To Mend the World Queer Messianic (José Esteban Muñoz) (& Emil Fackenheim)

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Just finished reading José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.  His philosophical lodestars are Bloch and Marcuse, Heidegger and Agamben, but I came to see here the kind of thinking associated with the Jewish post-Holocaust thinker Emil Fackenheim. To say the least, I found this surprising, but the more I think of the connection the more sense it makes.

Let’s start from the beginning, as it were. Writing against Lee Edelman, Muñoz has drawn a queer subject-position that in its orientation towards the future stands out as messianic. Given the influence of Bloch, in particular, this makes persfect sense. As an open horizon, the future of queer eros in its radical rejection of the present constitutes a transformative refusal of straight society and prescripted  norms. It lets out into new ways to see and to act, collective forms of becoming and pure potentiality. Writing against Lee Edelman, the present is presented by Muñoz as quagmire, as hollow, against which the future figures as hope.

None of this struck me as necessarily exceptional or necessarily persuasive, at least not on its own. The more significant glance is the one that relates the future back to the past, and the past to the future. This was the key suggested to me by a question posed to me by a graduate student, who wanted to know the basis of Muñoz’s hope, i.e. the basis upon which Muñoz allowed himself to hope.

As I understand it, the answer lies in the past, namely the heyday of queer life in Lower Manhattan represented by people like Warhol, and LeRoi Jones (Amira Barkara), John Cage, Frank O’Hara, Fred Herko, as well as by accounts of group sex in Greenwich Village and of gay bars in Ohio, all prior to Stonewall, and by personal anecdotes growing up queer in suburban Miami in a large Cuban family. The past represents that period of pure potential just before the emergence of more crystalized and less radical, less open and radical gay-identity formations.

In contrast to this image of the past, the present rejected by Muñoz refers to Stonewall and after, the mainstream and assimilationist gay activism rejected by Muñoz, and the AIDS pandemic, and how these combined into the gay sex panic pushing queer sex back into the closet of the private sphere.

The past, then, not the present, is the basis of hope in a hollow present for the future. Because something was possible then, the wow-astonishment marked out in works by Warhol such as Silver Clouds, the incandescence of Fred Herko’s final jeté out a window, the redemptive moment at the end of Jones’ The Toilet, because it all happened then, Muñoz can hope in the future, and to the re-opening of horizons.

That is what reminded me of the Jewish philosopher, even if the temporalities don’t exactly line up in the same way. Both Muñoz and Fackenheim are catastrophe-thinkers, who attempt to recoup the future on the basis of “astonishment.” Indeed, that Fackenheim was a German Jewish émigré who shared the same intellectual milieu of Bloch, including what Susan Shapiro has identified in Fackenheim as a “phenomenology of astonishment,” should make the link to Muñoz not so arbitrary (cf. p.5).

In To Mend the World, Fackenheim argued that forms of secular-humanist, Christian, and Jewish tikkun or world-mending were possible in the present because they happened in the past, during the Holocaust, by singular people, humanists, Christians, and Jews who resisted, in whatever way they could what Edith Wyschogrod has called the death-event. Because a partial tikkun, an incomplete tikkun was possible then, even then, in the past, one can put one’s hope in the future. That’s what reminded me of Muñoz.

My own reservations about Muñoz’s utopia are ones typical of me, which I’ll rehearse quickly. Understanding that by “the present” Muñoz  means something specific, especially vis-à-vis the AIDS pandemic, I would nevertheless argue that liberal order is rather more enabling than crushing of the queer theory that wants to disable it. But more problematic is the doubt that bad affects do not, as per Muñoz, generate new potentials. Utopia assumes that the something to come out of, after, and against all this will be better, not worse (p.189). But I don’t think there’s any reason to expect this to be the case. And I don’t think any of this is as “political” as Muñoz wants it to be. For Warhol, let’s remember, “Pop-art is liking things” such as mediated images, consumer objects, money, Reagan, and capitalism (cited in Mark C. Taylor, Disfiguring, pp.181-2). Who knows if he meant, but there’s no reason to think he did not.

Most of all, I had a hard time getting past the suicide of Fred Herko. In his final stage-like performance before a single unsuspecting spectator, a friend, Herko performed a nude dance to Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C Major and then threw himself out of an open apartment window in a “perfect jeté.” Failing at first to understand the incandescence that Muñoz saw in this “final queer act,” the “flamboyant” death in rejection of “straight time” and “traditional notions of finitudeI finally understood the sadness brought by Muñoz to the discussion of Herko at the end of the chapter, the sense of tragic loss, the sense that Herko was failed by the people around him who could not save him (p.149).  I have no doubt that this realization with its sense of failure is intended to haunt the utopian project outlined by Muñoz in his own final work.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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