Book Review: CRUISING UTOPIA: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by Jose Esteban Munoz

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9780814757277_Munozcover_lg.JPGJose Esteban Munoz is a believer. In his most recent book, Crusing Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), Munoz provides a manifesto to combat his queer theory contemporaries who insist that queerness must reject hope and future.  Munoz challenges that embracing an antisocial negativity (most popularized by Lee Edelman), is the only way toward queer emancipation, and instead offers a compelling account of what can occur when queers take on utopian sensibilities in their modalities of the every day.  Importantly, Munoz also notes that his distancing from the anti-social no future is also a critique of the whiteness of Edelman's original project; (specifically, Munoz notes that when Edelman says "the future is kids stuff," that he does not realize there are kids of color that are not white, middle-class products of heteronormative-rearing).

In a read that is simultaneously dense and playful, Munoz's thesis is informed by the theorizing of Ernst Bloch, a Frankfurt School Marxist that has been largely ignored compared to his Frankfurt colleagues. Munoz finds Bloch's ideas on utopia helpful for his project on queer futures, particularly since he sees Bloch as promoting "hope as hermeneutic"; Munoz explains "from the point of view of political struggles today, such a critical optic is nothing short of necessary in order to combat the force of political pessimism" (p.4). In addition to Bloch, Munoz also borrows heavily from Giorgio Agamben's notion of "potentiality," a concept that is distinguished from "possibility" since "unlike a possibility, a thing that simply might happen, a potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense" (p.9). It is this relationship to the future that Munoz believes can be a/temporally created in the present through intentional methods of queer living.

Munoz showcases important queer art and cultural artifacts that illustrate his thesis, including drag performers, photographs of queer stages, spaces of public sex, theater, and dance. For example, in Chapter 2, "Ghost of Public Sex: Utopian Longing, Queer Memories," Munoz uses a "performance text" by John Giorni called You Got to Burn To Shine, in which Giorni recalls "fucking Keith Harring" at  Prince Street subway toilet in 1982. In the description, Giorni celebrates the spontaneous, anonymous, unbridled surrender to pleasure that occurred in the moment he and his then-anonymous partner explored each other's bodies, as other's watched. Munoz suggests that this can be seen as an act of resistance and world-making, especially in the face of AIDS-panic sex-policing that took place in the 80s. He then draws on the dialectal thinking of Theodor Adorno to show how "Giorni's text [is] pointing beyond the barriers of our current conditions of possibility, beyond the painful barriers of the AIDS pandemic; it lets us see, via a certain conjuring of "the past," and for many of us we see this past for the very first time" (p. 38).

Munoz's interest in the relationship of temporality to utopia continues throughout the book. In the chapter entitled, "The Future Is in the Present," Munoz tells us about Samuel R. Delany's memories of the advent of postmodern performance art, which he describes as "spare, difficult, minimal, constituted largely by absence, isolation, even distraction" (quoted in Munoz, p. 51). Delaney admits that his disappointment was a result of modernist expectations for something more coherent, but because "no one ever got to see the whole" Delaney (and Munoz) admit spaces of queer world-making. Here, Munoz turns to C.L.R. James' collection of writings, The Future in the Present, which is a Marxist project that posits the ability for the new world to be created in the shell of the old (as the old is still occurring). James' most lucid example is that of an old shop-worker who, because of decades of manual labor work, is unable to perform his job at the factory. In response, his fellow workers agree to pick up his slack so that he can stay hired, as he has a wife and children to support. Munoz connects James' description of dialiectical utopianism back to the discussion of public sex, which he cites as an example of an "outpost of a new society" (p. 55).  

Themes of space/time continue most saliently in Chapter 4, Gesture, Ephermera, and Queer Feeling, and also Chapter 6, Stages: Queers, Punks and the Utopian Performative. In the former, he uses drag performance artist, Kevian Aviance, who is "six foot two, bald, black, and effeminate" (p. 73), to discuss the potentiality of the "in-between." For Aviance, drag does not mean perpetuating the fictitious gender binary; he performs without a wig, does not cover up the bulge in between his legs, but is unarguably feminine in gesture and movement. Munoz states, "[Aviance] performs the powerful interface between femininity and masculinity that is active in any gender, especially queer ones. In this fashion he is once again a counterfetish, elucidating the real material conditions of our gender desire" (p. 79).  Similarly, in Chapter 6, Munoz sees space/time working together in utopian ways in his discussions of a series of photographs that capture unoccupied queer stages. Although Munoz is talking about literal "stages" (upon which people perform, physically), he makes a nod to the double-entendre of the discourse placed on queer youth that their desire is "just a stage."  The disconcerting images of empty stages where privy queers are used to seeing queer-worlds flourish are a reminder that "[t]he best performances do not disappear but instead linger in memory, haunt our present, and illuminate our future" (p.104). Munoz evokes Derrida's notion of the "trace," to explain the potentiality of memory (and the past) to inform our utopian futurity.

Munoz closes his book with the help of a Magnetic Fields song, "Take Ecstasy With Me," which he reads as call to submit to pleasures," but also "a call for a certain kind of transcendence" (p.185). Fittingly, Munoz reminds us that "queerness is not yet here; thus, we must always be future bound in our desires and designs" (p. 185).  

As is true with his last book, Disidentifications, Munoz masters the art of combining high-theory with performance and media criticism. His ability to blend Marxist analysis and postmodern theory is an example of utopian promise in and of itself. Throughout each showcase of performance artist or artifact, Munoz is fairly consistent in convincing us that there is a space for futurity in queer-world-making. However, his ideas start to become redundant and what we get from each artifact starts to blend toward the middle and end of the book. We are shown over and over that  alternate spaces of queer world-making are possible, that memory informs the present that informs the future, that potentiality is greater than possibility, but not much else. Furthermore, his attempt to claim the political potency of each of his examples (from drag to public sex to Andy Warhol to LeRoi Jones) falls flat at times, especially in contradictory moments when it seems he believes in the importance of collective organizing, but then concedes to individual acts of everyday resistance.

Those critiques noted, I still recommend this book as one of the most coherent pieces out there that addresses the other side of the antisocial thesis debate. Unfortunately (?), as is the case of many books-written-for-the-academy, it is a work that would be read best with chapters extrapolated for different themes of a course, or, what will probably be the case for me, for whatever paper a certain excerpt might be most relevant. Read as a whole, it's redundancy is on the edge of "boring," but Munoz avoids this through his engaging prose, his captivating examples, and his admirable unabashed optimism.


2 Comments

Thanks, Raechel. Your review is helpful for me (I haven't read the entire book yet) as I think through what I will use from this book in future classes. You indicate at the end of this review that this book, when taken as a whole, is redundant and almost boring. I appreciate your comment here. In my classes (as you can probably tell by now), I usually prefer articles over books. What do you think about the experience of reading a wide range of articles (and putting them into conversation with each other) versus reading (and digging deeply) into one book? Did you enjoy doing both in this class (in the form of this book review assignment)? Are there any books (particularly queer theory books) that you would recommend reading in their entirety? Okay, one more question: If I were to assign a chapter from this book for my queering desire class next fall (or my queer ethics course in the spring), what should it be and why? Thanks!

Where do you imagine Snediker and queer optimism fitting into the critical conversation between Edelman and Munoz?

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