Friday, December 23, 2011

Review: Disidentifications

[José Esteban Muñoz. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.]

How do we come to be who we are? How can we relate to what we are told that we are or that we must be ... especially when those messages from the words and images and enactments that surround us are not just something we relate to externally but get inside us and shape our imaginations and desires as well? These and related questions lie under the exploration of various cultural artifacts and instances of performance in this book.

The two niches of academic writing into which this text places itself are performance theory and queer of colour theory. The former means that it focuses on analyzing performance and related cultural production. That isn't something I've encountered too much before, so I don't always feel able to evaluate the specifics of how it is done in this book, and I don't know that I always buy all of the ways in which claims get made. The queer of colour theory aspect feels a bit more legible to me, given that my idiosyncratic reading path has taken me through a scattering of queer theory and anti-racism, but it does mean that the book is written in a particular idiom of queertheoryese, which, quite understandably, not everybody is necessarily interested in trying to read. With that proviso, however, I would still argue that there is lots to learn here about acting in the world, even for people whose experiences are organized rather differently than the people at the centre of Muñoz's analysis.

The book's approach begins from the idea that the dominant ideologies which are organized by and in turn organize the social world, as they are taken up and enacted by human beings, call us to understand and enact ourselves in certain ways -- "interpellation" is the way that French marxist Louis Althusser described this process. Another French marxist, this one a linguist called Michel Pêcheux, built on this idea to pose three possible modes of responding to this call. Identification (or assimilation) means embracing what you are called to enact and willingly taking on what the dominant ideology says you are and should be. Counteridentification means explicitly rejecting it, refusing it, denying it, but in so doing -- in understanding self as "not-X" -- you are still in some ways organized by what you refuse, by "X." Disidentification, the focus of this book,

neither opts to assimilate within such a structure nor strictly opposes it; rather, disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominant ideology. ... [T]his 'working on and against' is a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of everyday struggles of resistance. (11-12)

Disidentification is intentionally a disparate collection of approaches that "captures, collects, and brings into play various theories of fragmentation" (31) and manages to be "a hermeneutic, a process of production, and a mode of performance" (25). Most of all, though, it is not something ironically tried on for size or voluntarily experimented with, but is rather "about clutural, material, and psychic survival" and "managing and negotiating historical trauma and systemic violence" (161).

Muñoz's main focus is queer people of colour. He argues that as people who are erased and highly oppressed by what they are called to be through dominant ideologies, wholehearted assimilation is possible only at great personal cost. Counteridentification is possible, and is sometimes important and necessary for survival, but, as mentioned above, still means living in ways organized by dominant ideologies. He suggests that disidentification is a strategy of everyday survival embraced (in largely untheorized ways) by queers of colour in relating to a cultural environment that erases and despises them. This basis in everyday resistance creates certain kinds of possibilities for more explicit political work and cultural production.

Muñoz explores these ideas by looking at a series of instances of cultural production by mostly U.S.-based queers of colour. This includes an examination of the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat (in dialogue with a look at Andy Warhol's work); the work of African-American/Chicana drag queen Vaginal Davis; the presence of queers, especially Pedro Zamora, on MTV's The Real World; autoethnographic films by Richard Fung; work by Cuban-American queer feminist performer Ela Troyano; and more. Through these works, he explores modes of resistance by queer people of colour and the capacity for performance to mobilize "counterpublics" in ways that can break down isolation, contribute to shared meanings, and catalyze conditions for other kinds of change work.

I think this book seized my attention initially at the level of sensibility. After all, for all that complex and contradictory identifications are at work in how all of us come to understand ourselves, for those of us who do not experience the kind and extent of marginalization experienced by queers of colour in North America, and who in fact largely (even if not exclusively) benefit from harm and oppression done to others, such identifications do not play anything close to the same role in how we navigate the world. Still, there is something about disidentification as stance, as sensibility, that felt important to me from my first encounter with it -- something about its valuing of the everyday, its acceptance of inconsistency and contradiction, its refusal to be overwhelmed by a kind of puritanical, abstracted rejection of what is. I have always felt both a pull towards and a repulsion from the kinds of highly performative, often very divisive, approaches to counteridentification with current social relations exhibited by some privileged radicals, and I think more nuanced ways of relating to the world and to each other, and particularly to the everyday choices that oppressed and marginalized people must make to survive, are necessary.

Moreover, even though complex and contradictory identifications as experience, and disidentification as stance towards navigation, do not play the same role for those of us who benefit in significant ways from the oppressions of others, that doesn't mean that we won't benefit from understanding and making use of these phenomena in our own lives. In particular, I'm interested in how the moments of misfitting that all of us experience can be mobilized, both by ourselves in our own journeys and through critical pedagogy of various kinds, to catalyze at a visceral level the disidentification of relatively privileged subjects from aspects of self grounded in socially organized domination. It won't change the ways we benefit from horribly violent social relations, but perhaps it can be a path to becoming less attached to those benefits and creating space to work against them. Such questions are not addressed in this book, but it provides a place to start. And of course there are limits -- I first encountered the idea of disidentification in a paper by indigenous feminist Andrea Smith recommending that it would be a useful one to take up in the context of indigenous studies and anti-colonial political work, but also cautioning that on its own, even for the colonized subjects of primary interest to her, it might lead to loss of scope to take on truly transformative goals such as decolonization. That would be even more true for relatively privileged subjects. At the same time, critical whiteness theorist Ruth Frankenber has suggested that "it may be that a spiritual path of disidentification" is the key to "how to enter more deeply and self-consciously into one's racial identity in order to challenge it while making sure ... that any moves towards essentialism remain 'strategic." I think it's worth thinking about.

One thing I think I will need to do if I want to think further about such questions is get a firmer grounding in the work of Althusser and Pêcheux and the ways in which it underpins what this book has to say. I don't say that because I think I would be a particular fan of theirs, but rather to get a better picture than this book gives of the significant ways I suspect I would differ from the particular flavour of marxist theory that they use, and to understand what that means for taking up Muñoz's ideas. It would probably also allow me to get a deeper appreciation of what this book has to say if I were to seek some of the cultural works it talks about -- other than Basquiat and Warhol, I had not heard of any of the cultural producers it talks about. I really did appreciate the chance to get to know the various artists a little bit, though, through Muñoz's passion and close attention. In any case, I think there is a separate discussion to be had about how academic work that is seemingly at quite a remove from the day-to-day concerns of many radicals can actually be a valuable resource informing what we do, but I do think that we don't do ourselves any favours if we dismiss such sources of analysis out of hand. Not everyone will be interested in reading this kind of work, and that is perfectly understandable. But I think that those of us who are interested can do some of the work of bringing ideas from less accessible corners of theory into the movement contexts which we touch through our own organizing and through our writing, and seeing what is useful and what is not.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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