- José E. Muñoz’s Queer Gestures
As the collection of articles included in this forum evidences, José Muñoz’s contributions to queer studies, performance studies, and critical race and ethnicity studies were immense. He led the way to a queer studies with groundbreaking theoretical advances that helped institute an academic field of inquiry that centers queer genders and sexualities as optics for understanding the world. At the same time, he critiqued and pushed that field to account for and to redefine its terms of engagement relative to the experience and imaginative praxis of minoritarian subjects who remained outside the queer theory proper. He grounded his critique on the creative work of performance, as an aesthetic practice that theorizes in its doing, and as an optic for understanding the social as constituted in the performative force of power. In doing so, he pursued and documented the survival tactics of queers, queers of color in particular, as evidence of alternative routes to being in the world; as utopian pathways, not to a naïvely futuristic elsewhere but to a deeper, affectively dense, understanding of the inadequacies of the present. I want to reflect on a little recognized aspect of his contributions, his investment in the world-making force of queer gesture.
I first encountered Muñoz’s work as an undergraduate student in art history at the University of Rochester. Visual cultural studies scholar Lisa Cartwright shared his article, “The Autoethnographic Performance: Reading Richard Fung’s Queer Hybridity,”1 then recently published in the cinema studies journal Screen. What struck me most about this article, despite it not being the central focus of the piece, was Muñoz’s investment in how gesture facilitates queer of color minoritarian engagements with the historical. [End Page 146]
In this 1995 article, later revised and published in his landmark first book, Disidentifications: Queer of Color and the Performance of Politics,2 Muñoz opens with that marvelous and poignant sequence in Fung’s 1991 film, My Mother’s Place (1990), where “the pasty specter of the monarch born to the throne helps to formulate an entirely different type of queen.”3 In this sequence, the visual aesthetics of old technologies (8mm film) image schoolchildren in Trinidad waiting along a procession route where the British queen is to—and eventually does—pass by during a royal visit to the kingdom’s territories. A voice-over narration, at once apprehending the event as in the moment of performance and in the pastness of childhood experience, fixates on the greeting gesture of the queen and its appropriation by the young Pilipino queer and his sister, who, as the narrator explains, playfully rehearse the royal wave, white socks standing in as white gloves, in the intimacy of their home. Muñoz reads the “double articulation” of gesture here, vis-à-vis Homi Bhabha, as “colonial mimicry.”4
Understanding the queer child’s performance as one shaped not only by colonized/colonizer but gay/straight divides, he explains, “this moment of protodrag ‘flaunting’ not only displays an ambivalence to empire and the protocols of colonial pedagogy, but also reacts against forced gender prescriptions that such systems reproduce.”5 Muñoz goes on to pursue the queer hyperbole of this gesture in other disidentificatory visual narrative techniques that allow Fung to work between ethnographic and pornographic filmic economies, grounded in the history of colonialism and its aftermath, for queer of color ends.
The gestural economy intimated in Muñoz’s attention to Fung’s focus on the monarch’s wave as intervention into the historical past, and its enduring consequences in politico-economic arrangements that disadvantage the lives of queers of color, opened a new world of critical possibilities for me as a student in art history trained to account for a pictorial archive that felt so incredibly overdetermined by the limited range of movement allowed and the choreographies prescribed to queer of color bodies in the long aftermath of colonialism’s shake of the globe. Muñoz’s article both validated my discomforts with a canon founded on colonial practices of collecting the Other and pointed to performance as a way to disidentify...