Fuller, Vaster, Brighter

For those of you who are concerned about the so-called “Gay Agenda,” have no fear. The agenda is alive and well and its chief strategist is usually located in a bunker in the compound known as Washington Square Village. In fact, you’d probably all be welcome there, as long as you show up with a thermos of specialty cocktail and some kind of themed salad.
As his beautiful book makes abundantly clear, José is on a mission to change the world, or at least to imagine (I’m quoting) “a place and time… fuller, vaster, more sensual, and brighter.” That’s not to say perfect. Although he’s a utopian thinker, it’s hard to imagine José being content in a place where one couldn’t enjoy the intense pleasure of grousing about the here and now. That’s part of the point.
I often advise students to devise research projects which will necessitate their being in the places in the world they want to inhabit. My dissertation required extended “research” periods in Paris and Bahia. José’s tactic is arguably smarter still: over the years, he’s organized his research around the kind of people he wants to have over to the bunker for specialty cocktails and themed salad — people who at least temporarily make the world appear fuller, vaster, more sensual, brighter.
Others will address the ramifications of this project in relation to particular political and aesthetic formations, but I’m here to represent one anti-disciplinary context within which we might think about this book: that is, the strange and wonderful little world of Performance Studies. My account will privilege personal narrative perhaps at the expense of a more sustained theoretical elaboration. A truly worthy tribute to Cruising Utopia would manage to keep both those plates spinning. José’s is a book which sustains rigor even as it occasionally indulges in the anecdotal. In our strange little world we sometimes refer to this as “performative writing.” In more mundane terms, I can simply tell you that hanging around with performance artists can sometimes remind you that people enjoy hearing dirt.
So here is some. Some sixteen years ago, when I was teaching in the English Department at Princeton, I didn’t even know that the field of “Performance Studies” existed. One of my colleagues there mentioned something about the journal Women & Performance, and I sent them an article I’d written. May Joseph wrote me back a warm message, and she happened to mention something about a job opening, and something else about her colleague, José Muñoz, whom I’d met through a mutual friend at Duke a couple of years before.
One thing led to another, and I ended up in the lap of luxury, at 721 Broadway, 6th floor, where Richard Schechner, the gray eminence and founder of the field, assumed the lotus position at our faculty meetings. This was a change from Princeton. And Schechner wasn’t the only quirkster — it turned out the whole faculty was composed of characters. But there was a dirty little secret on the 6th floor of 721 Broadway. Despite our turn away from stodgy accounts of dramatic literature, despite our privileging of life and body, the oozy, gooey body, the body without organs, it turned out we were almost all trained in textual analysis: we were a bunch of not-so-closeted close readers of poetry.
This is one of the apparent internal contradictions of the utopian collective project of Performance Studies, and it’s manifested very touchingly in Cruising Utopia, a work that unabashedly hearts poetry, and which takes extravagant pleasure in Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. José’s reading of Bishop’s paean to Marianne Moore in the closing pages (with its explicit comparison to a trip on ecstasy) gives me goose bumps each time I read it. He uncovers the queer fugitive exuberance in a poetic voice that is sometimes characterized as having a particularly Northern chill. Some people find Bishop a little uptight.
José himself can, on occasion, surprise you with his propriety. When I arrived in Performance Studies, I understood my new, seemingly limitless curricular possibilities through a course he was teaching, which he references in his book. It was called “Sex in Public.” And he was taking his class on field trips! (This was another “Dorothy, you’re not in Princeton anymore” moment.) But despite his seemingly outlandish pedagogical projects, it was surprisingly easy to shock him. When, emboldened, I gave a coy reading of my own dirty poems, he remarked (as he is wont to do), “I clutched my pearls.” He’s also been known to plead earnestly with our MA students as they plan their “performative” final presentations, “Please, no naked!”
While he’s suspicious of a too-simple celebration of the liberatory potential of “baring it all,” he’s also, as I pointed out in regard to his deep love of Bishop’s poetry, anxious to find the radical potential in writers sometimes dismissed as limited or flawed in their radical politics. In Cruising Utopia, the most interesting case is his embrace of the utopian theorist Ernst Bloch, who he notes has been scrutinized for his sometimes disappointing sexual politics.
The colloquial description of this kind of theoretical recuperation of a partially flawed figure is: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” It’s an attitude that marks the political and theoretical positions of a number of my colleagues, and it indicates both a keen sense of strategic political savvy and a genuine generosity of spirit that makes Performance Studies feel like a space of hope.
If there were a baby José might at least claim to want to throw out with the bathwater, it would, in fact, be the literal baby in the bathwater — or more to the point, the baby in the Maclaren stroller. The insidious privileged child as the sign of futurity, the fruit of a bourgeois family ideal, is frequently skewered in José’s critiques both academic and casual. But his bark is worse than his bite, and in truth, one of my fondest memories of him has him steering my then-toddler, Leo, in a stroller to his radical left-wing hippie pre-school. It was shortly after my arrival, in 1995, and, due to some suitably tawdry incident, I was unable to take Leo to school myself, so I called on my stalwart colleague. After the customary clutching of the pearls, José cheerfully helped out, and so began a kind of familial restructuring for both Leo and myself. When the now mannish Leo recently unveiled his freaky new Henry Darger tattoo, José proudly claimed, “He was raised by the Department of Performance Studies,” and indeed, that’s true.
But futurity is not riding like an army of coddled toddlers in their Maclaren strollers. It’s our new way, as we continue to imagine new ways of finding ecstasy, of beckoning one another: please come flying. José, thank you for the specialty cocktails and the weird salads, thank you for the beautiful book, and most of all, thank you for the flight plan.
Perhaps Maurice Chevalier said it best

If the nightingales could sing like you
They’d sing much sweeter than they do
For you brought a new kind of love to me.
If the sandman brought me dreams of you
I’d want to sleep my whole life through
For you brought a new kind of love to me.
I know that you’re the queen, I’m the slave,
Yet you will understand
That underneath it all, you’re a maid,
And I am only a man.
I would work and slave the whole day through
If I could hurry home to you
For you brought a new kind of love to me.



Barbara Browning