Vacating The Here And Now For a There and Then: Remembering José Esteban Muñoz

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José Esteban Muñoz




Vacating The Here And Now For a There and Then: Remembering José Esteban Muñoz by Emily Colucci

March 31st, 2014 reset - +

QUEER THEORIST JOSÉ ESTEBAN MUÑOZ suddenly passed away due to apparent heart failure in December 2013. His absence greatly alters several closely knit communities in which he enthusiastically participated — from the queer, to the performance, to the academic community — forcing those left behind to mourn, as Muñoz deftly articulated, in his seminal publication Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics for ourselves, for our community and for our very history: 

Communal mourning by its very nature, is an immensely complicated text to read, for we do not mourn just one lost object or other, but we also mourn as a “whole” — or, put it another way, as a contingent and temporary collection of fragments that is experiencing a loss of its parts. 

A professor and former chair of the Department of Performance Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Muñoz is best known for his two highly influential books, published a decade apart: Disidentifications and Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Muñoz also published several significant essays such as “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Brancho’s The Greatest Hangover (and Other STD’s)” and “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race and the Depressive Position,” as well as co-edited the essay collections Pop-Out: Queer Warhol with fellow academics Jennifer Doyle and Jonathan Flatley and Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America with Celeste Fraser Delgado.

I first encountered Muñoz and his writings as a student at New York University immersed in queer studies. Even though I did not study with him directly, Muñoz’s  powerful voice and presence in the field remain influential to my thinking. While queer theory can certainly be an insular and cliquish field of study, easily alienating uninitiated readers, the strength of Muñoz’s writing lies in its ability to transcend the hallowed university walls and speak to the experiences, performances, and hopes of queer individuals. Whether formulating a groundbreaking theory of disidentification, a subversive means of performing identity for queers and people of color that both embraces stereotypes and exposes their constructed nature, or divulging survival strategies for queers in a world of — in the words of his beloved underground filmmaker Jack Smith — “pasty normals,” Muñoz’s enduring work can be accessed, employed, and claimed by a wide range of individuals, identities, and disciplines.

Not only are Muñoz’s philosophical texts essential reading for anyone interested in the combination of performance studies and queer culture, his fearless support of artists, students, and fellow academics emerges as an equally powerful legacy. Throughout his career, Muñoz maintained collaborative friendships with the often underappreciated, sometimes shocking, and wonderfully transgressive artists he analyzed such as performance art comedienne Carmelita Tropicana, drag terrorist Vaginal Davis, Jibz Cameron with her hysterical alter ego Dynasty Handbag, and Latina filmmaker and performance artist Nao Bustamante.

Since so much of Muñoz’s work presents an unwavering belief in queer futurity, it only seems appropriate to take inspiration from his view of queerness as “a warm illumination of a horizon of potentiality” and memorialize Muñoz by focusing on the future. In order to mourn, as described by academic blog Bully Bloggers (where Muñoz occasionally contributed), “a fierce friend, a comrade, a wry and trenchant critic, a brave and bold queer voice and a true utopian in a world of pessimists,” I want to illuminate Muñoz’s vast potential legacy and the tools he provided his students, artists, friends, and readers to construct their own queer worlds.

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Born in Cuba, immigrating to Florida with his family as a young child, Muñoz intimately understood the jarring lack of serious critical analysis on race and ethnicity in queer studies, as well as a similar silence on queerness in political discussions of race.  Queer theory emerged in the early 1990s in order to widen and complicate the understanding of sexualities beyond heteronormativity. But despite their claims of wanting to break free of preconceived notions of gender and sexuality, many queer theorists overlooked the role of race and ethnicity in the experiences of queer individuals, ignoring the unique perspective of queers of color.

In order to confront this separation of race from queer theory, Muñoz trained his critical eye on constructing theory that included queers of color and other hybrid identities often ignored by academia. Adding a uniquely personal touch to complex theoretical writing, Muñoz drew on his own adolescent experiences as a punk queer in a community of Cuban-American exiles, becoming a vibrant and commanding voice for those largely invisible subjects in the field and challenging his colleagues to explore beyond sexuality alone. 

The most evocative and possibly most influential of Muñoz’s writings on the subject is his 1999 publication Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Politics of Performance, which revolutionized the discussion of how queer artists of color employ and manipulate their hybrid identities. Speaking to me on Muñoz’s essential contributions to queer theory, Muñoz’s colleague and close friend, University of California, Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle said of Disidentifications:

It helps us to understand how we survive in the toxic swamp. How artists absorb things and then what they do with these things — how a song, or a performance, or a painting can function as a survival guide, a weapon, a tool — an instrument for pleasure and social transformation. It's a very sophisticated book about very fundamental aspects of our being. Furthermore, it could not be more important as one of the first books to be 100-percent dedicated to very serious thinking about the work of queer artists of color. 

In his introduction to Disidentifications, Muñoz explains his impetus to construct a theory of identification considering both race and sexuality. Muñoz writes of how most discussions of race are framed around heterosexuality and conversely, most gay and lesbian studies, like women’s studies, avoid race, often assuming their subjects are white. Even in the relatively new and more cutting-edge field, Muñoz reflects, “the fact that the vast majority of publications and conferences that fill out the discipline of queer theory continue to treat race as an addendum, if at all, indicates that there is something amiss in this Oz, too.” 

Addressing this glaring absence, Muñoz’s Disidentifications counters queer theory’s colorblindness by conceiving of an innovative understanding of the performance of identification, focusing entirely on queer artists of color from the highly regarded Felix Gonzalez-Torres to The Real World’s Pedro Zamora. Muñoz’s conception of disidentification emerges as “an understanding of the ways in which queers of color identify with ethnos or queerness despite the phobic charges in both fields.”

Influenced by Michel Pêcheux’s work, Muñoz’s version of disidentification is neither a complete identification nor a hard-lined rejection or counteridentification, but a politically generative middle ground in which an individual both takes on an identity and reveals its fragile construction. Examining the nature of disidentification, Muñoz writes: 

Instead of buckling under the pressures of dominant ideology (identification, assimilation) or attempting to break free of its inescapable sphere (counteridentification, utopianism), this “working on and against” is a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change, while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance. 

For the performers discussed in Disidentifications, this “working on and against” aspect of disidentification empowers non-normative and hybrid identities through subverting often stereotypical assumptions about a singular identity. From artist Marga Gomez’s performance of her desire for and identification with the chain-smoking pre-Stonewall butch “lady homosexuals” who appeared on David Susskind’s television talk show Open End to Carmelita Tropicana’s campy drag king performance as Pingalito, an over-the-top parody of a loud Cuban man, Muñoz highlights artists and performers who both take on and undermine these often phobic stereotypes. As Muñoz writes:

The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality than has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.

An undeniably complex process of at once assuming an identity and weakening it, Muñoz’s theory of disidentification is best illustrated through a focus on one of the performances studied by Muñoz in the text. 

In his chapter “The White To Be Angry: Vaginal Creme Davis’s Terrorist Drag,” Muñoz analyzes the work of sublimely funny and transgressive Los Angeles–born drag performer Vaginal Davis, known for her punk performances as well as her infamous queer zine Fertile LaToyah Jackson. With a legendary and possibly true back-story that precedes her, Vaginal Davis was born from, as Muñoz recalls, “an illicit encounter between her then forty-five-year-old African-American mother and her father who was, at the time, a twenty-one-year-old Mexican American” at a Ray Charles concert. Portraying the process of disidentification through her slightly terrifying onstage alter egos — from a white supremacist militiaman to a welfare queen — Vaginal Davis, unlike more mainstream drag queens, performs “the nation’s internal terrors around race, gender and sexuality.”

In one of her most memorable (and downright scary) performances, Davis emerges as Clarence, a hyper-masculine white supremacist militiaman in combat fatigues who just happens to share Davis’s given name. Admitting that she finds white militiamen “really hot,” Davis explains that she had a race and gender reassignment, confusing desire and identification through her deft parody. Performing songs such as “Homosexual Is Criminal” and “Sawed-Off Shotgun,” Clarence’s butch façade and terrible white makeup begin to crack as the performance continues, revealing Vaginal Davis’s own effeminate queer of color identity. Davis blatantly exposes the threatening identity of a white supremacist as a weak and humorous construction. Muñoz sees this as:

a disidentification with militiamen masculinity — not merely a counteridentification that rejects the militiamen — but a tactical misrecognition that consciously views the self as a militiaman […] Aspects of the self that are toxic to the militiaman — blackness, gayness and transvetism — are grafted onto this particularly militaristic script of masculinity. 

Presenting a means of surviving in a restrictive heteronormative world, Muñoz’s Disidentifications finally provided queer artists of color with their own place in queer theory, as well as developed an important tool for analyzing performance, art, and actual lived experience. Rather than merely limited to the field of queer theory, Muñoz’s ideas about disidentification can and have been employed by a wide range of disciplines from deaf studies to disability studies and art history as a means of transcending identity. 

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In his conclusion to Disidentifications, Muñoz foreshadows his further interest in and contribution to an idea of queer utopia that presents a strategy for survival within a restrictive present. He would go on to elucidate this in 2009’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. In Disidentifications, Muñoz writes: “Queers of color and other minoritarians have been denied a world. Yet, these citizen subjects are not without resources — they never have been.” Continuing his belief in the world-making potential of queer performance, Cruising Utopia further discloses essential survival strategies for the queer community with a turn toward the utopian potential of queer aesthetics and performance. Muñoz analyzes both pre-Stonewall art and performance from Andy Warhol to Jack Smith, as well as contemporary artists and performers such as Kalup Linzy and Kevin McCarty’s photographs of empty queer nightclubs.

Jennifer Doyle considers Cruising Utopia   

a much needed intervention against theoretical/critical tendencies to turn away from the political as soon as the conversation turns to race […] I know I was excited every time I heard José present work from that book as he was writing because it was a bracing antidote to what was going on — and still goes on — in critical theory. That book speaks to the most ecstatic experiences of queer performance and it does so using a Marxist, and intensely philosophical language.

An undoubtedly more philosophical text than Disidentifications that draws on Ernst Bloch’s ideas of utopia, Cruising Utopia creates a hopeful theoretical basis to comprehend artists whose performances or artworks strive to construct new and better worlds for queer individuals. Understanding the temporality of queerness as outside of straight time’s present, which Muñoz refers to as the “here and now,” Muñoz’s queer utopia consists of a drive toward a future, or as he writes, a “then and there.”

In his poetic introduction to the book, which resonates even more powerfully after his passing, Muñoz explains:

The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. 

Despite seeming entirely hypothetical, Muñoz asserts that this reaching toward queer utopia can be found within the aesthetic — in performances, art, music, and other cultural endeavors. For Muñoz, “The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity.” 

In this respect, Muñoz compares Frank O’Hara and Andy Warhol’s employment of Coke bottles, discovering the utopian and relational power both men place on this fairly mundane consumer item. In his astonishing poem Having A Coke With You, O’Hara compares the activity of sharing a Coke with his lover as being better than visiting some of the most beautiful locations in the world or seeing the greatest works of art history:
 

Having A Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irun, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne

or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
Partly because in you orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
 
[…]                       
                                                                                                I look
            at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
 

Linking O’Hara’s use of Coke with another mid-20th century celebration of soda, Muñoz analyzes Andy Warhol’s similar understanding of Coke as surpassing a mere consumer product. While Warhol’s now iconic Pop paintings of Coke bottles glorify the mass-produced, ready-made commercial item, his ecstatic celebration of Coke in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again also reveals a perhaps deeper and queerer link to the relational aspect of Coke in O’Hara’s poetry. As Warhol famously states: 

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one that the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Through his deft and insightful commentary, Muñoz illumines how both Warhol and O’Hara’s pre-Stonewall celebration of Coke contains a glimmer of utopian vision. For O’Hara and Warhol, the importance of Coke lies in its ability to be a shared experience with a community of people, whether a lover, the President or Liz Taylor, creating an utterly queer and maybe impractical sense of relationality. Imagining a utopian vision beyond regular Coke, Warhol and O’Hara, according to Muñoz, “are able to detect an opening and indeterminacy in what for many people is a locked-down dead commodity.”

His friend, collaborator, and, as Muñoz frequently joked, “object of study,” performance artist and filmmaker Nao Bustamante further cements the possibility of Muñoz’s queer utopia to touch the everyday lives of queer artists and individuals while recalling their frequent conversations to me. As Bustamante remembers, “We talked a lot about art and had a very close relationship that extended beyond the art boundaries. Our conversations were integrated into a kind of combination of philosophy around art and life, as well as utopia.”

However, the real strength of Muñoz’s utopian vision may lie in its ability open up a possibility of a forward-looking queer community separate from the largely pragmatic and sometimes unimaginative goals of LGBT politics. Not only a rejection of the anti-relational and negative turn in queer theory with theorists like Lee Edelman’s polemic No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Cruising Utopia also presents one of the strongest rejections of practicality in LGBT politics, envisioning a world beyond issues such as same-sex marriage and the military. As Muñoz observes:

Seeing queerness as horizon rescues and emboldens concepts such as freedom that have been withered by the touch of neoliberal thought and gay assimilationist politics […] The freedom that is offered by an LGBT position that does not bend to straight time’s gravitational pull is akin to one of Heidegger’s descriptions of freedom as unboundness. 

Through Cruising Utopia, Muñoz provides queer artists, performers, and individuals with the impetus to imagine and perform queer worlds outside of heteronormativity, gay assimilationist politics, and anti-relational queer theorists. Speaking of her vision for Muñoz’s continued influence, Nao Bustamante said, “I hope that like the often quoted Cruising Utopia book, there would be a kind of synchronicity with creating better pleasures. Not focusing on individual moments, but a more broad collective pleasure.”

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Even though Muñoz’s extensive and moving published works supply the queer community with strategies to survive the prison of the present, as well as construct new queer worlds, possibly the most essential, enduring piece of Muñoz’s legacy will be his unwavering support, respect, and friendship with the often challenging artists he studied.

In the conclusion to Cruising Utopia, Muñoz highlights the importance of collective queer relationality using The Magnetic Fields’ song “Take Ecstasy With Me.” Speaking to the necessity of creating communities and escaping the present through collectivity, Muñoz writes, “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 here but nonetheless always potentially dawning.”

Speaking with his former colleagues, artists, and friends, it became undeniably clear that Muñoz participated in similar ecstatic queer relationships. Enacting this collective queer time through the strength of his friendships with the artists he admired, the students he taught, and the colleagues whose interests he shared, Muñoz’s academic assertion of the power of queer relationality translated into his daily life, constructing queer utopias in performances, lecture halls, or dinners with friends.

Through Vaginal Davis, Nao Bustamante, Jibz Cameron and many others, Muñoz’s relationships with these artists far exceeded the traditional dynamic between an academic writer and his artistic subjects. Contextualizing these often difficult artists’ work through often unexpected political, historical, and theoretical references, Muñoz’s critical theories validated these interdisciplinary and at times, critically ignored artists’ work, giving them a means to understand their own output in a genealogy of queer art and performance.

The performer Jibz Cameron, who was featured in Cruising Utopia after meeting Muñoz through Nao Bustamante in 2004, and is best known for her amusingly manic alter ego Dynasty Handbag, reflects on the serious critical and historical attention he gave her performances: 

It was really validating. It’s interesting too because I have this idea of what I do being sort of lo-fi, not really up to snuff or professional enough. But that’s what he loved the most about it. As a matter of fact, it actually had political resonance in the way it was presented. That was real revelatory for me. 

Similarly, Nao Bustamante, who appears in many of Muñoz’s critical texts apart from “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” said in an interview with me. “Having him break down, contextualize, historicize, legitimate all those things with my work is such a gift to me. I would always feel in awe at that — being able to experience that. I would usually feel a little bit out of body like you have to remove yourself in order to take it in intellectually.” 

Not only was Muñoz an academic champion of these artists’ work, but he also became a close friend, confidant, and sounding board for their creative ideas. Meeting Muñoz at a conference in London, Nao Bustamante bonded with him over a shared inability to get into any of the hot London clubs. They wandered around the city together “as these kind of lost souls […] outsiders.” For Bustamante, Muñoz was not only a friend and collaborator with a shared sense of humor, but he was also the first person she went to for an opinion on her new work:

That’s been maybe the hardest thing — when I want to tell him something, tell him about an idea or I want him to see some work that I’m doing. He was the first stop for me in terms of showing my product because he had written about my work so much and I respected his craft so much from the way he thinks about things to the way he frames things so poetically. He was also very supportive. He never said to me something didn’t work or didn’t support me.  It was fun for me to see these ideas with him and see his response to its fruition.

Also seeking guidance from Muñoz, Jibz Cameron remembers: 

Basically there was a lot of support as well as pure fun and joy. But I feel like he was that for so many people and I thought I was really special. I thought I was the one he liked the best and I was his little darling. But no, he had so many people that he was really encouraging and this little papa to.

Asked what she sees as Muñoz’s legacy, Cameron replies, “I feel like his legacy is his bravery in supporting so many people that are trying to do this thing that is not legitimized in popular culture, which is so huge. And it’s not just me by any means.” 

Even though I was at the periphery of Performance Studies while studying at New York University, even I felt a glimmer of the support Muñoz provided his students and artists when he, as the department’s chair, accepted a panel discussion I organized on the censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire In My Belly by the National Portrait Gallery. Not even my own interdisciplinary studies department wanted to host the panel, and yet, Muñoz enthusiastically entered the packed classroom, sitting on the floor to watch the discussion.

Perhaps more than his prodigious academic writings, his importance in academia or his altering of performance studies, Muñoz’s legacy rests on a more relational significance, which considering its frequent appearance in his writing may be exactly as he wanted. As Nao Bustamante reflects, “I think his legacy is going to be a kind of championing of creativity of all sorts.”

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Emily Colucci is a New York–based freelance writer and co-founder of Filthy Dreams, a blog analyzing art and culture through the lens of queer theory.

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