José Esteban Muñoz, 1967-2013
This week, we lost a fierce friend, a comrade, a wry and trenchant critic, a brave and bold queer voice and a true utopian in a world of pessimists. As we try to reckon with his absence and learn to live with the loss of such a magnificent thinker, such an enormous spirit, we can find all kinds of solace in the work that José left behind. “Queerness is not yet here,” he cautioned us at the beginning of Cruising Utopia, and he continued: “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”
These words are strangely comforting now that José is truly no longer in the here and now but dwells instead in a then, a there, a new world that we cannot reach from here, this prison house of life, the body, the present. José’s work, his craft, his social worlds, his teaching all reached out for the “forward-dawning futurity” that, he felt, harbored other ways of being, other forms of life, other worlds. These other worlds, alternative forms of life, could be glimpsed only through the cultural landscapes that queer people create out of love, desperation, hilarity, performance, perversity, friendship, sex, feelings, failings, pain and communion. And so José made it his life’s work to live in and with and alongside the brilliant, talented, queer performers about whom he wrote and with whom he collaborated: Vaginal Davis, Carmelita Tropicana, Nao Bustamente are just a few of the gorgeous, glittering talents who built worlds with him and made crazy, hilarious, expansive performance spaces with him, spaces where he could find his “then and there” at least for an evening.
And let’s not tame José as he leaves us – he was brilliant, sweet, loving, for sure, but he was also bitchy, camp, and tough. He knew well how to tease and be teased, how to give as good as he got, how to pick a fight and how to step out of the way once the fight really got going. José, as so many people have said, was socially promiscuous – he was friends with everyone – people who did not speak to each other remained best friends with José, so much so that when he came to Los Angeles, he would have to negotiate his time between the “Lesbian Warlords” who all set up camps that could include him but not each other!
José would often quote Jack Smith’s barb about Maria Montez (or was it Allen Ginsburg?) that they were “walking careers”: this was a high ranking insult from José and it was reserved for people who could not remember why they were in academia – people who sought out the “stardom,” the attention and forgot the pleasure, the collaborative potential, the sheer joy of writing, thinking and being in proximity to performance – those people were ‘walking careers.’ As for José, rock star and legend as he was, he was not in it simply for the career, the profession, the attention – José really did believe in something bigger than personal acclaim and that was the queer utopia he continued to cruise until his death.
“We must vacate the here and now for a then and there…” he wrote at the conclusion to Cruising Utopia. “What we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality…Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else that we can feel, that we must feel. We must take ecstasy” (185). I am pretty sure that José knew plenty about taking ecstasy and about feeling something beyond the here and now. And, because he taught us all how to feel “queerness’s pull,” we are all here now, sitting on the shore, alone, bereft from his loss, squinting towards the horizon and hoping to see the shape of the queer world to come that he insistently pointed us towards. José we miss you, we love you, nothing will ever be the same without you.