Beyond Discourse

David J. Getsy (ed.), Queer

MIT Press, 240pp, £16.95, ISBN 9780262528672

reviewed by Kristian Vistrup Madsen

‘I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty.’ David Getsy came across this line in Jean Coteau’s The White Book (1989) as a teenager and it is one that has remained central to his understanding of what it means to be queer. Getsy is the editor of a new anthology just published by the Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press in their Documents of Contemporary Art series. Queer gathers 80 documents around this theme as it relates to contemporary art practices and discourse, but, preceded by a volume in 2014 on Sexuality, Getsy’s book is not just about queer art, but about what queer means, and how it may be distinguished from nearby questions of homosexuality and transgender. Starting from the intolerability found in Cocteau’s text, Getsy's ‘book takes confrontational anti-assimilationism as an organising principle,’ thereby potentially cutting queer loose from both gender and sexuality all together. Queer is not another letter to be added to LGB, Getsy argues, it is not an identity, but necessarily adjectival. This is an exciting proposition, but one from which several challenges, or contradictions, emerge.

Firstly, if queer has to do with intolerability, is the notion of ‘queer art’ an oxymoron? The excerpt from The White Book continues: ‘The world accepts dangerous experiments in the realm of art because it does not take art seriously; but condemns them in life.’ Cocteau writes, ‘I withdraw from this society’. What does it mean to withdraw from ‘this society’? What does it mean, in an art context, to be intolerable? Queers are drawn to the art world precisely because they can be tolerated there to a greater extent than in the rest of society, and, in many ways, art is the very process through which controversial items are made tolerable to the bourgeois sensibility through aestheticisation. To engage in the art world as a queer person, as a political person, is to encounter and negotiate that contradiction on a daily basis.

Secondly, how can you anthologise something that resists definition? ‘Say “I am,”’ Roland Bathes writes, ‘and you will be socially saved.’ To say ‘I am’ is a feat of discourse that places you within the realms of the legible. What is far more interesting, according to Barthes, would be to say ‘I am nothing,’ or the something that I am is provisional, revocable, irrelevant. This would be the queer utterance. The excerpt from Barthes is short — less than half a page — but the suggestion that queer resides somewhere outside of or beyond discourse is one of the most striking in the book. How can you produce boundaries around something for which the most central characteristic is a continuous problematisation of the very notion of boundaries? It alerts us to the nature of the archive: in defining its limits, the limits unravel. To engage with Queer, then, both in this book and as an idea more generally, requires a continuous encounter with contradiction. To make that encounter generative becomes a kind of queer methodology.

Adding to intolerability, the artist and writer Emily Roysdon, who sat in the panel at the launch of the book, said: ‘I felt queer long before I was aware of my gender or my sexuality,’ I’m quoting loosely: ‘A number of people had died around me when I was a young child — my queerness grew from loss.’ The construction of queer in this volume becomes an act of reading, tracing resonances and making out lines of kinship via broad terms such as loss, failure or loneliness. The Nigerian- born photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode writes that his position as an outsider, sexually, racially and professionally, left him with a feeling of having ‘very little left to lose.’ A poet of the Harlem renaissance, Richard Bruce Nugent did not want to label his writing as motivated by either race or sexuality, but attributes it to ‘another kind of lonesomeness.’ By using these words as points around which to gather, the first chapter ‘Recognising Backwards’ cultivates a history of queer that goes back further than the AIDS crisis, and transgresses the borders of the Anglophone world.

In the ensuing chapters, other rallying cries, at once open and committed, are added to the list: rage, defiance, and, between the lines, grief. In Close To The Knives (1991), a powerful testimony to the devastation of the AIDS crisis, David Wojnarowicz writes: ‘I have nothing left to lose in my actions I let my hands become weapons.’ Again we are starting from loss, bodies failing, there is transfiguration, a reallocation of purpose: hands become weapons. Wojnarowicz lived and died in 1980s New York, and his insistence on making the private grief over the loss of friends and lovers — the loss of oneself — a public matter continues to be a powerful dismantling tool. Twenty years later, Zach Blas starts from the same place. Constructing Gay Bombs through ‘disidentification with technology’ — that is, revealing the way in which normative identities are enforced through technology in order to undermine it: Gay Bombs going off, falling apart, breaking things. This happens ‘outside and within at the same time’ — disintegration as a survival strategy. ‘I’m carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg,’ Wojnarowicz writes, ‘and there’s a thin line between inside and outside.’ Blas asks: ’What is required to break technology?’ The kinship between Blas and Wojnarowicz opens up this question: What does it mean to break? How necessary is breaking? Bringing Wojnarowicz’s premise into the present is a way to make demands on what history requires queer to be today: a demand that queer be difficult, and for it to continue to depart from loss and from grief. This is one of the points at which reading kinship into the fragments is most productive.

Another such point is when when queer emerges through the accumulation of disparate and contradictory texts, not as a coherent argument, but as generative problems. How does Roland Barthes’s ‘say “I am” and you will be socially saved’, for instance, inflect on the Argentinian artist Roberto Jacoby’s t-shirt designs bearing the constitutive iteration ‘I Have AIDS’ — can that be to say ‘I am nothing’? Is that the name of disintegration? In her films, Renate Lorenz constructs a type of drag that, by not referring to any binaries, moves beyond identity to undo it. Like Zach Blas she is interested in opacity, disappearance and desubjectification. Conversely, Jacoby’s t-shirts as well as someone like Tee Corine’s labia drawings are arguments for visibility. How does queer contain both these strategies? Because it has to. From Barbara DeGenevieve’s work with queer porn we learn that violence is both sexy and wrong, that ‘correctness’ is not the aim of the political: ‘Queer porn is democracy at its best,’ she writes. Again: queer is about learning to live with contradictions, embracing the loss of coherence.

However, in leaving it up to readers to find meaning in contradictions, Queer risks becoming too forgiving and including elements that dilute its militancy. This problem is exacerbated somewhat by Getsy’s decision to let the volume be dominated by artist’s writing rather than the usual mix of critical theory, philosophy and literature. The reason or this is that, for one, there are so many anthologies about queer theory, and for another, theory can sometimes omit the element of personal experience that, to a great extent, is the basis of queer. While this can be true, academic Paul B. Preciado’s astoundingly visceral and moving account of hormone treatment does a lot to undermine that assumption. Also, I can’t help but feel the bar drop when the scholar Susan Stryker’s comprehensive explication of the relationship between trans and homonormativity is followed by three pages of Ron Athey’s changing clothing styles. That’s when I need the excerpt from Judith Butler undoing the misreading of Gender Trouble that casts performativity as a ‘radical choice.’ And when Elmgreen & Dragset discuss their practice with Hans Ulrich Obrist as ‘infiltration,’ it would be nicely off-set by someone like Jasbir Puar, to question whether the Scandinavian duo’s big Tel Aviv museum show also constitutes infiltration, or is perhaps something closer to pink-washing. Although queer is about undoing and remaking, it is also about urgency and political commitment. Theory could have helped to make some of the finer points that keeps one side from compromising the other.

Starting from queer, not as identity, but as adjective — the outline of a loss — which is the most central experience it attaches itself to, that of gender or sexuality? Theoretically, by mobilising intolerability, Getsy is prepared to say ‘neither,’ but the fact is that most of the texts are overwhelmingly informed by homosexuality. Part of the reason for this is Getsy’s well-intentioned emphasis on steering clear of any co-option of trans by queer. The two, he says, are not the same thing, trans needs a wholly separate discourse to address that particular material and social experience. While this is certainly true, I think that Getsy risks falling into a different trap: the co-opting of queer by gay. As Susan Stryker writes about trans in the final section of the book, ‘Against Homonormativity,’ adding T to LGB is a homonormative act, because trans is not an identity category in the same way. Is it, like queer, adjectival, unstable, contingent? ‘One operation of homonormativity exposed by transgender activism,’ Stryker continues, ‘is that homo is not always the most relevant norm against which trans needs to define itself.’ She argues that transgender activism points to useful forms of alliance politics, for instance with migrant workers or diasporic communities that are not organised around sexual identity.

Put in this way, queer as Getsy defines it has more in common with trans than with the homosexuality around which the book ultimately centres. What trans can do for queer is too valuable to lose over an anxiety to ‘co-opt,’ especially if the consequence is a queer that is more diluted, too gay, which it is, sadly, in this book. Nithin Manayath’s text about the Bollywood diva Meena Kumari, for instance, is classically gay in its projection of homoerotic desire onto the tragic female icon, and in doing so misses the feminist intersection. It is not that there isn’t anything queer about Manayath’s text, or the series of texts about cruising and saunas, or artists like Elmgreen & Dragset, Wolfgang Tillmans or Danh Vo — it’s not that they couldn’t be queer if we wanted to read them in that way, it’s that they also fit so smoothly into a much larger and well-established discourse on gay that they become limp additions — not bombs and weapons — to this volume on queer.

This is less a criticism of those texts than a testament to the force and brilliance of certain others — when Preciado marks the tape-recording ‘Day of My Death,’ for instance, or when Wojnarowicz, in his memoir, grows 37-feet-tall ‘and all I can feel is the pressure all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release,’ and Sharon Hayes declared at the Republican National Convention: ‘What a pleasure to feel indignant!’ — I would hate to see them bogged down.