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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 Shipped and the Bereft, or, Seven Backward Glances that won’t turn you to Salt

6 Mar insp_sexual_tension_preview

By Tav Nyong’o

insp_sexual_tension_preview7. It’s S/K, not K/S (yes, it matters)

 As any slash fiction writer, or semiologist, will tell you, order matters. And so the fantasy of a love relation between Spock and Kirk is no more reversible than any other romantic entanglement. Identification always runs to one side or the other of the slash between Spock and Kirk. Outsider that I am, my own identifications have always run to the half-alien, S/K, not K/S. This is a S/K story.
In the image above, Kirk glances  up from his seat of authority and is startled and allured by the nearness of his enigmatic “number one.” As he extends one arm unnecessarily, invitingly far, draping it over the back of his chair in faux insouciance, Spock leans in with both arms around him, as if he is about wrap Kirk up in the folds of his logic. Okay, maybe this is a K/S story too … we will have to see how it goes.

KirkSpockWallSfSI never quite got it, by the way. Slash fiction, that is: the fan genre of narrative that fantasizes catching Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mister Spock in flagrante delicto. I’ll say it here: William Shatner does nothing for me. And I think I identify too much as a Vulcan to really relish being with a Vulcan like Leonard Nimoy. So despite a queer trekkie, I never “shipped” Kirk and Spock, as the kids now say. At least not until the latest reboot of the franchise — with its casting of queer, doe-eyed Zachary Pinto in the role a knowing wink at its shipping audience — practically begged me to.

6. Slash is neither the love of sameness nor of difference, but of the performative punctuation of the two

A slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign. Two bodies in color put the rest of the world in greyscale. They are not the same, not different. Not “men.” The military hierarchy, the ship of state, the errand into the astral wilderness, these masculine concerns are as nothing compared to a friendly look of concern across the species divide on the harsh passage through life. Two actors given genre roles on television in the Sixties invented one of the twentieth centuries great cinematic love affairs, conducted through the subtle innuendo they developed in a command performance that, by the time the franchise was reinvented for the millennial generation, had to be incorporated into the making and marketing of the film, a knowing if anxious calculation that covert queer tension could outlive the closet.
 roflbot-kirkspockxishipFor more on the queer performativity of punctuation, see here. The principle that a slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign applies, by the way, to the delight slash fantasy takes in reconjugating the relationship between actor and role. Long before Hollywood wrapped it’s head around openly queer actors playing straight, slash writers and artists understood the pleasures to be found in the interstices between what is seen and what is shown, delighting, as proper fans will, in candid shots of the actors on set, or in their leisure time, displaying the kind of foreplay affection that would find, in their fan fictions and images, a more heated description. Depicting not just the characters but the actors in shipped roles becomes a key more fan participation; creepy at times, to be sure, but also silly and playful, an little sharing out of the unshareable (J-L Nancy) in an unequal, unfair, hostile and unforgiving world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA tumblr_kxxjxje0Fo1qaoozxo1_500One received wisdom holds that slash fiction is actually a genre written by and for straight women, who insist on projecting romantic scenarios where no screenwriter had gone before. Despite being an ardent Trekkie, I have however never really immersed myself in this particular fan archive, so I just, a bit idly, imagine slash to be a kind of feminine ecriture, a queer feminist rewriting of a master text whose blatant violations of the Bechdel test admits no possible response short of a complete transcoding. In this world, Kirk and Spock are not lonely bachelors stranded in space, but loving bedfellows who exchange thoughts and sentiments (the one more thought, the other more sentiment) and give themselves over to langour and play.

Kirk-Spock-Behind-the-Scenes-james-t-kirk-7759433-650-450a2100fbd46106c9f66399fb79bf059a6I suspect, nonetheless, as does the cartoonist below, that any number of straight men also “ship” Kirk/Spock (probably, fewer I am guessing ship Spock/Kirk). I have no novel theory of heteroflexibility to offer to account for this: Freud taught us a century ago that everyone is capable of making a same sex object choice and in fact has already done so in their unconscious. And if shipping is just having a wet dream under erasure, perhaps it is no surprise to find Kirk and Spock still secluding themselves from this generation’s pornographic spotlight. Not closeted, not self-hating, they are simply discreet. Three’s a crowd.

826480_original5. Spock is a Jew

 See #7 above. And “Vulcan logic” could be another term, of course, for “kabbalistic” ritual; according to my web sleuthing,  the other features of Spock’s Jewishness are very apparent. The absence of an openly Jewish character from the ostentatiously multicultural cast of the original Star Trek is a historical chronotope of a moment of American assimilation that is even now passing, one rendered all the more glaring by the casting of two Jewish actors to play the leads: assimilation into whiteness in action. Hiding in plain sight, however, was the Live Long and Prosper gesture of the Vulcan race, invented by the actor Leonard Nimoy based on a sign he had encountered during his orthodox upbringing. Through this gesture, Nimoy held open an allegorical door for all of us for whom the price of assimilation into or accommodation with white supremacy always remained too high. Now everywhere on the web, even in outer space, hands can be seen making the gesture, hashtaged #LLAP.


4. Spock is Asian, and a woman

The orientalist overcoding of the Vulcans as some ancient wise race from the East increasingly finds a contemporary sequel in manga depictions of an Asian Spock and blond Kirk. Again, I have no theories beyond the obvious nod to postmodern pastiche and cultural globalization, but I do find it both interesting (and maybe even a bit worrisome) that K/S should be pulled out of taciturn obscurity and made to conform too easily to a legible East/West dualism. On the other hand, when the creativity capacity of queer fabulists the world over fully outstrip the source text, they unsettle a certain white supremacist logic of discovery and conquest, opening outer space to other, decolonial uses.

It is also interesting to see the loving pair grow younger as they age, a fate as inapposite as that of the original Number One in the un-signed 1964 pilot for Star Trek, played by Majel Barrett. Somehow the brainy, intellectual foil to the passionate captain did not scan for studio executives when that foil was female bodied. Although Spock appears in that original pilot, he steps into the Barrett’s role as number one in the series proper, and, thereby, into the romantic sub-plot of aloof feminine reserve played against passionate male impetuousness that she had set up in that unnumbered, unaired episode.

Number-One-star-trek-women-8427144-750-600The original pilot didn’t feature the African American starfleet member Lt. Uhura, but it was a story — deemed “too cerebral” by the network — of human captivity. Captain Pike (Kirk’s predecessor) is trapped by an alien race, the Talosians, who tries to get him to reproduce with another human, captured in an earlier crash, in order to generate a servile class. He is obliged to make love to a trapped woman at the pain of being sent mad by the mind-controlling Talosians, Vina, but his contempt and hatred of being enslaved prove too strong. (This is a classic motif in the white mythology of Anglo-Saxon liberty by the way: slavery may be a condition suited for other, lesser races, but not for us!) While the Talosians snare the two additional women from the starship Enterprise, the Captain won’t deign to mate with them either (female willingness and suitability for both marriage and slavery is, of course, assumed by both the Talosians and the screenwriters of this teleplay). Having survived a raw clash of wills, the Talosians give up and return all three starfleet members to the ship, leaving behind Vina who, it is revealed (spoiler alert) is not young and beautiful, but aged and grotestquely disfigured from her crash. Too late to be rescued by reality, Vina waves a sad goodbye to the Captain before walking off, hand in hand with the illusion of him created for her by the Talosians.

Having turned down three possible Eves in a single pilot episode, Adam is himself replaced by the second pilot (and first aired) episode of the series. Now we have a new, familar captain, James T. Kirk, who will have many lives and loves over the course of the series, but as far as the shipped and bereft are concerned, each such heterosexual plot point will be another illusion masking his singular, imperceptible, Number One love.The plot of rejected pilot, after all, could have been cribbed directly from the argument of William Blake’s poem “The Angel,” from Songs of Experience (1974):

I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild;
Witless woe, was ne’er beguil’d!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip’d my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush’d rosy red:
I dried my tears & armd my fears,
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm’d, he came in vain:
For the time of youth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.

Blake is K/S, by the way, I think. At least in his dreams.

3. Spock isn’t Black, but Star Trek began as a captivity narrative

Which brings us to Uhura/Spock in the series reboot. Somehow the re-inventors of the franchise decided that both Spock and Lt. Uhura had to be sexed up, and given a more dramatic and turbulent inner life. Rivals for the captain’s affection (the actor who created the role of Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, also read for the part of Spock, which was a non-gendered casting), Uhura and Spock find themselves in the update thrown into a tempestous teen romance. Technically a prequel, this new scenario also plays off the idea that the starfleet officers are all younger, more impetuous, confused. (Which was is civilization heading, by the way?)
Taking all this in stride, shippers have decided that Uhura/Spock is real, but only because Spock is still confused about his feelings for another man and because, like many a white gay man before and after him, he is so compelled by what he projects to be the sassy, strong resilience of black women that he is prepared to go along with a relationship, even one with zero sparks, in order to be a little nearer to the source of that glamor. A little callous, a little racist, K/S and S/K shippers alike find it easier to imagine a cross species relationship than an interracial one, at least when one half of that race question is black.

PSSpockUhuraRomantic Are shippers just digging deeper into homonormative pathologies, or are they displaying the restless and recombinant inventiveness of a connective generation, when they attempt to resolve the real contradictions of race, gender, and sexuality by reimagining slash fiction, beyond the erotic dyad, as a kind of super team: S/U/K?

tumblr_mmwdmfScuS1qeqx7ko1_5002. Where life is an illusion, love is only logical.

The enduring appeal of slash, such as I can discern it, is that even the nerdy, awkward, overly rational and reticent can and need love. I doubt this appeal has lost its relevance in our era of alleged nerd ascendancy. Anyway, Spock wasn’t that nerdy, wasn’t that geeky. He was aloof and enigmatic, loyal and logical, cool and conflicted. Now that the actor who created the role has passed on, the actor who succeeded him might be able to perform out from under his long shadow. More likely, however, as Joseph Roach notes of all acts of surrogation, the real replacement for Spock will be found elsewhere than in his official successor.

1. Number your days

Spock cannot be replaced. He is finite, and falls back into the one. An alert shipper notes that the hashtag #LLAP may be too  crypto-Christian in its patterns of memorialization, especially in the image of an afterlife that is implicitly promised. The Vulcan do not offer that sign to the dead. When Spock or Kirk die (as they seem to die repeatedly in the incompossible worlds of Star Trek, where Adam sins and does not sin) the surviving lover refuses to receive a parting benediction in his mourning. Live long and prosper? I shall do neither. Live long and prosper. No.

The shipped and the bereft are thus brought back to the one, which teaches us to number our days, that we might get a head of wisdom.

neitherIn Memoriam: Leonard Simon Nimoy. Mar 26, 1931 – Feb 27, 2015

The Good (Enough) Life: On Empire and The Black Queer Son

21 Jan

By Tav Nyong’o

In Adorno’s notorious critique of jazz, he consigned the efforts of black musicians to a quixotic struggle against racial capitalism. “With jazz,” he wrote in 1936, “a disenfranchised subjectivity plunges from the commodity world into the commodity world; the system does not allow for a way out.” This double-bind of the commercial black artist remained on full display during the pilot episode of Empire, black gay director Lee Daniel’s new foray into episodic network television.

empire-tv-series-cast-wallpaperA primetime melodrama about making it in today’s music business, Empire is also a test of the ongoing viability of a mainstream show about black people. As an entertainment about the entertainment business, Empire is more interested in finding a way into the system than imagining a way out. So why was I gripped to my seat for every soapy, cliché-riddled plot twist?

An opening scene from Empire demonstrates that, wrong as Adorno was on the aesthetic merits of black music, he remains disturbingly prescient about the structures of racism and exploitation within which it continues to get made. In the studio, Lucious listens dissatisfied to a singer deliver a ballad. He demands take after take before finally telling her to sing as if she were singing to her brother who has been shot and killed. When that trauma finally triggers the soulful vocal he was listening for, Lucious grins at the sound of a hit. Black suffering and death, yet again, is spun into commercial gold.

The premise of Empire revolves around Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, in his usual mode of unintentional Brechtian acting), rapper turned music label head, who has just been given a fatal medical diagnosis, and deliberately sets into motion a war of succession among his three sons. His plans are upended by the unexpected release from prison of his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing role), who took the fall for the drug deal that gave Lucious his original start-up capital, and has come back for her dues. This is the kind of over-the-top material is catnip for a director like Daniels. If it therefore invites filing under “guilty pleasure” for the rest of us, the inclusion of a gay character among the principle cast remains a novel enough premise to keep queer viewers skeptically engaged.

Lucious’ gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is what the mainstream press would like to call “non-stereotypical,” and what a more critical queer studies vocabulary would term “homonormative.” Neither an effeminate nor a homo thug living “on the down low,” Jamal would hardly be out of place among the cast of HBO’s Looking. That he is a talented musician (portrayed by an actual singer Smollett) lends his character a timely pathos. On the one hand, his father’s homophobia keeps him out of the spotlight that would otherwise seem to be his birthright. On the other, being out of spotlight spares him the fate of black masculine hypervisibility that his straight brother Hakeem seems consigned to. Homophobia forces him to the margins, but that is where the music is.

Black suffering is also at the center of a later dramatic scene, this one from Jamal’s childhood when the family still lived in the ghetto. In flashback, we see a thuggish Lucious dump Jamal in a trash can for daring to dress up his mother’s pumps and headscarf. Based on an experience from Daniels’ own childhood, this trauma is replayed over a scene of the now-adult Jamal performing “Good Enough,” a plaintive ballad addressed to his punishing superego, the father figure who will never be proud of him no matter how hard he tries. As his mother Cookie watches in the wings, Jamal stages the drama of “the best little boy in the world,” the angst of the black queer son whose overachievement serves as compensation for the paternal love he will never receive.

Can upwardly-mobile black queer sons and daughters like Jamal escape this “good enough” life? That is the unasked question behind this scene of black homonormative striving. The Lyons are, after all, remarkably functional as a kinship unit, despite all the melodramatic stigma of prison, crime, violence, and addiction that surround them. The incongruity of soapy drama like this lies in the fantasy we cling to as an audience that even people as rich, talented, and attractive as Jamal and his family nevertheless face the same demons as we do. The good life is really just the never good enough life.

Wouldn’t Jamal be happier without his father’s approval, without celebrity, without a corporation to run? What if the one thing he can’t have, full social acceptance, is the last thing he actually needs?

Works mentioned

Theodor Adorno, “On Jazz” in Essays on Music Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2002.

Civility Disobedience

18 Aug

By Tav Nyong’o

Has incivility become the new obscenity?

Everywhere one turns these days, it seems, ‘civility’ is being held up as a norm to which we all agreed to be held accountable. When was this consensus to be civil arrived at? Nobody can quite say. It must have been when we weren’t looking. But it’s suddenly everywhere: in open letters and videotaped homilies by university presidents, in the conference themes of progressive scholarly organizations, even in the campaign ads of Midwestern sheriffs (HT Ali Abunimah). Liberal icons John Stewart and Stephen Colbert even convened a national rally in 2010 “To Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a sardonic retort to what those who attended perceived to be the raucous incivility of Tea Parties (HT Lisa Duggan). And indeed, civility sounds like a value all but a lunatic fringe should consent to. But it’s effects on our freedoms can be surprisingly negative. The exercise of what we could be forgiven for assuming were our “civil liberties” — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, common use of public space — increasingly hit tripwire detectors for incivility, often with arbitrarily punitive consequences.


At the moment, the charge of incivility is most frequently being wielded against those whose political speech touches a third rail in American politics: the near-universal support our political class and academic leadership gives to the State of Israel. Steven Salaita, a scholar of indigenous resistance in Palestine and North America, lost a job at the University of Illinois when his righteous indignation, as expressed on social media, over the Israeli bombardment of Gaza this past summer offended some of the university’s donors and trustees. Civility here must be read as a barely veiled code for ‘civilized’; and this recourse to ‘civil’ as a standard to which all must adhere calls to mind Malcolm X’s famous critique of ‘civil rights’ as a limiting framework for the black freedom struggle. Malcolm implored black people to internationalize our struggle by refusing the US and state-centric model of “civil rights” under law and instead appealing to global solidarity with the oppressed through the rubric of “human rights.” It is precisely this global appeal to a planetary, anti-racist standard of human rights that led to Salaita being indicted for his “incivility,” transgressing the political quietism of the imperial university was enough to get him booted off campus without the pretense of due process.



Scathing, funny, and impassioned political speech did not originate on Twitter; our right to it is in fact the reason we have a First Amendment. But in the “incredibly shrinking public sphere,” as Lisa Duggan has termed it, declamatory speech of the kind that would not be out of place as at a campus rally is now occasion for professional reprisals, with even liberals handwringing over how to ‘tolerate’ the ‘intolerable.’

Ostensibly, the new civility codes have little to do directly with sex. But the neoliberal rhetoric of the campus as a space under threat is deeply intertwined with in the continued infantilization of the democratic sphere, and is thus deeply connected to moral and sex panics. Jennifer Doyle demonstrates this point in a powerful recent pamphlet, Campus Security. Doyle recounts how one police justification for the notorious pepper spray incident at the University of California was the need to protect students, gendered as feminized victims, from the masculinized and racialized threat of occupiers who weren’t currently enrolled students. The justification of the use of real force against students in order to protect them from hypothetical aggressions is the kind of security state doublespeak we routinely confront these days. At the University of Illinois, for example, it apparently fell to administrators, trustees and donors to protect students from the political viewpoints of prospective professors, when and where those views could be adjudged (unilaterally, without any grievance process) to create even a potential situation of harm, discomfort, or threat.

The imposition of civility comes at a curious juncture when privacy is also everywhere under assault. The appeal of civility for those who stand to be regulated by it is that it will provide shelter from the radical loss of privacy that new technologies are unleashing. As Mark Zuckerberg once retorted when challenged regarding insufficient privacy controls on Facebook: what’s the problem if you have nothing to hide? Similarly, those who defend civility as a standard assume that only the truly aberrant would have anything to say that couldn’t be expressed civilly anyway. And why would we want to extend them the protections enjoyed by others?

These protections ostensibly extended by the new civility, of course, fall unevenly on actual students and other young people. Civility failed to protect Michael Brown, due to begin classes at Vatterott College this fall, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri while walking in his neighborhood. Immediately after his murder, he was retrospectively vilified as a dangerous hoodlum, not a recent high school graduate with no prior criminal record, much as Trayvon Martin and so many black women and men before and after him have had their histories, rather than those of their assailants, placed on public trial. When Brown’s community rose up in righteous indignation against police occupation, the black exercise of civil liberties was met with tear-gas, rubber bullets, agents provocateurs, tanks, snipers and police screaming “animals!” at the citizens they were sworn to protect and serve.


In the wake of Ferguson, many more Americans learned that “civility” is experienced by black Americans primarily as compulsory and non-reciprocal compliance to arbitrary state violence. There were many messages of solidarity, and practical exchanges of resistance tactics, between Gaza and Ferguson. But, despite these rhizomatic uprisings against antiblack racism, imperialism, and war — all of which challenge us to be radically critical of the promise of freedom, democracy and civil society dangled before us by our rulers — the answer in some quarters remains, stubbornly, more of the same. More civility, rather than a radical questioning of its terms.

In the wake of such brutal and total abrogation of basic constitutional protections, international human rights, and the rule of law in the summer of 2014, one must ask: what is the point of being civil? If civility means the censorship of intellectuals, deference to racist cops, complicity in our state’s funding and support of aerial bombardment of civilians, and acquiescence to a decayed and corrupt system of democracy-turned-plutocracy, of what value is civility, exactly? What alternative to it might there be?

For queer politics, Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay, “Thinking Sex,” holds enduring relevance on this score. Her ostensible topic in that essay is sex and pleasure, not suffering and violence. But everything that is at stake in the essay has to do with the ability of the state and media — and ourselves — to magically convert the former into the latter, and to cultivate moral panics around harms where there are none. Rubin argued that our inability to recognize and value the range and diversity of means through which we seek and obtain pleasure, our reluctance to take sex seriously, is intertwined with a more general logic of repression, exclusion and violence.


In order to challenge the logic of repressive tolerance that divides us into good, civil subjects and bad, disorderly ones, we cannot seek to rescue the most eligible of the socially stigmatized: those clearest to the center of what Rubin calls “the charmed circle.” We must directly confront the apparatuses that divide the acceptable from the unacceptable.

Rubin’s charmed circle resonates with an image Kimberlé Crenshaw turns to in her famous law review article that disseminated the concept of intersectionality. Here she compared antidiscrimination law reform to the effort to lift a group of individuals from a subterranean basement, and the temptation to start with those nearest to the top, those whose difference seems the easiest to rehabilitate. Intersectional analysis, in Crenshaw’s view, was the refusal to take this easy out, and to instead labor on working on injustice from the bottom up.

Whether from the outside in, or the bottom up, both Rubin and Crenshaw urged feminist, anti-racist, and queer organizing not to pick and choose those campaigns deemed most winnable, those victims deemed most telegenic, those tactics deemed most acceptable, or that language deemed most civil. I have to admit that this is a difficult standard to live up to. Particularly as the political center of the nation has drifted ever-rightward, as the scale of endemic crisis grows ever more planetary, one can plausibly wonder if principled radicalism grows self-canceling past a certain point. But there seems to be no way to ask this question without reinstating the hierarchies that Rubin, Crenshaw, and a host of other intellectuals and activists have urged us to dismantle. And so it seems we still desperately need more politically vital questions to ask and answer than the tired old saw of “where do you draw the line?”

The very drawing of the line, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten show in their powerful recent essay, The Undercommons, is a strategy of white settler colonial rule. “The settler,” they write, “having settled for politics, arms himself in the name of civilisation while critique initiates the self-defense of those who see hostility in the civil union on settlement and enclosure.” Politics casts itself as surrounded by the pre-political, the anti-political, the para- and the infra-human. Their radical critique of politics as we know it, in favor of social life as we feel, sense, think, study and celebrate it, points us beyond the stale coordinates offered up by yet another civics lesson delivered by our betters. We don’t need to learn to be better citizens; as the ongoing mobilization around the Salaita case, around Ferguson, and a series of other insurgent movements shows. We need learn how better to refuse the terms upon which citizenship and the good star of “civility” is offered, always provisionally, to the charmed few.

As commentators have noted, civility sounds like a venerable democratic principle, but is actually antithetical to the direct and participatory democracy many want to build. Democratic society — and in particular the social movements that push against the constraints of populist conformism — in principle relishes vibrant and vituperative antagonism. And yet one routinely encounters attempts (such as the recent NY Times opinion parsing an invidious distinction between ‘impoliteness,’ which may be acceptable, and ‘incivility,’ which is corrosive. The distinction, it turns out, is unworkable, begging the question: then why draw it?

Perhaps a more useful question than where to draw the line would be to ask: Why are we, who are cast outside the circle of privileges that accrue to the civilized, still drawn to and invested in the lure of civility? Is it precisely because we sense that it is a tape against which we are measured and forever falling short?


Portrait of the Writer as a Young Private Secretary

I learned this lesson early in life watching A Passage to India, a film that had an indelible impact on my postcolonial childhood in Kenya. Indeed, the film instilled in me the anticolonial Kenyan ideology that Dinesh D’Souza hilariously attributes to our current president (if only!). In the film, Dr. Aziz, an educated Indian doctor during the period of British colonial rule, struggles to balance his genial and tolerant nature with the constant racism and snobbery of his English “betters.” In one unforgettable scene, Aziz pretends to have a spare collar stud (whatever that is) to lend to the Englishman who is brashly getting dressed right in front of him, which Aziz has to discretely remove the stud from his own impeccable suit. Later on, another Englishman, the local magistrate, mocks Aziz for appearing in public “in his Sunday best” but forgetting his collar stud (whatever that is). He casts racist aspersions on the doctor for being a foolish colonial mimic: trying to approximate British civil standards only underscores how innately different he is.

Dr. Aziz with the thingamajig.

Dr. Aziz with the all-important thingamajig.

The moral of the story for ten year old me was clear: a) these British colonialists are crazy and b) don’t ever assume that your efforts to live up to Euro-American arbitrary standards of civilized dress, deportment, or language will ever be enough to reverse the power imbalance.

I was too young on first watching A Passage to India, however, to truly grapple with the second half of the film, which turns darker when Ms. Quested, a visiting Englishwoman Dr. Aziz thought was a friend, accuses him of rape, prompting a dramatic trial which ends up putting the unjust colonial system of law in the docket, and sends Aziz bitterly fleeing from “civilized” English India. His personal effects are exhibited in court, he is accused of planning a trip to a brothel, and otherwise depicted as a sex-crazed savage, rather than a genteel, English speaking physician. At a climactic moment Ms. Quested withdraws her accusation (making this a tricky film to revisit in the current climate of victim-bashing, I well recognize), but the stakes in interpreting this outcome are not nearly so simple as racism versus sexism. The total abandonment of Ms. Quested by her white colonial society, once they cannot use her victimization as a legal cudgel against insurgent Indians, tells the viewer all she or he needs to know. The colonial state is both racist and sexist, even (or especially) when it is defending values such as civility, feminine virtue, rule of law and white supremacy.

In an earlier blog on this site, Jack Halberstam explored “how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity” and argued that “neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change.” Watching A Passage to India again today reminds me of the long colonial prehistory to contemporary neoliberalism. As many scholars in critical race studies have noted, colonized and racialized people were the first “flexible” and “precarious” subjects: that flexibility often demanded through the dynamics of what Homi Bhabha calls “sly civility.” Dr. Aziz, until his powerful rejection of the British at film’s end, embodies this sly civility: only when he grasps his fate is a collective one can he discard the exceptional status bequeathed him as one of the educated “good ones.”

In a contemporary context, Joseph Massad has recently written powerfully about how civility is used to police the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and how we ourselves can get caught up in those police actions. “The war to control the university rages on” he notes, “but the forces of repression, which hide behind white Protestant normative civility that they deploy to advance neoliberal control, are sharpening their knives and learning from their past mistakes.” Behind every document of civility, he might as well have continued, is a document of barbarism. Creative disobedience to compulsory civility isn’t any kind of guarantee. But without its wild resources we would be greatly impoverished to wage the kind of struggles we are in the midst of now.

For José

20 Dec

by Tavia Nyong’o


José, I’m calling up thunder.

Through so many tears

Today, I’m knocking on your door.

Can you hear?

I’m listening for your laughter through the wall

That separates and connects your office and mine.

I’m eavesdropping for the murmur

of your quiet counsel.

Give me that counsel today.


Gimme, gimme the words,

help me name

what you were to us.

Because there are no words

without you here to help me find them.


José, I’m totally fucked up

In a way that especially you could see.

I’m calling up thunder

for you, for us

for the punk rock commons

whose unauthorized entry

into the Ivory Tower

tooks its stolen wealth

And sold it in the streets for love.


José, you know me:

Most days I go for something pretty

Something pretty and well-spoken

And tomorrow,

I’ll say something pretty

but today,

for you José

I’m calling up thunder

to say something true.






Bully on Forever

5 Dec


Henry and Grover, Drowning in a Bathtub

12 Oct


By Tavia Nyong’o

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Further Reading

Henry Abelove, Deep Gossip (2005)

Pete Coviello, Tomorrow’s Parties (2013)

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons (2013)

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

That Oceanic Feeling

12 Jul 120417-frank-ocean-1_0

by Tavia Nyong’o

19- year-old Christopher Breaux fell hard for another straight boy who couldn’t love him back, confessing his love in a car parked in front of the girlfriend’s house. But the queerest song released so far by the artist now known at Frank Ocean isn’t an ode to boy-on-boy lust, but a corrosive satire of American marriage in the era of Kim Kardashian and Newt Gingrich.

“American Wedding” has attracted the pecuniary attentions of The Eagles, whose radio staple “Hotel California” the track is based on. But the real story isn’t about the sampling wars, but about a scapegoat generation struggling to make lives amidst the crumbling infrastructure of the American dream.

Now that marriage equality has become the shorthand for considering gays fellow human beings, the exploration of what the institution actually means has become more crucial than ever. On this score, Ocean’s take down of the idealised couple form:

She said, “I’ve had a hell of a summer, so baby, don’t take this hard
But maybe we should get an annulment, before this goes way to far.”

“American Wedding” is from Ocean’s internet mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. On Channel Orange, Ocean is rarely thinking about conventional marriage, gay or straight. But he is always “thinking bout forever,” as the title of the opening track has it, and peeling back the skin of those of us who aren’t. The ass-backwardness of the Eagles’s response to Ocean’s cultural stocktaking is best captured by NCWYS in the SoundCloud comments to “American Wedding”:

If you older people think that the younger generation is out of control and doing everything incorrectly then you should absolutely love this song, but you don’t.

Aptly enough, Frank Ocean often also composes lines that run on a breath that suddenly stops short. An unforgettable one comes in “Sweet Life,” a sharply observed reverie of black-picket-fence California dreaming, when Ocean asks “So why see the world, when you got the beach?” He elongates “world” to contrast with the punched out “beach” in a way that tells us everything we need to know about Ocean’s mournful acceptance of a sun-ripened cruel optimism. That single line makes the extended parody of decadence and parental neglect on “Super Rich Kids” almost superfluous, except for the self-conscious scene setting it adds:

We’ll both be high
The help don’t stare
They just walk by
They must don’t care.

This is the way Ocean inherits the past: not by respecting tradition, or Don Henley, but by staring down the foreshortened horizons and complacent inequality that the frantic pursuit of wealth or happiness brings.

Not that he is lecturing, mind you, although Sierra Leone, sex work, global warming, and the hijab all make appearances in his rapidly expanding oeuvre. He is singing over the soundtrack of history, blunting its force with tried and true teenage tactics of insult, grandiosity, and desperate need. At 24 he isn’t quite old enough to know that he shouldn’t care, which is why he can gloat over “expensive news” on a pricey widescreen one moment, insist “my TV aint HD thats too real” another. On Channel Orange television is his angel of history, a flickering window on the mounting wreckage of the past as he is blown into the future.

The future Ocean is helping shape includes but cannot be reduced to one of its key aspects: the prospect of a progressively expanded honesty about and acceptance of same sex desire. Despite his Tumblr post comparing the intensity of homolove to “being thrown for a plane,”  the theme of Channel Orange is less sexual orientation than chemical disorientation. Recreational substance abuse resurfaces in almost every song, often as a metaphor for a relationship gone wrong. Or is it the other way around? Is addiction now the core, common experience we are struggling to give sense to, turning to romantic clichés like “unrequited love” in a desperate search for a familiar language?

Frank’s oceanic feelings on Channel Orange crash in waves that obliterate distinctions between gay, bi, or straight. Some of the ostensibly straight songs, except for their pronouns, feel suspiciously same-sex. And when heterosexuality is foregrounded, it never resolves any confusions, it only produces new ones. The artistic showpiece of the album, the ten-minute long “Pyramids,” is an afrofabulation of ancient Egypt and postmodern Las Vegas, centered on a woman dressing for her job as a stripper, while her man looks on, waiting for her to “hit the strip … that keep my bills paid.” The song is drenched in delusions of the good life in a “top floor motel suite,” lateral cruising confused for the upward mobility that is now as rare as water in the American desert. Ocean has a heartfelt respect for his Afrocentric queen — “we’ll run to the future shining like diamonds in a rocky world” — but the feeling tone of “Pyramids” is closer to Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” than Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” Monáe and Ocean share premonitions of a near future where a multicultural one percent rests at the opulent social apex, with brown, black and some beige bodies at the botttom “working at the pyramid” just like the slaves who built the original ones.

Where CNN anchor Anderson Cooper justified his belated coming out in terms of the reporter’s obligation not to get in the way of the news, Ocean knows better. At 18 he fled Hurricane Katrina for Los Angeles. But as Fred Moten might say, “I ran from it, and was still in it” pretty much sums up the black experience in America. Channel Orange starts in a similarly fucked up atmosphere — “A tornado flew around my room” — and ends with “Forrest Gump” the most oddball portrait of same-sex love since “Johnny Are You Queer?” A campy three-legged race featuring Tom Hanks’ dimwit but fleet-footed hero, “Forrest Gump” boils Hollwood sap down to a lubricious bump and grind:

my fingertips & my lips
they burn from the cigarettes
forrest gump
you run my mind boy
running on my mind boy

This is dark camp, nostalgic kitsch repurposed by a generation whose thefts seemed premised on the canny awareness that anything original they create could be stolen. But don’t confuse Ocean’s approach for postmodern pastiche or retromania, despite his affection for old cars and the vocal stylings of Prince and Donnny Hathaway. On his first appearance on broadcast television, Ocean scaled the national media echo-chamber down to a backseat taxicab confessional, sharing his universal angst at a human level rarely captured by the contemporary celebrity coming out:

“Bad Religion” leaves it strictly unclear whether it his taxi-driver’s effusive Islam or his own devotion to the cult of true love that is more stunning. Confusing spirituality with a therapy designed to sand our sharp edges into shape for this world, he is awestruck in a way that has little to do, in the end, with either islamophobia or homophobia.

“Bad Religion” dances on the impossible “and” in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, the book where Freud psychoanalyzed the oceanic feeling of cosmic oneness felt by natural mystics as a form of prenatal regression. Thrown from his hometown by the unnatural calamity of antipoor and antiblack racism, Ocean is entitled to feel as bleakly about the human prospect as Freud did. That he doesn’t isn’t a sign of blinkered piety so much as a restless appetite for even the worst in himself and others. Even a curse, after all, probably couldn’t hurt him.

When Ocean greets us as “human beings spinning on blackness,” he invites us into that cab alongside him, sidling up in an undercommons of prayer and malediction, where the singular soul brushes up against the dark night of the universe. Maybe that’s why a conventional coming out, with its endless reiterations of the transparently obvious, seems beside the point. Frank Ocean isn’t like you or me; he isn’t even much like Christopher Breaux any longer.

Kony 2012: Inaudible Children

12 Mar

By Tavia Nyong’o

CNN Headline: Hunt for warlord goes viral

Can the subaltern speak? No, but she can certainly sob, with cries of raking loss and, a few rapid film cuts later, tears of heartwarming gratitude. I learned that much watching Kony 2012 this morning, even if, like most people from the region, I learned little else by way of information or context.

Why did I wait so long to actually watch the film I’d been stewing about for the last week? I actually started to watch once, but was foiled by a bad Internet connection and the off-putting opening sequence (which resembles an ad for Facebook or Google more than a documentary about Uganda). And in a way, these obstacles told me something. I am not the target audience for this film. American youth with ubiquitous, high speed internet access willing to watch 30 minute films on computer screens, cell phones and (probably soon?) wristwatches are. But my exclusion from the film’s emotional community isn’t about age or tech savvy, but because I’m an African who happens to be neither a victim nor a villain, and simply doesn’t fit into either the audience or the subject matter of this overnight, worldwide success.

The almost uniformly ticked-off reaction of Africans like Rosebell Kagumire (above), Maureen Agena, Teju Cole — at least those Africans not on the payroll of Invisible Children — must seem like a bizarre and offensive form of ingratitude to those Americans caught up in the enthusiasm to “make Joseph Kony famous.”

If I had to sum up our bad attitude it would be thus: We feel like the vision of the world acting in unison extolled in the film Kony 2012 doesn’t include us.

After all, the film tells its viewers that no one knew or cared about the Lord’s Resistance Army before three twentysomethings from California stumbled upon some terrorized children sleeping outdoors. Kony 2012 doesn’t imply that Kony is still in Uganda, as some critics have claimed. But it does recycle powerful but outdated imagery from their earlier films about Northern Uganda. It does make exaggerated claims for the leading role of Invisible Children in the peacemaking and post-conflict process (taking full credit, for instance, for the recent deployment of 100 US military advisors to Uganda). And it does assert that only continued US intervention now — compelled by a worldwide youthful grassroots mobilization — can end the regional conflict by “arresting” Kony.

But its not the questionable geopolitical analysis of the film that gets to me so much as its affect. Those who haven’t been able to bear the thought of watching it really should make themselves, if only to grapple with the escalating power of images to affect us. It is that power that makes the informed, learned critiques irrelevant, as both the filmmakers and Noam Cohen in today’s New York Times make clear. Cohen casts this irrelevance in the familiar frame of obscure complexity versus compelling simplicity. But the truth is that emotions can be as complex as ideas. And it took Invisible Children, Inc. years to craft the sophisticated images and participatory campaigns they have mobilized, as a viewing of the evolution of their prior efforts shows. Simplicity has nothing to do with it.

So, while I do have an informed, professional response to the claims made by Kony 2012, but that response is short circuited by my feelings at seeing East and Central Africa explained by showing two mugshots to an adorable blond boy from San Diego: a good African victim and a bad African warlord. The film expects its audience to identify with the little blond boy. Indeed, it obliges it to. Africans however, must identify with those flat images on the table. With Jacob Acaye the former child soldier, yes, but with Joseph Kony too. We know that these are two side of a single coin, and that when we are seen as the one, the face of the other is always lurking beneath.

Still, once I finished watching the film I abandoned self pity and ressentiment. This is a trap for the contemporary African subject. After all, we are wired into the same communications networks and feedback loops of emotional intensity as everyone else. We are no longer colonial mimics, calculating how best to reflect back Western ideas and images for our own ends. We are now all neoliberal perverts, in the sense of perversion developed by the critic Slavoj Zizek, perversion as the “inverted effect of the phantasy.” Sounds “complicated” and maybe it is.* But insofar as films like Kony 2012 invite us to see ourselves in the gaunt visage of a horror film monster like Joseph Kony — who acts at the direction of no cause, not even his own, but at the command of the Lord — and then to reflect back that image in a bizarre, pseudo-Situationist campaign to emblazon his name and image everywhere, from streetlamps and public monuments to our laptops, cellphones and bodies, I think we get the point.

The objective today is not to give Africa it’s voice but to traverse and escape the fantasy that “voice” can endow us with agency in a society controlled by the imperatives of war and capital.

* For those interested, I develop an account of perversity in the global circuits of vicarious participation in Africa’s crises in this forthcoming article (you can read uncorrected page proofs here).

Occupying Gender in the Singular Plural

21 Jan

By Tavia Nyong’o

Call me a sissy, but I’ve never particularly cared for being referred to as cisgender. Still, the work of transgendered activists within Occupy Wall Street has been one of things that keep me optimistic. At a November 13th teach-in at Zuccotti Park, just days before the brutal eviction,  trans activists took over the people’s mic for an hour-long lesson in occupying gender, educating their non-trans listeners on the unearned privileges we enjoy whenever we conform to ascribed gender; outlining the work that groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project have long been engaged in, against police violence and medical pathologization; and outlining pragmatic and principled tactics for an occupation open to trans and cis-gendered people alike.

The teach-in ended with a song by Justin Bond, who has charted a post-Kiki and Herb career as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Between releasing the 2009 EP Pink Slip and last year’s full length album Dendrophile, Bond has adopted the middle name Vivian, begun to transition, and chosen the pronoun V to represent this new stage of life. Bond’s OWS appearance took what a therapeutic and individualistic culture calls “finding one’s voice” and performed it against the affective grain.

Justin Vivian Bond performing “The New Economy” at Occupy Wall Street

The pronoun V, and accompanying honorific Mx., occupy a linguistic elsewhere to binary gender, an elsewhere that Bond’s memoir, Tango, makes clear V has resided in since childhood. Tango is not a narrative of being trapped in the wrong body, however, but only of being trapped in the wrong society, and Mx. and V are linguistic foils with which to parry that society’s imprecations.

Such singular departures from accepted usage antagonize those who assume that they represent instances of amour propre. But coming from a Quaker tradition that rejects the second person plural “you,” and holds onto the archaic singular forms of “thee” and “thou,” I understand the purpose such speech acts serve. Much like the Society of Friends verbally resist the hierarchical, royal we, Bond’s neologisms dispel the ease with which binary gender preoccupies the ordinary. These dissenting gestures trust that the lateral bonds of the common can sustain the twists and torsions they exact. They are a kind of sit-down in grammar, a linguistic and literary demand to be served as we are, not according to how we are seen, surveilled or counted. They disrupt common sense in order to find a commons.

The song Bond performed at OWS was “The New Economy,” with it’s pugnacious opening lines “They say it’s a new depression, so why am I filled with glee? Everybody coming down quickly, now they can all join me.” Glee is an affect that a certain television show has made ubiquitous in recent years, but it is not often associated with the style of OWS. Bond took glee and detached it from the ethos of aspirational participation and the compulsion to please, and restored its disaffective and disaffiliative charge. Bond was, by Vs own account, homeless at the time of the December performance, having lost an East Village apartment to gentrification’s wrecking ball. But the glee Mx. performed was not schadenfreude but an invitation to queer conviviality, a living and breathing together in conspiratorial difference, a new economy of bodies and affects pitched toward the ethic, as V sang, of “take what you need and give a little back.”

I think it matters that a trans person delivered this communist message, insofar as the grain of Vs voice reinflected the conventional rallying cry. Unison singing at rallies and marches, like pledges of allegiance, tend to be rites of assent: sentimental conflations of the one and the many. But the singular grain of Bond’s voice, echoed through an enthusiastic crowd serving, sometimes with duty and sometimes with joy, as the human amplification system of the people’s mic, defied the sincerity of singalong.

This ability to perform the singular plural, occupying gender without staking a representative claim of speaking as or for any particular position in or betwixt a binarism, leads me to the question I am dwelling with these days. The banal version of this is the journalistic question: if OWS is a new movement, where are its songs? The question betrays a nostalgia for the 60s that was initially helpful in getting people to take OWS seriously at all, but which now presents an obstacle to the emergence of what is new and different about this moment. I want to speculate just a little about what that emergent sound might be.

People are having a field day redescribing the occupation in the preferred jargon of their fields and professions. So why not me? Occupation is a performative: it doesn’t so much represent the 99% as it conjures that figure into being as a speculative object of public attachment. This feeling for numbers is non-majoritarian and post-democratic insofar as it expresses a anarchist and antinomian preference for consensus decision making over majoritarian and electoral process. Excluding the 1% certainly articulates a healthy and appropriate smash the rich mentality. But the Lacanian in me also sees the 1% as yet another stand in for object a, the irreducible antagonistic remainder around which the social composes, and which is forever decomposing it. After all, wouldn’t claiming to speak as or for the 100% be fascism?

99% is a multitude composed out of antagonism, not identity. Taking what they needed, and giving a little back, the transgender activists reminded those who would hear that cis privilege is not restricted to the 1%, but a necessary fractures within occupation just as other divisions of race, citizenship, and class are. Trans and queer glee become part of the affective work of occupation, not so that occupation can become more inclusive or safe, but in order to keep those minor feelings quilted into the banners and broadsides of the many, both as a formal reminders of precarious bonds that stitch us together, and as an audio analogue of those visible seams.

A version of this blog post was presented at the MLA 2012 roundtable, “Affecting Affect.” Thanks to Lauren Berlant for organizing that occasion.


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