Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today is our fourth and final episode on LGBTQ history and rights, with our essential texts being Obergefell v. Hodges, The Trouble With Normal, by Michael Warner, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, by Jose Estaban Munoz, and No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, by Lee Edelman. Today we are going to discuss the last of two of those titles, and my reading partner is the spectacularly brilliant historian and teacher, Matthew Nelson. I’m so excited for this conversation with you today, Matthew! Thanks for being here!
Matthew: Great to be back in conversation with you, Amy.
Amy: Could you introduce us to the subject matter of today’s texts, maybe starting as usual with some background?
Matthew: Few communities, like survivors of genocide, understand what it is to face annihilation -- both as an individual and member of a group. I was just a boy when the HIV/AIDS brutalized the queer community, but as a student of history I try to read every book and watch every movie related to this extraordinary and tragic moment in order to understand better. David French’s How to Survive A Plague, an emotionally arresting and informative book and documentary, most certainly ranks among my favorites to help me inhabit the experiences of gay men, who bore the brunt of the pandemic in the Long 1980s. I also obsessively watch Angels in America, Beats Per Minute, and The Normal Heart because I never want to be too far away from my community’s brush with queer generational annihilation. I talk to all of my gay forefathers of San Francisco about this darkness. One of the common themes remarked on frequently in these conversations is the disenchanting experience of seeing crowds of young gay men ambling about the sidewalks like zombies -- emaciated and stumbling. They tell me they went to a funeral every week, sometimes multiple times a week. Their circle of friends -- vanquished in the span of a decade. I used to live on Alamo Square in San Francisco, and I would jog to the Castro, a historically gay neighborhood, to visit my gym. I passed an older African American man who sold beautiful flower arrangements on a street corner who would smile and wave almost every time I passed. One day, I saw another of these documentaries called We Were Here, and I recognized that one of the men profiled in this PBS film was Guy, the same street-side florist who waved me on as I made may way to the gym. The next workout, I resolved to stop and say hi to Guy. So, I did. He was delighted that I admired his contributions to the film. I asked him what it must have been like to sell the funeral flowers to attendees of all these funerals, and he said, “Business was never better!” with a chuckle. Guy elaborated on his stories of death and dying to me, of course with a dolorous tone. But, he wanted me to know that younger gay men like me have to remember that death is forevermore an important part of our history, and we cannot be afraid of death. Instead, and this is where his tone shifted to jubilance: “We have a FUTURE!” Queer theorist, Heather Love, characterizes this contradictory experience as “looking forward” while “feeling backward.”
Guy’s words reminded me of the concluding interviews with ACT-UP leaders Gregg Bordowitz, David Barr, and Peter Staley in France’s How to Survive A Plague. The men say:
Bordowitz: I FEEL VERY FORTUNATE, AND THERE'S PROBABLY A LOT OF COMPLICATED REASONS WHY, BUT I STILL FIND IT VERY DIFFICULT TO PLAN FOR THE FUTURE, AND/OR ACCEPT THAT I WILL HAVE A LONG LIFE. WHICH IS UNFORTUNATE BECAUSE I'VE HAD A LONG LIFE AND I'VE BEEN LIVING WITH AIDS FOR 20 YEARS. BUT IT'S HARD FOR ME TO RELAX INTO LIFE.
Barr: I KNOW LOTS OF US WENT THROUGH REALLY DIFFICULT TIMES AFTER... UM, TRYING TO FIGURE OUT, WELL, WHAT DO I DO NOW? YOU KNOW. NOT JUST BECAUSE I DIDN'T THINK I HAD A FUTURE AND NOW I DO, SO I HAVE TO MAKE SOME PLANS, BUT... HOW DO I DO SOMETHING ELSE THAT IS AS... [SIGHS] I MEAN, IT'S A WEIRD WORD, BUT AS FULFILLING AS THAT WORK HAS BEEN.
Staley: TO BE THAT THREATENED WITH EXTINCTION, AND TO NOT LAY DOWN, TO STAND UP AND TO FIGHT BACK. THE WAY WE DID IT, THE WAY WE TOOK CARE OF OURSELVES, AND EACH OTHER, THE GOODNESS THAT WE SHOWED, THE HUMANITY THAT WE SHOWED THE WORLD IS JUST MIND-BOGGLING. JUST INCREDIBLE.
These men had just come back from a war with AIDS, and they experienced survivor's guilt. Caught between a bewildering present, and a future that these men didn’t think they had, they essentially asked: How will I order my life, especially when I have suprned the patriarchal scripts of heteronormative temporality? This tension between the present and the future is at the heart of today’s queer theory about queer temporality that we discussed last episode. If you recall, we studied what heteronormative temporality was and contrasted it with the imaginative constructions of queer temporality that Michael Warner offered us. Today, we encounter the dualing theories of queer temporality from Lee Edelman and Jose Esteban-Munoz, taking the dispute over queer temporality into the 21st century.
Amy do you want to introduce the authors of our two texts today?
Amy: Sure, I can do that.
Lee Edelman was born in 1953. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University, and he received an MPhil and a PhD from Yale University. He is an American literary critic and academic. He serves as a professor of English at Tufts University.
Jose Esteban Muñoz was born in Havana, Cuba in 1967, and moved to Florida with his parents the year he was born. He received his undergraduate education at Sarah Lawrence College in 1989 with a B.A. in Comparative Literature, and in 1994, he completed his doctorate in Literature at Duke University. He was a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts until his death in 2013.
Matthew, last episode we found Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal quite comprehensible, even if we were unsure of whether we could embrace his ideas. Why is queer theory so difficult to understand?
Matthew: Great question, Amy. It is important to remember that queer theory has multiple influneces upon it, like postmodernism, feminist theory, gender studies, psychoanalytics, and philosophy. And most of this material is written by academics, for academics. I remember reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gille Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jacques Lacan, and even Judith Butler in graduate school wondering why I didn’t find them as graspable as I found, for example, Foucault. Now that I am saying this, perhaps it’s because many of these authors wrote their books in French, and much doesn’t translate over well? Our authors today are in this tradition where they have read the canonical, esoteric writings within queer theory, and they are contributing to the field. Sometimes style is substance; the queer should be abstruse because it’s… well, queer? I don’t know. I do wish that these powerful ideas were packaged in more coherent prose, given how important theory is to helping us evolve our thinking. For now, this is what we have and we will do our best to elucidate their profundity! Haha.
Amy: Before we discuss the books themselves, do you have any more historical context for us that would be helpful to know before we start?
Matthew: In fact, I do! Actually what I would also like to do is briefly fly over what I called in the last episodes the “wildest lands of queerdom,” before we get lost in the challenging language of the texts. Shall we do that?
Amy: Sounds good to me!
Matthew: In previous episodes we mentioned that the Queer Liberation Movement coarises with the Religious Right in America. As queers are coming out of the closet, celebrating eros, and are politically organizing, the Religious Right is branding feminists, queers, and Black Americans as enemies of this country. The Religious Right, the very transparent crusader of patriarchy and heteronormative power, see gay men in particular as the greatest threat to the family and Christian society. What with their non-normative sexuality, their effeminate ways, their care-free lifestyles, all their fun -- the Religious Right warns America away from this “alternative lifestyle.” Then, July 3rd 1981, the New York Times published an article entitled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” At this point, the term “gay cancer” entered the public lexicon. In 1982, Larry Speaks, Press Secretary to President Ronald Reagan, joked about “gay plague” in the press briefing room. By 1984, “gay plague” now called HIV/AIDS, would already have infected 7,700 Americans and killed 3,500. As the CDC and National Institutes for Health were trying to investigate this strange new virus, President Reagan making good on his pledge to reign in Big Government, slashed their budgets. Except for the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who were calling AIDS God’s judgment on gays and America, government leadership remained silent and unresponsive. Not until 1985 did President Reagan even publicly mention AIDS, when 12,000 people were already dead of the epidemic. By then, even with the Surgeon General C. Everett Coop warning the country in 1986 about AIDS, the malignant neglect had already set into motion the massacre. Cases exploded from 47,000 in 1987 to half a million in 1995!
Scholars call this necropolitics.
Amy: So the word “necro” sounds like death. Is that right?
Matthew: Necropolitics is the power of the state to determine who lives and who dies. Achille Mbembe, esteemed postcolonial philosopher, wrote scholarly pieces about necropolitics, detailing how the idea speaks to who the state deems disposable and who isn’t, and how the state enacts this decision. With the state’s necropower in moments of crisis, who should be saved and who should be sacrificed on the altar of state interests, comes into stark relief. Therefore, for example, if President Reagan didn’t direct the government to respond to AIDS because he mistakenly thought it just affects the loathesome community of gay men, then the state was consequently consigning a marginalized population to extinction. Think with me about the Obama Administration’s drone warfare program. President Obama authorized the kills of suspected Middle Eastern terrorists, and in the process claimed the lives of innocent people, sometimes women or children. Necropolitics. In our own times, when President Trump fantastically thought that COVID-19 would, “like a miracle,” just disappear, he was in his ignorance gambling with citizens’ lives out of his own selfish political interests. People of color had disproportionately higher rates of COVID infections for various reasons but particularly because many of them were our front-line workers, and the conservative Trump government insisted that the economy should open completely for business. Today COVID deaths are well north of 600,000. This is necropolitics.
Amy: I can see where this discussion is going. So long as the state has this enormity of power, necropower, people should think long and hard about how they will fight it and how they will live.
Precisely. But, also how we will live in light of our mortality. This is a reexamination of temporality -- interrogating hetero-patriarchal temporality, and conceiving of a plurality of queer temporalities.
In the wildest lands of queerdom, our queer theorists today want us to think long and hard about how we will conceive of new temporalities in light of the precarity of our existence. Very existential!
Death is where we find Lee Edelman in his book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Edelman urges readers to transcend the assimilationist/liberationist binary we discussed last episode. He compels us to subtract ourselves from the socio-political order altogether.
Amy: I get the “transcending “assimilationist/liberationist,” but why would he want vulnerable minority groups, particularly the LGBTQ community which is enjoying rapid socio-political acceptance and power, to go dark?
Matthew: Well, according to our theorists today, even though it was fashionable to claim in the last decade that “It gets better.” and the Obergefell and Bostock decisions suggest momentum, we are still very far from queer liberation, much less queer temporalities. Let me give you a synopsis of their arguments, and then we will delve into the texts.
Edelman claims that in the midst of the ever-threatening biopolitics in American society -- especially when queers are still deemed arch-enemies to patriarchy, heteronormativity and temporalities; arch-enemies to the family, marriage, and capitalism -- queers shouldn’t order their lives aimed toward the future. Queer temporalities should be centered in the now. In this place, in the now, queers are outlaws, and in lieu of maintaining the politics of “normal” a la Warner and assimilating, queers should just embrace their villainy. Edelman urges us not to run away from our arch-enemy status, but embrace it! I am picking up not just an Existentialist note here, Amy, but the Nihilist variety of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Edelman’s project is what he terms a Freudian embrace of the “death drive.” Life, being characterized by the heteronormative temporality -- including marriage, reproduction, rearing children, and leaving behind an inheritance for the children -- Edelman wants to blow all of it up to smitherines!
We are going to the Dark Side -- yes, that Dark Side! What philosophers and Christian mystics, like Pseudo-Dionysius and St. John of the Cross called the via negativa. Edelman argues that queers should spurn politics altogether and focus on queer ethics. They do so by subtracting themselves from normative society, politics, and the whole reproductive agenda that characterizes heteronormative temporalities. Society has branded you with that Scarlet Letter -- Q! -- so own it. Revel in your vulnerable status. Vector of venereal disease? Embrace it. BDSM provocateur? Own it. Outlaw to respectable society? Baby, you were born this way! For Edelman, there is no future, so don’t participate in what he calls “reproductive futurity” (queer theorists sure love their jargon!). We will get to this concept when we hit the text.
Esteban-Munoz, acknowledging he is indebted to Edelman, believed in a horizon where queerness is and it should motivate us to realize new echelons of queerness now. If anyone in the listening audience is familiar with the Christian theological concept of the Kingdom of God, may theologians talk about it having a quality of “Already/Not Yet…” The Kingdom of God is with us when Jesus was on Earth and with the Holy Spirit, but it won’t be fully realized until the Second Coming and the Eschaton. Similarly, Esteban-Munoz says that Queerdom isn’t realized, but with the hope of queer futurity, it one day will. Like Esteban, he asserted queers should reject the heteronormative temporality replete with the requirements of marriage, children, inheritance, and pursue queer utopian futrity. How do we do this? We advance toward the queer horizon in the aesthetic realm predominantly -- through performance art (like drag shows and punk rock music), physical art, and forming counter-publics (thick queer communities of eros and resistance).
“The child has come to embody for us the telos of the social order and come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust.
“In its coercive universalization, however, the image of the Child, not to be confused with the lived experiences of any historical children, serves to regulate political discourse - to prescribe what will count as political discourse - by compelling such discourse to accede in advance to the reality of a collective future whose figurative status we are never permitted to acknowledge or address. From Delacroix’s iconic image of Liberty leading us into a brave new world of revolutionary possibility - her bare breast making each spectator the unweaned Child to whom it’s held out while the boy to her left, reproducing her posture, affirms the absolute logic of reproduction itself - to the revolutionary waif in the logo that miniaturizes the “politics” of Les Mis (summed up in its anthem to futurism, the ‘inspirational’ ‘One Day More’), we are no more able to conceive of a politics without a fantasy of the future than we are able to conceive of a future without the figure of the Child. That figural Child alone embodies the citizen as an ideal, entitled to claim full rights to its future share in the nations, good, though always at the cost of limiting the rights ‘real’ citizens are allowed. For the social order exists to preserve for this universalized subject, this fantasmatic Child, a notional freedom more highly valued than the actuality of freedom itself, which might after all, put at risk the Child to whom such a freedom falls due. Hence, whatever refuses this mandate by which our political institutions compel the collective reproduction of the Child must appear as a threat not only to the organization of a given social order but also, and far more ominously, to social order as such, insofar as it threatens the logic of futurism on which meaning always depends.”
“Thus, while lesbians and gay men by the thousands work for the right to marry, to serve in the military, to adopt and raise children of their own, the political right, refusing to acknowledge these comrades in reproductive futurism, counters their efforts by inviting us to kneel at the shrine of the sacred Child: the Child who might witness lewd or inappropriately intimate behavior; the Child who might find information about dangerous ‘lifestyles’ on the internet; the Child who might choose a provocative book from the shelves of the public library; the Child, in short, who might find an enjoyment that would nullify the figural value, itself imposed by adult desire, of the Child as unmarked by the adult’s adulterating implication in desire itself; the Child, that is, made to image, for the satisfaction of adults, an Imaginary fullness that’s considered to want, and therefore to want for, nothing. As Lauren Berlant argues forcefully at the outset of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, ‘a nation made for adult citizens has been replaced by one imagined for fetuses and children.’ On every side, our enjoyment of liberty is eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of a Child whose freedom to develop undisturbed by encounters, or even by the threat of potential encounters, with an ‘otherness’ of which its parents, its church, or the state do not approve, uncompromised by any possible access to what is painted as alien desire, terroristic ally holds us all in check and determines that political discourse conform to the logic of a narrative wherein history unfolds as the future envisioned for a Child who must never grow up.”
“The queer comes to figure the bar to every realization of futurity, the resistance, internal to the social, to every social structure or form.
Rather than rejecting, with liberal discourse, this ascription of negativity to the queer, we might, as I argue, do better to consider accepting and even embracing it. Not in the hope of forging thereby some more perfect social order - such a hope, after all, would only reproduce the constraining mandate of futurism, just as any such order would equally occasion the negativity of the queer- but rather to refuse the insistence of hope itself as affirmation, which is always affirmation of an order whose refusal will register as unthinkable, irresponsible, inhumane.” (4)
“The consequences of such an identification both of and with the Child as the preeminent emblem of the motivating end, though one endlessly postponed, of every political vision as a vision of futurity must weigh on any delineation of a queer oppositional politics. For the only queerness that queer sexualities could ever hope to signify would spring from their determined opposition to this underlying structure of the political - their opposition, that is, to the governing fantasy of achieving Symbolic closure through the marriage of identity to futurity in order to realize the social subject. Conservatives acknowledge this radical potential, which is also to say, this radical threat, of queerness more fully than liberals, for conservatism preemptively imagines the wholesale rupturing of the social fabric, whereas liberalism conservatively clings to a faith in its limitless elasticity. The discourse of the right thus tends toward a greater awareness of, an insistence on, the literalization of the figural logics that various social subjects are made to inhabit and enact, the logics that, from a ‘rational’ viewpoint, reduce individual identity to stereotypical generality, while the discourse of the left tends to understand better the Symbolic’s capacity to accommodate change by displacing those logics onto history as the inevitable unfolding of narrative sequence. The right, that is, better sees the inherently conflictual aspect of identities, the constant danger they face in alterity, the psychic anxiety with which they are lifted; but the left better recognizes historys persistent rewriting of those identities, finding hope in the fact that identity’s borders are never fully fixed. The left in this is always right from the vantage point of reason, but left in the shade by its reason is the darkness inseparable from its light: the defensive structure of the ego, the rigidity of identity as experienced by the subject, and the fixity of the Imaginary relation through which we (re)produce ourselves. This conservatism of the ego compels the subject, whether liberal or conservative politically, to endorse as the meaning of politics itself the reproductive futurism that perpetuates as reality a fantasy frame intended to secure the survival of the social in the Imaginary form of the Child.”
“So the queer must insist on disturbing, on queering, social organization as such - on disturbing, therefore, and on queering ourselves and our investment in such an organization. For queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one. And so, when I argue, as I aim to do here, that the burden of queerness is to be located less in the assertion of an oppositional political identity than in opposition to politics as the governing fantasy of realizing, in an always indefinite future, Imaginary identities foreclosed by our constitutive subjection to the signifier, I am proposing no platform or position from which queer sexuality or any queer subject might finally and truly become itself, as if it could somehow manage thereby to achieve an essential queerness. I am suggesting instead that the efficacy of queerness, its real strategic value, lies in its resistance to a Symbolic reality.”
“Bernard Law, the former Cardinal of Boston mistaking (or maybe understanding too weell) the degree of authority bestowed on him by th esignifier of his patronymic, denounced in 1996 porposed legislation proposed legislation giving health care benefits to same-sex partners of municipal employees. He did so by proclaiming, in a noteworthy instance of piety in the sky, that bestowing such access to health care would profoundly diminish the marital bond. “Society,” he opened, “has a special interest in the protection, care and upbringing of children. Because marriage remains the principal, and the best, framework for the nurture, education and socialization of children, the state has a special interest in marriage.” With this fatal embrace of a futurism so blindly committed to the figure of the Child that it will justify refusing health care benefits to the adults that some children become, Law lent his voice to the mortifying mantra of a communal jouissance that depends on the fetishization of the Child at the expense of whatever such fetishization must inescapably queer. Some sevel years later, after Law had resigned for his failure to protect Catholic children from sexual assault by pedophile priests, Pope John Paul II returned to this theme, condemning state-recognized same-sex unions as parodic versions fo authentic families, “based on individual egoism” rather than genuine love. Jutifying that condemnation, he observed, “such a a ‘caricature’ has no future and cannot give future to any society.” Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations not only by insisting on our equal right to the social orders’ prerogative, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order’s coherence and integriy, but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with samll; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.”
“Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity. Both the ornamental and the quotidian can contain a map of the utopia that is queerness. Turning to teh aeesthetic in the case of queerness is nothing like an escape from the social realm, insofar as queer aesthetics map future social relations. Queerness is also a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” (1)
“The queer futurity that I am describing is not an end but an opening or horizon. Queer utopia is a modality of critique that speaks to quotidian gestures as laden with potentiality. The queerness of queer futurity, like the blackness of a black radical tradition, is a relational and collective modality of endurance and support. The gesture of cradling the head of one’s lover, a lover one has betrayed, is therefore not an act of redemption that mitigates violence; it is instead a future being within the present that is both a utopian kernel and an anticipatory illumination. It is being in, toward, and for futurity.
Lee Edelman, in his powerful polemic No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, wishes to alert his readers to the fact that ‘the structuring optimism of politics of which the order of maning commits us, installing as it does the perpetual hope of reaching meaning through signification, is always, I would argue, a negation of this primal, constitutive adn negative act.’ Political hope fails queers because, like signification, it was not originally made for us. It resonates only on the level of reproductive futurity. Instead, Edelman recommends that queers give up hope and embrace a certain negation endemic to our abjection within the symbolic. What we get, in exchange for giving up on futurity, abandoning politics and hope, is a certain jouissance that at once defines and negates us. Edelman’s psycho-analytic optic reveals that the social is inoperable for the always already shattered queer subject.
I have attempted to outline this polemic in a fashion that displays some of my admiration for it. I agree with and feel hailed by much of No Future. Indeed, when I negotiate the ever-increasing sidewalk obstacles produced by oversized baby strollers on parade in the city in which I live, the sheer magnitude of the vehicles that flaunt the incredible mandate of reproduction as a world-historical virtue, I could not be more hailed with a statement such as, ‘Queerness names the side of ‘not fighting for the children,’ the side of outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the value of reproductive futurism.’ But as strongly as I reject reproductive futurity, I nonetheless refuse to give up on concepts such as politics, hope, and a future that is not kid stuff.”
“I dwell on hope because I wish to think about futurity; and hope, I argue, is the emotional modality that permits us to access futurity, par excellence.
Queers, for example, especially those who do not choose to be biologically reproductive, a people without children, are, within the dominant culture, people without a future. They are cast as people who are developmentally stalled, forsaken, who do not have the complete life promised by heterosexual temporality. This reminds one of the way in which worried parents deal with wild queer children, how they sotmetimes protect themselves from the fact of queerness by making it a ‘stage’, a developmental hiccup, a moment of misalignment that will, hoepfully, correct istself or be corrected by saveage pseudoscience and coercive religion, sometimes masquerading as psychology. In this chapter, I consider the idea of queerness as a ‘stage’ in a way that rescues that term from delusional parents and others who attempt to manage adn contain the potentiality that is queer youth. In this chapter I aenact a utopian performative change in the signification of the phrase ‘it is only a ‘stage’, deployed in the name of teh queer child - in this case, the queer wild child of punk subculture.” ...performance is the kernel of a potential that is transmitted to audiences and witnesses and that the real force of performance is its ability to generate a modality of knowing and recognition among audiences and groups that facilitates modes of belonging, especially minoritarian belonging. If we consider performance under such a lens, we can see the temporality of what I describe as a utopian performativity, which is to say a manifestation of a “doing’ that is in the horizon, a mode of possibility. Performance, seen as utopian performativity, is imbued with a sense of potentiality…”
Amy: What has been a big takeaway from today?
Amy: My takeaway was…
Thank you, you’re the best, etc…
Feminism Is For Everybody, by bell hooks
Amy's notes From Cruising Utopia
-Muñoz describes the pain of being misunderstood and shamed for his queerness in childhood. This breaks my heart. I wonder how much of the vision of queer utopia is based on a defensive reaction - the need to say “there’s nothing wrong with me - I’m the way I am!” For example when a friend of his decided to transition from woman to man, he describes feeling “sweet revenge on Gender.” (p. 69) I am always wary of formulating a life philosophy based on a reaction to something. (Like Miss Havisham being left at the altar, and dedicating herself to the destruction of all men.)
What would queer utopia look like - an ideal world for LGBTQ people - if they had always been able to just be who they are without shame or persecution? There wouldn’t be a need for rebellion/revenge. Is it even possible to imagine that world, since that oppression has always been so pervasive and so painful? Is it useful to ask that question?
Actually… more on this. On p. 73 when talking about loss (Elizabeth Bishop’s poem), he says that “it is to veer away from heterosexuality’s path.” This reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s observation in A Room of One’s Own that many women novelists are unable to write clearly because they keep getting pulled “off the straight” of good writing because they get distracted defending themselves. They know they’re not being taken seriously because they’re women, and their plots and character development suffers as a result. I guess that’s my question. Whereas Woolf counsels women to do the internal work of defining themselves and being very still and grounded so that their Art isn’t defensive or reactionary, Munoz seems to lean into that “veering” from the “straight” (in this context, having double meaning) path.
-A lot of Munoz’ description of utopia had to do with free, uninhibited sex, and the free sex scenes seem to me to be 100% about physical pleasure. This is soooooo outside my ethical framework - I could feel the bolts of my mental constructs busting off and I still couldn’t quite get there. :) I concede willingly that my purity culture upbringing does terrible harm to everyone, particularly LGBTQ people but also so many of the straight people I know, who feel guilt and shame around sex for their entire lives and it ruins that entire part of their Selves. But orgies with strangers in subway bathrooms doesn’t invest in a deep and loving relationship (on purpose!). Is Munoz’ vision of “utopia” built on physical pleasure with whomever, whenever?
He quotes Delany as saying that these public sex orgies were “rituals that reconstructed intimacy.” I understand the criticism of patriarchal marriage, but what about the intimacy that comes from long-term monogamy? Does Munoz scorn monogamous intimacy and see it as incompatible with being “queer”? If so, why?
-I kept wanting a definition of utopia beyond “potentiality.” The dictionary definition is “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.” I felt myself very tense with concern during the passages describing public, anonymous sex, not only because I’m a total prude and have never read stuff like this before, :) but also (especially after my virus class, where we studied AIDS and HPV and other terrible illnesses) it seemed so irresponsible and anti- utopian. Honestly it seemed selfish to seek pure physical pleasure without concern about the safety of others. (p. 61 about Nushawn Williams, for example, was really distressing to me)
-A related question: would he say that being free about sexuality (public sex spaces, non-monogamy, emphasis simply on giving and receiving pleasure) is a utopian vision for straight people as well?
-About responsibility, there was another passage where Munoz seems to defend and even celebrate irresponsibility as being particularly “queer”. When he analyzes the poem about Freddy Herko on p. 157, I feel Munoz totally misses the point that the poem is criticizing Herko’s irresponsibility - leaving the cast with “the props not finished, and the show is in four hours/I think it’s pretty bad.” I agree that that’s pretty bad behavior - to me it seems childish and selfish, no matter who you are. Yet Munoz says “Herko was often accused of being temporarily out of joint, of being childish or infantile. ...the accusation of childishness reverberates alongside many dismissals of queerness as childish, disrupting straight comportment and temporality. Herko’s deliberate childishness interrupted the protocols of straight time.” Dude. Disappearing with your job not done four hours before an event - especially to go have sex - is an incredibly selfish and immature thing to do regardless of sexual orientation. If I were gay I think I would take issue with this association of flightiness with queerness. Am I misinterpreting something?
-Does the queer utopian world mix with the straight utopian world? Is it like oil and water that can live peacefully side by side? i.e., when he talked about Giuliani “cleaning up” NYC, which meant removing all the queer spaces - I would think it would have been better to remove any dangerous spaces regardless of sexual orientation, but leave queer clubs up and running next to heterosexual clubs. But are they always separate?
-And related to that, he associates the avant garde and weird and wild and free with queerness. But I can think of lots of heterosexual artists - and just regular straight weirdos - who love to be outside the constraints of society. And on the other hand I think of comedian Hannah Gadsby in her excellent Netflix special when she said something like ‘where are the boring queers? The ones who love the sound of the clink of a teacup on its saucer?”
-Question about these two passages: “I do not wish to render a picture of utopia that is prescriptive. I want instead to connote an ideality - a desire for a thing, or a way, that is not here but is nonetheless desirable, something worth striving for. This desire does not lead to practical politics or even a practical critical practice, because pragmatism has only ever failed us.” (121) and
“Utopia can never be prescriptive and is always destined to fail. Despite this seeming negativity, a generative politics can be potentially distilled from the aesthetics of queer failure. Within failure we can locate a kernel of potentiality.”
I understand the impulse to leave everything open to the future and to not want to prescribe what utopia looks like, and to be open to failure. I think I understand that posture. But I’m also wondering if leaving the goal completely nebulous - purposefully formless, is a viable philosophy. I keep thinking of humans’ well-intentioned mistakes of the past - the future-oriented culture of the 20th Century, for example, that destroyed our earth and continues to produce plastics that are choking our oceans. Is it fair to ask questions about a utopia that is completely unplanned, totally unregulated, and seems to eschew any concern about the future? I have the same concern about Edelman, even though Munoz is bright and Edelman dark. Especially Edelman says “fuck the future”, which to me seems to be a morally untenable position. What do you think?
Amy's notes on No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
-“Queerness thus comes to mean nothing for both [the Right and the Left]: for the right wing the nothingness always at war with the positivity of civil society; for the left, nothing more than a sexual practice in need of demystification.”
That definitely describes how I see things: Erik’s Right-wing side of the family is zealous in the righteous war against “the gay agenda” which will unravel the fabric of society. We, pretty classic Liberals, have traveled a far distance from where we were born in understanding LGBTQ folks as humans just like straight folks, who deserve all the same rights and dignity and freedoms. But are we wrong? This reminds me of Munoz’s point earlier about what it means to be queer. Both authors seem to be saying that queerness is not just about sexual orientation.
-One thing that helped me understand where Edelman was coming from was when he described (several times throughout the book) how sex in our society is only seen as positive when it’s associated with procreation. He talks about how Pope John Paul II described same-sex unions as “based on individual egoism” rather than genuine love. The pope said “such a caricature has no future and cannot give future to any society.” I assume that this is where he took the title from, and I imagine the pain and the anger that I would feel if I were gay.
Also, the criticism that same-sex relationships are selfish because they don’t produce children don’t make sense to me. What about heterosexual couples who can’t have children? What about heterosexual couples who choose not to ever have children? What about heterosexual couples who are done having children? Is it selfish and unnatural for them to have sex? Is their union a “caricature” because it has “no future”?
Another example of this is an article in the Baltimore Sun that covered the story of a murder where the perpetrator happened to be a gay man. The author wrote: “For half a century at least, male homosexual life in the United States has been a culture of death… sooner or later, a product of that culture was going to take violence on the road… There will be other young men who have come face to face with the knowledge that their own lives are blighted and doomed… and now want to experience the rush of killing in more traditional ways.”
Again, I imagine the pain and the fury I would feel - that I do feel as I think of the gay men I know. I’m now old enough that my friends’ kids are growing up, and just in the last couple of months I’ve learned that two boys whom I watched grow up are now young men and have come out as gay, and they are on one hand the most brilliant and happen to be very gentle and wonderful human beings, and on the other hand, they’re also just like anybody else. They’re not angels - they’re just normal people who are gay.
But my understanding is that this is not how Edelman sees “queerness.” (as I wrote before)
And I guess in general, Edelman’s embrace of “no future” and “the death drive” seem like such a reaction based in pain and anger. Am I missing something? How does it strike you?
I would say in general about this book: I had never considered the notion that we take for granted “futurity” as a given moral imperative.
I had also never considered the “tyranny of the child”, and I sympathized greatly with his argument that it doesn’t make sense for all of society to be unable to even acknowledge homosexuality for fear of it corrupting/contaminating the children. (We have an overall fear of discussing sex around kids, because we deem it “inappropriate”, but there’s an added layer with homosexuality, and I can see how frustrating and angering that would be.) What is a solution in your view? Do you think our society should open up about all of it in general? Sex shops and book stores right next to grocery stores? Or even just sex stuff in Target? Maybe! I’m not being sarcastic! I’m truly open-minded about this (although I’m totally uncomfortable - I’m pushing through it!) :) and would love to hear your thoughts.
Also, Edelman is a freaking genius. Parts of his book were so virtuosic I was thrilled to read them. Funny, searingly incisive. But then he would plunge back into the brambles and lose me. He needs Harari to rub off on him so he can keep his gorgeous metaphors and wordplay and intricate insights, but convey his ideas in a way that people can actually understand. Reading him right after bell hooks (who won’t use footnotes because it’s off putting to “real people”) really threw that into relief!
Amy's Notes on The Trouble With Normal
Thank you, Michael Warner, for writing in plain English!! Complex, compelling ideas, but written clearly. Bless!!
“Some kind of deviation have become more respectable over time. Others remain beyond the pale for all but the most radical of the most libertairan. Thus people who stray into the wrong category on one score or another may well reject with disdain any suggestion that they belong in alliance with the perverts who stand below them on the scale of disgust. The people who drift into the right-hand column do not make common cause. If they did, the left-hand column wouldn’t stand a chance of survival. Those who inhabit only the left-hand column are probably a tiny minority. And yet their scheme of value dominates. (27)
“Queers can be abusive, insulting, and vile toward one another, but because abjection is understood to be the shared condition, they also know how to communicate through such camaraderie a moving and unexpected form of generosity. No one is beneath its reach, not because it prides itself on generosity, but because it prides itself on nothing. The rule is: Get over yourself. Put a wig on before you judge. And the corollary is that you stand to learn most from the people you think are beneath you. At its best, this ethic cuts against every form of hierarchy you could bring into the room. Queer scenes are the true salons des refuses, where the most heterogeneous people are brought into great intimacy by their common experience of being despised and rejected in a world of norms that they now recognize as false morality.” (36)
“In what I am calling queer culture, however, there is no truck with bourgeois propriety. If sex is a kind of indignity, then we’re all in it together. And the paradoxical result is that only when this indignity of sex is spread around the room, leaving no one out, and in fact binding people together, that it begins to resemble the dignity of the human. In order to be consistent, we would have to talk about dignity in shame.” (36)
“The ‘stigmaphile’ space of the stigmatized among themselves, and the ‘stigmaphobe’ world of the normals. The stigmaphile space is where we find a commonality with those who suffer from stigma, and in this alternative realm learn to value the very things the rest of the world despises- not just because the world despises them, but because the world’s pseudo-morality is a phobia and inauthentic way of life. The stigmaphobe world is the dominant culture, where conformity is ensured through fear of stigma.” (43)
That part - “not just because the world despises them” answers part of the question I had about the other authors defining queerness partly as a reaction to oppression. Further, to that point:
“People at both ends seem to see the tension in these terms: many at the stigmaphobe end accuse the sex radicals of embracing their victimhood, or creating ‘a cult of the outsider.’ Many at the stigmaphile end, meanwhile, accuse their opponents of ‘internalized homophobia.” (44)
“One lesbian among the new leaders declared that ‘Homosexuals would gain equality only by ‘integrating,’ by insisting on being ‘men and women whose homosexuality is irrelevant to our ideals, our principles, our hopes and aspirations.’ This self-defeating language discloses the whole sad comedy from which the lesbian and gay movement has yet to emerge. Sex and sexuality are disavowed as ‘irrelevant’ in an attempt to fight stigma. But the disavowal itself expresses the same stigma!” (46)
This is where the LDS church is right now - they downplay homosexuality, saying “it’s just one aspect of who you are; don’t let it define you.” One top leader went so far as to say “there are no LGBT Latter-Day Saints,” completely erasing that identity, and he tried to explain it by saying it doesn’t matter and shouldn’t define a person. Great response (used in the episode) on p. 47-48: heterosexuality is at the core of life - especially Mormon life, where marriage/family/child-bearing is of utmost importance!
“What immortality was to the Greeks, what virtu was to Machiavelli’s prince, what faith was to the martyrs, what honor was to the slave owners, what glamour is to drag queens, normalcy is to the contemporary American. Of course people want individuality as well, but they want their individuality to be the normal kind, and given the choice between the two they will take normal. But what exactly is normal? (53)
“We are now told that our aspiration should be to see ourselves as normal. No doubt gay people regard this as the ultimate answer to the common implication that being gay is pathological. No, they want to insist, we're normal. But this is to buy into a false alternative. The church tells us that our choice is to be saved or be damned; but of course it might be that these are not the only options, any more than Democrat and Republican need by the only options in politics. Just so, normal and pathological are not the only option.s One of the reasons why so many people have started using the word “queer’ is that it is a way of saying: ‘We’re not pathological, but don’t think for that reason that we want to be normal.” (59)
Why do straight people object to gay marriage?
“Marriage sanctifies some couples at the expense of others. It is selective legitimacy. … That is one reasons why same-sex marriage provokes such powerful outbursts of homophobic feeling in many straight people, when they could just a s easily view marriage as the ultimate conformity of gay people to their own norms. They want marriage to remain a privilege, a mark that they are special. Often they are willing to grant all (or nearly all) the benefits of marriage to gay people, as long as they don’t have to give up the word “marriage.” They need some token, however magical, of superiority.” (82)
“What kind of reasoning would tell us that something could not be false consciousness because it was widely shared? Isn’t that the idea? False consciousness is an undeniable force throughout history. From age to age, serfs have revered their masters, young men have marched gaily off to be slaughtered on behalf of deities and nations, and wives have lovingly obeyed patriarchal husbands. Why should gay people be immune to similar mistakes about their interests?” (105)
Partial answer to my question “what is ‘queer’ culture from the other two books:
“Try standing at a party of queer friends and charting all the histories, sexual and nonsexual, among the people in the room. (In some circles this is a common party sport already.) You will realize that only a find and rapidly shifting line separates sexual culture from many other relations of durability and care. The impoverished vocabulary of straight culture tells us that people should be either husbands and wives or (nonsexual) friends. Marriage marks that line. It is not the way many queers live. If there is such a thing as a gay way of life, it consists in these relations, a welter of intimacies outside the framework of professions and institutions adn ordinary social obligations. Straight culture has much to learn from it, and in many ways has already begun to learn from it. Queers should be insisting on teaching these lessons.” (116)
“I have my doubts when legal scholars… argue that gay marriage would redress gender inequality by ‘subverting’ traditional marriage, making it no longer the heterosexual matrix of women’s subordination. This view enjoys great popularity among lesbian and gay apologists for marriage. ...And not without reason. ...same-sex marriage would further weaken the model of subordination that has typified marriage. If marriage were not necessarily heterosexual, people could more easily view it as equal partnership. This is to say only that same-sex marriage might improve things, if not for queers then (indirectly) for women married to men.” (131)
This comes up in my conversations increasingly frequently!! When we’re talking about dynamics between spouses in marriage, we sometimes ask “well how would a same-sex couple navigate this?” because in those unions no one has a trump card.
“Any argument for gay marriage requires an intensified concern for what is thrown into its shadow.”
Warner then goes on to detail then-NYC-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in the 90’s to re-zone the city in what the New York Times called the “worthy purpose of protecting communities from the adverse impact of sex-related businesses”, which hugely impacted the gay community. This was a really uncomfortable part of the book for me because of my upbringing and how I’ve raised my children, but whatever people’s opinions are, I must say that I was very struck by that phrase that we should look at what is “thrown into shadow.”
Reminds me of that model that Professor Elliott presented in the very first class we took together: the Apollo and Dionysus dichotomy. Apollo represents light, reason, control. Dionysus represents darkness, intuition, loss of control. Apollo is intellect, Dionysus is sexuality. In the ancient world (and in some non-Western traditions), an individual’s goal and society’s goal would be to strike a balance between the two to achieve an integrated, whole, balanced self. Christianity, in contrast, sought to wipe out the intuitive, sensual side completely. Those impulses are part of our experience so they don’t go away, they just go underground, and often that means we have no control over them because we pretend they aren’t there. This is the sense I got as he described Giuliani’s efforts. And I thought back to our episode on Our Bodies, Ourselves, where my guest Jessica talked about how the Dutch are so much more open about bodies and sexuality, and how Amsterdam has the famous red-light district… and sure enough, Warner writes:
“Coming to New York from Amsterdam, or Paris, or Sydney, one could not fail to notice the difference. Sex has gone undercover. The consequence seems to have been the nearly perfect obliteration of a visible culture of safer sex.” (154)