The Potential of the Queer
On José Esteban Muñoz
“I was a spy in the house of gender normativity.”
– José Esteban Muñoz
I too have been a spy in the house of gender normativity. This is what I saw: Work, eat, breed. That, in effect, is how production and consumption are supposed to operate. You have to do work in order to buy stuff and you have to buy stuff so there will continue to be work. Your duty to reproduce the commodity form doesn’t stop there. You are supposed to not only make and consume commodities, you are supposed to breed and raise workers as well. And all on an ever-expanding scale: work more, buy more, breed more. As if the planet offered a limitless supply of itself to be turned into more and more of the same.
“Can the future stop being a fantasy of heterosexual reproduction?” I want to start with this question from Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, a book by the late José Estebam Muñoz. For Muñoz, queerness is more than an identity-marker, it is “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough.”
If the Anthropocene means one key thing, it is that this just can’t go on forever; can’t actually go on any more at all. So, perhaps it’s time to connect a critical theory of this extractive and destructive political economy to the critical theory produced by internal dissent within the over-developed world. One that that refuses to be the ‘you’ called for. This is how queer theory could be read not just as a critique of straight life in terms of sexuality and family, but more broadly as well.
Lauren Berlant refers to the “dead citizenship” of heterosexuality. And for Muñoz, “being ordinary and being married are both antiutopian wishes, desires that automatically reign themselves in.” One could follow Muñoz’s own counsel elsewhere in the book, however, and ask: for whom is being ordinary and married anti-utopian?
Muñoz: “It is my belief that minoritarian subjects are cast as hopeless in a world without utopia.” Not all children are white reproductions, some are black and brown and in danger. “The future is only the stuff of some kids. Racialized kids, queer kids, are not the sovereign princes of futurity.” For trans people of color, for example, these would be dream states. “Queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time,” writes Muñoz, “a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.” Maybe the ordinary is not quite the term to put into the position of being negated.
Raymond Williams taught us that culture is ordinary and that this is why it can be a resource, outside of what the selective tradition of dominant culture deigns to show of it. Maybe it is queerness that is ordinary after all, but not as a subsidiary double of straight life. In a dialectic of the exceptional and the ordinary, queerness may in fact be the exception that becomes, and then changes, the ordinary.
In Cruising Utopia Muñoz steps away from actual LGBTQ+ politics as practiced by certain high-profile advocacy groups and non-profits – groups for whom the romance of queer solidarity has been replaced by a focus on individual rights or those of the couple. Such groups practice a politics of inclusion that wants to make space in the reproduction of commodity relations for LGBTQ+ people; to allow LGBTQ+ persons to be consumers and even breeders rather than questioning this reproductive norm.
He also wants to shy away from its double in negative: an anti-social queer theory that has its roots in Leo Bersani and was elegantly articulated by Lee Edelman. This anti-social theory embraces the negative image that straight life has of gay life as unproductive, as the pleasure principle; the death drive. Here, homosexuality is a ghost haunting heteronormativity, one that it uses to legitimate its sole claim to the ordinary. Perhaps queerness can get out of binary logic of affirming one’s own negation. Perhaps it can become instead, as Muñoz puts it, a kind of “anticipatory illumination.”
In contrast to both heteronormative reproduction and a gay embrace of negativity, Muñoz wants to activate another image, the image of queer community as potential, by thinking further about temporality. “We must vacate the here and now for a then and there,” he writes. To put it schematically: straight time is that of expanded reproduction of the same; gay time is an immersion and surrender into the present. Perhaps there could be a queer temporality that deploys forgotten pasts and imminent futures against both these habits of presence. Perhaps there could be a “being singular plural of queerness.” Perhaps there could be “multiple forms of belonging in difference.”
As Dorothy Parker put it: “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” It was Michael Warner who put the concept of heteronormativity into conversation. And it is Muñoz who wants to insist that this concept is about more than identities derived from sexual orientations. “Heteronormativity,” he writes, “speaks not just to a bias related to sexual object choice but to that dominant and overarching temporal and spatial organization of the world that I have called straight time.” Or again: “Straight time’s ‘presentness’ needs to be phenomenologically questioned, and this is the fundamental value of a queer utopian hermeneutics.” And again: “the present is provincial.”
Against straight time, Muñoz proposes an ecstatic time – but not just one that surrenders to the moment. His is an ecstatic time that calls on the past and projects other futures. “Knowing ecstasy is having a sense of timeliness’s motion,” he says, “comprehending temporal unity, which includes the past (having-been), the future (the not-yet), and the present (the making-present).”
Ironically enough, queer theory has its own habits of reproductive sameness and repetition, referring back endlessly to Michel Foucault, breeding endless broods of little Foucittens. Muñoz thinks the ecstatic through the work of Ernst Bloch instead. Bloch’s key figure is a certain sense of the utopian as another time and place imminent to the apparent, ‘provincial’ one. Muñoz: “Queerness’s form is utopian.” Muñoz quotes Bloch from his book Traces: “One is alone with oneself. Together with others, most are alone even without themselves. One has to get out of both.”
Bloch contrasts abstract utopia to concrete utopia. The former is conceived as if entirely outside of historical time, and tends to be systematic. (I think abstract utopias are more interesting than do Bloch and Muñoz. Charles Fourier’s New Amorous World, for example, is a relentlessly practical queer theory.) The concrete utopia, by contrast, is imminent to historical time, a backward glance that contains a forward vision, a surplus that opens toward an elsewhere and else-when. Muñoz: “Concrete utopias are the realm of educated hope.” This potential is in the ornamental. In The Utopian Function of Art, Bloch gives the modern bathroom as an example, with its tension between the functional and nonfunctional.
The utopian could be just the outer limits of romantic longing, but Bloch tries to temper romanticism with a bit of Marx, for whom knowledge is oriented toward what is coming into being. It’s the conceptualization of what is being produced – and what could be produced otherwise. The utopian impulse is an active agency in making futures out of pasts rather than doubling the present. It is a bit like the practice of détournement (and indeed Situationist International’s co-founder Asger Jorn was, like Bloch, interested in the potential of ornament).
Muñoz connects Bloch’s concrete utopia to C.L.R. James, who once remarked on the utopian element of factory floor cooperation. Even the Fordist workplace doesn’t function very well without workers acting collectively in the margins. Muñoz goes further and asks whether certain kinds of queer activity and gesture are a kind of labor which also produce a surplus, just not one that is all that easily turned into exchange value and surplus value.
This he connects to Paolo Virno on post-Fordist virtuoso labor which exceeds the kinds of repetitive and isolated movements of industrial labor. Maybe there is a kind of queer virtuosity that does not reproduce the same relations of production and reproduction. For Virno, the negative affect of virtuosity can be a form of negation which still points to another futurity, even another historical time. Virno and Muñoz are attracted to a kind of negation that does not oppose but evades. The ambivalence, cynicism, resignation, and opportunism (see Sianne Ngai’s ugly feelings, for example) of the multitude points towards escape, exit, exodus; defection.
Muñoz connects this in turn to what Jack Halberstam calls the queer art of failure. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote: “the art of losing’s not hard to master / though it may look ( Write it!) like disaster.” Queer performances of straight gestures are from one point of view failures, as they don’t reproduce heteronormative time, but from another perspective this failure is a successful act of exodus from the straight timeline. This is the rational and concrete core of utopia: that futures are actively made out of pasts – and made as a kind of cack-handed virtuosity. They are made out of the ornamental, out of a “cultural surplus.”
Queer virtuosity might appear irrational from the point of view of straight time. But then, as Herbert Marcuse points out, there’s a core of irrationality to the rationality of industrial society. It is a rationality of means deployed towards irrational (and planet killing) ends. Queer virtuosity may reverse the poles. It points in negative to the question of what a more rational life might be, but sometimes with crazy gestures.
By going back and retrieving Bloch and Marcuse from the archive, Muñoz wants to open up a futurity different not only to straight time in its dominant form, but what I might call leftist straight time. His example is David Harvey, who seems to think that the rise of gay liberation was a turn to lifestyle politics, to explorations of the self; to postmodernism and the neoliberal turn. Certainly there’s an element of LGBTQ+ politics that does want inclusion in those terms, and as Jasbir Puar points out, even wants to be part of a militarized American state.
But for Muñoz, queerness is about more than lifestyle and need not aim at inclusion in straight time. He wants to recall something of Marcuse’s insistence on the transformative force of eros as an experimental practice aimed at making another everyday life. Theodor Adorno had already anticipated that effusions of eros could be quite tolerated so long as they were contained within the private sphere and connected to the desirability of culture industry products. But perhaps it can be more than that.
Muñoz: “By my clock we were queer before we were lesbian and gay.” Much of Cruising Utopia is devoted to retrieving ephemeral traces of queer New York life-worlds from before the Stonewall revolt in 1969. It is to this end that he juxtaposes a Frank O’Hara poem and an Andy Warhol interview, both of which feature a bottle of Coke. In their work this archetypal commodity of the Fordist consumption is repurposed within everyday life to make connections between people who don’t look like they belong in the advertising.
Warhol arose out of, documented, and (let’s face it) exploited a downtown world that included, in Muñoz’s words, all sorts of “queer characters,” those capable of “a brilliant offness.” As I write, there’s a huge Warhol retrospective at the Whitney, adding value to the holdings of the collectors from whom the works are on loan. Muñoz would rather write about the downtown original from whom Warhol took so many ideas: Jack Smith.
Smith made his own world out of junk and debris – both inanimate and human. His photos, films and performances are saturated with a flaming brilliance, loaded with visual information accessible via the affects they generate as concepts. All feature his creatures, people with what in today’s language could be tagged queerness. Smith’s Atlantis, his utopia, was outside of private property; unintelligible to what to him were the “lobsters” of capitalism and “landlordism.”
To Smith, collecting was anathema to art. Even more than Muñoz let’s on we can see in Smith a linkage of proto-queerness to a critique of private property and the reproduction of commodity relations. He refused to finish his later work, for example, withholding it from the commodity form. Smith’s shows never started on time, often beginning hours late. He “fucked with time,” as Mary Woronov once put it, making time itself something outside of consumption. His concrete utopia was to imagine the world as a giant trash-heap from which anyone could extract what they wanted to make the life they want. His work and life was, to slot him into a category in a way he would refuse, a queer art of the Anthropocene.
Muñoz also champions the work of Ray Johnson, who came from an overlapping downtown New York milieu. Here too I think Johnson’s work presses further against the commodity form than Muñoz seems to recognize. Unlike Smith, Johnson did work with collectors, but would often complicate the transaction. Once, when a collector tried to reduce the price of a portrait by a quarter, for example, Johnson gave him instead a portrait that was only three-quarters of the collector and was one quarter of someone else.
Muñoz connects the work of Ray Johnson to Jill Johnston. The former practiced a fugitive art of collages that he called moticos – collage art that moved, that performed; fleeting and hermetic. He is one of the originators of mail art, making transverse connections mediated only by the postal system. His correspondance society, for whose imaginary meetings he drew endless seating charts, was an alternate world of flat relations with no real institutional center. This work remains an ephemeral archive, some of it in ‘proper’ collections, but much of it not. It is, for Muñoz, a “ghosted materiality.”
Whereas Warhol selected certain characters to exhibit as freaks for the straight world, like Smith, Johnston creates another kind of mediation that, for a time at least, escaped the binary logic of a straightness that affirms itself in the mirror of its other. Jill Johnston appears in a Ray Johnson seating chart. She wrote that all archives are fictions. It is a queer habit to make other ones, to route around erasures. Best known as a dance critic who documented the Judson dance scene, she also favored a kind of intermedia practice.
There are many overlapping accounts of downtown New York. Even when its characters did not know each other or inhabit different timelines, you can imagine them passing in the street with a glance of recognition. In a literary register, there’s Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls, there’s Samuel Delany’s The Motion of Light on Water, there’s John Giorno’s You Got to Burn to Shine. Within such literary traces there’s a structure of feeling or, in an old parlance, a vibe that could be called utopian – but only where the utopian is acknowledged as having multiple forms. Particularly after the Stonewall revolt, that impulse could take an explicitly political form. Muñoz quotes from a group called Third World Gay Revolution who are emphatic that “we want a new society.” But sometimes not.
Some of this world was erased by the HIV crisis. For Douglas Crimp, it is a lost world of sexual possibility. Leo Bersani rightly notes how exclusive and hierarchical the old white gay New York scene was as a libidinal economy. But Muñoz thinks there are fleeting fragments that are retrievable, and which point towards other possibilities: such as in John Giorno’s acts of queer world-making, for instance. This is performative writing, made for the voice, and about a good life that never really existed. (A contemporary New Yorker might marvel not so much at sex in subway toilets but that the toilets were open for any kind of use.)
From Theodor Adorno, Muñoz takes up an aesthetic of picturing, of world-invoking, in which the observable world of damaged life includes an image of its negation. From Raymond Williams he takes the concept of a structure of feeling as useful for thinking a continuity between lived experience and the work of art. Muñoz puts this to good use in thinking about science fiction writer Samuel Delany’s dual accounts of his experience of Allan Kaprow’s invention of the happening and of discovering the public gay sex taking place on the westside piers at night.
From Kaprow, Delany extracts a concept of public spaces as alienated and separated from each other as well as from private space. Seeing men in a mass – having sex with each other together, rather – becomes for Delany a utopian moment. Homosexuality is not private, singular, or a problem in those moments when it can be a shared world of only semi-darkness. Key for Delany is that these were worlds of inter-class contact, like a real-life version of Johnson’s correspondance.
Fred Moten has insisted on putting Black experience back into accounts of New York’s downtown bohemia – what he calls the B-side of it. Muñoz picks up the complicated history of Leroi Jones, or Amiri Baraka as he was later known. As Baraka he favored a kind of politicized hyper-masculinity and a Black-centric politics. But as Jones he had inhabited a more racially and sexually mixed world. He helped staple together Diane di Prima’s magazine The Floating Bear with Fred Herko and Cecil Taylor – a publication that included Frank O’Hara, Ray Johnson, and William Burroughs, and which evinced what Muñoz terms its own kind of “queer potentiality.”
As Leroi Jones, he wrote a short play called The Toilet, the key to which is its ending, which Muñoz calls a “moment of wounded recognition.” It ends with a gesture. Following Giorgio Agamben, Muñoz sees the gesture as interrupting regular time. Its utopian promise is that of a means without end. In the case of Jones’ play, the gesture is one of recognition across antagonisms. A boy has been beaten up for expressing his desire for another boy. That boy himself participated in the beating to cover up his own desires. In the final moment, he cradles the beaten boy’s head in his hands. It’s a gesture neither of reconciliation nor victory, but a refusal of repudiation, a refusal of negation.
Fred Herko was the kind of ‘queer character’ Andy Warhol favored – a showbiz dropout with a taste for trade and speed. Herko committed suicide by dancing out of an open window. Warhol said if he had known he would have wanted to film it. This is a statement that, on its surface, may sound callous. But maybe it isn’t. In any case, Muñoz is not really interested in smug moral judgments.
Herko is not the exemplary homo of heroic gay history. He was a hot mess. Nor does he fit neatly in the history of dance. He was part of the Judson scene, but he was not a minimalist. He was both an anachronism and ahead of his time. In 2015 Jack Ferver and Reid Bartelme created a dance tribute to him, Night Light Bright Light.
Randy Martin insists that there are homologies between the forms passing through the dance world and those passing through a wider cultural politics. Movement and mobilization are his hinge words for making those connections. Muñoz practices a different kind of dance reading and perceives with a different eye. He is interested in those gestures that don’t work, that don’t figure in and as their time. “Herko is interested in pacing out a more beautifully moved being,” he writes.
Muñoz traces a line from pre-Stonewall queer art and life to the recent past. Downtown might no longer exist in actual downtown New York, but there’s still something going on. The ‘outer’ boroughs might now be in the center. Muñoz travels out to my own neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens to experience the Magic Touch, or the Tragic Touch as it was known locally. It is gone now, but queer-Queens continually reinvents itself. Muñoz: “At the Magic Touch I found men of all colors relating to one another, forming bonds, and I saw this in mass. I glimpsed a whole that is diverse and invigorating in its eclectic nature.”
What’s curious is the way both queer life and queer art actually do reproduce themselves through time, keeping open lines to other places and periods. Muñoz notices a sticker campaign by a group that refuses to name themselves. They ask: “Can we afford to be normal?” Their zine has the delicious title: Swallow Your Pride. Out of the queer performativity of Jack Smith comes a whole gaggle of performers: My Barbarian, Dynasty Handbag (Jibz Cameron), Kalup Linzy; Justin Vivian Bond. Some of this work was in a show at The New Museum that was a little informed by the Muñoz sensibility called Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.
The uptown drag ball scene was made famous in the documentary Paris is Burning. (There’s also a more recent film about the scene called Kiki.) The House of Aviance no longer competes in drag balls, but its best known member, Kevin Aviance, is a show all to himself. Aviance doesn’t do traditional drag, and in this he is part of a whole scene that in the wake of Leigh Bowery has moved on to more nuanced gender performance. Aviance draws on the Afrofuturist style of Labelle and Grace Jones. He does not tuck, and so generates a hybrid gender to trouble gay spaces with their femmephobia.
Aviance is a gay nightclub star, performing his queenly gestures as a solo act, and as such provides a source for Muñoz’s thought. “Aviance then throws himself into the audience,” he writes, “and is held aloft by it. He is lost in a sea of white hands; this being lost can be understood as a particularly queer mode of performing the self. This is how the performance ends. This amazing counter-fetish is absorbed by the desiring masses. He has opened in them a desire or mode of desiring that is uneasy and utterly important if he is to surpass the new gender symmetry of the gay world.”
Is he a fetish in this space? He generates a female glamour but with a masc element. For Muñoz, Aviance disidentifies with the fetish as illusion. He performs the gestures that gay male “clones” don’t allow themselves, do not “let in.” He is a beacon for emotions for men who had to “straighten” out their walks and went on to craft hyper masc gym-built bodies. How how hard it is to be so butch all the time! (I gave up.) They become their own fetish, and so Aviance works as a counter-fetish. Not the opposite of a fetish, but a cutting-across. He recodes signs of abjection in gay spaces: both of blackness and the forbidden femme.
Muñoz: “Queerness, as I am describing it here, is more than just sexuality. It is the great refusal of a performance principle that allows the human to feel and know not only our work and our pleasures but also our selves and others.” It is a great refusal, he insists, a desire to produce nature with a difference, to ornament, to camouflage. Muñoz again: “Taking ecstasy with one another, in as many ways as possible, can perhaps be our best way of enacting a queer time that is not yet but nonetheless always potentially dawning.”
Cruising utopia might be a cruising that is not just for sex. It is a cruising for anticipatory illuminations, and in that sense very close to Situationist dérive and that psychogeography that calls for another city, for another life made out of fragments of ambience where life is already otherwise. It’s an anti-anti-utopianism, if you can pardon the awkward phrase.
McKenzie Wark is a Professor of Culture and Media in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research.