There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world I do not think it’s asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.—Nikki Giovanni
The declarative verb “to engage” occupies cross-purposes. The word, across languages, assumes similar yet nuanced meaning. Translations include, for instance, in German, anheuern, engagieren, belegen; in French, engager, intéresser, occupier; in Spanish, participar, engranar, entablar; in Portuguese, empregar, contratar, atacar; and, as Jennifer Griffiths shows in her contribution to this collection, the Italian impegnare. In each of these languages, the term evokes connection, participation, and inter- and intra-involvement. “To engage” thus carries vibrant possibilities, since it intermingles acute political, cultural, and creative ranges of life experience. In some senses, therefore, and in its infinitive form, “to engage” asserts “to begin,” “to attract,” “to hire,” “to use”—as in “She engaged me in conversation,” “The new driver learned to engage the clutch smoothly,” or “The university engaged her expertise in the matter.” Similarly, it is possible to engage in business or in politics or to be betrothed to a beloved through an act of engagement. [End Page 14]
As a noun, the word indicates an invitation, a promise, a binding occupation. Engagements may gather individuals into pairings, partnerships, or groups, temporarily or with the intention of permanency. An engagement is entangling, drawing together participants in a cooperating unit (a workplace, a relationship, a contractual agreement) even as that entangling may be one of violent division: troops may engage in battle. Yet engagement is more than co-presence; it is, at work or in love, dynamically relational.
To engage, however, encompasses paradoxical processes, since to engage one thing is to disengage another. In other words, to engage is deconstructive in its dialectical movement, as engagement and disengagement occur simultaneously. That is, to engage takes shape in relation to that from which it removes itself. To engage is to disengage, which is, in turn, to reengage. Poet and activist Nikki Giovanni’s familiar words, quoted above, remind us that to engage constructively and ethically—in sex and other social relations—is as crucial as it is to disengage from actions less pleasurable, less transformative.
Such an exhortation would be echoed in 1990, when a controversial broadside hit the annual LGBT Pride March. New York members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) distributed the manifesto, which warned readers of the dangers of complacency as a response to the growing HIV/AIDS crisis and a spate of violent antigay incidents. Its opening lines implored, “How can I convince you, brother, sister, that your life is in danger: That everyday [sic] you wake up alive, relatively happy, and a functioning human being, you are committing a rebellious act.” The anonymous authors urged maximum queer visibility and uncompromising confrontation with any and all institutions—religious, medical, governmental—and individuals whose worldviews perpetuate homophobia: “I will not march silently with a fucking candle. … Let yourself be angry.” Engagement, then, begins at the level of affect and carries the most intimate realms of sexual identity and behavior into the public sphere.1
To be sure, erotic engagements are key. They energize forces that drive the oppositional tactics of feminist and queer communities that were (and, in many ways, remain) under attack. The primacy and creative possibilities of those participatory erotics are simultaneously sensuous, disruptive, awakening, and transformative. The groundwork that shaped feminist and queer movements reveals itself through the arts and scholarship or in the streets—or the commingling of all three sites. Consider, for example, Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Table (1974–79), Frank Ripploh’s film [End Page 15] Taxi Zum Klo (1980); Michael Worton’s theoretical engagement of gay men in public spaces in “Cruising (Through) Encounters” (1998); Gran Fury’s multipronged and ubiquitous art against AIDS; Catherine Opie’s photographic portraits...