- Trading Futures: Queer Theory’s Anti-Anti-Relational Turn
José Esteban Muñoz’s new book fights for the future of a field—queer theory—arguably defined by the differences between two works from its recent past: Muñoz’s own Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999) and Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004).1 Insofar as Cruising Utopia marries an argument of crankily counterintuitive originality to whipsmart readings of both familiar and underground queer artworks, it more than succeeds in living up to the high standard set by his previous book. Just as Disidentifications broke with then-prevailing critical orthodoxies of gay affirmation and belonging in its evocation of the anti-identitarian political complexities lurking in an eclectic archive comprising everything from Mapplethorpe photos to the performances of Ela Troyano to the lyrics of the punk band X, so too Cruising Utopia gate-crashes the queer theory conversation via readings of a dazzling array of poems, visual artworks, performances, and collective political actions. Specifically, Cruising Utopia attempts to reorient queer studies away from the antirelational turn exemplified by the work of Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, advocating instead a politically idealist utopian vision of queerness as the futurity of the “not yet here.” If Lee Edelman’s No Future is on its way to being the [End Page 325] most widely read and passionately debated work of queer theory of the decade that followed Disidentifications, then Cruising Utopia not only continues Muñoz’s own evolving critical trajectory, but also constitutes a suitably un-timely rejoinder to Edelman’s apocalyptic endgame. I’d like to first describe Muñoz’s book on its own terms and then evaluate it as a response to Edelman’s argument.
Muñoz’s book is marked by an ongoing dialectical tension between collectivity and individuality, between a political desire to desubjectivize queerness on behalf of the collective and an art-historical and literary-critical practice of close reading—beautifully—the work of particular poets, painters, photographers, and performance artists. Muñoz wears this elasticity on his sleeve, as in his early formulation that “[c]oncrete utopias. . . are the hopes of a collective, an emergent group, or even the solitary oddball who is the one who dreams for many” (3, italics mine). This “even” is something of a tell, for Muñoz’s heart belongs to the odd-balls, and it is his historically extended cabal of isolated queer provocateurs who constitute the true collectivity that organizes this book. In ten chapters teeming with sharp close readings and inspired theoretical and artistic odd couples (John Giorno and Theodor Adorno! Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Darby Crash!), Cruising Utopia’s great strength is the passionate critical advocacy that drives this wildly heterogeneous mixtape of queer utopians into unforeseen alignment. In a dizzying series of cross-fades and chemtrails, the antilandlord rants of radical filmmaker Jack Smith sound different when aligned with the scribbled curriculum vitae of tragic speed-freak dancer Fred Herko, whose manic energy finds itself complemented and countered by the frantic performance work of Jibz Cameron (Dynasty Handbag), whose antivirtuosity seems anticipated and interlocked with the hermetic deadpan of collagist Ray Johnson. For all its rich insight into the often tense affective networks of queer friendships and communal working groups (from the collaborators on the underground literary journal The Floating Bear to the Judson Memorial Church to the agitprop sticker campaigners “f.a.g.” [feminist action group]), Muñoz’s book is at its most arresting when he focuses in on particular artworks with these cross-pollinations in mind and finds the impulse towards collective futurity crystallized in an isolated aesthetic gesture.
Such collectivity can emerge in startling places. A case in point is Muñoz’s response to Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, a set design of metallic balloons first fabricated for Leo Castelli in 1966 and immortalized in press photos for the Velvet Underground. Pushing off from...