- José Esteban Muñoz 1967–2013
from Barbara Browning
A few days after he died, disconsolate, I went out onto my balcony to cry. I live, as José did, in the block of NYU faculty housing that we sometimes referred to as “the compound.” As I stood there looking into the space between my building and his, there suddenly appeared a swarm of pigeons—dirty city birds—but in that moment, they looked elegant, balletic, swooping through the compound trough in uncanny, graceful, formation. So banal, and yet so poetic, to say: birds of a feather flock together. I had the distinct impression that they were trying to give me a message. None of them was leading, sometimes one would fall a little out of synch, sometimes one would seem to be guiding the group but then that one would fall behind and another would appear to take the lead. They managed to keep it together. I thought, “Okay, maybe we can keep it together without him.” I’d been worrying about that.
I went inside and Googled, “why do birds fly in formation.” This won’t surprise you. They’re trying to trick their predators. Some ornithologists say they want to appear as one big, intimidating organism. Some say they just want to confuse their attackers with too many choices.
Stealthy character! When José slipped away we suddenly realized he’d completely remapped our way of moving through the world. We knew it when he was here, but we didn’t really know it—not the extent of it, how his call to “dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being” had guided all our movement—political, erotic, aesthetic.
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José Esteban Muñoz taught for two decades in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. At the departmental gathering we held shortly after his passing, our colleague Richard Schechner, the Noah of this ark we cling to so fiercely, said to me, with wide eyes and a genuine humility and appreciation I found very touching, “José really reconfigured the department and the field.” It’s true. Performance Studies today is a collective project with a distinct emphasis on the performativity of race, gender, and sexuality, and that turn owes much to José. He authored two utterly groundbreaking books—Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 1999) and Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (NYU Press, 2009). He co-edited the volumes Pop Out: Queer Warhol (with Jennifer [End Page 7] Doyle and Jonathan Flatley, Duke University Press, 1996) and Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America (with Celeste Fraser Delgado, Duke University Press, 1997). He coedited, with Ann Pellegrini, an important queer studies book series at NYU Press. He published dozens of influential book chapters, articles, and catalogue essays. He co-hosted a politically trenchant and often hilarious “queer bully pulpit” blog (with comrades Lisa Duggan, J. Jack Halberstam, and Tavia Nyong’o) named after his late dog, Bully.
Once in a while he’d appear in a weird performance art video. He was a stalwart audience member in the downtown experimental theatre scene, often engaging artists in talkbacks, and hooking them up as often as he could with both performing and teaching gigs. He also hosted a sort of informal, Jack Smith–like salon—social gatherings at his bunker in the compound where jingoistic national holidays were turned upside down, like the kooky Jell-O molds that often served as their centerpiece. At these gatherings, José surrounded himself with the thinkers and artists he loved, colorful characters that helped create, in a phrase borrowed from Cruising Utopia, “a place and time [...] fuller, vaster, more sensual, and brighter.” Birds of a feather flock together. These were birds of paradise. Those who came...