By Lisa Duggan
The government shut down has ended and the threat of default has passed. Ted Cruz and the House Republicans have been defeated. But they don’t seem to know that. According to recent press reports, Cruz is being greeted in parts of Texas as a hero for fighting the good fight. Despite widespread suffering during the shutdown and global fear and trembling over the threat of default, Tea Party Zombies walk the land. Denying the death of their scorched earth strategy, they declare victory and vow to fight on.
The current zombie phenomenon echoes the astonishing aftermath of the post 2008 financial crisis and recession. At the time, it seemed that neoliberal rhetoric and policies might be thoroughly discredited almost overnight. How could extensive deregulation and privatization be defended in the wake of a serious crash so clearly related to the failures of those policies? How could the social safety net be further shredded with so many people newly jobless and impoverished? Well, surprise! Neoliberal rhetoric bounced back on steroids, underwriting ferocious efforts to defeat new regulations of Wall Street, attack Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and especially to defeat President Obama’s mild mannered, market oriented health care reform bill (itself a thoroughly neoliberal piece of legislation, without even the public option supported by a majority of Americans).
These radicalized zombie versions of neoliberal capitalism have not triumphed, but they have lived on to fight another day, and then another, powerfully shaping debates on the political and cultural fronts in ways that can seem, well, puzzling. We’re way past Tom Frank’s plaintive 2004 question, “what’s the matter with Kansas?” To ask now “what’s the matter with congress?” is only barely to scratch the surface.
There are many paths of analysis useful for understanding how we have arrived here, with a thoroughly dysfunctional end-of-empire mode of government by manufactured crisis. After careful attention to Marx, Foucault and company, I would like to suggest that we all turn our attention momentarily to… the plot of Atlas Shrugged. Many of us read this cartoonish tome in high school, when its portrayal of sexy heroic rebels going on strike against mealy mouthed corrupt controlling weaklings had the capacity to thrill. But as recent biographies of Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns and Ann Heller, along with journalist Gary Weiss’ Ayn Rand Nation have shown, the influence of this pulpy novel extends far beyond the kind of adolescent fandom that has energized the Twilight series. Surveys and sales figures reveal Atlas Shrugged as a broadly read and deeply influential text. In 2009, sales of the novel tripled over the year before, and GQ magazine called Rand the year’s most influential author. In 2010 a Zogby poll found 29% of respondents had read the novel, and half of those readers said it affected their political and ethical thinking. David Frum noted that the Tea Party was reinventing the GOP as “the party of Ayn Rand.”
Numerous journalists have outlined the influence of Rand’s writings on politicians from Rand Paul and Paul Ryan to Ron Johnson (who defeated beloved progressive Russ Feingold in the 2010 Wisconsin senate race) and Mike Lee of Utah, a collaborator with Ted Cruz in the recent shutdown/default strategy. But if we go a bit beyond tracing Rand’s “influence,” to tracking the feelings and fantasies drawn from her fiction, we may be able to further illuminate the energies propelling our current zombie infestation.
Recall: In Atlas Shrugged, the mighty producer class upon whom the welfare of all depends is drawn into a fierce war with the moochers, looters, corrupt bureaucrats and crazen corporate sellouts. All the latter are sucking on the tit of the creative titans, the job creators. Finally, the only way to win this war is for the producers to withdraw from the political and economic landscape controlled by the moocher hordes and their enablers. In a reversal of the labor theory of value and an appropriation of the workers’ strategy of the strike, the producers prove that all value is ultimately generated by the titans. As the world collapses, pushed along by producer sabotage and violence, chaos and widespread suffering ensue. The crucial point here is: how are readers to feel about this fantasy scenario? Does the collapse and the suffering and death tar them as immoral, and lead to reader shock and abhorrence? Well, no, of course. This is a Rand novel. Readers are meant to cheer the apocalypse, because it is deserved by the stupid and weak masses and those who pander to them. The destruction is thrilling, as are the sexy heroic titans who have caused it. Atlas shrugs, and we are left panting lustily at the spectacle of his (or her, Rand includes female titans) glittering muscularity, while the boulder smashes those who would hold him back.
Of course Rand didn’t invent any of this. She was an especially canny appropriator and combiner of social darwinism and Hollywood romance (she was herself a screen writer for a time). And the readers and politicians who take up her banner do so with massive inconsistencies—rejecting much of her version of atheist libertarianism, her support of abortion rights and opposition to drug laws, her contempt for marriage and positive portrayal of adultery, her penchant for sadomasochistic imagery. But it’s not really her ideas that are most in play in current political dramas, it’s the affect and images drawn from her fiction that suffuse the Tea Party zeitgeist. Were people hurt by the government shutdown? Might a default, or even serious threat of default on the debt of the U.S. government generate a global economic crisis? YES! For some on the radical right, the Bible is the source for imagining the worst and finding it good—the End Times and the Rapture are here! But for others, the relevant book is Atlas Shrugged. The titan heroes will stand sexy, heroic and tall as the world around them collapses, as it should if “Obamacare,” sign of the world historical disastrous dominance of collectivism, remains the law of the land.
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.
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
Every couple of seasons, like warriors of an ancient cult or like the antagonists in Games of Thrones, scholars arm themselves for battle over the ownership of the term “queer.” These battles have pitted historians against literary critics, empiricism against abstract theory, those with investments in the normative against those with investments in resistance; Foucaultians against Deleuzians, boys against girls, gender queers against cis-genders, people who watch Project Runway versus people who watch women’s tennis, Broadway musical lovers against performance art fans, people who want the freedom to marry against people who want freedom from marriage, pet lovers versus pet haters and so on. It seems to be a queer rite, in addition, to claim that, queer is over! Or, no, it has just begun! We might also hear that: it has not yet arrived; it will never arrive; it would not be queer if it did arrive; it has not been queer and so never was here and cannot therefore be over; it will never be over; it cannot be over nor can it ever begin…to be over. You get the picture.
Just last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a perennial warrior, Michael Warner (House of Queer Publics), took stock of the state of queer theory on the occasion of the ending of Duke’s famed Series Q and used Jasbir Puar’s work to signal “queer theory’s ambivalence about itself. ” While he accepted the ambivalence as part of a sign of the vibrancy of the field, Warner still took time to land a few well-placed jabs at a critical queer theory that had, according to his calculations, gone beyond ambivalence and that reveled in a “queerer-than-thou competitiveness” while investing in “postures of righteous purity.” Such a model of queer theory could be found, he claimed, in a special 2006 issue of Social Text titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” This special issue, edited by myself, fellow Bully Blogger José Esteban Muñoz, and David Eng, was itself an attempt to make a survey of the field, and its mission was to highlight new work in queer theory—by Martin Manalansan, Gayatri Gopinath, Jasbir Puar, Hiram Perez and others of the House of Poco Queers—that saw the intersections of race and sexuality to be axiomatic rather than marginal to another larger narrative centered on the sexual identity practices of white males. Such a project, for Warner, was evidence of a whiny competitiveness and perhaps indicated, as far as he was concerned, that queer studies might be over.
And so it goes, like an episode of the fantasy HBO series Game of Thrones, there are more battles between more houses than the human brain can keep track of! This house sets up against that house, old feuds carry over into new feuds, battles are won and lost and, to quote a Game Of Thones saying, “what is dead can never die.” While Game of Thrones is a remarkable study of power, sovereignty, territoriality, terror, kinship, sex and violence, it also offers a close reading of fantasy and desire in a possibly medieval but at any rate distant historical time. While the action, the political machinations, the sexual intrigue and the multiple forms of perfidy might be transhistorical, the success of the series actually hinges upon its ability to render the past in all, or at least some, of its pastness. The question of what constitutes the past, what relation it has to the present and how it can be read from a historical remove is the subject of one of the most recent skirmishes between queer theory households and it merits a closer look if only so that we can get back to the queerness of Game of Thrones, having settled some thorny historical questions about anachronism, teleology, chronology and genealogy.
In January 2013 issue of PMLA, Valerie Traub, queen of the House of English Studies at Michigan in Game of Thrones speak, takes aim at the “new unhistoricism in Queer Studies.” Traub, who has not, in her earlier work, ever been mistaken to my knowledge for a Marxist (House of UMass Amherst), begins her polemic with a familiar phrase: “Since around 2005 a specter has haunted the field in which I work: the specter of teleology” (21). We all know of the mythical creatures in Game of Thrones that lie beyond the wall and scuttle in and out of the kingdoms creating fear and mischief. But Traub is not worrying about what lies beyond the walls of her kingdom; rather, she is casting her own brand of historical scholarship and that by her merry band of characters, many located in Michiganlandia, as the specter, that, like communism in the mid-nineteenth century, apparently haunts queer studies.
In a weird twist that places teleological thinking—or the belief that the past can be read as an inevitable drift towards a fixed endpoint in the present—in the position of the radical threat offered by communism, Traub raises her flag for genealogy, periodization, chronology and the work of David Halperin. She dedicates her essay to Halperin and she defends his genealogical historical methodology from the hoards at the gate that come to “undo” his “history of homosexuality.” Along the way to mounting this defense, Traub also implicitly argues, as other queer houses have recently (the House of Anti-Anti-Normativity for example –see the bullyblogger account of their recent MLA panel), that we need to return to some key foundational texts by David Halperin but also by others such as George Chauncey, Steve Epstein and Janet Halley in order to counter this “unhistoricism” with empirical research, real, authentic scholarship, in other words, grounded in proper disciplinary locations with appropriate methodologies and canonical archives of evidence. Thus, using a neo-liberal logic by which the hegemonic (teleological historicism) characterizes itself as the marginalized and outlawed, Traub allows her enterprise of historicizing to be cast as an upstart methodology which uses radical methods to bring down the prevailing order. In fact, the historical methods she defends are far from either radical or Marxist (although Marxism does have a teleological spin to it), far from a specter that is haunting anything, her periodized historical narratives, with their investments in normative temporalities, disciplinary regulation, continuity and destinations, constitute a castle on the hill, the manor house, the oldest and most royal house of all. Traub pretends to be the rebel at the gate but in actuality she is sitting safely and warmly inside, on the throne, and at the very heart of power.
Traub, reasonably enough, wants in this article to undo some of the logics that have cast two houses of queer history at odds when she thinks that they may potentially share some projects: “My aim then,” she writes even as she lifts her crossbow, “is to advance a more precise collective dialogue on the unique affordances of different methods for negotiating the complex links among sexuality, temporality, and history making” (23). A noble aim, we might add, but one that nonetheless, for all of its tone of moderation, takes no prisoners. The main targets of Traub’s “aim” indeed are Carla Freccero (House of Mid Century Modern), Jonathan Goldberg (House of Sedgwick) and Madhavi Menon (House of Queers Off Color but also House of Edelman). Traub also throws Carolyn Dinshaw (House of Queer Medieval and House of NYU) under the bus charging that while all of these scholars do interesting work on temporality, “none of these scholars set themselves the task of writing a historical account that traversed large expanses of time” (26).
And this gets to the heart of Traub’s critique – the House of Unhistoricism, according to Traub, challenges periodization and genealogical history but itself remains bound to one, or in a few instances two, time frames making it impossible for this work to track either changes or continuities across time. Ultimately, Traub seems to be saying, the anti-teleological queer histories are too invested in deconstructive readings (“readings, however, are not the same thing as history” ), too quick to dismiss empirical research and periodization, wedded foolishly to “analogical thinking” and “associational reasoning” (which works through presumption, according to her, rather than argumentation), and too critical of the tools of the trade (chronology and periodization). Once they have offered their readings, undone teleologies, made the present strange and the past multiplicitous, rejected periodization and sequence in favor of “multitemporality, nonidentity and noncorrespondence of the early modern” (Traub’s characterization of Goldberg), Traub offers, these scholars are left with a murky understanding of history under a tarnished banner of queer critique that has become so “free-floating” and “mobile” as to mean everything and nothing. Traub clearly feels that the House of Unhistoricism has declared war on the House of History and she charges that they have “demeaned the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity,” charged historians with “normalization,” and disqualified “other ways of engaging with the past” (35).
In past skirmishes between queer houses as much as in this one, a name is used over and over to guarantee the honorable intent and rhetorical superiority of one house over another: that name, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is used here by Traub both to signify a critique of genealogy that she rejects and to indicate a “generative legacy” to which she tethers her steed. Sedgwick, she tells us early on, had critiqued Lord Halperin (House of Homosexuality and House of Joan Crawford) for investing in a Foucaultian model of genealogical thinking that placed too much emphasis on the notion of the clean break, or the Great Paradigm Shift. Sedgwick, in her emphasis on the coexistence of different models of sexuality, obviously leans more to the house of Unhistoricism than that of Historicism. But because Sedgwick is such a powerful player in the Game of Thrones, she cannot so easily be ceded to the other side. And so, Traub both acknowledges the critique of Halperin in Sedgwick and yet claims that “Sedgwick did not endorse a particular form of historiography” (25) – in other words, she may have been opposed to the House of Halperin but she did not therefore stand with the House of Unhistoricism. And so the essay ends by folding Sedgwick back into the House of History and Geneaology by claiming her multiple legacies as part of this essay’s genealogical reach, and it also marries that legacy to the bounty that Lord Halperin has bestowed upon the field: “No less at stake is how this debate bears upon David Halperin’s evolving contributions to queer theory and queer history” (36). While the House of Unhistoricism is more interested in a haptic history made up of anonymous figures brushing up against emergent categories of being, the House of Traub would trace a line of kings and queens and find their true and authentic bloodlines in order to make sure that at any given moment, the right person is on the throne.
But, as Jay Z and Kanye remind us in their joint album, you always have to “Watch the Throne” because no king/queen is safe, no house is secure, no wealth lasts, no love is past, no success is sure, no church in the wild and the wild things are always just outside the door. The House of Michigan can hold onto History with a capital H; it can have disciplinarity, chronology and sequence; it can misspell the names of its postcolonial critics (footnote #12) and still make a claim on accuracy; it can cast aside the analogical thinking of the queers who come to undo history, but it cannot police what lies beyond the walls and scuttles around the edges of the House of MLA – the creatures outside the walls are the real specters haunting the field and what is dead can never die.
By Keguro Macharia
I am seduced by the prospect of queer conference panels. I anticipate their erotic charge, their intellectual promiscuities, their fleshly abundance—so many queers in one space. I crave their sustaining energy, which enables me to inhabit less queer-friendly and distinctly queer-hating spaces. So I arrived at the MLA panel, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity,” featuring Anamarie Jagose, Robyn Wiegman, and Elizabeth Wilson, with a deep sense of anticipation. I have been struggling to find a language to describe what I experienced as the familiar violence of a field I desire and claim, to name that stubborn attachment Lauren Berlant describes as “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011). It is a strange thing to experience oneself being absented from view—I must, wrongly, personalize this—even as the terms “we” and “our” and “us” were used at the panel often, a lot, extremely.
The panelists mused on the limits of antinormativity as an organizing principle for queer scholarship. Antinormativity, claimed Wiegman, functions as an “engine” that drives queer thinking as intervention, permitting those who invoke the term, and who critique norms and normativity in general, to believe their work is necessarily political. The critique is well taken, for, as the panelists argued, we need to be able to think more deliberately about what constitutes the political and, also, how to distinguish between the norms with which we cannot do without and those that punish and destroy.
While their papers followed different trajectories, they all agreed that “we” needed to return to queer foundations: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, and a distant Foucault.
I was nagged by the familiarity of this archive: white women. How had we come to the (familiar) point where as a rich body of work has proliferated—known, variously, as Black Queer studies, Queer of Color critique, Postcolonial Queerness, Transnational Queerness—we are urged to go back to our (white) roots? Back to our white mothers, who, we were told, we had not yet understood, not quite. Who we had misheard, and misused in the service of something that was dismissed as “the (prematurely) political.”
In case anyone dared to raise the complications of other geo-histories, we were told that this was about the history of the West.
I want to take up this challenge of the West and its queer roots by multiplying our queer genealogies through two key figures: Frantz Fanon and Hortense Spillers. Against what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes, in another context, as a “single story” of queer origins, midwifed by Sedgwick, Butler, Teresa de Lauretis (an absent name), I want to offer other, complementary myths of how we enter into the space called queer. I hope the “our” and “we” and “us” produced by this complementary genealogy includes (as it must) the “our” and “we” and “us” imagined through white mothers. Learning from Sharon Holland, I want to persist “in the stubborn insistence that we do belong to one another despite our every effort at home and in the institution, to lose track of, if not forget altogether, such belonging.” (2012: 15)
Let us proceed with Sedgwick’s own strategy: by insisting that this is about the history of the West. Fanon’s West.
By the late 1990s, as Queer studies took disciplinary shape and gained muscle, the field had decided to abandon Fanon. While Fanon was understood as a theorist of blackness and an interruption into psychoanalysis, he was homophobic, unavailable for Queer studies. Proclaimed as such by Diana Fuss, Lee Edelman, and Kobena Mercer, Fanon became an impossible figure for Queer studies (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996). And here, I must borrow more language from Holland: Fanon could be dismissed with “glee” (2012: 14). While Darieck Scott (2010) has made the Fanon of Wretched of the Earth newly available, Black Skin, White Masks remains safely bracketed.
This bracketing has been strategic, as it means certain strands of Queer studies have ignored the problem race presents for something called the homosexual. If, following Fanon, the Negro represents genitality within colonial modernity, and if the term “homosexual” names a desire for genitality, then desire itself must be directed toward—or routed through—blackness understood as that which incarnates desire for/as genitality. One could claim this is a flattened reading of the homosexual within colonial modernity, but, with Robert Reid-Pharr, I want to insist that “If there is one thing that marks us as queer . . . then it is undoubtedly our relationships to the body, particularly the expansive ways in which we utilize and combine vaginas, penises, breasts, buttocks, hands, arms, feet, stomachs, mouths and tongues in our expressions of not only intimacy, love, and lust but also and more importantly shame, contempt, despair, and hate,” (2001: 85). If such embodiedness rubs the wrong way, then one might simply go with Holland’s claim that “having a right to our queer desires is a fundamental tenet of queer theorizing” (2012: 45). If one reads Fanon a particular way, desire must be routed through, worked through, approached through blackness as that which makes desire possible within colonial modernity, which is to say, modernity.
If a certain strand of Queer studies has been too willing to abandon Fanon, Fanon remains stubbornly attached to Queer studies, demanding an accounting of how blackness comes to figure within and as desire, as the portal to homosexuality as desire. And if the materiality of blackness forces a mad dash for psychic figuration, Fanon has already been there: the Negro and the Negro’s genitality are psychic figurations within colonial modernity that the homosexual cannot do without.
If Fanon poses a problem for the homosexual, Hortense Spillers poses a problem for sex and gender. In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers complicates certain queer strategies: the distinction between gender and sex, the undoing of this distinction, the role of the performative, the distinction between subject and abject, the idea of the dominant and the marginal, normativities and radicals, and so on. To these fine, necessary distinctions, Spillers, like Fanon, poses the problem of colonial modernity as the problem of “the thing.”
Here is one instance of the problem:
The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body – a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence, biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail, is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality [hear Fanon here]; 2) at the same time – in stunning contradiction – the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. (1987: 67)
The thing-making project of New World subject production (the “captive body” is “being” for the captor”) refuses the too-celebratory discussions of undifferentiated gender and un-gendering in Queer studies. The much-heralded “blur” and “undecidability” understood as conditions of freedom must contend with its longer genealogy in a thing-making project. One cannot uncritically celebrate gender or sex undecidability. Instead, one must work through the micro- and macro-positions created in the New World: “captive body,” “thing,” “captured sexualities,” “otherness,” “potential for pornotroping,” “sheer powerlessness.” How might these terms and their emergence from slavery provide other ways to approach Queerness? How do we work through the problem of the “thing” in that micro-transition from “captured bodies” to “captured sexualities,” where thingness becomes a mediating term, a filter, a catalyst, a door? How is sexuality within colonial modernity always (and only) approachable through the thing?
What might a Queer studies that begins with, or engages, the problem of the “thing” look like? How might the problem of the thing compel us to re-think and re-work Sedgwick’s powerful first axiom: “People are different from each other” to ask, instead, how we come to think of the term “people” and what that term brackets and makes impossible. How might the unthinkability of blackness direct our queer gazes?
Something radical—at the root—has happened in Queer studies over the past decade, sometimes, though not always, through Fanon and Spillers. Fred Moten (2008) has taken up the problem of the “thing” for blackness, charting blackness as “fugitive movement in and out of the frame, bar, or whatever externally imposed social logic,” including, I would add, that which governs Sedgwick’s useful distinction between homo and hetero within Western modernity. Moten tasks us to track what “escapes” that figuration of time and being. If we stay within the fiction of a hermetic West, something that Rudi Bleys’s reading of the ethnographic imagination makes difficult, but still (1996). If we stay with this fiction, then work by Christina Sharpe, Omise’eke Tinsley, Ricardo Ortiz, José Muñoz, Nayan Shah, Mark Rifkin, and many others has taught us that far from being close to exhausted, the project of reading queerness in the West remains to be done, remains radicalizing, always demanding a (re)turn to places and times we had not known to look or, having looked, we had not known how to think about.
If the paradigms we have relied on thus far—antinormavity, say—no longer suffice because of our increasingly multiply entangled and multiplying geo-histories, if we need to forge contingent tools that will allow us to keep speaking with each other across increasingly disparate times and spaces, if we must jettison everything we thought we knew to pursue the “not yet here” Muñoz so richly invokes, so be it.
But, to take language from Essex Hemphill, “don’t let loneliness / kill us” (1992:165) Hemphill’s “us” is what is at stake—the “us” I desire, the one I went to the panel seeking, the “us” that was pronounced through negation.
It could have been otherwise.
It should have been otherwise.
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
Rudi C. Bleys, The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behavior Outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918 (New York: NYU Press, 1996).
Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994)
Diana Fuss, “Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification,” Diacritics 24. 2-3 (1994): 19-42
Essex Hemphill, “Heavy Corners,” Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (New York: Plume, 1992)
Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 15. (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996)
Kobena Mercer, “Decolonization and Disappointment: Reading Fanon’s Sexual Politics,” The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation, ed. Alan Read (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996).
Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50.2 (2008): 177-218.
José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009)
Ricardo Ortiz, Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
Robert Reid-Pharr, Black Gay Man: Essays (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
Mark Rifkin, When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, The History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (New York: OUP, 2011).
Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (CA: University of California Press, 2012)
Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987).
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
By Roy Pérez
Somewhere deep in the Call Out Queen archive, Mark Aguhar quotes a line from another artist’s film: THINKS HE CAN NARRATE MY LIFE BECAUSE I TAUGHT HIM ABOUT FIRE AND WHEELS.* I encountered this entry while putting together a zine of Mark’s writing and it triggered my already lurking anxiety of authorship.
Mark was an art student in the MFA program at the University of Illinois, Chicago. We met and got to know each other through a coincidence of connections, online and off, through which we admired each other’s work and fueled each other’s rage. Like many of her fans, my primary point of contact with Mark was on Tumblr, where she blogged as Call Out Queen. And she blogged constantly, producing dozens of posts a day: one-liners, long rants, performance videos, porn, responses to fan mail and hate mail, and whatever other form of journaling she needed to survive a long trip, a day at school, a night at home, or the next few minutes.
Mark committed suicide on the weekend of March 12, 2012. Maybe the only thing you need to know about that weekend appears in the last thing she posted on her blog: LOL, WHITE MEN BORE ME.
Originally called “notheretomakefriends,” the Call Out Queen blog spans three years and begins here. A combination of grad school, women-of-color theory, new friends and a major falling out with old ones, led Mark to take up the name Call Out Queen and galvanize a new objective: “blogging for brown gurls” that called out white, male, thin privilege and affirmed brown, fat, femme agency.
The first post that blew up with likes and reblogs, TALK ABOUT THE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY, lists “the benefits of sun exposure” and “having a healthy relationship to food” in an itinerary of radical brown, fat self-care. The entry is an early version of Mark’s catalogs of affirmation, like her LITANIES TO MY HEAVENLY BROWN BODY or the Axes. Artistic remixes and republications of these manifestos of care by fans, curators and activists will place them among her lasting written legacies.
But her posts were also magnets for the resentment of folks who could not stand to see privilege challenged in Mark’s many voices—cuttingly flippant one second, heartbreakingly and radically vulnerable the next, and always floating on an undertow of misandry. Anyone with a healthy Tumblr feed will eventually encounter a Call Out Queen post, and her posts would frequently drift into the crosshairs of Internet trolls and haters. Mark would sometimes post the hate mail she received to hilarious, deflating effect. In my favorite of these, an anonymous writer asked Mark to account for the increasing visibility of fat positivity. Mark posted the full message, then isolated one line—”You look like a whale, ok?“—and reposted it with degenerating locution. The final iteration, U LOOK LYK A WALE OK, belongs on a t-shirt, as one commenter suggests. The broke down txtspk relays the casual inanity of everyday hate speech and invites us to laugh in its face. The strategy typifies one of the most powerful things about Mark as Call Out Queen: the confidence and discernment with which the blog’s voice learned to channel its critical energy. Mark would read and flatten patriarchal and racist bullshit without diverting power from the work of brown, queer reflection and affirmation.
What she called flippancy was less about refusing to take things seriously and more about shutting down the mode of bad-faith elliptical debate that reigns on the Internet in order to carry out real talk about day to day survival under white male supremacy. The Call Out Queen’s way of switching registers when she needed to—from confessional, to theoretical, to capricious, to sneering—gave critical substance to her flippancy, mocking a hater while empowering the one who dared to laugh it off. The hair flips themselves added artful glamour to the otherwise boring work of ignoring you on purpose.
Her art, her arguments, her experiences as a queer person of color, a geeky teenage gamer (did you know that?), a logic and philosophy nerd, the kid of immigrants growing up in public schools and strip malls and cheap stucco houses, are not mine but close to mine and are some of the avenues by which we recognized kinship. They also seem like important but unseen facets of Mark that surface here and there, particularly in the early months of the blog, and whenever Mark blogged from Houston. All the reading too much, shopping too much, feeling too much that defines the life of a ghettonerd appears there in the glamorous looks she turned out of her messy studio, not underneath but laced right into the hair tutorials, the scientific precision of the hair flip, the deconstructions of chicken adobo and rice, the fragile and fleeting vanity that gives a person what the world won’t.
Call Out Queen was learning and teaching the fire and wheels of fat, femme, brown survival and cultural analysis. She was also exposing the contradictions that survival requires, in particular the emotional and tactical oscillations between flippancy and heartbreak, boredom and rage. So when I read that line—TRY TO NARRATE MY LIFE—while trying to do nothing other than impose some narrative arc on the Call Out Queen’s body of work, I felt like Mark was telling us to tread very fucking lightly.
The same healthy anxiety seems to bother all the ongoing conversations about Mark taking place in queer corners of the web right now. Posts about Mark’s death revealed how big her readership had grown and how far her art, ideas, criticism and confessions were reaching. Many were written with tones of defense that seemed like urgent echoes (sometimes red-hot, sometimes witless) of Mark’s own rage. In the weeks after Mark’s death it seemed like every blogger who followed her would take up arms to defend her memory against any other blogger who dared write about her. “grief,” Mark wrote after her sister’s suicide in 2011, “is violent, selfish, painful, and necessary.” The flame wars in defense of Mark’s legacy were all those things. They constituted a kind of public mourning for her that ranged from presumptuous to tender to luminous in their admiration for Mark and in their borrowing from Mark’s vernacular.
Blogger Julie Blair’s post for PrettyQueer.com (“Everybody Missed Mark“) was one of the first hints that the Call Out Queen was reaching more people than many of us in her life had been alert to. Blair’s eulogy is sincere, deferential, and anxiously humble. It’s also discomfitingly authoritative in some parts, speaking from some tacit and universal sense of queerness where she might have spoken more personally. Her strings of declaratives regarding Mark’s politics in particular may have been what rubbed a bunch of commenters the wrong way:
She questioned every facet of queer culture, which is a natural response for someone like her, who saw herself nowhere. She took on the things she liked and was never seduced into any one faction. She didn’t feel the need to be aligned with the things that appealed to her, she didn’t expect anything to be perfect, and challenged the very notion that anything could be.
You can find Blair working hard in the comment section at the foot of the post to account for the subjective disclosure missing from prose like this. Mark’s mode of queer questioning did not seem natural, it was well-read, complex, and hard won. Mark didn’t see herself nowhere, she saw herself in Mariah Carey and Audre Lorde. She aligned herself with femme misandry and she saw perfection all over the place. I could go on with my own chain of she-statements, but what’s at stake here is recognizing that the language we have for talking about Mark and her point of view, her craft and her politics, seems profoundly insufficient.
A fundamental snag is that Mark’s politics were evolving. One of the paradoxes of Mark’s style of critique is the intellectual vulnerability and contingency she maintained even as she raged against masculinity and whiteness with unapologetic generalization. These extremes are not performance. Or rather Mark’s ambivalent extremes are no more performative than other modes of critique and no more empty or less earnest for being deliberately performed. They are a demonstration of a politics guided by something bigger than the argument, a politics that can learn, feel, and change its mind.
It should feel difficult to write about an artist who deals with power by talking right over it. The politics of speaking for Mark—of declaring her significance, of too-personally stating her meaning, of writing in declaratives about what she stood for and represented like Blair and I do above—are complicated by Mark’s own resistance to circumscription. It’s easy to self-police and police others when writing about her. You can find a Call Out Queen post to contradict any other post. These are the perils of speaking for Mark, after Mark. But perhaps we can be freed by the possibility that what we lost in Mark, everything she showed us about power, pleasure, and beauty, exceeds the discourses we have available to us. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, but that we should perform the trying, and the vulnerability it requires, as part of our own work. The language for transmitting the Call Out Queen’s message might be insufficient but it’s our responsibility to keep failing at it.
About a month after Mark died, a group of queer activists threw stones through the stained glass windows of a notoriously anti-gay megachurch in Portland, OR. That morning on PugetSoundAnarchists.org a group of “angry queers” claimed responsibility for the action under the headline, “Anti-gay church smashed in memory of Mark Aguhar and Paige Clay.” In the article they also name “Duanna Johnson, a black trans woman who was in all likelihood murdered by the police in 2008; Agnes Torres Sulca, Deoni Jones, and all other trans women who have been murdered by this cissexist, femmephobic, racist, and transmisogynistic society.”
On its own site, the Seattle-based Mars Hill church attributed the vandalism to “a gay rights group,” but Portland’s middle-leaning Q Center, having already dedicated weeks to “a process of respectful dialogue” with the controversial church and probably feeling implicated by the loose inclusiveness of the phrase “gay rights group,” quickly distanced themselves from the activists by snagging and rhetorically smearing the phrase “angry queers” in their own apologist statement, characterizing the activists as a mindless fringe group and leaving out any mention of trans justice. The “act of violence,” wrote executive director Barbara McCullough-Jones, “in some ways has brought our communities closer together.” Here the white, middle-class constituencies of Mars Hill church and the Q Center find common ground in their wilful inattention to violence against trans women of color. When they borrowed the term “angry queers” from the anarchists’ press release without mention of the group’s political message, the Q Center missed an important opportunity to articulate their stance on the current streak of reported violence against trans women of color. And calling property damage at a wealthy corporate megachurch franchise an “act of violence” in light of this erasure makes even clearer how far the national LGBT movement currently stands from the issues of working and poor queers of color.
Seeing Mark’s name appear in this flashpoint of anglocentric Northwest gay politics only weeks after her death was uncanny and uncomfortable. With this incident Mark had gone from being a friend with some modest degree of Internet notoriety to a name on a growing national roster of queer deaths demanding political redress. Linking the names of trans women to a political action in the way these angry queers did does not leave room for the complexity of each death, each person’s gender, and in Mark’s case, her thoughtful and critical grappling with suicide. The language is insufficient. At the same time, the Q Center’s erasure of these trans women’s names in their accommodationist response seems like exactly the kind of white, gay slight against queers of color that Mark raged against daily. Throwing stones might not have been the Call Out Queen’s style, but there’s her name, doing some queer work, calling out white privilege through the volition of strangers.
Mark’s antagonism with whiteness complicates many of the narratives into which some queer bloggers and activists have written her. These are folks who do the important work of keeping track of queer murders and suicides and reminding us to honor our losses. As much as it pained some of us to see Mark used as a queer avatar by anarchists in the Northwest, for example, I can’t help but notice how swiftly Mark’s memory can be silenced by the white, liberal gatekeepers of the LGBT political field. Mark is explicit about her antagonism with white culture, especially gay-identified white men (THINKS HE CAN NARRATE MY LIFE). And, despite sharing a great deal with other trans women of color, it’s hard to watch a white-dominated movement either tell the story for her or refuse to tell it at all.
The issue is not that Mark was special, but that the very things that most enraged Mark, such as the character-defining degree of transmisogyny and racism perpetuated by the gay community itself, get smoothed out every time Mark is spoken for. Even more difficult to think about than the silencing of Mark’s politics is the silencing of her unequivocal defense of suicide for queer/femme/fat people, complexly articulated theories about choice and agency that Mark mulled constantly since her sister’s death. In scrambling to depict Mark as a victim we might accidentally overlook Mark as a thinker.
In light of conversations and events like these, it seems important (if immensely difficult) to recognize that Mark’s decision to commit suicide does not conflict with her self-love. It seems important to see her suicide not primarily as the endpoint of victimization but as critique, her death itself as a political act, no matter how much we wish she had found another way. She articulated her self-love as something that was at odds with the world’s very real ugliness, ugliness that took the shape of constant racist, queer-phobic and fat-hating character assaults of the kind she logged daily as Call Out Queen.
We can turn to Mark’s concept of ugliness to parse this out, and its potential for materializing the personal bonds we need to survive. Depression, anger, hopelessness and other ugly feelings linked to suicide are symptoms of a very ugly social world not an individual weak spirit. Mark was not broken by her own lack of self-esteem; she was the reluctant but explosively visionary medium for a broken world that had routinely proved too weak to hold her up. The way Mark explains it, “I don’t need to be strong, I need for the world to stop being so fucking weak, that my sisters are being swallowed up before my eyes.” That world is us, alive as we are, and we’ve got work to do.
*Ryan Trecartin, I-BE AREA.
A zine of selected posts from the Call Out Queen blog is available at the group tribute show The Dragon is the Frame: Inspired by the Life and Work of Mark Aguhar at Gallery 400 (400 South Peoria Street, Chicago, IL), which closes on August 11, 2012.
Thanks to Michael Aguhar, Juana Peralta and José Esteban Muñoz for lending their words, feedback, and encouragement.
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
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.
By Jack Halberstam
We all know that Hollywood movies emerge out of a, shall we say, limited gene pool of ideas; and when that pool runs dry, the stumped screenplay writers just shuffle the jigsaw puzzle pieces of accepted story lines around until they come up with apparently new narratives. This is clearly what happened with the recent Jennifer Westfeldt film Friends With Kids. Touted as an independent, edgy ‘ensemble comedy,’ this film actually shows what happens when very straight, very sheltered straight people get a hold of a few strands of rather radical queer ideas about love, intimacy and reproduction!
Touted by David Edelstein in a feature in the New York Magazine as “the best breeder movie in years” (we might also dub it the only breeder movie in years and hey, when did “breeder” become a part of the hetero lexicon?), Friends With Kids asks a question that queer people have asked often and with much more curiosity for years: namely, do people have to be married to have kids or are marriage and child rearing actually like oil and water, a recipe for a greasy mess with the capacity to neither lubricate nor hydrate!
This film comes up with a solution to the separation of sex and reproduction problem by offering us Julie (played by Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), good friends who enjoy a wide-ranging and affectionate friendship with each other while dating others and watching their friendship circle drift off into marriage and child rearing. When neither Julie nor Jason falls in love with an appropriate partner at the designated time of life for such things, they watch with horror as their friends’ relationships fall apart and their sex lives wither on the vine under the pressure of child rearing.
One night, after a particularly unpleasant dinner party with their coupled and bickering pals, Julie and Jason ask whether it could be possible to have babies together without the intimacy, marriage and bickering. An idea is born and since they have affirmed many times that while they love each other, they are not attracted to one another, what could possibly get in the way of this perfect arrangement? They will get to date promiscuously but still have some stability in their lives; they will get the baby and the chance at parenthood without dragging the diapers and the spit up into their sex lives; they will get to have their cake and eat it too.
While this idea strikes Julie and Jason and their rather humdrum friendship circle as wild, original, evil and impossible, in actual fact the notion of the companionate marriage is as old as the hills. The reason it is on no one’s radar is because it is one of those many under-studied forms of lesbian sociality where we will find it under the heading of the Boston marriage.
The Boston marriage, which is essentially what Jason and Julie propose to have – was a term used in the late 19th century to describe households made up of women living together independently of men. Whether or not these relationships were sexual has been a topic of much debate, but they were certainly long lasting, amicable and they allowed women financial, emotional and practical independence at a time when middle class women were defined by their relationships to their husbands.
Because of the ways in which heteronormativity assigns credit for all things good to heterosexuality and blame for all things bad to the gays and lesbians and trannies, heterosexual marriage has been cast as unquestionably right and good, even when it lacks sex and includes physical violence, and lesbian companionate relations have been cast as unquestionably wrong even when they are sexual and stable. Also, as we saw in The Kids Are All Right, one of the formulaic films that provides plot pieces for this mash up of rom coms and social issues movies, when lesbian long term relationships lose their libidinal energy we talk of “lesbian bed death” (not just bed death notice, lesbian bed death), but when hetero couples run out of steam, as the Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig couple do in Friends With Kids, this is simply a failed marriage – leaving us with the impression that most marriages succeed!
Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig as Ben and Missy are actually the most convincing couple in the film – they enter the movie panting from mid-dinner coital exertions and they exit alone and bitter. Sounds like a Tennessee Williams play except that when queer relationships fail, even in dramas penned by queers, it affirms the essential corruption of the queers. When straight people fail, they are just not trying hard enough. And so, Ben and Missy, whose relationship falls apart with as many sparks as it initially came together (so to speak), are represented as a bad combination of the bitchy woman and the resentful male partner – that this combination is actually the foundation of most forms of domestic white heterosexuality is never confirmed by the film which wants to desperately hold on to the idea of a perfect union of man and woman, good and bad, black and white, domestic and wild.
And so, to that end, we are offered an ideal couple in this not so romantic and not so funny rom com: Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd). Leslie may be a tad bitchy and naggy but Alex absorbs all darts and arrows that she flings his way and does the manly thing – he fights fire with love and compassion. Because he yields and bends to her need to blame and nitpick, and because she accepts his limitations, ineptitudes and laziness, they are the perfect couple and they even have sex!
So, if Friends With Kids steals one set of narrative arcs from The Kids Are All Right – alternative domesticity, Boston marriage, the separation of child rearing from heterosexual domesticity—it steals another from Friends With Benefits. Another gay film masquerading as a straight film, Friends With Benefits asked whether two hot young things could have sex but not intimacy, a good time at night and beat a hasty retreat in the morning, blow jobs without blow backs…? The answer of course was…sure they can…for a while… and then guess what? Mother nature takes over and what man and woman has put asunder, nature will reunite – and so if Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis just want to roll around in their undies looking hot for and hour and 20 minutes, that is all well and good, but a rom com demands a marriage and so sex leads to intimacy leads to love leads to….
And so it goes in Friends With Kids – the couple with no chemistry, no interest in each other sexually, no grounds for love or marriage, the couple who were so cold on each other sexually that they knew they could raise a kid together without any complications…guess what…they fall in love! Despite having subjected the audience to one of the most awkward and therefore actually interesting sex scenes in cinema during their insemination romp, the couple who couldn’t suddenly become hot for one another, just like that! For the viewer who has suffered through long spans of dialogue offering up one watered down queer critique after another of domesticity, heterosexuality, long term relationships and nuclear parenthood, the resulting romance is offensive, insincere and totally unbelievable. And this, ultimately, is why straight people should leave the queer theory to the queers – once they have boarded the runaway train of alternative desire, they realize that they desperately want to go home and leave everything exactly the way it was.
Ok, so in a perfect world, where I had a sabbatical, time to spare, no deadlines, I would pen the perfect masterpieces: The Friends Are All Right and Kids With Benefits. In the first, a queer culture of friendship replaces domestic marriage and nuclear families and new experiments in social world-making pop up everywhere. Friends share space, homes, kids, resources, health care access and probably sex…And in the second, kids cease to be the precious and pampered pets that this society demands and produces and they fight for their independence from families! Or else we could just settle for Kids Are Ok, Friends Are All Right and Go Get Your Own Benefits, a rom com involving space aliens who settle on earth and try to date lesbians…actually that IS the plot of an awesome film I just saw titled Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same by Madeline Olnek…try coopting that Hollywood!! Watch this space for a quick take on lesbian space alien films…coming soon. Peace out.
On March 26, 2012, Gayatri Gopinath at NYU convened a panel of queer scholars to discuss “Failure and the Future of Queer Studies.” Using Jack Halberstam’s new book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) as an occasion to think about negativity, failure, anti-disciplinarity and other bully-ish topics, the panelists all provided commentary on the past, present and potential futures of queer studies. We reproduce the presentations here in order and we add another commentary by bullyblogger extraordinare, Tavia Nyong’o.
Our aim tonight is to be bold, provocative, polemical and preposterous. We come to bully not to please, to bludgeon not to persuade, to renege on politeness, rigor, the reasonable, the rational, the enlightened and the un-invested. I am honored to share a space with these colleagues in this space, here and now. From each, I have learned valuable lessons not just about how to think but also about what to think and why. They have each, in their own way, and through their innovative and risk-taking work, taught me and taught us all how to fail and why we should and must fail in order to not establish ourselves as a new institution:
Gayatri Gopinath – Gayatri’s work, with its bold refusals of the static and normative relations between nation and diaspora has given us new and vital formulations of space, race, migration, mobility, sexual ecologies and cultural production. The diaspora after Gopinath is not the inability or failure to reproduce the nation elsewhere, it is a refusal of the diaspora as always a shadow of the nation, as its inauthentic other, its lost and loser child.
Lisa Duggan – Duggan’s body of work over the last two decades has changed completely the ways in which we understand relations between the economy and the sexual, the state and the individual, violence and identity, marriage and queer activism. A quintessential public intellectual, Duggan has trained a whole generation of scholars in modes of writing history beyond the discipline, against the grain and in and alongside the contradictions of sex, politics and activism.
Tavia Nyong’o – Tavia’s latest work has brought punk to queer studies, queerness to punk and has examined all of the fertile intersections engendered by queer punk in relation to race relations and radicalized cultural production. Nyong’o’s work manages to produce and nurture crucial links between brown and black aesthetics and queer practice and he writes a mean bully blog!
Ann Pellegrini – has allowed us to think about sexuality alongside, through and against various states of devotion, spiritual callings and religious feelings. Rather than accepting a clear connection between queer communities and the secular, she finds contact zones that link the passion of religious calling to the intensity of alternative queer communities.
Jose Muñoz – Muñoz, perhaps more than anyone here tonight, has taught me personally how to fail well and fail better. With his virtuoso readings of eccentric queer culture through and with eclectic archives of continental philosophy, Muñoz has actively, relentlessly, wildly refused to stay in the playpen of queer culture and he insists on dragging white dead philosophers into the mix—Althusser, Heidegger, Agamben, Jean Luc Nancy—to name a few, to create fabulous blends of imaginative archives and sophisticated theoretical models.
The Queer Art of Failure
My book: to the extent that my book makes an intervention, it does so by cleaving to counter-intuitive ways of thinking, anti-disciplinary forms of knowledge production, uncanonical archives and queer modes of address. The basic interventions are:
1) The naming of failure not as the negative space opened up by normalized modes of success but as a habitable space with its own logic, its own practices and the potential for new collectivities: success is individualized but failure is collective – 99 %!
2) The book understands failure as a practice that builds upon queerness in the sense that queerness is always a failure to conform, to belong, to cohere. Rather than reorienting queerness, we should embrace failure.
3) The Queer Art of Failure tracks an aesthetic through works by queer artists who focus on awkwardness, limits, disappointment, loss, losing and it identifies an archive not in relation to generic specificity but in relation to the theme of failure itself.
4) Failure suggests a historiographical method within which we must write queer history not simply as a record of heroes, martyrs, forebears, but also as a record of complicity, cowardice, exclusion and violence – in other words, any history, LGBT history included, contains episodes that are shameful, racist, complicit with state power, orientalist, colonial and so on. To leave that history out is to commit to normative models of self, time and the past/future.
5) Anti-Social: Finally, failure as theorized by my book alongside work by Jose, Rod Ferguson and many people here tonight, pushes the so-called anti-social strand of queer theory to a place it never wanted to go. And so, if Edelman, Bersani, Tim Dean et al really wanted to follow a negative strand of queer thinking, we are saying, they would have to make peace with the denizens of the dark side who are not the masterful heroes of theory and high culture but are motley crews of gender deviants, misfits, punks, immigrants, the dispossessed, the disinherited, the uninvited, the down and outers. Our work makes a collectivity out of that motley crew and speaks the anti-social as a kind of curse or protest.
The Death of Queer Theory?
While some people, no names, have been pronouncing queer studies dead and done, there are meanwhile a whole slew of amazing new books by younger scholars that prove this pronouncement to be premature and even immature! Not only is queer studies not dead, but it was never trying to be the kind of thing that would eventually be bypassed or made redundant later. That notion of a set of ideas that have currency until they are replaced is part of a straight temporality that queer studies has tried to upend and decenter.
Queer studies has failed to coalesce into a discipline – it has failed to produce programs, MA’s, PhD’s, majors, minors; and in this failure, the failure to formalize our relations, our procedures and our productions, we see, to quote Muñoz, horizons of possibility. And so, what now for queer studies? If indeed another version of queer studies has “passed,” has been declared dead, what new forms will rise in its wake?
New books include: Chandan Reddy’s Freedom with Violence; Jafari Sinclair Allen’s Venceremos; Dean Spade’s Normal Life; Omi Tinsley’s Thiefing Sugar; Karen Tongson’s Re-Locations and many more. These new books have completely reconceived of queer studies and shifted the focus away from identity, textuality and community to time/space, relations to the state, globalization, the suburbs, immigration and so on.
Queer studies of the variety that the people gathered here today have created was always a dynamic set of conversations; a set of mentoring practices; a rehearsal without a performance; an improvised and ephemeral cluster of ideas that form and deform, circulate and collapse around a shifting un-canon of cultural objects and a constellation of subjugated knowledges.
Queer studies as practiced by myself, Lisa Duggan, Gayatri Gopinath, Tavia Nyong’o, José Muñoz and Ann Pellegrini was never supposed to “succeed” in the terms established for success in the academy – it was doomed to fail and happily so and in the wake of our often dazzling and deliberate failures, new forms of knowledge can flourish and grow. In fact, it is all too often the success of an area of knowledge, its development into programs and disciplines, that cuts off the next generation and that, like a wave of gentrification in a formerly impoverished but happening neighborhood, stabilizes what was dynamic and seizes what was common to all.
And so, here tonight at NYU, the center of a certain strand of queer diasporic critique and queer of color theory, we announce not an end but a new beginning and we do so as surly, grumpy, weathered survivors of an old order that has declared itself dead—and that we are happy to bury—and as the happy benefactors of new intellectual movements, as the supporters of younger rebellious colleagues and as the instigators of forms of disciplinary ruin.
My colleagues and I practice queer failure daily and we refuse to commit to a model of queer theory that demands success, institutional recognition, longevity and the centering of identity. And so, I would like to name a new queer theory that does the following:
1) Promises to never declare itself dead in the face of the impending irrelevance of its senior practitioners. In other words, if a senior group of queer theorists becomes outmoded, then hurray for the onward march of knowledge and innovation – know when to step aside and let others through.
2) Practices what Stuart Hall calls “Marxism without guarantees” but what we can call “queer theory without a safety net” – this means taking risks, maintaining queer thinking as an open field – open to new forms, outside influences, broad transformations, unknowing, undoing, unbeing.
3) Collaborates rather than competes – queer studies should not only be about raw ambition, the race to the top, elbowing everyone else out of the way. Hopefully we can learn better how to collaborate, share authorship, circulate ideas rather than branding them, copyrighting them and jealously marking them as property.
4) Thinks in terms of collectivities rather than just individuals, multiplicities rather than singularities, new modes of associating as well as the inevitability of division, differences, disagreements.
5) Survives: We have all been doing QS for a long time now and we are all in some way survivors of the various struggles that have engulfed the field. So I conclude here by turning to one of my favorite films of all time, a film with much wisdom about desire, struggle, queerness and survival – and one I have now committed to quoting whenever I give a talk, yes, you guessed it: Fantastic Mr. Fox.
This film is not only about fighting the law and the farmers, it is also about stopping and going, moving and halting, inertia and dynamism; it is about survival and its component parts and the costs of survival for those who remain. But one of the very best moments in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the moment most memorable in terms of queer theory and survival, comes in the form of a speech that Mr. Fox makes to his woodland friends who have outlived the farmers’ attempt to starve them all out of their burrows. The sturdy group of survivors dig their way out of a trap laid for them by Boggis, Bunce and Bean and find themselves burrowing straight up into a closed supermarket stocked with all the supplies they need. Mr. Fox, buoyed by this lucky turn of events, turns to his clan and addresses them for the last time:
“They say all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum, but it’s cool to the paw – try it. They say my tail needs to be dry cleaned twice a month, but now it’s fully detachable – see? They say our tree may never grow back, but one day, something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose and these giblets come from artificial squab and even these apples look fake – but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival.”
Not quite a credo, something short of a toast, a little less than a speech, but Mr. Fox gives here one of the best and most moving–both emotionally and in stop motion terms–addresses in the history of cinema. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a queerly animated classic in that it teaches us, as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run and so many other revolting animations before it, to believe in detachable tails, fake apples, eating together, adapting to the lighting, risk, sissy sons, and the sheer importance of survival for all those wild souls that the farmers, the teachers, the preachers and the politicians would like to bury alive.
Like Mr. Fox, and I hope I can always try to be the Mr. Fox of queer studies, I too would like to say: “And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the four most wonderful wild and queer animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes and drink to our survival.”
ON QUEER FAILURE
Jack Halberstam assures us that queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life, then goes on to provide us with unique insight into why Zizek is so wrong about Kung Fu Panda. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of risk The Queer Art of Failure takes:
1) The risk of the ludic. There has been a lot written from Marxist materialist quarters about the ludic nature of much of queer theory. The definition for ludic that I found at Dictionary.com is “playful in an aimless way,” as in “the ludic behavior of kittens.” What could be a more ludic archive than animated films for children? Halberstam’s “silly archive” walks right up to this charge spoiling for a claymation fight. What, after all, is mutually exclusive about silly archives and political economic analysis? As the text of Chicken Run clearly shows, cartoons can launch calls for collective resistance to labor exploitation. But there is a particularly queer angle to this kind of political economic analysis. As Jose Munoz has so eloquently argued in Cruising Utopia, imagining and creating alternative life worlds is central to the project of social change. It isn’t enough to critique neoliberal capitalism’s devastating impact on the quality of life of the 99%, as OWS has shown at Liberty Plaza and elsewhere, beginning to actually live otherwise is crucial to generating a sense of political possibility. Imagining alternative life worlds–other ways of living, being, knowing and making, beyond conventional arrangements of production, intimacy and leisure–is the primary work of queer politics and queer theory. Given these goals, it is not surprising that the arts are central sites for queer imaginings—the commercial arts in their experimental or populist modes as well as the fine or alternative arts.
But if we can establish that this kind of queer work is not aimless, what about the charge of playfulness? There does seem to be a division on the left between those continually suspicious of imaginative playfulness—and thus of postmodernism, queer interventions reductively described as “lifestyle” politics “utopianism,” and sometimes “cultural studies”—and those engaged in play *as* politics. Halberstam tags Zizek as the former kind of left intellectual, but we have to include many others including David Harvey here too. Such left intellectuals dismiss the ludic rather too quickly as universally unengaged with political economic analysis—their critique is shallow. But there’s more. There is a suspicion of playfulness or silliness on the male dominated left that I would indentify as a rejection of the feminine. The emphasis on seriousness, on rigor, on hard reasoning, on difficulty and mastery in general, strikes me and my queerly feminist comrades as a variety of masculinism. And as we know the masculine among us are not to be concerned with “lifestyles,” these are attended to by the women, or with the sillier realms of culture, as these are inhabited by the flagrant homosexuals.
So the risk that The Queer Art of Failure takes is the risk of condescending dismissal by the Real Men of the Left and of the Academy (some of whom are women and gay people, of course). But here we have a challenge to that kind of dismissal issued from the quarters of queer masculinity, from someone not interested in competing in the manufactured shortage economy of smartness. Masculinities against masculinism! Must be confusing to some…….
2) The risk of anti-disciplinarity. The disciplines are the zombies of intellectual life right now—like capitalism, they keep coming back from devastating crisis and critique. We are encouraged to describe our work as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary, so that the disciplines may survive alongside our critical practices, fundamentally informing them. The Queer Art of Failure dares to be postdisciplinary and anti-disciplinary instead. It also evades another major boundary that cross cuts the disciplines—that between the advocates of theory, and the practitioners of “plain language.” In our classrooms in SCA, we often have a rift between students who wish to read and make use of “theory” and those who want to write in ways designed to reach a wider audience. The Queer Art of Failure exposes this division as a false dichotomy through its deep engagement with cultural and social theory (Benjamin, Gramsci, Foucault, among others) alongside its silly archives and evasion of discipline. The audiences for this kind of work are multiple—Halberstam has presented it at art conferences and museums, feminist and queer activist settings like Bluestockings book store, as well as in a wide variety of academic settings (probably in dungeons and discos as well). Sometimes it is the non academic audiences who are hungriest for theoretical engagements, and academics who can be most anti-theory in the name of a “public” imagined somewhat condescendingly as unable to understand more abstract formulations of political thinking. Here we have an example of promiscuous relations between the “high” and “low” without resorting to a bland linguistic and analytic middle.
3) The risk of betrayal. Following on the groundbreaking example of Licia Fiol-Matta, whose book A Queer Mother for the Nation first demonstrated how queerness could be deployed in the interests of domination and inequality (specifically, racial nationalism in Latin America), Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure takes on the volatile subject of gay Naziism. The appeal of fascism to romantic masculinism has included an historical relation to both gay and lesbian masculinism. Big surprise. Halberstam’s foray here helps expand the critical reach of queer studies, as it catches up with the transnational feminist critique of historical feminisms aligned with empire and war. This betrayal of allegiance to an identity formation is required, if we hope to engage in left political alliances. LGBT populations are not the subjects of queer politics, any more than women are the subjects of feminist politics. Queer politics is about dissent from normalization, so it must include a critique of normalizing masculinism that applies to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender figures. Though LGBT sites are privileged sources of queer critique and invention, the solidarity that we mobilize is ultimately on the ground of politics, not identity.
In conclusion, despite various declarations of the death of queer theory, The Queer Art of Failure is a clear sign of continued vitality. It occupies a place amidst a continuing stream of new engagements for queer scholarship and politics. There are three overlapping areas of particularly lively ferment and publication right now:
1) Queer of color critique. Following on now classic texts by Jose Munoz, Roderick Ferguson, Martin Manalansan, Licia Fiol-Matta, Gayatri Gopinath and others, we now have new work by Nayan Shah, Chandon Reddy, Karen Tongson, Kara Keeling and others.
2) Global political economy. Earlier work by Ara Wilson, Jacqui Alexander, Beth Povinelli and Arnaldo Cruz-Malave is joined by new work by Jasbir Puar, Tavia N’yongo, Scott Morgensen, Jenny Terry, Eng-Beng Lim, new work by Judith Butler and others.
3) Economic austerity and queer feeling: Lauren Berlant is setting new standards here all the time, in company with Ann Cvetkovich, Jose Munoz, Sara Ahmed, Heather Love, and others.
In addition, work is pouring forth now on trangender politics (ref. Gayle Salomon and Dean Spade) and on queer disability (Robert McRuer, Eli Clare, David Serlin).
If a certain kind of queer theory, emanating primarily from the English departments of elite universities, is dead, we need not mourn. What we have now is a plenitude of promiscuous engagements across disciplinary and institutional boundaries now remaking fields and politics in ways the queer theory of 10 years ago could not have imagined.
Never Mind the Buzzkills:
Here’s The Queer Art of Failure
In Negative Dialectics Theodor Adorno explains that thought as such is, before all particular contexts, an act of negation. Its function is to enact a resistance to that which is forced upon it. Adorno makes the case that thought is always risking failure. He explains that philosophy can always go astray, but that going astray lets it move forward. So we can conclude that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t going anywhere or doing much of anything. He also doesn’t think that philosophers should impose a rational take on the world—because that is too violent in its totalization—echoing man’s violent domination of nature. Adorno is of course famous for being the key proponent of the Frankfurt School’s withering critique of the culture industry as a mechanism that lulls the masses into malleable passivity. For these reasons and others, Adorno is regarded as something of a buzz kill. (More on that term later.)
By commencing my comments on my comrade Jack’s excellent new book The Queer Art of Failure through an invocation of Adorno, I don’t mean to totally cast him as our new queer Adorno. They aren’t totally alike. But they do share some characteristics. I think its safe to say that both Halberstam and Adorno share an interest in the power of negation. Both thinkers respond to the smugness of rationalist thought through a robust skepticism. Both aren’t afraid to write failure and have it clearly demarcated as something that not only happens, but also needs to happen for us to think otherwise. That thinking otherwise, an attentiveness to the potential of a non-identity that Adorno proposed, resonates with the weirdness of Jack Halberstam’s “silly” archive of cartoons, “bro” movies and other kid’s stuff. Adorno instructed his readers in how to look out for the many ways that beauty and representations of nature can be scams that are meant to keep us from grasping the severity of the present moment. Halberstam is always turning away from the natural–nature for Halberstam is a stop motion animated were-rabbit–to look to the absurd and the comical to tell us something else.
Adorno, as many of the readers of his work can testify, was kind of hilarious and cranky. The same can be safely be said of Halberstam, a scholar who isn’t afraid to go for the laugh when he is deadly serious. Certainly the plot summaries of Chicken Run are quite replete with humor as Halberstam describes the animated “classic claymation” feature Chicken Run’s opening sequence. But we also hear this tone when Halberstam describes himself debating a colleague in Sweden at lunch. The topic of the discussion was the fascist tenets of Tom of Finland’s work. Halberstam reports that “In [his] typically subtle and diplomatic way” he proposed that any reading of Finland’s über-masculine leather daddies that made a detour around a discussion of Fascism was skirting a general component of the work.” Halberstam’s interlocutor shot back that such a proclamation was nonsense since Tom of Finland is “pure eros.” Jack responds in his “gently persuasive way” that the eros was linked to a politics. And the back and forth persists. This moment in the book is indicative of Halberstam’s authorial voice in the project, the way in which he is willing to play with irony, poke fun at himself, but also never lose the trajectory of the argument. Halberstam’s point is summarized as this: “This is not to make a Catherine Mackinnon-type argument that sees power-laden sexual representations as inherently bad. Rather I want to understand why we cannot tolerate linking our desires to politics that disturb us.” In this passage Halberstam isn’t only what Sara Ahmed would call a feminist killjoy, he is also, in that tradition of Adorno, a full on buzzkill. Not so much in that he is simply trying to shut down the Tom of Finland fan’s erotics or make him feel guilty about them, but instead because he is asking his lunchtime companion to own up to the more disturbing aspects of his erotic attachments. In the same way Adorno would call out the insidious politics of authoritarian irrationalism that is bred in a seemingly harmless interest in Astrology. Adorno is not going to let us off the hook and not think about our complicity in the escapism of astrological thinking. This is harsh. No Rob Bresny for you! If you love your astrology it’s a buzzkill. This is what Halberstam is doing too to some degree. Not so much because Halberstam wants to shame the Tom of Finland devotee, but because he wants to insist on a very real linkage between desire and history. Halberstam’s lunchtime debate is a pretty apt example of playful self-effacement running parallel to a critique or an engagement with the real imbrications of desire and politics.
In an article published The Chronicle of Higher Education Michel Warner remarks on the title of a special of issue of Social Text that Jack and I edited along with David Eng. He sites our title, “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” as displaying bitter “queerer than-thou competiveness” that is borne from a typical scarcity of resources. He points out how ironic it is that queer theorists can strike such “postures of purity.” We ourselves have a few critiques of our issue, most prominently the absence of scholars not based in North America. But I think one of the things about that issue that my co-editors and I are most happy about was the way it helped foster a lot of queer of color theory. Many of our contributors did what Jack did when talking to his Swedish colleague. They insisted on linking desire and politics, often in the form of thinking about sexuality as coterminous with race, empire and few other modes of particularity. Our purpose in publishing the issue was to provide an auto-examination of the field, an attempt to take critical stock of where the conversation was headed. Participating in this kind of critique opens one up to a little name-calling. You can’t please all the queers all the time. In this way queer failure is in the cards. We must just cop to being buzzkills in the cranky tradition that I see Jack and Teddy Adorno belonging to.
One of the more moving moments in The Queer Art of Failure occurs when Halberstam closes out chapter three by citing a line from Benjamin: “[E]mpathy with the winners invariably benefits the rulers.” Benjamin and Adorno shared a rich twelve yearlong correspondence. But they had very different styles. There is a melancholic sadness that runs through Benjamin’s prose that I don’t hear in Halberstam. I think of Adorno as being kind of proto punk, despite his passion for classical music. Punk in that he was willing to fail, interested in a certain infidelity to form and genre. This is another reason I link these cranky buzzkills beside each other. But let’s be clear, I have stretched this comparison to the limit. Jack and Teddy are very different. As any reader of The Queer Art of Failure can attest, they have very different relationships to the culture industry. But beyond that, I think it’s pretty clear that if we had a time machine, brought Adorno to the present and forced him to have lunch with Halberstam, they would hate each other. That lunch would be a splendid failure.
“We’re gonna die”: Not not an ending
“Failure loves company,” Jack Halberstam proclaims midway through The Queer Art of Failure. The new directions in queer theory charted across these blog entries not only refute the obituaries some others have proclaimed about the end of queer theory; they also show just how richly varied the band of scholars remaking queer theory for today and towards tomorrow are. The question, then, is not whether or not “queer theory” is dead (it isn’t), but why some have apocalyptically conflated a change in focus, analytic orientation, (inter)disciplinary location with the end of the world as they know it. C’mon people, let’s practice losing, and loosing, the reins.
Failing is not as easy as it seems. So, for some additional help, let’s even turn, as Jack Halberstam did early on in The Queer Art of Failure, to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” with its famous assertion that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master.” Bishop’s poem is an exercise in as-if: practice losing often enough (“Lose something every day….Then practice losing farther, losing faster…”), and you’ll discover that the greatest blows are survivable. And the poem even presents writing itself—Bishop writes: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”—as one of those practices through which we master the loser’s art. Bishop’s parenthetical exhortation—“(Write it!)”—and that second “like” are a kind of stutter-step in the poem’s movement, belying the asserted ease with which the art of losing can be mastered. Because it can’t. That’s the poem’s lie, and its bluish ray of hope: to act as if loss can be mastered is, paradoxically, to let go of fantasies of mastery.
The Queer Art of Failure picks up this exhortation and runs with it. It is a clarion call to and for failure. Halberstam proffers failure as a vocation. As he powerfully and poignantly reminds us at book’s end: “To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die.” I found this strangely uplifting—what this says about me, I leave to your discretion—especially as it was followed by: “rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly. And the hopelessly goofy.”
And The Queer Art of Failure is a very goofy book with an unabashedly absurd archive of failure: Finding Nemo, The Fanstastic Mr. Fox, and other animated feature films (in a genre Halberstam identifies as “Pixarvolt”) appear alongside the work of such visual and performance artists as Tracey Moffat, Yoko Ono, and Collier Schorr. SpongeBob Square Pants does a duet with the Sex Pistols. This is not your grand-pappy’s archive nor your gay uncle’s, and that’s precisely the point. In the place of canonized texts and disciplinary—and disciplining—knowledge-formation, Jack takes us on a wild goose chase (or should I say chicken run?), lingering and malingering in the detours, the chance arrivals, the libidinal pulse of the useless, and the highways and by-ways of stupidity. I suppose this is the moment to rev up my engine and cue Dude, Where’s My Car. As Wittgenstein (a great lover of the silly) writes in Culture and Value: “Our greatest stupidities may be very wise” (qtd in Landy and Saler, The Re-Enchantment of the World, 67). Wittengenstein would have found this book very wise.
The diversity of Jack’s archive and its willful reclamation (not the same thing as redemption) of the junked and jettisoned reminded me of the “garbage-picking or ‘reusing and recycling’” that Jane Bennett practices in her 2001 book The Enchantment of Modern Life as well as her more recent Vibrant Matter. In both books, Bennett mines the leftovers of the world, the everyday, for sites of enchantment and vibrant possibility. Bennett is interested in cultivating wonder and joyful attachment, moods that could not, at first glance, be more different from the negativity tracked (and even solicited) in The Queer Art of Failure. What all three books both share, though, is an orientation to the discarded and overlooked—to the refuse of the world. So many possibilities are contained in that word refuse. Throughout The Queer Art of Failure we can hear its variants: the trash pile of refuse, the negative force of refusal, the new assemblages courted (re-fused), and, of course, the slow burn of the fuse ticking down 3-2-1, to a whimper, not a bang.
This is low theory; but, don’t confuse that with frivolity. At its playful heart, The Queer Art of Failure is also a very serious book, with life and death stakes. If Halberstam concludes by calling for queer failure as a way of life, he also calls attention to the unequal terrains on which failure operates. All failures are not equal. Throughout the book he thus moves to deconstruct failure, to show how failure as a badge of shame is, in his words, “levied by the winners against the losers.” At an historical moment when some of the biggest losers in economic history are getting public bail-outs, the public, as Lauren Berlant puts it and as Halberstam underscores, the public itself as living breathing bodies and not as some Habermasian abstraction has become too expensive for the state. Structural failures and structural inequalities are recast as the bad moral choices of whole populations (those lazy Greeks) and individuated classes (the white working class is “coming apart,” to cite the title of Charles Murray’s new book, because of serial bad choices: out of wedlock births, crime, and joblessness).
And death is the ultimate failure. Still, if we will all face the ultimate failure that is death, this does not make death the great equalizer. I want here to link Halberstam’s beautiful closing observation—which I cited earlier but which bears repeating—that “rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly. And the hopelessly goofy.” This queer art of ultimate failure is not a solo performance, even if, ultimately, no one can die for us—heroic pieties of giving one’s life for one’s country to the contrary.
These questions were very much on my mind as I was preparing for the NYU panel on The Queer Art of Failure. It took place on Monday, March 26, the very day the U.S. Supreme Court began its extraordinary and, as it turned out, extraordinarily distressing, three days of arguments about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a law that is not nothing, even if it is not enough. Recall that one of the first and most potent rhetorical bulls eyes scored by opponents of the law was to circulate the absolute fiction that President Obama’s health care reform would institute “death panels.” Sarah Palin decried the “downright evil”of the entire health care law, asserting that the elderly would have to appear before a “death panel so [President Obama’s] bureaucrats can decide … whether they are worthy of health care.
In fact (if facts still matter in an age of truthiness and thinking from your gut), what the offending provisions (a mere 10 pages out of a 1,000-page bill) would have done (and they were stripped from the bill before it reached the President’s desk) was to reimburse doctors for sitting down and talking to their elderly patients, every five years, about their wishes for end of life care. These “advanced care planning consultations” were not about faceless bureaucrats coercing helpless Granny and Gramps onto the iceberg. They were about giving elderly people some kind of agency about their own end of life care. And yes, the consultations and reimbursement structure were also, as Jill Casid points out in a forthcoming essay, about “put[ting] at center stage the reassuring prospect of the doctor with a better bedside manner, even as this traditional image of doctor re-dressed as empathetic performer also works to keep off-scene the larger and less easily salved problematics of care under the austerity state and within the ostensibly new immaterial economics of sensations and affects.”
These new economics are only ostensibly immaterial, because behind the scene of the medicalized deathbed stands an array of workers, some paid (barely), some not, whose affective and material labor, Casid stresses, carries and cares loved ones as well as strangers to their death. The slow and living deaths enforced both by the withdrawal of state care and by the imperative to choose life at all cost (especially when the state passes the cost on to others) blocks possibilities for imagining and enacting the good death, the dignified death.
Halberstam’s discussion of queer negativity and the inevitability of failures, large and small, is thus in important conversation with the still unfolding queer work on precarity by scholars like Jasbir Puar, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Martin Manalansan, Casid, and others. The art of losing, to return to Bishop’s poem and to borrow from Casid again, also entails the art of “letting go and being let go” (Casid).
To Halberstam’s archive of the queer art of failure I accordingly want to add—and I think he is explicitly inviting us to continue making a necessarily incomplete and “failed” archive—New York-based artist Young Jean Lee’s hilariously harrowing shout-out to death in her 2011 performance piece cum cabaret “We’re Gonna Die.” The piece was developed and performed with her goofy band of male hipsters Future Wife. You can watch the entire performance on line at Lee’s website; I especially recommend fast forwarding to the rousing final number, the song “I’m Gonna Die.” Start the video at the 39:50 mark and listen to the way Lee sets up the song. The song transforms from being a solo number into a goofy and barely synchronized group dance. Watch it all the way through, and behold the awkward, silly, and plain beautiful propping of one body upon another as Lee and her band show us how luminous and vital failure can be.
Sometimes the best way not to fail or—more to the point—the best way to fail well is to know when to quit.
Let’s Pretend that Everyone’s Dead
By Tavia Nyong’o
I wasn’t on the panel, but from where I stood in the standing-room only audience, queer failure was a contagious idea, drawing more people to listen and react to it than I have seen attend an academic talk in awhile. Perhaps this was because, as Lisa noted to me afterward, and as the above posts make clear, the tone of the evening was decidedly open and unstuffy; we were in but not of the university.
Precarity has gone from an exotic European theoretical import to a recognized identity for politically self-conscious American twentysomethings. The queer art of failure — with its use and abuse of library privileges, its creative mishandling of high and low theory, its predilection for fierce polemic of the “shit is fucked up and bullshit” variety, and its antisentimental refusals of equality and rights politics — is precarity with a twist, a flagrantly homosexual skill-set for when you are strapped to the roof of a society quickly careening off the edge.
In Q&A the question was raised whether the tenured professoriat should be extolling failure. The query is pertinent, but mostly as a means to clarify that failure is not something to be aspired to. The queer art of failure is not success on opposite day. Indeed, Jack’s book is positioned alongside other recent feminist broadsides including Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided, books that detect an air a pervasive contempt for failure around our self-help, self-improvement, and positive thinking gurus. Professors, insofar as we are thought to recuse ourselves from the rigors of the market and the blandishments of God’s, can be seen as just another variety of failure, in society’s terms. So it is less a question of choosing failure than choosing what to do with the failure that has chosen us.
Jack partly agrees with the abuse heaped on professors, insofar as he points out the only rationale for the protections of academic freedoms are to take risks, including the risk of failure. The unpalatable alternative is to let queer studies settle into a secure set of theoretical protocols that obtain what political relevance they claim from the rapidly receding moment of its emergence. Much as queer theory destabilized the lesbian and gay studies that preceded it (albeit destabilizing it in such a way that intersected with a brief publishing boom) it in turn needs to be destabilized in content, form, and location. By this I mean to second the calls made above to see queer critique take on new topics and methods (although I’d like to keep formalist methods and literary topics among them), to experiment with new forms of dissemination (like that meme and this blog but also ideas and arguments posted to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, hopefully someday, their open source non-profit alternatives), and to relocate the practice of queer criticism inside and outside the academy, and across the Global North/South divide.
Queer studies is, as Jasbir Puar asserts, an assemblage. And while Deleuze’s original conception of that term holds a sense of overall effectivity, I like the shambolic connotations of the English translation. An assemblage (unlike, for instance, an assembly) is a sort of mess, easily dismissed as a failed attempt at streamlined coherence. Even this overlong, multi-authored blog entry, with its unnecessary, repetitious and excessive conclusion by me, is kind of a shambles.
With the image of assemblage as a shambles in mind, let me stumble towards my conclusion by evoking the punk spirit that animates many of us, and that also resonates in some respects with the insurrections and occupations that have pockmarked the face of our new Gilded Age. Punk is obviously aligned with failure, art, and a certain alternative conception of the future that begins (but does not end) with the performative utterance “No future for you!” What comes after that realization cannot be prescribed in any single vision, but I find one clue in punk film auteur Bruce La Bruce’s recent zombie flick Otto: Or, Up with Dead People. I find it specifically in the films rollicking theme song, “Everyone’s Dead” by the Homophones (performed below “live” as an even more laconic shambles than in the version in the film):
The Homophones have a thing or two to teach us about life after the death of queer theory as we knew it. Sure, their anthem — “There’s no one around, except the policeman in our head” — extols a certain romantic conception of gay male public sex and cruising that might not exactly measure up to the pervasive reality of surveillance and privatized “public” space today. After all, we live in a moment where even an app transparently designed to assist anonymous hook ups has to pretend it is about anything but sex. But it is precisely in the midst of this depressing and dystopian present that the homophonic power of a negative assertion — “let’s pretend that everyone’s dead” — is a necessary hammer in the toolkit for making what José is calling a punk rock commons. In drumming out the policeman in our heads we also hear the creaking sounds and shambling swerves of the queer zombie, that is to say the de-zombified zombie, the zombie quickened by the silly, and somewhat disgusting literalization of same-sex sex as embodying the death drive. But if the future is kid stuff, then the zombie precariat doesn’t so much disavow as disembowel it, and play in its entrails. Swing sets and lollipops and very unsafe sex acts combine to form a queer assemblage indeed, one that sets the art of failure to a tune that might just prove infectious.
By Tavia Nyong’o
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.
* 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).