Friday, October 30, 2009

Muñoz and Halberstam

Did you see my tweet a few days ago that read: "Oh dear, Jose Muñoz and Judith Halberstam getting my critical eye today! I'm sure they'd be devastated if they knew, devastated! #yeahright"?  Well, this is what I was writing...

So last weekend I read the first chapter from Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics by Jose Muñoz and “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, Masculinity in the Drag King Scene” by Judith Halberstam.

Basically and in brief, they both center on visual and performance art with a focus on gender, race, class and sexuality. Muñoz’ piece is an examination of the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, concentrating on what these works tell us about Black male gender roles and self-identity. Halberstam’s essay focuses on drag king performances, primarily in London and New York, with special regard for the history and unique aspects of male impersonation within Black lesbian communities. While each essay covers a number of potentially overlapping issues in practices of art, to me the topic they are especially speaking to each other about is Black masculinity. And while they both have some compelling points, they both also frustrated me in parts, which is, shockingly, what I'm writing about.

In the opening of his chapter, Muñoz talks about the “strategies and rituals that allow survival in such hostile cultural waters” and his “compulsion to try and articulate…these practices of survival” (37).  He acknowledges a hostile cultural environment, in which Black men (as the later discussion is about) must take on strategies to survive. Yet later on he brings up bell hooks’ analysis of Basquiat's paintings, seems to become quite defensive at her articulation of Basquiat’s work illustrating a “lack” for/in the Black cis male body. Now, I only have the quotes he provided to go by, however, in my view, hooks is saying pretty much what Muñoz himself is saying: a hostile culture creates a situation where survival is the paramount thing for Black men.


And survival often prevents self-actualization, does it not?  To me, this is the “lack” hooks is talking about regarding the half-formed lines of Black male bodies in Basquiat’s work. It is a lack of a wholistic identity.  A consquence of a kyriarchal belief system suspicious (when not down right afraid) of Black masculinity (embodied by men, or women).

Given this base misunderstanding, it is perhaps understandable that Muñoz then continues to misunderstand hooks' analysis, specifically revolving around the lack of the feminine in Basquiat’s paintings. The world of the female is that which must be rejected for masculinity to assert itself (so the kyriarchal narrative goes), sons must “cut the apron strings” and become independent, eradicating the devalued feminine traits which might label them as anything but "truly" masculine.

What I think hooks is trying to call attention to through pointing to the lack of “a world of blackness that is female or a world of influences and inspirations that are female” (55) is not, as Muñoz suggests, “the very same logic that Moynihan Report disseminated” (56), but instead a side-effect of survival in a culture which actively devalues blackness and femaleness. For Muñoz to acknowledge at the start of the chapter how in awe he is that (queer) children of color learn to survive in a world specifically hostile to them and at the end of the same deny that perhaps that survival comes at a personal cost seems naïve.

Similarly, I had some reservations about Halberstam’s analysis and theorizing, primarily around what I read as an almost outright dismissal of the resistance of many of her interviewees to her theorizing of their drag king performances (109). I find it extremely problematic that her response to the “frustration” of her interviewees at her questions is to defend her approach and not to consider the possibility that she might be doing something wrong. I do not think it is ok to take people’s lives out of their subjectivity and use them for one’s own purposes (as is a pattern in some feminist/gender theory, especially queer and trans gender theory), and sadly I read some of that in this article.

I was especially concerned with her assertion that “theory does not have to be beholden to subjective experience in any linear way” (109).  I interpret this to mean that she believe theory is, in the end, independent of subjective experience, thus she can feel ok making theory from the lives of others (in this case, from drag kings, both white and of color) and yet is not beholden to their opinions of her theorizing.  This especially rubbed me the wrong way as she characterized her interviewees blanketly as "lesbians" and "women."  Are we really to believe there was not one trans man in attendence?  If there wasn't, why not?  This seems a rather important issue to choose to leave entirely out of the discussion.

In another vein, questions like this one: “how do we explain the predominance of white drag kinds in urban scenes?” seemed naïve at best. That the answer “racism” does not explicitly follow at any point in the piece, but only vague and unexamined references to “social stratification” (128) or “complicated relations” between white drag kings and drag kings of color (107), earned her no cookies from me.