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).

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. 

Some Notes on Happiness

I’ve recently had the privilege to reflect on the meaning of happiness in a forthcoming article for Writing from Below. The premise was that the “good life” in the trans ordinary (that is, day-to-day routines and rhythms of making a trans life livable) couldn’t be indexed by normative standards of happiness. My article isn’t as overly pessimistic as one might think (as a lot of feminisms tend to be–I’m looking at you Sara Ahmedteehee). I just didn’t want to suggest that being trans was all glamour, glitz, and easy access to transition-related care. It’s tough. It’s boring. It’s life. But I was “happy” to have finished it.

So, just a few hours after having wrapped up some final edits, sending the article off to the editor, and calling it a day (for writing at least)–I found myself sitting in my psychiatrist’s office and…

“How to Be Happy”

It was a cover headline for New York Magazine. I imagined the irony, of course, sitting feet away from the office where my (who I find amazing) doctor listens to my problems and prescribes me medications that keeps me semi-stable. Given that I had just finished re-reading Lauren Berlant’s now classic Cruel Optimism(2011), a book dedicated to affects of happiness, belonging, and the good life, I was intrigued. So I couldn’t help but share my thoughts. (N.B. Click on the article link for their statistical data.)

Life Lessons

Yale’s apparently most popular course, entitled “Psychology and the Good Life,” has what the NYMag postures as some “quick answers” to finding the rhythm of the good life for all. And the necessity for the course is defined by statistics in the first few paragraphs: the US is among the least happy countries according to the UN; US students are among the least happy demographic, where over 50 percent reported feeling depressed or overwhelmed by day-to-day life; apparently Penn students don a grimace penned (sorry folks) the “Penn Face” as a mark of discontent. (Interestingly, Berlant was a bit prescient on this facial expression more generally, calling it a “recession grimace…somewhere between a frown, a smile, and a tightened lip” [196]). You can even take the happiness survey administered by Penn (you do need to create an account–it’s quick). You can see my results at the end of the blog–if you get that far.

To overcome some of these contemporary facts of life, the article states that Professor Laurie Santos (the course’s lead instructor) “wants to teach [the students] not just the science of happiness but the practice of happiness. And happiness, it turns out, does take practice. But first you have to learn what exactly happiness is. If previous courses in this field might have been characterized as “Why Happy People Are Happy,” this course could be called “What Is Happiness, Why Aren’t You Happy, and What Can You Do to Change That?” I think that sounds like a great thing, for any number of reasons. And here are just some of the ways we can get into the groove of practicing happiness.

  1. Defy the “G.I. Joe Fallacy” that knowledge is half the battle. In fact, there’s a complication to knowing anything that makes us happy, or sad, or anything at all. As an epistemologist, I like this first move. The point is that knowing what makes you happy will more likely be a distortion of what you feel will make you happy. (Hang on to that feeling versus knowing dichotomy.)
  2. Defy the idea that circumstances are conducive to happiness. Being in state of relative stability won’t promise happiness, just a sense of stability. (Hang on to that notion of stability.) Happy people are more social–spending time with friends and family. Happy people are more physically active, either through walks, gym routines, etc. In a word, happy people “savor life’s simple pleasures” (yes, that’s a quote from the article).
  3. Promote “Synthetic Happiness.” From what I gathered, Professor Santos illustrates how happiness is not something that is simply obtained (agreed), but is something that happens over a process–living. In that sense, it is a synthesis of life practices that bring about the sensation that happiness, or something like happiness, just is. In the final analysis, happiness is a constructed and subjective state of affairs. You have to work at it, folks. (It makes me wonder how Tony Robbins would approach this kind of moral psychology course. Would he enroll to understand the good life!)

The article does have plenty of interactive media to play with–from music lists to required readings from the course, to exams, to extra credit assignments. I plan to indulge.

Life in the Ordinary

What seems to be missing, and what a consensus of scholars of emotion are saying these days, is that contemporary forms of life are affectively bound to relations that reproduce happiness at whatever the cost–even if those costs are the state of being happy itself. It’s about one’s having a sense, feeling a sensation, of being happy. And therein lies the pitfalls of pinning normative happiness (as Professor Santos and the NYMag article do) to the good life. It does so at the expense of nonnormative forms of life. This is where Berlant’s rather erudite book comes in handy.

We live in an era (what Berlant has coined the “historical present”) that seems to have no immediate future anterior. In other words, we are stuck–at an impasse she might say–in an enduring moment that seems to be getting us nowhere.

The enduring present that is at once overpresent and enigmatic requires finding one’s footing in new manners of being in it. The haunting question is how much of one’s creativity and hypervigilant energy the situation will absorb before it destroys its subjects or finds a way to appear as merely a study hum of livable crisis ordinariness (196).

This durability reflects the living scenes of cruel optimism, the core of her work.

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially (1).

The NYMag article and the Yale class contain content that promote such a cruel optimism. The article because it boasts that reading it will make you happier. The course because, well, that’s its pedagogical objective. Both rightfully argue that life is a project and that happiness can only be, in the final analysis, manufactured (#3). But what does it mean to be happy under conditions of racial injustice, sexism, transphobia, or compulsory heterosexuality? These aren’t just theoretical questions to “bum us out.” They pose real challenges to the stakes of making a good life because, at the end of the day, whose good life are we making? As happy, sexually-active people, is the good life being monogamously coupled with children? What of asexual communities? Is it economic success in the face of past adversity? Are we supposed to bear the brunt of a so-called innocuous joke when it hurts us? What does it mean to make a life where happiness is viewed, from the outside, as being low-brow or abrasive–subject to immediate social policing? Feeling that you are getting by and being happy can and perhaps must, for all intents and purposes, be taken as constituting one and the same phenomenon (if only each representing one side of a coin).

Thus our feelings and knowledge about the good life vary dramatically. Life as a project consists of an ongoing entanglement within a web of disadvantages and privileges. A singular life doesn’t amount to being a pure form of privilege or abjection, but a pendulum-like improvisation across the two. This would mean that abjection (as Professor Santos rightfully points out in the conditions of refugees) might have moments in which attachments produce states of stability that promote feelings of wellbeing–of happiness. This doesn’t mean that living in abject conditions is worth striving for or even just. Anthropologist Veena Das has argued the same in Life and Words. Making do in life means folding violence into the weave of everyday experience. The job of the investigator is to understand the how and why of that fold within the experiential sphere of violence. It can also mean that privileged people can still feel the sting of precarity, emotional pain, and physical harm. It amounts to differences mattering. If happiness is not an intelligible emotion–but is rather relations obtaining among things, people, conditions, and institutions, then the “good life” is much more complicated than learning a set of practices.

If traditional genres of being within the good life are no longer providing the stability they once promised, a growing sense (that is to say, a growing affective structure) of tentativeness fills the cultural milieu. This isn’t just economic. It’s familial and social. It’s political and personal. The fact that scholars “find” that the happiest people spend more time with families and others completely elides the point. So does the “fact” that physically active people are happier. What kinds of families? Are these people from socio-economic brackets conducive to such social and activity-oriented structures? Is it impossible to be happy in nonnormative forms of kinship? This doesn’t only complicate the literature-base of the course or of the pollyannaishness of article. My argument is that queer, trans, and non-White forms of family and life-activity may not meet (and in fact might often defy) these norms. And if that’s the case, how does the accepted standard defining “happy people” thus apply?

On Nonnormative Pedagogy

My Godfather, a converted Buddhist monk who lives in Albuquerque, NM, intones frequently that happiness, like sadness and all “emotions,” is impermanent. There’s something of a pedagogical “a-ha moment” at work each and every time he tells me. There is no “fast lane” or “cheat sheet” for happiness, no quiz that can tell you (affirmatively) that you are or are not happy compared to others, or that the relational attachments in your life are or are not self-dissipating or self-extending. There is only a sense of the durability of the present–a pressing, if not ominous, feeling: You got to get it right, whatever that “it” is. If you think about it, this isn’t some new age self-help script. This kind of epistemology leads toward a set of questions and assumptions that would saddle culture and social forms, not the individual or subjects, with the bulk of the problematic. If it is indeed cultural, then why are we so goddamn focused on individuals to get up off their asses and procure happiness for themselves? As a non-binary queer, my questions try to fuse the personal and impersonal. How can queer and trans folks find happiness when their bodies are the brunt of consumerist jokes or medicalized sensationalism? For that matter, how the fuck does Katie Couric get her own documentary on the perceived gender revolution

If there is a “good life,” we might be better off defining it collectively, in dialogue, and drop the facade of individualism. There are too many lives, and not enough visions, at stake.

I took the quiz, by the way. Here are my results. Note that to proceed, gender was a part of the questionnaire. 

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 4.33.21 PM

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have grading to do. And I’m fucking happy to do it.

Protest Poem

I dreamt that color was only prismatic
like oceans with blue waters and sky
a sunset darkened with hints of red and orange
that drank up the evening’s musings
and allowed the supple sun to rejoice a closing day.

Then a black body thrust out of view comes
to pain my senses and reaches deep
ripping viscera, cords, and played chords that
spun out with the splash of blood, that oozing
pink welt and sting of a mother’s switch that lashes.
Who says it is only ever out of love?
Chords, more like screams come forth that horrify and drink up
not the evening’s musings but the murderous
plight of an age, ‘post-race’, where color eases
off the tongue in exchanges with other whites
who look distantly at the shuttered moon
and admire its whiteness for it, like them,
sits within a sea of black: bemused, smiling, distant.

You are not I and I are not you, but you and I,
chanting, sings for itself a unicity that cannot
be undone or unsung and fills a void where
pain and anguish meet at the pyramidal tip
and break free from the invisible to pour out
onto the streets and engulf our bodies in sensations
that I thought I could not have, could not remember having.

But having is a feeling only privilege brings
and loss is not the ‘not-having’ because of privilege but that of
a gun against a cheekbone or flesh-piercing bullet
spinning out of an authorized violence into the light of day
and not authorized to speak, feel, cry, explore, freely that pain.
That is loss, the subhuman.
And once again I dream in color where the prism
spins to silence the disquietude and seep black
into the barbarous pit where all our dreams have gone to die
but will be resurrected with a song so sweet, so soon and just,
and no prison-like prism will contain its rage.

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.

Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” Video

See the video here. And don’t read the comments.

I was taking a bath earlier, enjoying a cold beer, listening to this song—but specifically watching this video, nearly on repeat for about half-an-hour. I had a few thoughts about it I wanted share.

Now, off the bat, as a cis-queer guy, I can’t speak for my trans* identifying friends, colleagues, and community members. I can only speak for myself and do the best I can to admit of the privileges that give me passage through this sometimes shitty culture. White + Cis = One extremely potent combo. As such, I can often take up positions that seem authoritative, to the point of obviating other voices within the various communities I represent in my discourse. Doing so contributes to epistemic injustices, as I have elsewhere explained. Be warned, then. I’m attempting to mobilize a huge number of identities in this brief entry—and trying not to do injustice to a single one.

But this video. It did something to me. Andrew Garfield gave something that other cis-actors have not in their representations of queer and transgender people—a look at pain, and denial, the non-triviality of the introspective bodily gaze, in a way that doesn’t play into stereotype. If only we could have more transgender actors playing these roles, and telling their stories—that would be ideal.

What I mean to say is that this video, I think, is not of Andrew Garfield in drag. Sure, that’s who is acting, and that’s what he’s doing. But the child in this video seems to be experiencing something far more personal than what color blouse to wear. Rather, “what color blouse to wear that allows me to pass in this shithole town”? Scant makeup. Long hair. Painted nails. Her eyes ache and her lips tremble. She seems in pain. This portrayal of pain poses a potential problem, putting a ‘trapped in the wrong body’ narrative forward that a number of activists condemn (see the latest entry on it in TSQ by Ulrica Engdahl). As Engdahl argues, however, this narrative does serve to destabilize the gender binary through the lived or situated-ness of a trans* experience. Is the person in this video a part of that narrative?

I’m not saying this is a go-to pop cultural reference for trans* studies. I’m not even saying that this is an excellent representation of trans* being or becoming. I could push further and say that although this facilitates a potential dialogue about the trans* experience for white folks, it doesn’t cover the spectrum of race. It leaves out the violence that queer and trans* people of color face daily. Too, it may yet be taken only as a ‘drag’ performance.

But it touched me. It reminded me that these sorts of stories are more frequently getting told and that that’s a good thing. But in that more frequent telling, whereby our cultural scripts about gender, sex, sexuality, and identity become more unstable—it behooves us to learn what it does mean to be trans*, or non-binary, or all within the umbrella of what Paisley Currah calls gender pluralism. These pop-culture representations, however beautiful and touching, are only the surface of a much larger part of our diverse social-collective.