"Good as Yesterday"'s Queer Futurity: Muñoz with Muñoze

My title plays with as it traces a number of imbedded citations. First it conjoins the titles of the two texts that will concern, and, in their conjunction, provoke, me here . One echoes the title of José Esteban Muñoz’s disarmingly lovely new book, Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity. The other names an extraordinary short story by the queer Chicano fiction writer Manuel Muñoz, a story which appears in his Zigzagger collection . The uncanny if superficial coincidence of these writers’ surnames, their having inherited an identical patronymic signifier (there is in addition an echoing punning of apellido and appellation that I’m resisting here), allows me to exploit a certain opportunity to pervert the logics of familiarity and formality, of kinship and strangeness, of intimacy and anonymity, by referring to the two of them by their first names, respectively and respectfully, José and Manuel, even though I can only claim to know one of them, José, intimately and well, and the other, Manuel, not at all.
 
Moreover, the conjoining phrase that follows the inevitable colon as subtitle to these remarks in its turn bears explanation: “Muñoz with Muñoz” directly mimes the construction of Jacques Lacan’s noted essay “Kant avec Sade,” perhaps the psychoanalytic theorist’s signature attempt to think philosophy and literature, ethics and aesthetics, together. Through Lacan I hope also to invoke another signature attempt to think literature and philosophy together, Jacques Derrida’s still-resonant, tolling and ex-tolling Glas, his interminably columnar dialectic pitting Genet against, and putting him right next to, a decidedly Derridean Hegel. I’ll also insist here on making explicit my own turn away from a clearly German/French inter-national dialectic imbedded in the homo-intellectual pairings of Kant with Sade, or Hegel “with” Genet, towards an alternative pairing, this time a trans- rather than inter-national, and in addition trans-diasporic, coupling, Mexican- now “with” Cuban-(American). Finally, pushing as hard as I can on everyone’s patience, I’ll insist on the perversion of the conceptual logics of ethnicity and sexuality, a dialectic coupling that I stage here as queer with queer, and brown on brown.
 
First, for philosophy. Cruising Utopia stands here, as Kant’s work did for Lacan and Hegel’s for Derrida, as one pole in a conceptual force field, the anchoring, orienting ground for a critical-philosophical dynamism that refuses the dispiriting refusal of, on the one hand, an ascendant “queer” critical nihilism that apparently wants to abandon the political as such in the service of its supposedly polemical critique of one admittedly hegemonic iteration of the social, and, on the other, of an activist pragmatism that embraces an easy, assimilating politics of conciliation in order to claim a stable if uncomfortable toe-hold on the forbidding cliff face of that hegemonic iteration of that version of that social. José enlists the support of a bracing genealogy of philosophical and theoretical precursors in the exquisite elaboration of his own critical intervention, one that can begin in a German idealism traveling from Kant and Hegel down a difficult Heideggerean track, then picking up a healthy and varied dose of twentieth-century Frankfurt School critical materialism, thanks to Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and most notably Ernst Bloch, who, José tells us, “found solid grounds for a critique of a totalizing and naturalizing idea of the present in his concept of the no-longer-conscious,” which in turn enables for all of us the deployment of a productively, generously “critical hermeneutics attuned to comprehending the not-yet-here”(12). It is in the modality and tempo of the not-yet-here that José’s own (great) work begins: “Queerness is not,” he tells us, “yet here.”  And “we,” even and perhaps especially the “we” who claim it, here and now, willingly and passionately, “are” ourselves “not yet .  .  . “(1). Not yet what? Well, queer, for one thing: “We may never touch queerness,” José admonishes us, “but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer yet queerness exists for us,” we learn, “as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future,” now, “is queerness’s domain”(1).
 
Cruising Utopia opens in full song, in a complex contrapuntal (Cuban?) chant, equal parts poetry and counterpolemic, in order to usher in a crowd, a choreographic mass of often queer interlocutors as likely to come from a literary (O’Hara, Schuyler, Myles) as from a critical-philosophical (beyond the Germans, and perhaps too briefly: Butler, Felman, Sedgwick) tradition, as from the worlds of art, pop, and performance. I love that Cruising Utopia can so fully indulge its critical and philosophical predilections in the lush bosom(s) of what we can generally call, as José does, “the aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic,” which, he tells us, “frequently contains blueprints and schemata for a forward-dawning futurity” that, in turn, “map[s]” by imagining what we can possibly see, let alone know, here, and now, of “future social relations”(1).
 
And now, for literature: except, not now, since we’ve already arrived in, and at, the literary, and even in its more ample bosoming, in the aesthetic, without having departed (much) from the first page, which is also the first paragraph, of an introduction entitled “Feeling Utopia.” But as that paragraph invites any movement away from its “now,” from the “prison house” of any given “here” and “now” that will insist on its standing for all time(s) and all place(s), I want to move back from it, back far enough into a fairly recent past, to a 2003 that saw the appearance in print of Manuel’s Zigzagger, a collection of short stories in the mode of a narrative and literary fiction, a mode that might in some contexts appear to relinquish a certain claim to any queerness, even a literary queerness, for some part of its effect as aesthetic performance. This is, as Jack Halberstam would caution us, no movement we can accomplish in “straight” time. But it will carry us, if we allow it, if we abandon ourselves to it, into the scene of a quite fecund textual coupling: of Muñoz with Muñoz. And with the use of a now-excavated Blochian “critical hermeneutics attuned,” we can newly insist on ” comprehending the not-yet-here.” So we zigzag back from Cruising Utopia‘s 2010 through the 1950s of Bloch’s Principle of Hope, back up to Zigzagger‘s 2003 to a story in the collection that promises in its title to tell us something about what might still be “Good as Yesterday.”
 
Briefly, then: Manuel Muñoz’s story involves Vero, a twenty-year-old woman who shepherds Nicky, her queer sixteen-year-old brother, to his weekly visits with Julián, a man Vero’s age and whom Vero’s sort of fucked, who is doing short time in a county detention center for, of all things, unpaid tickets for past moving violations. Vero and Nicky still live with their parents in one of the many small, working- and migrant-class rural towns that litter California’s great Central Valley and that as settings dominate Manuel’s early fiction. The parents, never named, remain married for no better reason than a habituated despair, and have forfeited (to Vero) any responsibility for raising their son, in part out of their own deepening estrangement, but also out of their dawning realization of their son’s queerness, and of his intensifying attachment to a man like Julián.
 
Manuel holds his third-person narration closely tethered to Vero’s take on the world. She literally drives the narrative even as she drives her little brother–in the aging Chevy Impala that was once but is no longer her father’s proud possession–on his hopeful Sunday visits to the county facility that holds the older man he thinks he loves. Manuel’s narrative therefore hinges on the most incongruous of affective economies: Vero’s willing embrace of her own humiliation in conceding to her queer little brother any claim she herself had had to Julián, a sublime masochism that never avails itself of the predictable explanatory rubric of a pseudo-maternity founded on self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Manuel never allows us to doubt Vero’s own subjective and affective viability, even as he refuses his reader any easy or conventionally sentimental account of that viability. Vero, whose name probably shortens Verónica and thereby simultaneously forestalls an obvious scriptural allusion and invokes a queer “truth” foreign to both English and Spanish, thus serves Manuel well as a vehicle for a performance of a hermeneutic that is at least doubly critical, and hopeful, and queer.
 
Here she is reading Nicky through what she observes of the sealed greeting cards he brings to the detention center as gifts for Julián: “She can,” Manuel tells us, “read Nicky’s pretty writing. Julián, and Mi Amor, and Siempre Nicolás, and the intricate hearts he has sketched on the back flaps, brooding and pulsing fleshy hearts with blood dripping like sweat”(123).
 
These pathetic adolescent offerings bring us, I want to suggest, close to an imaginative manifestation of what José tells us Bloch saw as the critical, anti-canonical aesthetic of the “ornamental” and the “quotidian,” and in whose childish, hopeful tracings a queerly loving older sister might recognize her queer little brother’s own heart in all its brooding, pulsing, fleshy “intricacy.”
 
Vero’s queer love for Nicky sinks, however, into an even deeper, more difficult yet transportive intimacy: Manuel’s narrator has Vero remember for us how she first “met Julián at a party” and how “he had invited her to the back yard where there was no light and she had let him come inside of her leg” (124). A bit later readers get the added detail that Julián “had put one, then two fingers in her, and she had let him” (133). Right after that we learn that whatever embarrassment she feels for herself only deepens, through her profound affective attachment to Nicky, an embarrassment she feels for Nicky when she imagines “what Julián and her brother did at the drive-in” and “Julián coming on the inside of her brother’s thigh . . . one finger, then two”(133).
 
I want to suggest that in Vero’s veraciously and voraciously queer, and queerly kinned, attachment to her little brother we can glimpse something of a queerness-to-come that is a not-yet-queer in the not-yet-here that José sees, and that he shows us, shining from a proto-Blochian future, from, as he puts it, “the anticipatory illumination of the utopian canceling the relentless shadow play of the absence and presence on which the antirelational thesis rests” (15). That thesis has nothing to say to, and no way to imagine, let alone think, the kinds of registers of the affective that produce the ties, and the bonds that  Vero’s fierce love for her Nicky allows us, and invites us, to see, and to know, and to reach, and to make.  That thesis refuses to allow the possibility that precisely such a self-destroying, ecstatic pleasure as might ensue from that insertion of “one finger, then two” into so rich a variety of places in so rich a variety of bodies might engender the very conditions for an alternative symbolic upon which an alternative socius might find so much stable ground, and any number of viable homes.
 
“Good as Yesterday” gets its title from a phrase (“You’re only as good as yesterday!”)  scrawled on a poster of Golden Age Hollywood divas in a coffee shop in Fresno where Vero sometimes takes her little brother (137). It is “a coffee shop,” we learn, where boys like Nicky “hang out smoking cigarettes and holding their right elbows as they blow smoke into the hot night air ” (137). Vero watches them as they “stand around and look pretty . . . teasing each other, acting like girls, . . . their sculpted hair glimmering in the coffee shop light” (137).  I wonder, though, if in “straight” Vero’s own cruising of the queer boys in the coffee shop, and in her perception of a “sculpted” glimmer shining off their dark hair, we ourselves might discover an expressive, imagined example of what José encourages his readers to look for when he asks us “to cruise the fields of the visual and not so visual in an effort to see … anticipatory illumination of the utopian” (18). I also wonder how much this coffee shop in Fresno has in common with other queer-provisional, “threshold” or “border” sites where José’s work would have us cruising, such as the Los Angeles club spaces photographed by Kevin McCarty, spaces where, in José’s words, queer and punk kids could “imagine a time and place where their desires are not toxic.”  (105)
 
The threshold where a story like “Good as Yesterday” both meets and envisions its own queer futurity feels like a comfortable place to suspend these remarks. Here, where one encounter between literature and philosophy, and another between aesthetics and politics, and perhaps a third between history and imagination, can all offer us the gift of a hope in a future where queerness might live and thrive, we might in turn begin to think a new “now,” one that refuses to concede any ground to all prevailing and dominant versions of the present that claim to or insist on standing in for all possible versions of our present, and our presence, now, and later. Let’s not, therefore, concede our own “here” and “now” to anyone else’s. But let’s also not exclusively translate how we’d like our “here and now” to feel, and to work, into a “there and then” that might offer it some provisional protection. Cruising Utopia, for all of its rhetorical insistence on that bracing futurity, also, and through the performative force of its own not-yet-conscious wish, offers us back the gift of a newly imaginable, a newly knowable, here and now. It is a gift given us by José in two beautifully critical registers, a mostly explicit hope, and an entirely implicit, but always emphatic, grace.
 
Note: Ricardo Ortíz thanks his colleague Richard T. Rodríguez for introducing him to Manuel Muñoz’s literary work.

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