The Utopian in the Everyday

As I sat down to write these comments, I found myself thinking of another time and place, over ten years ago, when I initially encountered José Muñoz’s first book Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Upon reading the book I felt an immediate sense of queer intellectual kinship, and was struck by how resonant it was with the concerns that were animating my own project on queer diaspora. Indeed, reading Disidentifications at that critical juncture in my own intellectual trajectory emboldened me: it affirmed for me the kind of queer scholarship I wanted to produce. In both Cruising Utopia and Disidentifications, Muñoz traces his queer theoretical genealogy through sources as varied as women-of-color feminism on the one hand, and a certain tradition of Marxian thought on the other. He cruises theory, moving seamlessly from Anzaldúa and Alarcón to Ernst Bloch, CLR James, Adorno, Derrida and Raymond Williams, those figures in leftist thought whose work is not typically mined within queer scholarship. Similarly if we trace the genealogy of what has now come to be known as queer of color and queer diasporic critique, Muñoz’s work–with its insistence on the endlessly imaginative modes of being that emerge within queer, and particularly queer of color, subcultures–stands as a crucial milestone. Muñoz’s first book gave many of us a sense that we were engaged in a collective enterprise that could radically transform the white normativity of certain strands of queer studies; Muñoz’s second book powerfully signals that this transformation has (for the most part at least) come to pass, thanks in large measure to the impact of his work.
My own book, Impossible Desires, opens with an evocation of the Zapatista rallying cry, “Demand the impossible.” For me, this call resonated with the ways in which queer South Asian communities in the diaspora were in fact daring to imagine other modes of belonging and affiliation outside of those based on the killing heteronormative logics of both dominant nationalist and diasporic discourses. In theorizing impossibility, I found tremendous sustenance in Muñoz’s first book, and we can see in Disidentifications an intimation of the insights that he expands upon with great force in Cruising Utopia. In Disidentifications, he writes, “disidentificatory performances and readings require an active kernel of utopian possibility. Although utopianism has become the bad object of much contemporary political thinking, we nonetheless need to hold on to and even risk utopianism if we are to engage in the labor of making a queer world” (25).
It is precisely this risk that Muñoz takes, boldly and convincingly, in Cruising Utopia. Here Muñoz gives us a gorgeous, moving love song to queer sociality and the queer/punk/of color subcultures of the city. Cruising Utopia challenges us to move beyond the grim diagnoses of the dominant that characterize some forms of contemporary queer scholarship (what Eve Sedgwick would call paranoid reading practices), and instead to identify the utopian in the everyday. Muñoz points to the existence, however fleeting and ephemeral, of alternatives to the deadening strictures of straight time. These alternatives are evident all around us if only we access a queer-sighted vision that brings them into focus; they are on the stage and the street, as he puts it, in the gay Latino club in Queens, in the delicate and fierce gestures of Kevin Aviance, in queer art and poetry, and in the memory of gay public sex. In his readings of Andy Warhol’s coke bottle and Frank O’Hara’s poem “Having a Coke with You,” Muñoz writes that “both queer cultural workers are able to detect an opening and indeterminacy in what for many people is a locked-down dead commodity” (9). Likewise, it is precisely such an opening that we as readers are able to glean through Muñoz’s work: through his critical vision we access that sense of astonishment in the everyday, as we see both the gray urban landscape and indeed our own lives anew, filled with the always deferred potentiality that he names as queerness.
In thinking about the continuities between Disidentifications and Cruising Utopia, I am particularly struck by, first, the work and force of the autobiographical in both texts, and secondly, by Muñoz’s construction of his archive.  Let’s start with the place of autobiography in Muñoz’s work. In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz writes that he uses his own personal experience to “ground historical queer sites as lived experience.” He continues, “My intention…is not simply to wax anecdotally but, instead, to reach for other modes of associative argumentation and evidencing” (3-4). The turn to the autobiographical, then, becomes a kind of critical methodology that enables Muñoz to trace the resonances between seemingly disparate texts, those that appear to be discreet in terms of both time and place. The moments of autobiography in his work are also the ones that I find at once most moving and theoretically rich. Both Disidentifications and Cruising Utopia conjure forth the ghosts of the queer children we once were: we see the 11 year old Marga Gomez watching “lady homosexuals” on TV with her mother, and the young James Baldwin entranced by Bette Davis at a Saturday afternoon matinee. But most of all we see Muñoz himself, as a five year old “spy in the house of gender normativity”(68) in South Florida in the 1970s; or Muñoz as a punk kid sitting in a parking lot with his best friend Tony, parsing the lyrics to his favorite songs and imagining a future far removed from the dead-end path of gender and sexual normativity. The queer, and particularly queer of color, childhoods evoked in Muñoz’s work thus powerfully counteract the “anti-relational thesis” put forth most famously by Lee Edelman in No Future. As Muñoz writes, “the future is only the stuff of some kids. Racialized kids, queer kids, are not the sovereign princes of futurity.” Muñoz adamantly refuses to cede all desires and articulations of futurity to “normative white reproductive futurity”; instead he lays claim to futurity on behalf of those for whom it is systematically denied.
The turn to the autobiographical in Muñoz’s work speaks to his construction of an alternative archive that is adequate to capturing the texture and richness of queer lives and relationality. This archive is one that, for instance, allows us to read John Giorno’s memoir of anonymous sex in the Prince Street subway toilet as an instance of what Muñoz calls queer utopian memory: such remembrances “do the work of letting us critique the present, to see beyond its ‘what is’ to worlds of political possibility, of ‘what might be'” (38). The archive that Muñoz gives us is also one that is determined by the queer intimacies that inform his own life: writing about the work of his friends and intimates speaks to his commitment to an ethics of queer collaboration, one that enacts precisely the webs of relationality and collectivity that he identifies in the queer art and performance practices he theorizes.
Muñoz’s final chapter is aptly entitled “Take Ecstasy With Me”: the title comes from a Magnetic Fields song that Muñoz reads as articulating “a certain kind of longing for a something else … a request to step out of the here and now of straight time”(185, 186). As readers we happily accept Muñoz’s invitation to take ecstasy with him, and eagerly follow him as he points the way to another, brighter, more expansive world.

gayatri gopinath