Well, since I technically posted twice in one day, I took yesterday off to do some much needed cooking and dancing; a ritual to welcome the weekend a.k.a. the days when I am least likely to put on real clothes and/or leave the house.
But before the culinary pyrotechnics and the queer dancing (more on this below) last night, I had a long meeting with my advisor during which, despite my intentions to discuss the three ‘queer foundations’ texts which I have been working through (Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vols. II and III [ancient sexual ethics party!] and Bodies that Matter by Judith Butler, a text on which I will undoubtedly have further comment), we ended up speaking about my ongoing process of intellectual (and apparently geographic and personal) self-(re)invention. This is going to require some explanation for the uninitiated.
Compared to a North American PhD program, especially a disciplinary (as opposed to trans-, inter-, or bi- disciplinary) program, the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) model may appear unorthodox. In FES, we have no coursework requirement (well, almost no requirement) and we make up our comprehensive areas (‘comps’ which are, for FES “broad yet focused” inquiries into certain literatures, theories, theorists, methods, and so on) in negotiation with our committee rather than through a ‘canonical imposition’. This results in something like a hybrid between the American system, where comps are a more uniform process and coursework is generally required, and the UK system, where there are neither comps nor coursework, unless you insist upon it or are in a 1+3 program, technically a separate MA and PhD. In FES, what all this adds up to is a process spanning the first two terms in which we put together the program plan, essentially a proposal outlining three (or sometimes two) comps which will be the foundation for our dissertation research. This arrangement has an array of benefits and challenges, many of which are the subject of passionate and ongoing discussion in the Faculty. The chief benefit is that we have the freedom and the flexibility to carve out areas which reflect interests and aspirations that may not fit into more traditional programs. The main drawback is that this process requires an incredible amount of self-organization and a very committed committee which is willing to work patiently and methodically with students (like myself) who may have a very broad range of interests that are sometimes difficult to fashion into a cohesive comprehensive. Of course, there are also students who come into the program with a very clear idea of what they want; these students may make best use of the system from the beginning. In the end, we’re all special flowers.
As I approach the end of my first term, I have more or less stuck with the three areas that I proposed in my application – queer theory [now ‘queer theory + politics + ecologies’], sociospatial theory [now something like ‘sociospatial theory: Lefebvre and beyond’, and urban political ecologies [now ‘urban-natures’] – but I am working through the more demanding task of substantiating those areas with reading lists and guiding questions, not to mention thinking about the outcomes for each of them. (I’ve got a lot of options, including performance!) I’ve got a number of ‘theoretical struggles’ at the moment, each of which feels directly related to the struggles of adjustment to a new cultural milieu, namely Canada and Toronto, but also the Faculty itself and to the novel position of not having to worry about money (that much) because I’m funded through a generous scholarship (there are class dimensions to this aspect of my adjustment). In other words, “Welcome to Canada, here’s some money, go do important intellectual work which will define your career for at least the next decade.” As much as I have enjoyed moving around both physically and intellectually in the last few years preparing myself for precisely this moment, I realize that I don’t have the same appetite for nomadic wandering as I used to; this last move was extraordinarily emotional and so the process of engaging in both very personal readjustment and intellectual self-fashioning feels so closely intertwined as to be nearly indistinguishable.
All of this takes on an interesting spin as I learn more about queer Toronto. Last week I attended a panel discussion at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) organized around the current exhibition of the work of Toronto’s most famous former (queer) art collective: General Idea. The talk, called “The General Idea Behind the General Idea,” included commentaries from my new friend, the talented and sasstastic Sholem Krishtalka, and from two others. I’ll focus here on basic shuffle of Sholem’s portion of the evening; it has resurfaced as I think about the problematic of self-invention.
Sholem’s thrust, if I understood correctly, was that ethos of General Idea – “form follows fiction” – was a performative necessity wrought from the relative paucity of queer artistic production in Toronto; what might be called the ‘constitutive lack’ of a queer scene in the city. (Okay, I am about to do a full on Butler-ian reading of this moment; you are warned. Better yet, “I pronounce you warned!”). He connected this performative act, or what might more properly be a performative ensemble, to two other Toronto queer artists/enterprises: the the homocore zine J.D.’s, invented by G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce and the recently deceased artist and impresario Will Munroe (Bruce LaBruce’s tribute here). Sholem spoke in terms that are familiar to anyone with a basic knowledge of queer theory and politics, adding a mythical twist which resonates with Butler’s reading of Paris is Burning, though not cinematic and more on the lines of performance than the performative, for reasons I’ll elaborate shortly.
His articulation of a through-line from General Idea to J.D.’s to Will Munroe rests on the notion that each ‘created the myth of something and followed it with the work’ and that they ‘announced an in-between space; a queer legend to come.’ This argument bears more than an incidental similarity to Butler’s analysis. She writes about “the simultaneous production and subjugation of subjects in a culture which appears to arrange always in and in every way for the annihilation of queers, but which nevertheless produces occasional spaces in which those annihilating norms, those killing ideas of gender and race, are mimed, reworked, resignified” (1993:84). If we are to take Judy’s ‘occasional spaces’ and Sholem’s ‘in-between’ spaces as rough equivalents (and there are reasons this is problematic, but LaBruce’s reading of Munroe’s legacy [linked above] suggests the connection fairly explicitly) then we must question configurations of both space and time in order to understand performative ensembles of queerness in Toronto. I do not have the background to do that here and now.
Maybe that’s a long way of saying that I’ve been trying to figure out how to be queer here and how to get used to it. The experience of displacement (and the imperative to replace myself in the here and now of this city and of this scene, which, if I follow Sholem in his talk, is one that demands my voluntaristic self-invention in order to be the legend that I desire. There are problems with the voluntaristic model and there are problems with being interpellated by academia and by queer parties as ‘one who desires to be legendary.’) draws into question a queering of my own queerness on terms which seem to be dictated less by the hegemonic threat to annihilation and more on the expressive/voluntaristic impulse.
Might I be experiencing morphological shock? Needing to be at home in a city which is neither familiar nor ‘New York enough’ for me? What might it mean to be(come a) queer in this city at this moment? And further, if “realness” is “a standard that is used to judge any performance within the established categories” what do I make of Butler’s contention that “…what determines the effect of realness is the ability to compel belief, to produce a naturalized effect. This effect is itself the result of an embodiment of norms, a reiteration of norms, an impersonation of a racial and class norm, a norm which is at once a figure, a figure of a body, which is no particular body, but a morphological idea that remains the standard which regulates the performance, but which no performance fully approximates” (88)?
So I’m processing, as one does. I’m processing the trauma of displacement and the failure to replace. But this trauma is inscribed within a particular academic space and particular temporal normativity (finish your PhD ASAP!) that demands my self-construction, ostensibly voluntaristic, but really consistently in conversation with a variety of otherwise constituted ideals. I became queer in a city, a relationship, and a modality that is neither the here nor the now of my experience. Intellectualization was a part of that experience, but I wouldn’t have put my intellectual engagement with that process under the signs and signifieds of ‘academia’. I felt myself as a ‘real queer’ involved in the real process of ‘queering’, day-in, day-out.
Now my queerness has an uncannily familiar set of referents, performative and otherwise. I don’t merely hope to enact a former version of myself which is neither responsive to the circumstances nor engaged in the labor of remaking that is so appealing to me (some call it struggle). I’m more than a little anxious about my queerness becoming ‘too academic’ or ‘too scholarly’ because I am nesting in an academic world even as I feel my way around the unfamiliar landscape of a Canadian queerness happening elsewhere. If the ‘scene’ in which I have been participating is always anticipating its own legend, always rendering itself as a ‘queer family’, I feel a bit like the step-child at the moment; here by law, dealing with the fact that I’m nobody’s baby. It was easier being an outsider or a non-performer in some ways…
This all led me to a little hot dancing last night to the above track, which provides the title for this post. The tune comes from the way talented Light Fires, headed by the stunningly glamorous Regina (aka Reggie Vermue). As much as I am happy to have spent $3 on the recording so I can repeat this track, is much more compelling as a live performance. (What legs on Regina; the high kicks are not to be missed! Buy the tracks and see the show when they get back from Europe.) The message of the song resonates so powerfully because, well, I’ve been a little bored and more than a little anxious about being bored. It also resonates for its pretty straightforward call to radical democracy: “Demand to live a better life! Demand to live a better life!” Queer performatives indeed. As Judy put it in the final chapter of Bodies that Matter: “Performativity describes this relation of being implicated in that which one opposes, this turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a ‘pure’ opposition, a ‘transcendence’ of contemporary relations of power, but a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure” (1993:184) And here I could digress further into the Occupy movement and all else, but I’ll spare you the boredom and spare myself any further time hunched over this laptop.
I will conclude in that very notion of boredom. As db (my co-conspirator in transatlantic intellectual legend making and radical inappropriation of straight institutions, among many other things) and I used to say when we lived in Brooklyn, “You’re boring, I’m bored!” The tongue-in-cheek conversation-ending platitude has a very important aphoristic corollary: Only boring people get bored. (And only real queers process their problems in a public blog post using Judith Butler.) Having been displaced from our Brooklyn home in part by a nomadic intellectualized queerness, the problem of boredom has plagued us both in different ways. But, as my friend Freddie Schultz told me recently, “Moving to a cool place to be cool is tired, it’s better to move to a boring place and make it cool.” How’s that for a performative invitation.
Welcome to Toronto, now go do something interesting.
Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.