Buttigieg and the Gay Pastoral

Pete Buttigieg’s run for the presidency apparently matters. That’s what we are told in the Washington Post. Adam McMahon, assistant professor of political science at Rider University, lists three reasons to justify the claim. First, “Mayor Pete,” as he is referred variously, is the first “out” runner for the Democratic nomination (and potentially the first out president) in American history. Second, open criticism of his gayness will not be explicit. Third, Buttigieg might influence policies that concern the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) communities. None of these reasons are wrong. But the discussion of each ends up producing the fiction of the “good gay” man — of a man like Buttigieg — and, in spite of itself, reproducing misogyny and the erasure of female empowerment.

I will call what enables this “good gay” aesthetic the gay pastoral.

The pastoral in literary tradition (probably not canonical in my use) situates the ideal of ordinary life (usually the country) alongside a form of authentic self-knowledge. Idyllic, the scenes of the pastoral render readers as pilgrims, to tap into the “truth” of our larger, complex social worlds — ones we have forgotten, or ones we might wish to renew commitments to. All that is needed is a shepherd: the good gay. The good gay is urbane and provincial, whole but wounded, classy but knows how (and when) to “camp it up.”

The gay pastoral smooths out the contradictions in these binary terms:

  1. The good gay’s sex life (“the love that dare not speak its name”) is nowadays sayable and seems, well, downright conventional. But the good gay’s sex life is only sayable, and only conventional, through the halo of his marriage vows. No more lusty bathhouses for you, good gay. Marriage is, after all, a site of healthy, state-sanctified love.
  2. The good gay must have experienced phobia and violence within an American culture still violently homophobic. This, in turn, grants a special knowledge of suffering that other normative men do not possess (“and whelmed in deeper gulfs than he”). No James Baldwin critique of sentimentalism needed here!
  3. The good gay knows, well, what’s good. He tends toward the Wildean sense of taste and style. He dresses well. He understands the inner workings of the good-life machinery, passing within it, networking and flourishing. He’s knowledgable but down to earth. You speak seven languages, good gay? And manage a large-ish town life?

These figurations (family, suffering, taste) triangulate McMahon’s discussions of Buttigieg. They even sponsor the first-person intimacy enacted by calling him “Mayor Pete.” Is it a way around having to pronounce someone’s (tricky?) last name — or really a normalizing convention making him even more likable? Nevertheless, Mayor Pete is a Harvard-educated polyglot. He’s an openly gay white man (and yes, he’s cisgender). He has a conventional life whose only wrinkle, it seems, is the fact that he’s married to another (white cisgender) man. The gay pastoral renders certain differences temporarily moot. The good gay and the good person are one and the same in time.

Buttigieg is a good gay.

There was something more that caught my eye reading McMahon’s short analysis. I realized behind the argument were the glues of homosocial structures, relations among men that, for theorist Eve Sedgwick, require sustained rituals, stylistic management — all of which enable non-sexual relationships to obtain among men in the first place. These days, the gay pastoral goes, gays can be cool guys too. They’re smart. The good gay is not like those “other” gays—obsessed with sex and saturated vice. The good gay poses no sexual threat to men’s virile hetero-masculinity.

The good gay is almost always white.

These figurations of male bonding mask more fuckery. They are sponsored by misogynism and the genesis of violence against women. There is a concurrent, uneven, but traceable contempt for femininity. The histories of homophobia and homosociality usually render women behind the scenes, the understudies of history. In this sexist history, women act like props. They are the necessary materials for the continuation of men’s narratives. Take marriage. Buttigieg matters not because same-sex marriage matters, or equality matters, but because marriage matters. It continues to overcode the intimate monogamy with imagery of power, belonging, legitimacy. It’s assuredly not queer imagery. Because queer, trans, and nonbinary people are “seen” as feminine even if they are not expressing any “femaleness.” 

Queers are not good gays. And neither are women.

So to draw spurious comparisons between the epistemic violence women and queers of color experience to that of gay men—that’s ballsy. Justice Elena Kagan’s experience of misogyny had been coded by sexism in 2010. Her unprepossessing style, her affinity for sports, her being “unmarried” had been spun into phobic representations of a butch lesbian. But McMahon actually mocks Kagan’s experience of injustice by making it a cultural vestibular of any gay experience. And as if to add insult to history, he poaches Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s testimony during her hearings. She, too, was unmarried. But she proclaimed that her “Latina wisdom” was a necessary counterbalance to the mostly male, mostly white institutional vision of American justice. Is this what the good gays face? Will their unmarked flesh intersect to undermine their credibility?

…then a few sentences later, an Obama reference…can’t.

Race, gender, sex, sexuality, class — they seem to be substitutable objects-placements in the metonymic game of thrones here. This trivializes oppression. It antagonizes the possibility of solidarity by erasing the importance of words in their fixed, lived, experiential meanings to describe the singularity of oppressive violence. Race and gender and sexuality are not the same. And when marked bodies are exposed to political violence, they cannot offer a preview (vestibular) or coming events for white gays. I’m sorry.

There’s a lesson I remember from one of Sedgwick’s first, and now classic, books, Epistemology of the Closet. Nonnormative identities have a way of expressing being through what she called “nonce taxonomies,” ordinary practices of naming from within the spaces of survival. They aren’t easily understood. And they are difficult to authentically represent. I read and learned in McMahon’s article that attitudes regarding LGBTQIA people have “changed rapidly” over the past few decades. I wondered who? Who within that acronym — of the racial, (a)gendered, (a)sexed, (a)sexualized nonce beings it represents — who moved the needle of public opinion? The gay pastoral might help us here. It is a whiteness, a sterilized aesthetic of gayness routed through the family-style nation, registered as national experience, of just being in general.

And yet the gay pastoral ruptures as much as it glosses. The counterhistory — a lesbian of color, a female subject of history, a transwoman whose enunciative power will pierce the interstices.

Let’s focus on that power, on women—for women.

 

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Some Notes on Ambivalence

These are just notes. I haven’t proofread them for exact clarity. I want to return to them later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how trans people manage the fact that crisis-affects saturate ordinary life. Ambivalence plays an important role here. (Even more so in political contexts.) The definition of ambivalence I have in mind consists of the agonism contained in its lived form: the co-presence of two moods or feelings that are in diametric opposition to one another. It seems so closely related to being aloof. But it’s not. It might be easy to think that ambivalence is a function of privilege, of aloofness or unchallenged distance, of individual sovereignty and personhood. But I tend to think otherwise. Ambivalence is more closely a function of non-sovereign relations with the world, among non-dominant groups with other non-dominant and dominant groups. In this sense, ambivalence offers non-sovereign subjects some psychic (and physical) space from everyday scenes of dissipating negativity. “Not again,” or “Why me,” or “Of course, great,” all these expressions capture what is at the heart of ambivalence: streetwise criticism of the present. And we all might agree that such criticisms do not usually emerge from the sovereignty that privilege protects. Being critical of present scene(s) in ordinary life, of constantly thinking about how its moments could have been and could be otherwise, extends from what is anxious in the experience of the non-dominant reality.

Anxiety is certainly as close to a universal “feeling” among humans that I am willing to hazard calling “universal.” And under conditions of non-sovereignty in scenes of the ordinary, the ambivalent subject must make snap decisions about how much energy to preserve or express; about whether a given action is worth the possible consequences. This is partly because the non-sovereign has more to lose in material and emotional terms. This is partly because the non-sovereign has many more objects of worry at any given time. It is a condition that some call minority stress, and others have called John Henryism when associated with anti-black racism. Thus, ambivalence is a way of fragmenting the scene into moments that can be metabolized there or later. One might consider Claudia Rankine’s work in Citizen (2014) as exemplum of ambivalent ordinariness. Here are a few phrases from that text. All of which extend from scenes in which racism is confronted (is both the aesthetic gloss and canvas). “…your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt….” (7); “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?“ (9); “You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested…” (10); “You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend” (11); “Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression….” (14); “Yes, of course, (15); “There I go? You ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down. Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile,” (16). These are scenes where the narrator’s affective knowledge engages her style of affective management. The former is what one knows about ordinary life because it has been inscribed, in a certain psychoanalytic sense, in the terrain of feelings. One can feel that something is wrong with a scene and adjust. This is knowledge of the affective sort. Affective management is a genre of how the narrator handles affects, of letting them swell or shrink. It all depends. Ambivalence is a style, then, within this genre.

Why is this affective style so important for the ordinariness of political life? Because it might spare someone the costs of having to engage. It spares those reserves so that one might preserve. This is because the marginalized self has been the object of Historical abjection, of narrative dislocation, and of pathologized will. Ambivalent subjects practice a moment of lateral agency, an extension into the ordinary that moves beyond what popular notions of linear experiences of time might allow. In psychoanalysis these are so many scenes of projection (attachments that relate hopes or fears to present objects into the future) or introjection (attaching certain feelings to present objects that make sense of the uncanny feelings that something was already there, waiting). Where racism is concerned (and in most instances it is a concern), theorist Patricia J. Williams writes that “these non-body-bound, uncompartmentalized ideas recognize the power of spirit, or what we in our secularized society might describe as they dynamism of self-as-reinterpreted-by-the-perceptions-of-others” (Alchemy of Race and Rights, 72-73). These ideas bear a resemblance to Hegel’s dialectic of recognition in Phenomenology of Spirit–if Hegel cared to make such scenes between Lord and Bondsman about racial domination. (Thankfully many intervening theorists like Williams have done so.) Ambivalent subjects must deal with the fact of their images and narratives being objects of supremacist discourse. What I mean by “deal” is reaction to a givenness of pressure that laminates the scene of sociality. This scene is predicated the symbolic economy that prefigures the scene; the non-dominant subject does not experience control over the flow of this kind of economy, only its effects. This is the heart of ambivalent styles of management, of dealing, of extending laterally into a world that seems to forbid growing vertically above it.

Ambivalence as I have described it here cannot be a non-knowing, a state of abjection in which all knowledge of conditions have been arrogated somehow. I am dealing with damage not defeat, here. Intead, ambivalence is the style that reflects upon Rankine’s notion that “you take in things you don’t want all the time” (2014, 55). Such a way of framing things puts an illuminating gloss on Williams’s mood where “this is the sort of morning when I hate being a lawyer, a teach, and just about everything else in my life. It’s all I can do to feed the cats” (1991, 4). Also on Susan Stryker’s words in “My Words to Victor Frankenstein” (2006) where she meditates on “the possibility of meaningful agency and action exists, even within field of domination that bring about the universal cultural rape of all flesh” (254). The world is brought in and out of focus because the threshold of the body is not a sovereign border. It is porous. It requires more from the non-dominant (intersecting selves of gender, race, sex, sexuality, and class). Because History is both a material and unconscious terrain both lived and having been lived (the books one reads in History Courses are textualizations of History, a story of certain accounts that accumulate to represent the ideal scenes in ordinary life). The material relationship this History imposes on the non-dominant subject conditions the need for ambivalence. It turns the hurt of History into something that can be metabolized as something other than painful non-control.

References:

Claudia Rankine, 2014, Citizen: An American Lyric, (Minneapolis: Greywolf Press).

Susan Stryker, 2006, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 244-256, (New York: Routledge).

Patricia J. Williams, 1991, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Feminism and Dying: Reading Sedgwick Part One

Part One: Finding A Voice

My writing is difficult.

“B,” I’ve heard people say. “If only you wrote what you just said, exactly how you said it, instead of the way it was written–I would have understood you.” Really? I meant the same fucking thing in the same fucking grammatical ways, just with different symbols called words! I wanted intensity to reflect the lives I was writing about. Why do I have to stop mid-sentence to explain “sensorium,” “affective attachment,” or a “culture of epistemic myopia.” I don’t want to care more about writing, just the subject. What an abyss.

So I’ll do a little story-telling and give a little structure to what all this blog project (as I’m calling it) is about.

I’m going to share some details about my life that has impacted the multiple trajectories I have taken in my life. I’m going to break this project up over several parts, this first being the inaugural part (who knows how many after). It’s about the parallelism between the book I’m currently reading, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love, and the linkages between her prose and analysis and my own experiences growing up with a mother with cancer.

Throughout this multi-part project I’ll be emphasizing themes I’m sure I can’t predict now. But I can think of one for this particular entry, what could be called the phenomenology of shame and what prevents me (or us) from writing clearly about emotional living (or affective experiences). Perhaps this project is a way to think about (past and present) affective experiences in reparative ways. 

When I think about it, this seems to be the most ridiculous thing? I can’t even write about what I find to be the most constitutive and transformative series of experiences in my life: Barbara, my mother, and her slow death of breast cancer. Every time I do write about the experiences, I feel like I’m pandering, like I want pity or something. Even to this day when I mention that my mom passed away more than 12 years ago, I cringe. Everyone has their mom. “I’m so sorry.” For what?

So don’t feel sorry. This isn’t sentimental. Just read. Just read without the questions of “what does the author intend to do here.” Don’t let the confusion of incomplete sentences and tense issues stop you. Just. Read.

I.

I grew up around cancer. My aunts both lived with and died from it. My mother lived with it for most of my life until she, too, died from it.

Suddenly, I’m a 16 year old queer all over again, learning for yet another time that she’s been re-diagnosed.

Standing in the kitchen of our New Mexico home on Kirtland Air Force Base (my mom would always call it “Kirkland” for some reason), fixing a pot of ramen noodles. “Sweetie, we have some news…”

And then breaking down while being told everything will be alright.

And the anger at the complete wantonness of it all: the privative life of a kid whose parent is dying and no one else can see it so that they might feel it. The smell of the oncology ward and the pit that grows like a plague seeing all those women on pull-out chairs attached to IVs, their heads wrapped in cloth for reasons you can only reason are for warmth, not aesthetic value.

Or the shame of feeling like I have to “deal” with another one of her mastectomies, her complete hysterectomy, her bed-riddenness, her inability to get up before noon each day, her loss of appetite, her sudden outburst of crying, of telling her to “stop” and then finding myself retching at my own disgust. And the ensuing emotional distancing because the shame of not being able to look at her without feeling pity, or that she was pathetic and weak, or that anyone would wish to be someplace else–it all became too strong. And I vomit.

And then the substance abuse that people call “self-medication”–only it was neither about myself nor particularly medicating. It was her. Just like the cutting, burning, whipping, and scratching that “self-injury” diagnoses relish in calling “unhealthy coping mechanisms.”

Or the reprimand from my Oma (father’s mother) that “you’re going to regret” not spending enough time with her. And of yelling at my Oma, an old German immigrant, that she had no “fucking clue” what she was talking about. And the awkward lunch she then took me to.

Or the college days that were really not a reprieve. It was a first semester of hell that started with a move-in that required my mother to sleep through a majority of it. And the biochemical bullshit of taking two different antidepressants and something else (I can’t remember) to help me sleep and something else (I can’t remember) to give me energy. Existing in a zone of in-between-ness.

Or of the constant phone calls to make sure everything was alright. And it always was. And then the Stevie Nicks concert where Barbara wore her shawl and twirled like she was the bewitching star on stage and “so there you go again, you say, you want your freedom.” You’re right Stevie. The shame I felt because was when I realized I didn’t want my freedom from Barbara but from her sickness and the distance it put between us.

And of finally being put at ease. She was OK. Even though she was never quite available to talk on the phone anymore. Always asleep. But that she wanted me to teach her about the Supreme Court because I was asked to lead a panel discussion in which I defended a more progressive affirmative action program at NMSU and knew my shit about case law and argued against a group of “dumbass white folks.”

Or that time where, after letting my hair down, relaxing, I came home from a drunken night with a friend, both naked in bed, feeling like I was living my best life, finally. And the phone call in the morning from my father, “You need to get here. Your mom. She has a week.” And the fire, fury, futile rage, anger, betrayal, blasphemy of words that couldn’t meld a single potent expression of the pitiful state. Just feeling. A raw nerve. I was in the fetal position, hungover, weeping on the floor of my college apartment.

And then suddenly being there in the hospital room, seeing her take her last breath. And hating my brother and my father for making me watch. And hating being there in that room.

Because there is nothing beautiful about watching someone die.

II.

It doesn’t take a professor or a therapist to feel that “shame is a painful thing to write about. It gets into your body. It gets into you.” That’s what Elspeth Probyn intones in “Writing Shame.” It’s about exposure and vulnerability that drives the urge to turn away from the computer screen, close your laptop, and walk away. Because, exactly like you’ve been taught your entire life, you don’t want to be sentimental in your feelings or writing. You don’t want the weight, a pathos so overbearing as to be writing mere melodrama. But “it’s the challenge of making the writing equal to the subject being written about. The gulf between the two may bring on the feeling of being a sham or…a deeper shame.” Elspeth gets it. “Shame forces us to reflect continually on the implications of our writing.” She gets it.

Then there’s Sedgwick’s canonical account, that shame “is the affect that mantles the threshold between introversion and extroversion, between absorption and theatricality, between performativity and–performativity.” Shame has the affective force of interrupting all of us midway through a sentence, or an utterance, or wordless thought. It’s as constitutive as it is interruptive (maybe both are the same?). And thus in writing, there’s an ambivalent practice that occurs. A distancing that the author creates from the subject because, well–you don’t want to get too “in the weeds” and forget your own “voice.” Or the feeling that being too dispassionate makes you sound like an asshole, like a typical social scientist whose voice is overly formal–banalizing the singularity and beauty of a life. Where does the middle ground emerge? Is it somewhere between that introvertedness of a writer who knows the subject but can’t grasp the words, filled to the brim with affect and the extrovertedness of the scholar who has the words but lacks the affective content to match the subject?

I found a semblance of an answer (so far) in A Dialogue on Love, Sedgwick’s account of her experiences with therapy after being diagnosed with cancer. My copy of the book, the 1999 edition from Beacon Press, has no table of contents. It’s set up very much like a diary, starting in 1992. And while I was reading I couldn’t help but think of where I was in 1992, with my mother who, although in remission, still had to deal with the knowledge that her cancer can return at anytime. She had lost a sister already.

You see, the first two chapters of Sedgwick’s text deals with the dialogue she and her first (cis) male therapist, Shannon, have. It’s a reflection of those exchanges: of her intellectualism and its effects on her desire, her relationships, and her need to be in therapy.

The reading is a dreamscape. A set of memories. As memory then…

In 1992, I was in Colorado. Aurora, Colorado to be exact.

Nine years old. I remember even then feeling so energetic about nearly everything except cub scouts. I knew what “cancer” was. I knew it was deadly. At night I would say the same prayer exactly 15 times before I could sleep, “God keep my mother alive.” It was exactly 15 or the prayer was worthless. Everything had to be perfect for me. (I’ve since been diagnosed with OCD.) However, this is what Lauren Berlant has called “affective attachments”: things that bring about a sense of a secure, durable world. I excelled as a student. I didn’t have academic problems. I loved to read about facts–just facts. Encyclopedic facts, actually. My mom had bought a partial set.

Not surprisingly, I was an introverted kid. I liked playing with Adam, my handsome best friend and neighbor. But what I loved most was being at home with my mom. Watching “Unsolved Mysteries” with her until bedtime. My mother was even the den mother of our local cub scout chapter. She had energy then but was still very thin.

I remember she had a prosthetic breast from her first bout with cancer. She showed it to me in order to explain it because, well, I didn’t know why she even needed it. “You are who you are,” I told her. I couldn’t (and didn’t) tell anyone else that she had cancer, that I was terrified she was going to die from it, that it could be my fault. There was an internal intensity that never quite made it to the surface of my body as a child. And every night I would lie there in bed, petrified that if I didn’t pray just right, get into bed just right, I would jeopardize my mom’s life. I would even sneak into her room at night and ever so carefully hover over her face to make sure she was breathing. One night she woke up and caught me and gasped in terror. I ran with such motivation back to my room, hid under my covers, expecting punishment.

Nothing happened. She just asked what I was doing in her bedroom. I told her that I was making sure she was still alive.

Perhaps these scenes in 1992, alongside an entire lifetime of experiences contemplating her death and her bodily appearances as a result of chemo or radiation therapies, is why I tend to question mine or anyone else’s privilege, their “OK-ness of being,” as Sedgwick puts it in her book. Because, like Sedgwick, I was (and am) stuck an impasse in this. How many other (at least white) kids in that neighborhood, or that school, could actually say they felt and knew what death was? That they lived with it every day and that it consumed them to the degree that their ordinary–those rhythms and grooves of expectation and relief in everyday life–was broken into vignettes of prayer, anxiety, play, and emotional fatigue from making sure they weren’t the ones responsible for their mother’s death? What happened to that kid who loved their mother so much that they grew up that, for a time, they felt ashamed of her illness? Where is the kid (in the adult now) that thrived on love and security?

End of Part One.

(The second will be to stage a textual event on the shoulders of the first, if only to broker some conversation between feminism and hetero-masculinity. Or what the witnessing of slow death does to a person’s sense of belonging in the world [i.e., my father]).

Queer Eye and Normative Dreams

Allow me to have a brief but queer detour on my way to Queer Eye.

I think Fredric Jameson might have been right. (Wait, was it Jameson?) He argued that contemporary (or post-modern) culture sells “intensity.” It promises what Brian Massumi calls affect. For the normal person, the consumer of mass media, it sells an assortment of feelings and emotional relief. Media (literature, magazines, blogs [except mine], and now streaming television) are saturated with intensity. The reasons for this vary. Why are we more comfortable crying or laughing hysterically on our beds with a pint of ice cream in our hands than at cafes, bars, on the sidewalk, or on the stoop with others. Are we afraid of expressing our feelings? Perhaps we are taught that. Once after middle school, two guys bullied me on the school bus ride home. I came through the door sobbing. My mother freaked out. “What have they done to my baby?” She was so shaken that my father decided to take me to the side and tell me, “I don’t care if Mike Tyson threatens you at school…don’t tell your mother.” Obviously that memory has had a lasting effect. I tend to keep my emotions to myself. Middle school is fucked up.

Given this kind of personal experience, I tend to enjoy reading theories that explain this cultural and social “introversion.” Ann Cvetkovich, in An Archive of Feeling, argues that the internalization of feeling became more broadly cultural when doctors began pathologizing certain affectivities. In other words, they considered certain psychic states “of being affected” by external stimuli (what we might call a trigger) to be signs of a medical condition. Intense feelings–of anger, depression, joylessness, or manic happiness–were modified, in part, by the new cultural genre of psychology. I tend to agree with Cvetkovich on this point. Extremes of emotions and feelings, and their performances, have been signs of instability. How does one keep these emotions in check? Do they have a place in public life? If not, the autonomous individual in American life needs to learn how to self-manage. What better avenue than the private office of a therapist?

Enter “Bingeable” Media: Queer Eye’s Normative and Queer Dilemmas

So I began Queer Eye, Netflix’s reboot of the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and I couldn’t help but wonder why in the fuck was I crying (bawling might be the more accurate term) during Tom’s makeover? Maybe there really is something queer about Queer Eye, or this episode at least. 

In spite of the consumerism; in spite of the commodification of “feeling”; in spite of the mainstream LGBTQ narratives of acceptance, Queer Eye made the attempt to delve into the utterly ordinary and banality of life-making in a southern town. It was an exploration of affects that keep people in holding patterns that don’t produce anything other than the next day. This episode reminded me of Katie Stewart’s concept of the “space on the side of the road […] a space in which people literally ‘find themselves’ caught in space and time and watching to see what happens, and yet it also makes them irreducible subjects encountering a world” (38). Let’s face it. Most of us pass by this space where life persists without a second glance.

Tom is a 56 year old dump-truck driver. He introduces himself as a “dumb, old country boy from Kentucky.” He’s a father, has had two divorces, and has been diagnosed with Lupus. He lives in a basement apartment. His ordinary is what one might expect from life in the space on the side of the road. “I don’t do a whole lot. I get up, I go to work, I come home. Fix me a redneck margarita [that’s Mountain Dew and tequila, for nonplussed readers]. Smoke a cigarette and watch the television through the door. It’s my favorite thing to do.” I get the sense that although these practices don’t amount to much, the affects they produce (of self-sustaining assurance, of ordinary pleasure) can map onto other ordinaries despite material differences.

So Queer Eye focused on what was ordinary. Ordinary spaces invite unanticipated happenings, psychic snapshots of a life lived with “that special someone,” or self-transformations of beauty and recognition. And sometimes all it takes is a burrito. Antoni’s innocuous questions in the kitchen about Tom’s favorite Mexican cuisine allowed a space where Tom confessed that he still loved Abby, his ex-wife. That Mexican joint was their thing. I felt an affective shift, something that had been building throughout the episode. Tom’s confession was important for me because it illustrates how memory can suddenly snap into place, constellating the things you wish you could have, or things you wish had gone another way. In a way, it outlined the contours of those affective attachments that keeps Tom stuck. So when the “transformation” is complete, Tom, overcome with feeling, starts to cry. And I start to cry.

But I realize, now, that I was crying because there was an underlying sense of urgency in the episode, an affective tremor stitching together the scene of Tom’s life with the makeover itself.  What Queer Eye did was take Tom–a cisgender, white, heterosexual male with back and health problems, two divorces, a daughter and a grandchild–and understand how his attachments act “as a space for detaching from the normative world while cultivating a parallel sensorium from it” (Berlant 148). I was deeply affected by the fact that he felt as though he, a member of a population most in my intellectual circle would consider already normative, felt as if he had been living in that parallel sensorium, finally invited to enter the normative one, the beautiful one. He, too, could be “fixed.” Fixing, temporarily, what seems to crowd out hope in spite of the fact that still holds out for hope’s possibility. If it’s not a cruel form of optimism then maybe it’s a queer kind of hope.

Beside figuring out why I cried, a point I’ve been implicitly making is that Tom, and people like him, have to be considered in this larger picture of localized and hidden affective experience. It’s to get the total picture, the reparative picture, of a culture that is at once binding and fluid. If media can provide us access to affective intensity and emotional release, it’s not to satiate but to inform. In a way, media (documentaries, projects, you name it) allow us to

picture a world in which there is something wrong with the everyday and an ‘Other’ world–more real than ‘the real’ and resembling dream or fiction–rises as a sign of unrealized possibility. In the daily, lived conflict between what is and what might have been if people had not lived the lives they were forced to live or chose to live, there is a double vision of two lives (caught and free, used to and anymore, the city and home) differentiated by a lived experience of loss and the dream of redemption (Stewart 50).

So, when Queer Eye explored the practices that kept like Tom trapped within a sensorium that is parallel to normativity–I think that’s a queer invitation to rethink livability in American culture. 

The Violence of Law: Excerpts from My Dissertation

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“To rephrase Derrida, through jurisprudence of equality, the law that seeks to include trans subjects within the framework of liberalism is a cisnormativity thinking itself as anti-cisnormative, a cisnormativity in the consciousness of a liberating progressivism (original quote is ‘ethnocentrism’ in Derrida, 1967, 120).”

“What law seeks to do is to cast light, as Derrida asserts, through the use of reason, through legal rationalism, upon sets of otherwise confused facts and render decisions that best suit those facts. In other words, the court enacts justice. A line from science fiction will help clarify: “Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time.” The quote is from Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Captain Picard is asked to answer whether Data, an android (a machine built to look and imitate humans), is in fact a sentient being. He seeks to utilize the court as an instrument through which ‘irrelevances’ are ‘burned away’ for a ‘purer product’: the truth, that is to say the truth of Data’s being. Luckily for Data, his being is prefigured—for there are standards of sentience in the future, of humanity, that ultimately set him free as a ‘unique’ individual–the universal subject, the bearer of rights.

But what are these irrelevances and how do they differ from valid points in the construction of a person’s being? And Picard’s metaphor captures the essence of what courts do in this regard: That outside the light of the court’s reason is an unwanted and, in fact, irrelevant darkness. But does this darkness have any bearing on being, on the subject, the human, on the person being constructed in the court as a process of fact collection? Distinguishing the illegible, the law seeks to make known only a universal sense of a being. And thus legal theory, written as justice, is nothing more than a masked essentialism. It creates a universal subject—a transcendental subject—that burns away, or rather casts out, the ‘irrelevances’ that reason cannot ‘know’ and thus commits epistemic harm and violence to the subjects (read humans) whose lives are often lived in shadows that the light of law casts. Where are transgender people?”

Commodifying Epistemic Practices: Race, Gender, and Dialogue

Well, just constructed through a serious of epistemic practices at least.
Well, just constructed through a series of epistemic practices at least.

I will try to keep this entry brief, since so much of it can come across as mansplaining (which is really just cis-splaining—but I’ll save that for another day). It’s in reaction to several blog posts concerning appropriation and expropriation of black femininity by cis gay men (I’m assuming the Time piece was referring to cis gays and not trans gay men, or asexual men with feminine identifications, or any number of gender-sexual pluralisms that cross-cut one another). It’s also in reaction to the general conversation about white feminists. (Can we call it white feminism? The blogosphere is agog with critiques of this amorphous thing we call feminism.)

First off, appropriation. It’s not cool. I think that much is certain. If you appropriate or expropriate identifications or epistemic practices for affectation, you’re doing it wrong. It’s not only demeaning to the individual who engages in said practice (hair swinging; weave wearing; earring dangling; tight pants donning; catwalk walking) for the purposes of enacting an identity, it demeans the purpose of the practice and the entire group.

However, as this piece seems to indicate, there is a certain ownership that is being cast of over some enactments and not others. When I say enactments, I’m referring specifically to the practices of everyday life that constitute identity—the habits that, through repetition and interiorization, become the foundation of self-knowledge. Thus it is epistemic. My problem is the notion that any specific practice can be owned by any single person, or any single group.

Ownership. The word, so western and neoliberal, is now being applied to identity categories and subject positions within the discourses on feminism. Why does this not dismay more people? Let me give an example. If a subject is engaging in a set of epistemic practices that ze feels is emancipatory/cognitively necessary for ze’s well-being, I sincerely believe that we should respect ze’s practices and let ze live within those self-knowledge creating practices. Ze is not commodifying the practice of, say, Beyonce feminism. Ze is living and engaging in the practice at the epistemic level, creating the beautiful and unique ze.

This level of cognition, of practice, differs from the cis white gay boy who seeks to endear himself to his black friends by catwalking, throwing his ‘hair’ back, or pretending to take off hooped earrings. Those actions commodify the practices of the black lived experience. He seeks to take this commodity and deploy it in ways that for him do not work at the level of the epistemic. Rather, he takes them as humorous, as affectations, as representations of things he cannot (and probably should not) be. He, like the author of the Time piece indicates, doesn’t have to worry about coming across as an angry black woman; or being harassed on the street by police or any number of men; or any number of statistically relevant injustices that being an ethnic minority in this country necessarily entails. The cis white gay boy can return to being white; to being gay; to passing within a culture that tends not to police his body in the regular amounts that it does for, say, a trans woman of color.

But notice the distinction. Ze’s actions are epistemic, constituting a set of identifications that ze incorporates into the everyday. Ze is white. Ze is genderfluid. Ze is also gay. The gay boy of the Time piece, however, commodifies. Yet, is ze as guilty as the gay boy of expropriation or appropriation? That cognitive distinction seems important in the ongoing deliberations we have about identification/identity, about being/becoming. Because if a particular practice is always already owned by another group, then so much for intersectional epistemology, and there goes attempts of de-rigidifying the patriarchal and racist edifice of social categories.

Second, and lastly, white feminism. Is there such a thing. Sure radical feminism. I can’t speak much about my appreciation for radical feminists these days, most of whom are decidedly white. They tend to be TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) who seek to ‘tear down’ the gender binary yet have no compunction when doing so simultaneously denigrates transmen and transwomen. They are collateral damage.

But not all white feminists are decidedly radical. I admire black/poststructural/trans- feminism alike. I’m certain that J. Butler wouldn’t call herself radical in the sense indicated above. Nor would J. Halberstam. bell hooks is off that list, alongside Michelle Alexander and a host of others. And though the last two are black feminists and the former are queer white theorists/feminists, they are all intersectional readers and thinkers. Yet, will they or do they speak past one another. Does being white, or black, carry with it arrays of knowledge that are inherently incommensurable? Perhaps. Perhaps not. And so it becomes important to self-reflexively revise what we think to be virtuous in our own epistemic evaluations of others, theories, experiences, and facts. Anzaldua may have said that sometimes she’s a bridge, and sometimes she isn’t. But we not always withdrawn from one another–hence the importance of revisability.

The demands that we make on each other must (and I stress must) incorporate within them the self-critical realization that our epistemic values may in fact be vices, not virtues. That when we consider ourselves already right because of our social positions as either oppressed or privileged within the discourses of feminism, we have already begun a losing battle that, let’s face it, simply feed into dominant power relations.

Trans Narratives

I’ll leave what this author has written to sum up my feelings about: (1) The media’s role in representing trans* people; (2) Laverne Cox’s recent appearance on Time.

Though I still stand behind my other statements regarding the video to Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”, I do not agree AT ALL with what the lead singer had said about the video. It seems that no matter how much faith I place in some folks to ‘get it right,’ they continually let me down. It is about dialogue, and being responsible for that dialogue–and bearing upon the truth of what representations we allow to enter into discourse. And admitting that these representations must not exploit old tropes, or enjoin new ones. In the very least, that video has sparked quite the tempest on a number of trans* advocate FB pages (Trans* March in particular).

See the piece to which I am referring here, but this quote sums it up for me.

Each time the media fails so massively in reporting on trans people,advocates remind them that they already have style guides in place, and that organizations like Glaad provide glossaries that can easily give them the basics on trans issues. Yet time and again we see the same failures in the press, because far too many people in positions of power in media refuse to accept the existence of trans people and apparently think that, as journalists, they get to decide if our identities are valid or not.

 

Despite the positive publicity generated Cox’s Time cover, trans women are still fighting for others in media to recognize our basic humanity. And there are very real consequences of this terrible media coverage: the trans community, particularly low-income trans women and trans people of color, face astronomically high rates of discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations; are far too often homeless or incarcerated; and trans women of color are facing a global epidemic of violence.

 

 I would just like to add that although Time made this wonderful decision, the extent to which Laverne’s or Janet Mock’s stories are relatable are being, and should be, challenged. Time also featured a number of other trans leaders and activists, whose stories were less about the ongoing work they are doing and more about the narrative of disempowerment. Dr. Paisley Currah, for example, has been working for years in trans* advocacy, has worked with Dr. Susan Stryker to set up the FIRST scholarly journal for transgender studies–but that isn’t mentioned. Again, representations…talk about epistemic injustices.

Stay tuned for an upcoming piece I plan to write about Lefebrve, and the use of everyday life as a source of not only critique but resistance and agency.