overstated, and this was a decisive factor in the marriage referendum passing. Voters in Jobstown and young emigrants coming #hometovote were not voting in solidarity with the government and the State, but in defiance of the multiple impoverishments and oppressions that the State has enacted on the majority of those who live here. The political and relational texture and hopefulness of these and other mobilizations, disruptions, acts of citizenship against the State, produced in excess of the managed marriage campaign, are perhaps occluded when the Irish marriage referendum is viewed solely through the lens of the established radical queer critique.

Almost a month has passed since the verdict of ‘Yes For Love’ was returned in the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland. For the people who drove the campaign; for those who canvassed during the hard emotional slog of its last month in particular; for all those who told their stories of hurt, of lives lived in closeted fear and repression in newspapers, on TV, across social media, to family and friends; for the LGBTQ young people who had not before witnessed the extent and depth of homophobia written in to longstanding norms as to what and who constitutes the ‘nation’; for those who had to face the harsh truth of homophobic discursive violence enacted under the guise of ‘democracy’ and ‘balanced debate’ and smile and thank the homophobes for their consideration; for the thousands of recent young Irish emigrants who came #hometovote on the eve of the referendum; and especially for all those personally invested by way of their own positioning as ‘queer’ in the resounding victory, the outcome catalyzed a confusion of raw emotional responses. There was of course joy – the joy that was broadcast across a transnational stage, an unfettered jubilation. But the tears of joy were complicated. They communicated emotional and physical relief and exhaustion, a kind of system-wide collapse into elation. They articulated – for many, not for all – gratitude and vindication at the ‘majority’ acceptance that the vote represented. As time passes, the more difficult constituents of those tears becomes more clear, perhaps – anger that the rights of a minority were the gift of a majority to bestow; anger at the emotional and political costs exacted by the campaign itself; anger and sorrow for personal and collective histories mired in pain and exclusion that cannot be recuperated. The referendum result sent a message back to the past, a friend who unlike me has been in the queer trenches for many decades said to me recently, reflecting on the meaning of this long and at times ugly road – a message back to the past that all of the hurt, the neglect, the violence, the lives lost were not entirely in vain. That this vindication is in part for all of those who did not live to see it.

Messages to the past, and a promise, perhaps to the future. For many, the result has opened out potentials for a different way of being for young and future generations of LGBTQ people (and as always, the homogenizing this entails is deeply problematic). Given the majority vote, given that the grounds of the vote exceeded the ‘marriage equality’ remit, but also given the centrality of marriage and the family to the Nation’s symbolic image of itself, and how that symbolic image operates within the State’s machinery of inclusion and exclusion, it is difficult to see how some other forms of institutional homophobic exclusion can continue unchanged. The most immediate of these is the legislative sanction of discrimination on grounds of ‘ethos’ that persists in the Irish school system. A legacy of the organization of education under late colonial rule and of the theocratic nature of the Irish state for many decades after its inception, 96% of primary and 51% of post-primary schools in Ireland are under the patronage of religious orders. While discrimination on grounds of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, age, disability, and marital status are prohibited by equality legislation, Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act includes exemptions on the grounds of ‘religious ethos’. This exempts schools from anti-discrimination legislation in both staff recruitment and student enrolment, and it also allows in the law for dismissal of staff if they are deemed to undermine the ‘ethos’ of the institution. This has in the past been used to sack women ‘living in sin’ so to speak, and it continues to provide a mechanism to exclude children from racialized, migrant and religious minorities from State-funded schools, though this racial ‘filtering’ is of course vehemently denied. The main lobby for striking Section 37 from the Act has been the LGBT lobby, and it is difficult to see how the Department of Education can continue to stall on this given the political and ‘moral’ force that the referendum vote represents.

Those most invested in retaining these religious exemptions within the State’s public education system are, of course, the same interest groups who were the bulwark of the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum. But while the interventions of Catholic clergy were muted and by no means unanimous, the No campaign was driven by a small but ubiquitous collection of right-wing lay Catholic fundamentalists, many of whom are associated with the Iona Institute, a ‘think-tank’ established in 2008 as self-appointed guardian of the ‘traditional family’ and Ireland’s system of compulsory reproduction. There is a direct genealogy between the No campaign and those US-funded and inspired groups that first formed in Ireland in the late 70s with the express purpose of fully embedding coerced reproduction in Ireland via the now notorious 8th amendment to the constitution that gave “equal regard” to the life of the woman and the fetus. The defeat of the No campaign struck a serious blow to Iona and its fellow-travelers. While commentators such as Katha Pollitt have highlighted the rapid gains made by the gay marriage lobby in the US at the same time as women’s reproductive freedoms are being severely undermined and curtailed (and one could make similar observations in the Irish case), a defeat in the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland would have been a devastating set-back for the abortion rights campaign here, perhaps primarily because of the strong endorsement the ‘direct democracy’ of a referendum defeat would have given to the vanguard of what is a much wider anti-abortion lobby. The media presence of Iona and co is far in excess of their representativeness in contemporary Ireland, yet their complaints of ‘silencing’ and media bias are almost as frequent as their appearances in major national newspapers (Breda O’Brien has a regular column in newspaper of public record the Irish Times while John Waters and David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, write for the Irish Independent), on radio and on television, with the State broadcaster RTÉ being particularly culpable of unfailingly providing them with a platform whenever The Family and its cognates hove into view.

fig 1

[Courtesy of Oireachtas Retort https://twitter.com/Oireachtas_RX]

These protestations of ‘silencing’ are perverse if familiar given the strategies adopted in advance of the referendum. The lines were drawn in January of last year, following the appearance of Panti Bliss (Rory O’Neill), drag artist and long-standing community activist and public face of Dublin’s queer scene, on Saturday Night Live, a chat show on RTÉ hosted by Brendan O’Connor. On the show, in response to O’Connor’s questioning, O’Neill named O’Brien, Quinn, Waters and the Iona Institute as homophobes. Quite reasonably so, as it is difficult to know what else one should call people who suggest that queers should abstain from sex (because “intrinsically disordered”), oppose programmes to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools, call for the continuing enforced closeting of teachers, declare LGBT people to be unfit to parent children, regard same-sex relationships as inherently inferior to the great gold standard of hetero coupling, and so forth. Iona and Waters promptly slapped a small avalanche of lawsuits for defamation on O’Neill and on the national broadcaster. In a particularly craven performance, RTÉ removed the video of O’Neill’s interview, issued a public apology the following week via O’Connor’s show, and agreed to a payout of 80,000 to the aggrieved parties. This, of course, was not silencing or censorship of the most egregious kind, but was, the national broadcaster agreed, in the interests of ‘democratic debate’. The deployment of ‘hate speech’ frameworks in the service of regimes of subjugation was abundantly clear. As Panti herself said from the stage of the Abbey Theatre in a performance that went viral, the people who wield hate speech as a form of power are now enabled to deploy the frame of ‘hate speech’ to silence the resistance of the subjugated. It is as Panti said “a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick, because now it turns out that gay people are not the victims of homophobia – homophobes are the victims of homophobia.”

RTÉ’s immediate capitulation in Pantigate encouraged a number of complaints of ‘bias’ in relation to programmes featuring The Gays. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint made just a couple of weeks after O’Neill’s interview, about a lifestyle feature on RTÉ Radio One’s The Mooney Show. The broadcaster Derek Mooney (himself a gay man) remarked to his guests, who were discussing their relationship in a personal rather than political capacity: “I hope you do get married. I hope it comes in.” This was ruled by the BAI as constituting bias, and a breach of “fairness, objectivity and impartiality.” Effectively, well before the announcement of the referendum date, any discussion about or involving LGBTQ people was ruled inherently ‘controversial’, ‘political’, and as many commentators observed the BAI ruling(s) made the inclusion of at least one bigot compulsory in any such discussion in the interests of ‘balance’. As a consequence the quest for ‘balance’ took on a near-pathological aspect during the referendum campaign proper as radio and television broadcasters timed contributions to the ‘debate’ down to the second in fear of litigation.

The fulcrum of the No campaign was the argument that including same-sex marriage in the constitution would catastrophically change the nature of the institution (which is, of course, about producing children) and fatally damage children’s ‘right’ to a mother and a father. Groups such as Mothers and Fathers Matter and First Families First emerged to flank the usual suspects. Lurid fantasies populated the mediascape and seeped out into the general populace, suddenly abuzz with the spectres of mothers marrying daughters, gay men stalking the streets in search of vulnerable women from whom to harvest eggs and/or rent wombs, small armies of fatherless children wandering the streets of Copenhagen in search of their ‘donor Daddy’. And so on.fig 3

By dint of ever more high pitched repetition, the No campaign and the media apparatus that accommodated it succeeded in making freedom to express homophobic bigotry appear as not just normal and right, but pretty much a duty in the service of democracy. So it was that rantings about, for instance, the prospect of predatory gay men buying children to satisfy their paedophilic desires could be framed as legitimate fears to be answered with a concerned tilt of the head and even-handed discussion – not just on the canvass, but in everyday interactions with total strangers.

The volume and intensity of such constant assaults were turned up when the campaign posters appeared a month before the vote, urging people to Vote No for the sake of the children. Reactions to these posters crystallized certain underlying conflicts within the LGBTQ ‘community’, ideological fissures and demands that were by and large contained for the sake of ‘unity’ in the service of the bigger picture – intense homophobic violence now with the considerable pay-off of less homophobic violence in the future. Pictures and videos circulated on social media of mostly young people, left activists among them, defacing and removing the offending posters. Demands from Yes Equality core organisers were issued on Twitter and elsewhere asking the poster guerrillas to desist from ‘undemocratic’ actions. Twitter exchanges went beyond demands for compliance, and veered into familiar ‘democracy talk’. Poster defacing was an “anti-democratic act”; the poster-removers didn’t “represent civilised YES voters” and were also needless to say “fascists”. Threats to report people to the police were made. “No to poster removal!” declared one passionate democracy-lover; not a battle-cry to kick-start a love revolution, but reflective of the ‘liberal’ attachment to a politics of respectability and hostility to political action outside the parameters of an NGO-led campaign.Fig 4

The Marriage Equality movement in Ireland and elsewhere has been rooted in the kind of neoliberal marriage politics that has migrated from its origins in the assimilative, conservative drive toward respectability in a putatively ‘post-queer’, ‘post-AIDS’ American LGBT ‘rights’ discourse, whereby marriage has somehow become the apotheosis of LGBT struggle, and does the State some pinkwashing service.

The appropriation of this discourse by political and market interests in Ireland was in motion well before the event of the referendum. The campaign has done much to humanise Minister for Health Leo Varadker (who oversees a collapsing health system and who came out in January), great white hope of Fine Gael, the major party of government and right-wing cheerleaders for permanent austerity. Varadker posted not one but two rainbow twitpics from the campaign trail:Fig 5

Fig 6Fig 7Tourism Ireland lost no time in capitalizing from the new markets in destination wedding tourism that ‘Yes for Love’ opened up, releasing this video with indecent haste the morning after the count:

Later that week, Fine Gael had its very own meme released on Twitter, circulated by the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald (who is as I write at a meeting of the EU Commission that is deciding on how best to ‘manage’ the criminalisation and letting die of migrants at and inside the borders of Fortress Europe). Similar painfully transparent efforts were made by Labour TD and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Joan Burton – a much-reviled figure in the Irish political landscape, most recently notable for overseeing the slashing of lone parent payments and access to third-level education for some of the most deprived families in the country. In a radio interview the day after the referendum, Burton proclaimed that “We are now a rainbow nation, and that means a nation of inclusion and diversity”.Fig 9

The attempt to leverage the referendum result for PR purposes has been somewhat inept then, and adapts for Irish vested interests the strategic weaponization of LGBT rights that has happened elsewhere (LINKS). The utility of ‘gay marriage’ for political interests keen on the appearance of ‘equality’ while busily decimating what little remains of the economic, social and democratic ground that is the starting point for redistributive justice has, however, been clear since former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s salvo in 2012 that “the right of gay couples to marry is, quite simply, the civil rights issue of this generation”.

The architects of the Marriage Equality campaign in Ireland carefully fostered the allegiance of these and other politicians. Established in 2008 as a single-issue grassroots campaigning organization, resistance to the top-down approach weakened once preparation for the referendum began in earnest with the establishment of Yes Equality, a coalition campaign set up between Marriage Equality, GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network), and the ICCL (Irish Council for Civil Liberties) in 2013. LGBT Noise, an unfunded grassroots organization of mostly young LGBTQ people that focused on actions, including several large ‘marches for marriage’, was important in the longer campaign, though hardly mentioned in post-Referendum reflections. The Yes Equality campaign coordinated canvassing in constituencies across the country for the two months prior to the referendum. However, at the community level campaigning took on a more autonomous cast, as local people organized the canvassing of their communities and shaped their approach to local factors. Approaches designed to appeal to ‘the middle ground’ would not, after all, hold much water in the working class communities of Dublin. To this extent, organizing on the community level produced something in excess of Yes Equality HQ.

The political and discursive terrain of the Yes Equality ‘core’ borrows heavily from an established North American lexicon of same-sex marriage as an instrument of neoliberal governance. For instance (with thanks to Aidan Rowe for pointing out this leaflet; you can read their writing about the Referendum here. Also see these pieces by Jen O’Leary and Ariel Silvera.

“Research shows that marriage is good for people: married people are healthier, happier and earn more. Marriage is also a commitment device, it keeps couples together and families together. It is accepted by the majority of people as good for society e.g. the family unit looks after itself, takes on a caring role for the members of that family and therefore is less dependent on the State for support…. On top of this, introducing civil marriage equality is austerity proof. It won’t cost the State anything but will improve the lives of thousands of people and arguably improve Irish society in general.” (Five Reasons to Support Marriage Equality, 2014)

This is all to say that up to a certain point, the official campaign for ‘marriage equality’ in Ireland did not diverge in any substantial way from the familiar white middle-class neoliberal register. Once the heavily and cleverly strategized referendum campaign proper got under way a few months before the vote (involving many LGBT and other organizations and advisers beyond the core Yes Equality coalition), the pitch shifted. The focus was on the personal, on family ties and friendship circles, on the ‘positive story’, on self-revelation and emotional truth. And the address was, of course, to the straight population. The straight citizen-public had to be persuaded not primarily of the economic logic involved in welding queer couples together with ‘commitment devices’ and ‘forever love’ (to quote Zappone), but of the ‘sameness’ of lesbian and gay love and family-making. From a particular perspective, this normativizing drive is a corollary of the argument for marriage as neoliberal devolution of State and collective social responsibilities to the family, both being held in position by the marriage contract. If lesbian and gay people are ‘just like us’ (the ‘B’, the ‘T’ and needless to say the ‘Q’ were consigned to unspeakability for the duration), then they deserve what ‘we’ have – equality granted on the basis of sameness, on a shared humanity – but a humanity that does not diverge in any alarming way from what ‘we’ recognise as ‘just like us’, a fellow ‘citizen’ who does not disturb the established image the nation has of itself, but makes of it, as Burton had it, the ‘rainbow nation’. The ‘republic of love’.

To return to ‘Postergate’ – responses to this crystallised an important if difficult aspect of the Yes Equality campaign: the urge on the part of some of its managers to a disciplinary and totalizing control of the field of political action. However carceral and, to use Panti’s word, oppressive that insistence on uniformity and control was for some, the Yes Equality campaign did the job of winning the referendum that could not be lost. But the terms in which that disciplinary demand was made were too often suggestive of something in excess of pragmatism. The skirmish about the No posters exposed this excess of vigilance; one could feel the communicative ether vibrating at times with the pleasures extracted from the policing of dissent. In addition to its generally liberal complexion, among the campaign management were well-known right-wing conservatives such as Noel Whelan, former Fianna Fáil politician and adviser. Whelan had magnetised a considerable portion of snark when, during Pantigate, he published an article in the Irish Times mildly rebuking ‘liberals’ for calling homophobes homophobes, and advised that this was not the way to win over ‘middle Ireland’. Clearly people came around to his way of seeing things, though; Whelan was in fact invited in to the core coordinating group two months before the referendum, and he was clearly central to the management of the last crucial weeks of Yes Equality’s campaign. In his contribution to the GCN (Gay Community News, the main LGBTQ publication in Ireland) post-referendum special issue, Whelan noted that he was brought on board to advise on strategy to win over “the middle ground older audience”, the main focus of the campaign according to him. This entailed “maintaining discipline and keep[ing] everyone on message.”

There is no doubt that Whelan’s advice and Yes Equality’s strategy was a phenomenal success. At the same time, the strategy, while pragmatic, was for some at least coextensive with their ideological position on what constitutes legitimate political action and what actors are accepted as legitimate political subjects. In other words, in retrospect the campaign touched on fundamental conflicts about what constitutes politics as such, a question that includes but goes beyond the normativizing mystification of love and marriage that most partook of, with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm and ‘sincerity’, for the sake of winning the referendum that could not be lost. Despite Whelan’s and others’ focus on ‘middle Ireland’, the Yes vote was highest not in ‘the middle ground older audience’, in fact, but in the working class communities of Dublin. This took many by surprise, given that the urban working class have never been the ‘target audience’ for the marriage equality lobbyists. Working class communities (and of course the rural population en masse) have long been derided by a Dublin-centric middle class consensus as regressive and socially conservative forces, ‘failed’ citizens whose conservatism is assumed to manifest itself in part in an unreconstructed misogyny and homophobia. Junior Minister for Equality Aodhán Ó Riordáin attempted to play this supposed inherent conflict when he fretted publicaly about the possibility of anti-austerity activists – solidly based in Dublin’s working class communities – voting against the referendum in order to register their hostility toward the government.

The tensions involved in the pursuit of single-issue agendas to the neglect of all other struggles for social and economic justice was manifested in an online battle of the Facebook comments that followed a visit by the unpopular Taoiseach Enda Kenny to Panti’s bar in Dublin – Pantibar – last December. Panti posted a picture of Kenny with some other Fine Gael TDs to social media to a mostly outraged response. Kenny’s visit to Ireland’s best-known gay bar happened at a highly charged moment for the anti-water charges movement – the largest social movement that the country has seen since the inception of the State. A couple of weeks previously, the Tánaiste Joan Burton had attended a graduation ceremony for a community education project in Jobstown in Dublin, one of the most inter-generationally deprived communities in Ireland. Emerging from the ceremony, Burton (along with key marriage equality campaigner Senator Katherine Zappone) was met by over 1000 protestors who were vocal in articulating their rage at the Labour minister. A single brick was thrown but hit no-one; Burton caught a water balloon to the side of the head and went to her car, which the protesters surrounded for some hours before dispersing. Reactions to the protest were astonishing. The protesters, mostly people from the local community, were described in the media as a ‘baying mob’, a ‘frenzied mob’ engaged in ‘thuggery’, stirring up ‘fear and menace’ with their ‘ugly antics’. Burton herself wrote that ”The whole affair was sinister and it was disgusting. The shouting I could deal with, but the spitting, the virulent sexed-up language, the homophobia was disgusting. You could only wonder what kind of minds could think up such language.” This is of course the same ‘homophobia’ that Ó Riordáin imputed in a less explicit way to politicized working class communities that was supposedly endangering the marriage referendum’s safe passage. The incident was narrated in almost hallucinatory terms across the national media as foreboding the end of democracy, the rise of fascism, the spectre of mob rule and ‘demophobia’ orchestrated by the ‘sinister fringes’. Comparisons were made in all seriousness with ISIS and the worst atrocities of the Russian Revolution.Fig 10

This was the prevailing political atmosphere into which Panti released the photo of Kenny at the gay bar. While Kenny’s photo op reflects the middle-ground strategy of the marriage equality campaign, responses to it suggest again that ideological fissure that opened very briefly during ‘postergate’. Broadly responses were divided between celebration of the perceived momentous occasion of the head of government – up until the previous year opposed to same-sex marriage – being photographed in the best-known gay bar in the country, and on the other hand an avalanche of rage at Kenny and his government, architects of the State regime of deepening and permanent ‘austerity’, its systematic disenfranchisement and dereliction of the most impoverished and vulnerable communities, and its relentless attacks on the under 30s through an implicit policy of forced emigration or dependency on, yes, Family, the result of extensive welfare cuts to those under 25, high unemployment, compulsory labour schemes, cuts to third level grants accompanied by hikes in tuition fees, and soaring rents. These are, of course, the very ‘targeted populations’ who made the referendum win such a resounding one, transforming the vote from a close-run gamble to a resounding victory. While the Union of Students in Ireland and BelongTo, an LGBT youth advocacy NGO, made a concerted and successful effort to mobilize the youth vote, neither the mobilization of recent emigrants in the #hometovote push nor the powerful Yes majority returned by working class communities were part of the Yes Equality strategy. Whelan, for instance, passes over the working class vote in silence, while more than one journalist insisted that it was ‘middle Ireland’ what did it.

“Coolock 88% Jobstown 85% Ballyfermot 90% Stoneybatter 86% Liberties 82% Darndale 80% Ringsend; 85%. 6% of people from Coolock progress to 3rd level. 88% voted yes, we meet attacks on our dignity with an understanding of exclusion. There was no fanfare or celebration of how we had ‘allowed’ the same rights, the implications of having that power over your fellow human beings have been made all too clear. Its time to break down the barriers,” says Dara Quigley, a young woman from Coolock in Dublin. The importance of the political mobilization of working-class communities in Dublin in the process of building a self-organized and powerful anti-austerity movement cannot be overstated, and this was a decisive factor in the marriage referendum passing. Voters in Jobstown and young emigrants coming #hometovote were not voting in solidarity with the government and the State, but in defiance of the multiple impoverishments and oppressions that the State has enacted on the majority of those who live here. The political and relational texture and hopefulness of these and other mobilizations, disruptions, acts of citizenship against the State, produced in excess of the managed marriage campaign, are perhaps occluded when the Irish marriage referendum is viewed solely through the lens of the established radical queer critique.

The functions that marriage and family perform within the machinery of the State are nowhere so apparent as in the migration apparatus. One of the repeated arguments for marriage equality was that it would for the first time grant ‘full and equal citizenship’ to lesbian and gay people in Ireland. In other words, ‘same-sex’ couples will no longer be excluded from the protections afforded by the State through the institution of marriage. ‘Citizenship’ here carries other connotations: acceptance, belonging, inclusion; dignity, propriety, respectability, maturity. Within the idealising and normative terms of the marriage equality campaign, marriage equality is also about love – about the ‘forever love’ that is supposedly deserving of full State recognition, and also the love extended from one citizen to another in the act of voting Yes to Love. A couple of weeks after the marriage referendum, the Immigrant Council of Ireland publicised a meeting in Dublin with its partners in HESTIA, a project that is investigating ‘Trafficking for Sham Marriage’ between Eastern Europe and Ireland. The timing is I’m sure coincidental, but the juxtaposition articulates the function of marriage as a filtering device for inclusion in and exclusion from the protections of the State. There’s the kind of marriage that grants ‘full and equal citizenship’ on the one hand, and then there’s another kind that is held under suspicion, subject to racial profiling, interviews with immigration officers, the kind of marriage that words like ‘sham’, ‘bogus’, ‘illegal’ and ‘deportation’ stick to. Marriages of convenience are not, in fact, illegal in Ireland. Unlike other EU countries, there is no legislative or constitutional differentiation in Irish law between ‘genuine’ marriages for love and marriages for more pragmatic purposes (although of course marriage is not grounds in itself for residency in the State). The same constitutional enshrinement of marriage and the family that made it necessary to hold a referendum on ‘same-sex’ marriage is one reason why it has proven difficult to introduce legislation on marriages of convenience in Ireland. But nonetheless all marriages involving certain categories of ‘non-citizens’ are suspect; all are potentially ‘abusing’ the State and its mechanisms. ‘Marriage for Love’ in a form recognisable to the State’s norms becomes the filtering device here, acknowledgement of its presence being one determinant of the right to remain. For people in the asylum system, access to civil marriage for same-sex couples could even add an additional barrier to family reunification, as the legislation stipulates that there must be proof of State recognition of relationship equivalent to that available for LGBT couples in the Irish State. This can be nothing other than a deliberate instrument of exclusion given the status of queer relationships in the states that most people have traveled from.

The complexities of race and migration in relation to marriage equality had no place, of course, in a campaign like Yes Equality, which appealed to the familiar, the homely, to reassuring sameness and the norm in all respects. The whiteness of the campaign was striking, though not surprising given that the target ‘audience’ was, as Noel Whelan says, ‘middle Ireland’. The campaign managers and strategists who featured in GCN’s special issue were likewise uniformly white. Similarly, on posters, leaflets and in campaign videos, whiteness predominated. Part of the persuasive strategy of the campaign was to create points of identification, showing the ‘audience’ people like themselves, families like their own. The failure to address migrant communities or to include LGBT migrants and people of colour in the Yes Equality campaign compounded the alienation, marginalisation and exclusion that are the experience of minority communities in a white nation. The invisibility of LGBT migrants, in particular, indicates the border politics at play.Fig 11

Fig 12

This kind of erasure has serious effects on LGBT people in minority communities. It legitimates the belief that being queer is ‘a white thing, it has nothing to do with us’. It confirms the lived experience of structural racism, to see the nation’s ideal image of itself and find that you have no place in it. It helps breathe life into the dogwhistle politics that stir up racist, anti-migrant scapegoating.

The video below, made by Anti Racism Network Ireland (ARN), a radical grassroots activist organisation based in Dublin, attempted to make an intervention when these dynamics became clear in the last few weeks of the referendum campaign. It was addressed not so much to the ‘majority’ community, but to migrant communities: to provide a message of acceptance and belonging to LGBT people in those communities; to underline the need for solidarity across communities and identifications; to show that there is no homogenous ‘migrant’, ‘African’, ‘Muslim’, as some newspaper reports drumming up fears of an orchestrated No vote from the so-called ‘New Irish’ had speculated. The short video conforms to the Yes Equality aesthetic and is ‘on message’, but the quiet radicalism of many of those who spoke to camera and of people from various ‘migrant communities’ who shared ARN’s message in their networks again produced something in excess of the marriage referendum itself – a step toward transformative change rather than an end-point.

Ann Mulhall teaches in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin. She is an activist with Anti Racism Network Ireland (ARN).

“Same” Sex Adultery, Bigamy, Gold Digging and Divorce, or, What Is to Be Done After Marriage “Equality”?

30 May

The recent vote in favor of marriage equality in Ireland raises many interesting questions about the implications of broadening public support for “same sex” marriage.  Does this support corral LGBT and queer populations into a normalizing, conservatizing state institution as many on the queer left in the U.S. have argued for years?  Or might a victory for marriage “equality” like the one in Ireland open up some possibilities for organizing for broader social and economic justice, as many on the queer left in Ireland now argue?  Bully Bloggers is beginning a series on marriage ambivalence with this toast from University of Utah queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton from 2014, at a moment when the rising possibility of legal gay marriage in a state run by homophobic Mormon Republicans created considerable euphoria across the progressive political spectrum.  The similarities between Utah and Ireland seem illuminating right now–a gay marriage victory against all odds in a conservative religious environment can feel dramatically empowering from the center leftward.  Below, Stockton plays with the ambivalence of the moment for her, a long time queer opponent of the emphasis on marriage in LGBT politics.  Next up:  a post from Irish queer theorist and activist Anne Mulhall, analyzing the context for and implications of the recent Irish vote.https://i1.wp.com/img.timeinc.net/time/magazine/archive/covers/2013/1101130408_600.jpg

–Lisa Duggan


How I Toast Marriage While Being Against It

by Kathryn Bond Stockton

What follows is a speech I was asked to give for our annual Gayla during Pride Week, October 2014, at the University of Utah, where I teach queer theory and raced sexualities. The assigned theme for my talk was “beyond marriage equality”—to be given to an audience largely excited that Utah had been granted marriage equality for about two weeks in 2013, albeit before it was halted again. Indeed, three days after my speech, and by the time Laverne Cox closed our Pride festivities, we had been granted marriage equality, to the great delight of so many in my state

TOAST: To our period of marriage equality—and the remarkable people who were part of it

Do I have your attention? Hear me say: don’t listen to me. Whatever you do, don’t attend to me. Turn away in your minds. Why? I may provoke you. (I’m a professor, that’s what we do.) Oh, I’ll do it sweetly, gently, warmly—I love so many of you. But you’re about to witness one of the weirdest talks embracing marriage equality that you’ve yet encountered.

Here’s what I’m guessing is true of you tonight. You have a lively, liquid idea of the word “gay,” or the word “trans,” or the word “queer,” and what it means to wed it to “marriage.” So let me be straight with you. As you know, weddings are Camp, no matter how sincerely enacted. (Think of the weddings you have attended, maybe your own: the excessive clothes, the unnatural settings, the stupendous cakes, the bad family photos, or the waiting in line at City Hall, all for the state to tell you you can love the person you’ve been loving—and that you can wed yourself to their stuff. You marry their house, their mountain bike, their benefits, more than you marry an actual person, and that’s a little odd.)   Weddings fit the definition of Camp—they’re like drag queens—they are “artifice”; “love of the unnatural”; “excruciation”; “relish for exaggeration”; “a good taste of bad taste.” And my fellow campy queers, Camp, you’ll recall, is a form of generosity. Camp embraces what it knows is out of date, tacky, embarrassing: namely, marriage. We queer folk are being generous to marriage. How delightfully démodé of us, how supremely retro we are being.

Not all of us, of course. And this is important. We’re so clever that some of us are marrying and some of us are not. That’s so brilliant. In that brief little window of time in Utah last winter, I had a chance to say no to marriage. That was deeply thrilling. With my partner of twenty-four years—I’m still deadly attracted to her (don’t look at me, I’ve told her, don’t look my way tonight; I’ll lose my place, I’ll drop my lines—she’s that cute)—I volunteered to refuse the right to marry. Someone’s gotta do it. Someone’s gotta say: “marriage shall not get the credit for our love.” We queer folk spent so many centuries crafting lifestyles the world so greenly envied. That is why we were hated, in part. A huge part of homophobic thinking has resented us for the lives we’ve led, viewing queer life as a form of hedonism. I take that as a compliment. Thus, as I’m rather fond of saying: no one—not even right-wing wing nuts—has been deeming queerness unnatural. They’ve deemed it hyper-natural—everybody’s going gay, if we let them—because it has seemed like seductive cheating to live our lives (marriage-free, child-free, soaked in pleasure).

And, indeed, queer folk have had the good sense to decouple sex from nesting: have your sexing outside your nesting; nesting kills sexing! or at least it can. We’ve had the sense to split “orientation” (the kind of person I try to sleep with) from the key question of sexual subjectivity (who I want to be, how I want to be gendered, when I sleep with that kind of person), leading, for example, someone who was male-assigned at birth to present as a woman so as to be a lesbian. We’ve had the sense to raise kissing to an art form (some of us making orgasm the prelude to kissing, what we do to get to kiss, so profound is the contact just at the surface, at the lip of surface—catching your lover’s breath just so, making an intercourse at the hint of skin). And we’ve had the sense not to fetishize longevity. Give me two hot years of relating over thirty years of worn-out loving. Divorce, for this reason, can be heroic. Feminists have known this for a long time. And queers before gay-marriage came along tended to thematize the bravery of leaving, in some cases (not in all, of course). We’ve had a way of reminding the world that it takes guts to extract oneself from marriage—and it takes privilege, good old money, since many women especially have had to stay in relationships if they would keep their standard of living, or their children.

So we’ve been telling a few white lies (we don’t call lies “white” for nothing) when it comes to “marriage equality.” We keep saying we won’t change marriage. Newsflash: marriage has always been changing. Is marriage now what it was in the U.S. in the 1950’s when my parents married? Thankfully, no. (See Mad Men.) Is marriage here, in the U.S., what it is in many other parts of the world? Marriage never was, never is one thing. If there were time, I would tell you that in order to trace the evolution of “marriage equality” as we now envision it, we would need at minimum to discuss Jane Austen, in whose novels people marry houses, though they have to think they marry and mate strictly for love. We would have to examine the invention of “the homosexual” in 1891, along with the development (also in the nineteenth century) of vulcanized rubber (you know why that’s important), never mind the changes of the twentieth century that change marriage: two world wars (what in the world were those soldiers up to?), the birth of birth control, Stonewall drag queens, people “transitioning,” and a little something—don’t get me started on more white lies—about the thing called “mixed-race” marriages. And let’s remember, conservative straight folks put gay people at the heart of straight marriage, thus changing marriage. The definition “one man, one woman” effectively means “no gay marriage”; every time it’s said, “gays” are the ghost that is conjured by the phrase, leading us to hear, leading all to hear: “one man, one woman, no gays.” We’re a threesome, in a legal sense.https://i0.wp.com/sites.psu.edu/reshmakjblog/wp-content/uploads/sites/2181/2013/03/gay-marriage.jpg

Will we change marriage, we queer folk? Will we insert our beyond inside it? (“Come here, marriage….   Come to Daddy….”) Of course we’ll change marriage. If we’re lucky! If the queers I so respect, I so adore, I so celebrate for their new marriages—thank you for marrying, someone had to do it, someone had to grasp the equality we’re asking for—if these folks have their marriages upheld, marriage overall has the chance to become more sex variant, more trans-rich, more divorce-friendly, and, dare I say, more replete with kissing (or is that my obsession? I can’t tell; my partner looked at me). Speaking of my partner looking at me…. I’m throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to the lovers, the many lovers, here. Un-nest yourselves, from inside your nests, while you build your nests. Keep desire alive! (May I queer Jesse Jackson?) Celebrate your partner when she most annoys you. It proves she isn’t you. And that’s a good thing. She’s a sexy stranger you can have sex with. And whatever you do, don’t “share” your day—not with each other. Nothing is more deadening. Nothing’s less creative. Nothing’s more routine. She spews on you, while you’re not listening; you spew on her, while she’s not listening. Don’t share your day. Just “make out” at the point of contact. Cruise her, don’t abuse her with your day.

But where are we headed on the matter of equality? That’s the hard question.   Marriage, as you know, is not a good way to get crucial benefits delivered to people; to make lives secure; to break up dyads; to end the grip of racism; and marriage perhaps is not a good way to redistribute wealth (unless you divorce).

I really hope that while there’s time, while we don’t have rights (at least this right) inside red states, we queer folk (and queer straight folks) can show that we care about things beyond our rights, beyond the rights that dangerously make us resemble white, straight, middle-class men of means, who, for a long time, had the rights and benefits of marriage to themselves, making a onesome inside their twosome. Imagine our becoming vibrant champions of anti-poverty, anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, while we don’t have rights. Take that, blue states! Wouldn’t we be modeling something even grander than coalition-making? Wouldn’t we be modeling trans-categorical-political-focus, or at least binocular focus, tri-nocular focus, showing our focus on issues not solely tied to our rights, which would have the benefit of honoring queer folk who have felt excluded in queer life (poor queer folk, queer folks with disabilities, many queers of color)?

We have earned the right to be cleverly contradictory. Say yes to marriage!; say no to it, too. There’s no such thing as homosexuality—but of course I’m going to Pride!  Let’s have a red-state political strategy, but let’s show the blue states it’s more radical to live here—to think here, to learn here. The queerest thing about me? I love Utah. We must be a hive of ideas.https://bullybloggers.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/8d0c5-jownfic0.jpg?w=296&h=268

And lucky for you, or maybe not, you can hear me spout off on my queer approach to the practice of income redistribution in a talk I’ll give to Student Affairs this coming January. It is entitled “Sameness, Underwear, Pleasure, and Need.” But I’m warning you: don’t listen to me.

Here’s my colleague, Cliff Rosky….

Kathryn Bond Stockton is Distinguished Professor of English and Interim Associate Vice President of Equity and Diversity at the University of Utah









“Self-Portrait 2015” Roderick A. Ferguson University of Illinois, Chicago May 8, 2015

12 May Demand

PiperCubIt’s a strange thing to find yourself as a character in the book you just wrote, especially when the book is neither fiction nor autobiography. Those of you who have read The Reorder of Things will recall that I began with a collage by Adrian Piper called “Self-Portrait 2000.” The collage in part “depicts” Piper as a downed airplane. But it also contains a sharp letter to Wellesley’s then president for allegedly violating the terms of Piper’s hire. And the collage is further intensified by presenting a poem to God that rails at God for producing a botched-up version of humanity. In The Reorder of Things, I use the collage as a way to open the book’s interrogation of how state and capital have followed the academy’s example in relation to the management of diversity. Like the academy, the state and the financial institutions it refuses to regulate, abandon the visions of equitable distribution and social justice fostered by the student movements of the 1960’s—especially in terms of their promotion of interdisciplinary scholarship and faculty and student diversity. Instead, all three institutions have actively worked to sabotage projects of intellectual and demographic redistribution while all the while promoting a love for diversity.


Enter the “Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative to Increase Diversity and the Interdisciplinary Culture at UIC.” As the name suggests, the initiative was intended to be a way to transform the University of Illinois at Chicago by hiring twenty-five junior and senior faculty who would be distributed among five research clusters—the Racialized Body, Middle East and Muslim Societies, Social Justice and Human Rights, Diaspora Studies, and Global Urban Immigration. While the official name of the cluster initiative implies that it was a mandate from on high, the categories that came to define the clusters were designed by the faculty and were the result of two competitive proposal phases that involved the entire campus, not just the faculty in Liberal Arts and Sciences. The faculty who wrote the proposals talked of meeting in coffee shops and in department conference rooms to hammer out what would be a truly historic dream if realized.

It would have been the first time in the history of the American academy that an institution—public or private—would reinvent itself based on interdisciplinary categories, categories produced in fields such as ethnic, cultural, gender, postcolonial, disability, and queer studies. It would have also been an epic achievement for a university with a working-class student body. This vision of what could have been, and indeed, what should have been, attracted those of us recently recruited from other institutions to the exciting but now short-lived UIC experiment.



The university insists that it is only “delaying” rather than canceling the clusters. This distinction is telling as it exemplifies a university administration attempting to establish itself as the rational arbiter and enforcer of hires around diversity while it strips those hires of any real substance. Our collective letter to Chancellor Michael Amiridis provides necessary context:

In addition to stopping the current searches, the Interim Provost and Dean explained that the entire cluster program was being delayed, and that before it could restart, the substance of the positions required recalibration that would supersede both the agreed to conditions of the cluster proposals (all applications were signed by Executive Officers and Deans) and the extensive internal peer review process that selected these clusters over others. Such an abrupt cancelation of four high-profile searches (not delay as recent communications have indicated), and a drastic change to the peer review process, fundamentally endangers this major diversity initiative at our public urban university and threatens to tarnish our national reputation and ability to recruit in the future.

It is important to note, as the above paragraph attests, that the prior agreement authorizing the clusters has been voided. The new conditions call for a reappraisal by the Deans of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As the letter states, “Over the course of the first three years, the PIs made requests for meetings with Dean Tantillo to discuss search processes; we never received a positive response and instead were re-directed to meet with Associate Deans who were not authorized to make decisions on the hiring process.” In other words, after the searches were authorized, we are now told that the searches can only be re-authorized by the very administrative players that abandoned them in the first place.

If not “cancellation,” perhaps we should call it an “indefinite or permanent delay?” That would, of course, allow us to continue with the fiction that UIC’S diversity initiative has not been cancelled, and its commitment to diversity will march on, one day reactivated by people who never meant it to survive in the first place. As one of the persons hired to realize this initiative, there’s no way for the administration’s actions not to be dismaying, but as a theorist, I can’t help but be intrigued—even by the maneuvers that have undermined what my colleagues and I have tried to accomplish. This part might be a lesson to us all.

The discourse that has caught my eye is the university’s use of “student demand.” In addition to the looming shadow of anticipated budget cuts, the dean at the April 16th meeting said that the clusters had to be delayed because of a lack of “student demand” for those areas articulated by the clusters—intersectional feminism, social justice, Middle-East and Muslim, political economy and globalization, and urban diaspora, in particular. This is an especially astonishing claim on a campus with a growing Latino, Asian, Asian American, Arab, Arab-American, Middle-Eastern and Muslim student body. What is even more interesting is that many of the students from these groups have for years demanded areas of study like the ones that have been cancelled. If these students’ demands are not the ones that the university acknowledges, who and what are the interests behind the administration’s deployment of “student demand?”



Think back to the moment of the sixties and seventies student movements and how large the word “demand” loomed in radical manifestos, manifestos that called for widespread social change. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front of San Francisco State issued their “TWLF SF State College Demands,” listing the establishment of a “School for Ethnic Studies” as their number one demand. In 1969 the Lumumba-Zapata student movement at the University of California at San Diego, upon hearing of the institution’s plans to build a new—“Third”—college responded by writing, “We demand a Third College be devoted to relevant education for minority youth and to the study of the contemporary social problems of all people.” In that same year, African American and Puerto Rican students at City College in New York would issue their “Five Demands” intended to change the university’s institutional and intellectual structure to speak to the histories and realities of students at that institution. The sixties and seventies saw the emergence of the category “demand” as the keyword of student militancy directed at university administrations, directed at them so that knowledge might be reorganized rather than diminished.



As they vie for control of that category, university administrations attempt to absorb and neutralize the possibility of radical change on college campuses; those administrations are increasingly doing so by laying claim to the idea of “student demands.” Instead of using the discourse of “student demand” to promote the progressive reorganization of knowledge for the good of faculty and student development, the administration uses the category to arrogate power unto itself. In this way, the figure of the student becomes the ethical motivation and justification for expulsion rather than redistribution, determining what forms of knowledge and critique can be expelled from intellectual space and livelihood. Steven Salaita’s firing is a case in point. In her justification for terminating him, the Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise implicitly invoked “student demand” as the rationale for that decision, stating “We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.” As an institutional discourse, student demand, thus, provides a handy justification for a diverse array of administrative expulsions, ones that could conceivably involve courses, people, hiring initiatives, and so on.

With the rise of the administrative control of student demand, the student is turned into an absolutely serviceable abstraction, the evidence of which can be seen in the simple fact that the administrators who deploy the figure of the student are actually not the ones—for the most part—who teach them, listen to them, or learn from them. In the end though, a move like the one that we just saw at UIC is not only an attack on diversity and interdisciplinarity; it is also an assault on academic freedom. The classical definition of academic freedom means that the faculty controls the curriculum and therefore presides over the hiring of those persons who will execute it. As the new enforcer of student demand, the administration can then say it is best positioned to manage the curriculum and hiring. The result of this is the overturning of academic freedom. If neoliberalism, as Lisa Duggan has argued, is the upward redistribution of resources—in this instance toward the administration, the administrative seizure of student demand is neoliberalism par excellence.



It has only recently occurred to me that anti-intellectualism might be something more than “anti-intellectual,” more than the description that so many of us use when we find ourselves in the throes of institutional distress, more than a grievance or an annoyance. I have only now begun to think about how anti-intellectualism might seriously be the “mature” and defensive expression of academic institutions, an expression that retaliates against past and present campus uprisings and a formation worthy of serious theorization. Consider all the meetings with and speeches by administrators in which intellection is turned into the clumsiness of prima donnas, and bureaucratic thinking is taken to be the privileged capacity of reasoned individuals to properly run the university, individuals whose intelligence is measured by how much can they dilate over the bottom line, people who—by some bureaucratic clairvoyance—can determine which undergraduate fields will yield jobs, profits, and a future, a clairvoyance that allows them to judge which forms of knowledge are worthy of life or death.

In the hands of the administration, “student demand” becomes the reason to discourage speculative thought, producing a situation in which the most extreme forms of anti-intellectualism are found among an institution’s elites. As an institutional discourse, anti-intellectualism is necessary to make the administration the center of university authority, allowing it to impose administrative control over all intellectual activity, activities that should be the province of students and teachers. In the days of the sixties and seventies, the student—no longer content to be defined by external forces but self-marked by gender, sexual, ethnic and racial particularities—was the catalyst for the multiplication of forms of knowledge within the academy. In our moment and through a backlash against the prior one, the figure of the student—cynically—becomes the administration’s alibi for the degeneration of knowledge. I began this piece with Adrian Piper’s “Self-Portrait 2000.” I’ll end with two other “portraits” that bear upon this discussion. Ai Weiwei’s “A Study in Perspective” is a series of photographs in which the artist gives the middle finger to structures of power in Paris, Berlin, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Hong Kong. The series is designed to critique governments’ dismissal of everyday people’s freedoms. Commenting on it, Ai said, “I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.”


On April 29th UIC students mounted a demonstration in support of the Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative and demanded that the cancelled searches be fully reinstated. A group of protesters who were inspired by Ai’s “A Study of Perspective” staged their own version of the series. In the photo from the UIC demonstration, we see three fingers shot upwards at University Hall, the building that houses the UIC administration. Similar to Ai’s critique of governmental abuses, the UIC photo contests the administration’s disregard of faculty members and students’ freedoms to set their own agendas for intellectual expression, particularly around curricular development, interdisciplinary hiring, and diversity. Moreover, we might read the three fingers as a sign that challenging structures of power is a collective rather than individual endeavor, one that demands that we counter the necessarily anti-intellectual nature of neoliberal practices by returning to the boldness of intellection. Indeed, the UIC photograph suggests that a finger, rather than being an apolitical symbol of vulgarity, might—to quote Audre Lorde—be “loaded with information and energy.”


Should The Vajayjay Speak?

16 Apr Portlandia, Season 4, Feminist Bookstore Dance

Back in January of this year, 2015, a curious story began to circulate in online education journals like Inside Higher Ed: “A student group at Mount Holyoke College has decided to cancel its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues, saying the play excludes the experiences of transgender women who don’t have a vagina.” Now, I am no big fan of Vagina Monologues, or any kind of speaking genitalia for that matter (I am flashing on a show I saw on HBO a few years ago on “The Puppetry of the Penis”…don’t ask…don’t tell…). But, despite my aversion to genital soliloquies, and my general disinterest from the get go in The Vagina Monologues, I still do not understand the premise for the cancelation.


If the students had decided that the play was too focused on universalizing US experiences of womanhood, or that it participated in an imperialist feminist paradigm that cast North American feminist body politics as representative of all versions of body politics, I might have thought ok, shrugged and moved on. But canceling it because it does not include the experiences of trans women or women who lack vaginas just did not add up. The play is not saying that women without vaginas or that women with surgically constructed vaginas are not women after all, it is just saying…well, what is it saying? Love your vagina? Love whatever you have that is not a penis? Love your penis that can now be reterrritorialized as your vagina? Talk to your vagina? Listen to your vajayjay…not sure but it is NOT saying, transwomen are not women.


Like the debates around the inclusion of trans-women in historically women’s colleges, this all feels like a storm in a teacup. It is clear that we are living at a time when gender norms have so definitively shifted beyond stable concepts of man and woman, that there should be no need for anguished and urgent debates about the admission of transgender women to women’s colleges or about the extension of monologues about female genitalia to trans women with or without surgically constructed vaginas (talkative or not). Trans women will be admitted to spaces formerly reserved for women born women precisely because the activism that would enable us to see an expanded and expanding category of “woman” has already taken place. The current activism on college campuses now calling for for the expansion of the category of “woman” to trans women, in fact, is belated and after the fact. Activism is not simply calling for something. Activism is about creating a context within which the thing that you are calling for comes to make sense – this process, in relation to trans womanhood, began back in the early 1990’s with the rise of poststructuralist feminism and queer theory and it comes to bear now on the discussions about gender protocols.

It is of course true that the time for The Vagina Monologues is surely come and gone – and I am not so sure that it was ever here in the first place — but certainly a few generations of enthusiastic college students did perform the play with pride and gusto and who are we to sneer at that. So why not quietly move on from the performance of talking vaginas to other theatrical projects more suited to this historical moment? Can the very vocal and publicized decision to cancel The Vagina Monologues be understood as part of what has been identified as a new censorious mood on college campuses in general? What fuels this new sensitivity on the part of students to all kinds of “problematic” material and is it part of a new millennial moralism?

In recent weeks, articles by Laura Kipnis in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times have generated outrage (and protests in Kipnis’s case) because these authors dared to suggest that we seem to be in the grips of a moral panic on college campuses. While Kipnis took aim at administratively authored “sexual paranoia” at her university, Northwestern, which had taken the form of a ban on consensual relations between professors and students, Shulevitz accused students of “hiding from scary ideas” by deploying the defense of calling for “safe space.” Both Kipnis and Shulevitz articulated what is, I believe, a fairly widely shared belief, that in Kipnis’s words “students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.” We don’t have to agree with everything Kipnis or Shulevitz has to say in order to feel that something has certainly changed in the way that campus politics are transacted.


And, there are probably many factors that contribute to this “skyrocketing” sense of vulnerability for college students – students have been produced within the neoliberal university as consumers, dependents, debtors, children and pre-professionals. They have been cheated, patronized, exploited and abused. They exit the university with massive amounts of debt, a sense of futility and a need to make money and they want someone to blame. It is always easier to blame the messenger rather than going after the system that produces debt and despair in equal measure. But it is surely a mistake for students to be “calling out” (the new term for demanding accountability) their Gender Studies professors for showing them disturbing material on sexual assault; or calling out their Ethnic Studies professors for showing images of racial violence; or calling out their political theory professors for arguing that power is productive and ubiquitous not local and possessed. Local calls for this or that form of speech to end does not really help anything. Rather than demanding simply that category X be admitted to this or that, we need wide-ranging structural analyses of the production of violence of exclusion and inclusion within neoliberal forms of governance.


To wind down my rant, let’s turn to an example of what NOT to do as a feminist: In a great episode of Portlandia, Candace (Fred Armisen) and Tony (Carrie Brownstein), the fictional proprietors of the women’s bookstore, Women and Women First, go to a Portland Trailblazers basketball game. They watch the game and are amazed at how much they enjoy it: “these people are really good at what they do!” But then, in a time out, when the Blazer’s cheerleaders come on to dance for the crowd, Toni and Candace become outraged by the exploitation to which they have become witnesses. Candace wonders why the cheerleaders are wearing so little clothing, and they both end up calling for the “liberation” of the “private dancers.” “Let them speak!” yells Candace, “say something! Tell us your stories!” The two feminist pioneers demand a meeting with the dancers in order to “help” them and they ask the dancers to “drop their poms poms.” Providing them with a “safe space,” they call on them to “read and resist” rather than dance and be oppressed and they create a new performance piece for them that involves telling the audience who they are and crawling out from under the oppressive regime of the NBA – all accompanied by a primal scream performed by Toni. The episode is hilarious as a good-natured satire of a feminism that has misguidedly become a crusade to protect and rescue.

Portlandia, Season 4, Feminist Bookstore Dance

Activism, Portlandia reminds us, is not the transaction of change through the blotting out of ‘problematic’ speech  on behalf of new disciplinary norms of conduct. Inclusion can be as corrosive a technique of rule as exclusion and speech as much as silence can be a vector for oppression. In an era when universities are saddling their students with debt, transforming their teaching staff from permanent to adjunct labor, paying their administrators corporate salaries and buying up all the real estate in their neighborhoods for luxury housing, calls for inclusion have to be accompanied by broader critiques of the transformation of the university. In a speech at Berkeley last year titled: “Free Speech Is Not For Feeling Safe,” Wendy Brown reminded us that:” today, the gears of the machine don’t clang and grind out there: they are are soft, quiet, and deep inside us.”  Trans women should certainly be admitted to women’s colleges, and vaginas probably do need to stop monologuing but inclusive policies, safe space, correct speech and sexual paranoia will not change the middle-class demographics of the university and will not stop the university from its rapid evolution into a factory for the production of the next generation of bankers. What we need are new and inventive modes of protest not more safe space.


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