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José Muñoz, Then and There

On the afterlives of the pioneering queer theorist

For years after he died, some of his friends would bond over current events and interpersonal intrigue by asking ourselves the question: “What would José say?” We always laughed when we asked it, and that laughter held many layers. Aside from the obvious allusion to a certain evangelical bumper sticker—with which our queer gang had variously vexed familial entanglements—there was always a lingering, bittersweet recognition of how much harder the muddle of life was now, without our resident wit, José Esteban Muñoz, the pioneering queer theorist who died in 2013. When we asked the question of the day’s travesty—“What would José say?”—we never quite knew. There were sometimes half-baked attempts to invent a Muñozian quip. But what we really enjoyed was dreaming of a world in which his funny remark could have cut to the heart of the matter. You could call our queer conviviality a coven of gossip, and everything you said about us would be right except your sneer.

Cutting humor was a weapon José honed against a world ruthlessly hostile to the radical transformations he was committed to imagining. A leftist who resisted class reductionism, he championed a communism experienced not in sameness but through the crash of differences. When he wrote about the queer commons, he was writing about the swerving, “Brownian motion” of lives, stories, aims, and desires colliding and colluding. This was where he found what he called an “incommensurate” communism, grounded in the way we touch and are touched by each other. In the last book he published during his lifetime, Cruising Utopia, José spoke of a “then and there” that animates queer collectivity. This phrase “then and there” was another Muñozian quip, a riff on the phrase “here and now.” José’s “then and there” was quite opposite in meaning to its customary (mostly British) colloquial usage, indicating “immediately at that place . . . on the spot.” For José, channeling the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, “then and there” pointed instead to something more elusive but crucial all the same: a “no-longer-conscious” world that might be called upon to do the imaginative and political work of pointing to the horizon of the “not-yet.” It was typical of José to nestle a dense philosophical lineage in a wry turn of phrase. Even beyond the wordplay sometimes associated with queer theory, José loved language that could encompass the high and the low and tether the serious to the absurd. I think this is why we have so often turned to his now-empty chair whenever events seem to demand the pugnacious description only he could give.

Minoritarian politics asks what becomes possible when we shift from resistance to refusal as a stance toward power.

Cruising Utopia carved out a dissenting minority position within the mainstream gay pragmatism of its day and ours. What such a position should look like today is clearly a question we need to answer for ourselves. But his enduring contribution to queer of color critique contains more than a few clues. I can’t imagine that when José wrote Cruising Utopia he envisioned joining the illustrious queer crew that spoke to us from the “then and there.” Certainly not so soon. In the little more than seven years since his passing, much has shifted in the politics of queerness and race, but those changes have only confirmed the value of a critical body of work which now extends to include a third, posthumously released collection, Sense of Brown (which I edited with my comrade Joshua Chambers-Letson). Written as lectures and essays over fifteen years, Sense of Brown was to be his long-awaited book-length contribution to Latinx studies. At the same time, it was to be his meditation on the multiple ways brownness could and could not be encompassed by any identity category, particularly categories given or imposed by the state. Although essays from the project appeared in print during his lifetime, the book he wished to write never did. It is sadly fitting that Sense of Brown remains incomplete, insofar as the interventions into Latinx subjects José favored tended to prioritize the affective and aesthetic over the empirical and demographic. His suggestion that brownness was already here, a contrast from his earlier argument that queerness was always on the horizon, was intended (at least in part) to squarely oppose the “browning of America” discourse that masks antiblackness in a veneer of postracialism. But it was also a way of insisting that critical thinking remain flexible in the face of the ever-mutating virulence of white supremacy.

Born in Havana, raised in the Cuban exile enclave of Hialeah, Florida, educated at Sarah Lawrence and Duke University, professor and chair of performance studies at NYU until his death, José Esteban Muñoz was attuned to the brutal realities of U.S. empire, the racial fault lines in Cuban exilic consciousness, and the contradictions within any concept of latinidad, whether U.S.-focused or hemispheric. He emphatically thought of himself as a student of the Black radical tradition, which is to say, an analytic that places orthodox Marxism in constant tension with slavery and its afterlives. He was developing, at the end of his life, an approach to brownness capacious enough to brush up against blackness, Asianness, and indigeneity without subsuming any of these into an amorphous identity. A word I always associate with him—a word he taught me—is minoritarian. Different than a demographic minority (which the non-white peoples of the global majority are not), the minoritarian explores the political outside of the representation of formal or aspirational civil subjects. Closer to anarchism than democratic socialism, minoritarian politics resonates with the two great late-twentieth century examples of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit and Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) in Italy. It asks what becomes possible when we shift from resistance to refusal as a stance toward power. Clearly influenced in this respect by Foucault, who understood modern power to be productive as much as repressive, the minoritarian also draws from another French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. In shifting scales from the macro to the micro, from the “molar” to the “molecular” (Deleuze and his radical colleague Guattari always loved a good scientific trope), Deleuze advocated a political thinking attuned to the virtual, the potential, and to states of becoming. The minoritarian is politics in the subjunctive; in Samuel R. Delany’s apt phrase, it places “a tension on the thread of meaning.”

Words are things immanent to our material world. They are messy, smeared, slurred, and they sometimes sting.

While known to quip that he never drank “the Deleuzean Kool-Aid,” Muñoz made the concept of the minoritarian his own, and he furthered its work. His first book, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, announced this project through an entirely original assemblage of minoritarian performance art that more or less rebooted the field of performance studies. Along with critics like Roderick Ferguson and Gayatri Gopinath, Muñoz laid the groundwork for a cultural politics of activist queer of color aesthetics, refusing to concede ground to the “properly political.” This work emerged in the 1990s, a period when cleavages between the social and cultural left were particularly felt. The insurrectionary turn of cultural politics in more recent years—which we see everywhere from the toppling of white men on pedestals to the decolonizing and repatriating of museum art collections to the centrality of Black femme aesthetics and strategy in Black Lives Matter actions in the summer of 2020—should not cause us to forget the deep skepticism or outright dismissal such “symbolic” approaches received on the left just two decades ago. The minoritarian challenge to majoritarian politics organized around elections and expertise, policy and compromise, truly seemed to come out of nowhere.

In linking queer of color critique to the insurrections of our time, I am not crediting academics for creating social movements. To the contrary, reading Muñoz teaches us to value academic modalities that are sensitive enough to detect, affirm, and support those movements even when they go against the grain of conventional political or intellectual wisdom. The manner in which politics is argued over in American life often prevents us from attuning to the ways in which minoritarian survival is itself a kind of politics. And dominant empiricist, psychological models for interpreting politics can serve to contain the insurgence of the minoritarian. Take the media commentariat handwringing over the alleged increase in electoral support Trump gained in the 2020 election from Black, brown, and LGBT voters. A minoritarian approach to the political might caution against reading such data as coherent, since that data attempts to represent a state of affairs that itself defies coherence. An insistence on the methodological primacy of the empirical risks missing anything that exceeds or is incommensurate with it. Queer of color politics as Muñoz construed it—for instance in his considerations of HIV/AIDS activism—were never a given, based on who we are, but the result of an inchoate, sometimes even nameless, sense of affinity upon which action can be taken. Even “action” might understate the depth and breadth of his attention to affects and emotions not often seen as active or political. He puts this perfectly in a line from Disidentifications where he writes that melancholia is not “a self-absorbed mood that inhibits activism. Rather, it is a mechanism that helps us (re)construct identity and take our dead with us to the various battles we must wage in their names—and in our names.”

Rereading that last line, I often linger on that transitive relation between the dead and us, between their names and ours. This linkage of the non-identical is at the heart of the peculiar field of performance studies I shared with Muñoz. To perform is to enact, to carry out to the finish. But if this is the definition, then a performance never actually occurs, insofar as no performance can really be completed, at least not by a single being (as poet and critic Fred Moten insists). The thread of mourning is not extricable from the politics of performance: it is woven in. Now, the word performative has been abused to the point where it might be best to temporarily abandon it, at least in those contexts where it has taken on precisely the opposite meaning—words that do nothing—than originally intended. But the question of whether words do either something or nothing is, strangely enough, of less importance to those who cared, like Muñoz, so deeply about them as to let go of any possessive relation. Words are things immanent to our material world. They are messy, smeared, slurred, and they sometimes sting. They are in this way brown; as brown as earth. If Muñoz drew so regularly from strands of Marxist theory that paid careful attention to the common tongue—to critics like C.L.R. James and Paolo Virno—it was because he paid those same attentions. And he was especially attentive to the manner in which the messy workings of language—and the messier worlds it could provide entrance into—could get so regularly scrubbed clean. Performativity, the word repeated and thus uncontained, was a chance to keep the sanitized tethered to the unclean.

His oft-noted essay on “Ephemera as Evidence” is a good case in point. Written as the introduction to a special issue of the journal Women & Performance on “Queer Acts,” “Ephemera as Evidence” opened with a close reading of a series of images by the artist Tony Just. To create these images, Just located public bathrooms in notorious cruising spots (“tearooms” in queer parlance) and scrubbed the toilets clean before photographing them. The result, Muñoz wrote,

is a photograph that indexes not only the haunted space and spectral bodies of those anonymous sex acts, and Just’s performance after them, but also his act of documentation. This extended performance is, in multiple ways, an exemplary “queer act.” . . . It taps into the lifeworld of tearoom sex, a space that is usually only shadowed in semi-publicness, and makes this space legible outside of its insular sphere. But it does this through negation, through a process of erasure that redoubles and marks the systematic erasure of minoritarian histories.

Two aspects of this quote seem particularly Muñozian to me. The first is the expansive use of “performance” to think about aesthetics beyond the “live” as we typically construe it. It is extended across non-contiguous time. And the second aspect I note is his attention to negation: how Just erases the evidence of queerness, scours clean the stain of cruising, and presents the resultant abstract image as a trace of this violent erasure. Muñoz links this formalist gesture to a robust defense of the value of the ephemeral in a process of queer meaning-making that is “interested in following traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things.” Where the empirical only values the self-identical facts, the ephemeral values the sprawl and spread of meaning across space and time. The ephemeral values the unexpected ways in which we can rub up against each other. Gazing at Just’s photograph of a pristine toilet bowl—cropped so tightly it could be mistaken for “a breast,” a “nipple,” an “anus” or a “belly button,” according to the friends he showed the image to—Muñoz performed a reading that brought those no-longer-conscious residues and specks of things back into view.

What would José say?

If this sounds like aestheticism to you, you wouldn’t be mistaken. But it is an aestheticism staked in a radical discontent with the ways things are (including with the institutions that sustain exclusionary definitions of art). One thing Muñoz hated was what he called “gay pragmatism,” or what also gets called homonormativity (after Lisa Duggan) and homonationalism (after Jasbir Puar). The ersatz public rise of Pete Buttigieg occasioned for us one of those “What would José say?” moments. (My own bid had something to do with Buttigieg’s Marxist dad disowning his neolib son for bad politics rather than sexual orientation). In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz had choice words for those “queers clamoring for their right to participate in the suspect institution of marriage and, maybe worse, to serve in the military.” Or as a cabinet secretary. Such pragmatic politics, which sought “mere inclusion in a corrupt and bankrupt social order” was but the flipside of an orthodox leftism that dismissed “sex radicalism as a turning away from a politics of the collectivity toward the individualistic and the petty.” The leftist critique was right, but wrong; it mistook commodified lifestyles for a radicalism Muñoz sought to recover in both politics and aesthetics. I sense that radicalism more and more these days, especially in trans politics and the politics of mutual aid. Marching in the unlicensed Queer Liberation March in 2019, I was stunned to see posters of Muñoz himself held aloft alongside other icons of the struggle like Marsha P. Johnson, underscoring how his work was itself an anticipatory illumination of the Black and brown trans and queer radicalism of the last two years. What would José say?

Anticipation is not causation, and illumination is not identity. In his later writings Muñoz posited a “brown commons” of “brown people, places, feelings, sounds, animals, minerals, flora, and other objects.” This is a weird assortment, and he was just beginning to sort it out when he died. The queerness of his thought here should be understood in the expanded sense of errant and wayward, as well as in the specific sense of “deviant” acts and desires. This is nothing like the claim that brown people are all queer, or that brownness and queerness are synonyms. This essay has failed entirely if it leaves any reader with that conclusion. Muñoz was committed to the careful parsing of the way in which queerness, blackness, and brownness demand distinctive analytics. The Sense of Brown eschews the easy leaps made between such identities, insisting upon a materialist mode of analysis. It was bonded to the lives of those who suffer and thrive under insufficient labels like Latino, Hispanic, immigrant. His account of brownness emerges out of the “sense of illegitimacy” conferred on one’s “customs and everyday styles of living” by a nativist whiteness. It is “conferred by the ways in which one’s spatial coordinates are contested” and “one’s right to residency is challenged” by anti-immigrant racism. The queerness of the brown commons, if that phrase can be put to any use, lies in a common “ability to flourish under duress and pressure” of this violence, and works as by way of people’s evasion of the constant attempt “to degrade their value and diminish their verve.”

I so love that word verve. It rhymes with swerve. We must swerve from one subject to the other, and we must relish the ways they do not add up. Verve does crucial work in the dense, incantatory, opening paragraph it appears in. Looking up its etymology just now, I see that verve descends from the French verve, meaning vigor, and further back to the Latin verba, meaning . . . words. Words. Words as weapons of the weak. The brown commons will have vigorous words with the forces that would diminish its verve. Vigorous words like “Black Trans Lives Matters,” which were placarded across the nation and world during the summer of 2020. Words that reenergized a spirit of radicalism when Black and brown trans folk snatched the wig off corporate Pride and returned the June commemoration in New York City—for the first time in my memory—to its roots in an anti-cop riot.

To reflect on this verve, with Muñoz, is to necessarily reflect on the how his hatred of gay pragmatism and assimilationism is a hope and a challenge for those of us on the unreconstructed gay left. How long can we hold onto an image of queer or even trans life as necessarily renegade, perverse, and defiant of social norms, if we are not actively engaged in unmaking this shitty world? Words matter to this unmaking, which is another reason why camp and other forms of humor are never irrelevant to it. Humor is a condensed mode of aggression, Freud teaches, but in and through that can also be a mode of invention, Virno suggests. Verve cannot be taught, perhaps, but it can be, must be, transmitted.

Muñoz died in 2013, less than a year into Barack Obama’s second term. He never lived to witness the political rise of Donald Trump or the metastasis of white nationalism his fascist presidency enabled. The Movement for Black Lives was just taking shape in 2013, in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin. I remember conversations with José about Zimmerman’s Peruvian background and the lethal antiblackness through which the aspirational whiteness in some Latinx communities can be lived. The last text message I had from him, heading home from an academic conference, expressed an urgent desire to discuss Afropessimism with me. In my unfinished conversation with him, which I can now only pursue in the pages of his writings or in my head, I never cease to learn from sharp observations he made throughout his work, such as the prescient remark, from an early essay in the brownness project, that “Whiteness is a cultural logic that can be understood as an affective code that positions itself as the law.” I think about this quote a lot these days, not only when dealing with majoritarian institutions trying to manage difference through neoliberal multiculturalism but also when confronting the vigor with which white critics and activists set themselves as the police of anti-racism.

The queer of color intellectual formation that Muñoz contributed so much to will remain the object of debate and contestation, which is in itself a good thing. I for one do not believe it has outlived its utility, even as I recognize it now belongs to a genealogy of radical thought that must work carefully and continuously to articulate itself to the needs and passions of the present. We do indeed carry our dead into new battles that we must fight in their name, but also in ours.