by Jack Halberstam
I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”
Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.
Debates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.
Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.
At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.
Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!
And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.
As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.
Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.
Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.
In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.
What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.
And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.
Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.
I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”