￼Walk (On Ecstasy) With Me
￼Walk (On Ecstasy) With Me
photo: Dudu Quintanilha
This following text was presented by Ryan Tracy as part of the "Politics of the Walk" talk on September 28, 2014 at Pratt Institute; co-presented with Pratt's MFA in Writing.
"￼Walk (On Ecstasy) With Me: Elastic City Walks and The Politics of Participation" by Ryan Tracy
Elastic City intends to make its audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit. Elastic City
It should be clear to us by now that walking, in its many forms, is undoubtedly caught up within many political vectors of power as well as the struggles that emerge in and against forces of political and social oppression. I would like to use my time here to give attention to “participation” as one facet of “the walk” that seems to vex easy attempts at attributing a positive ethical, political and aesthetic value to the walk in its collective form. I take Elastic City’s intention to “make” its audiences “active” in their participation seriously. And for some time now, I have obsessed over Todd’s notion of “poetic exchange.” I have a sense that the terms together—active participation and poetic exchange—do some alchemical work on each other. In what follows, I hope to get a little way into figuring out what that work is and what it might say about the work Todd, and Elastic City, are doing.
I would like to come at the politics of the participatory walk from a queer trajectory; specifically in relation to the terms of participation. What enabled us to come here? What are the terms of address that occasion our collective formation? Were we called here? And if so, who called us? How did they call us? Might we have come here by another call? And if so, how might a different call bring to our being here together new meanings? In short, how did we become this we? In what follows, I will use queer insights about the politics of participation alongside José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of queer collectivity in order to explore how we might think of the walk, as imagined by Elastic City, as a political performance of queer participation.
￼One of the things I have come to love about queer theory is that it demonstrates a rather earnest categorical ambivalence toward the politics of participation. “Participation” becomes a site for struggle in queer theory primarily because identifying and critiquing compulsory social norms (e.g. “compulsory heterosexuality”) has been central to explaining the ways that queers are produced, marginalized and punished in a given cultural context, but so has devising political strategies that must on some level take the shape of social, collective movements. I have no intention of resolving this ambivalence. In fact, its ambivalence is no doubt one of the things that makes queer theory such a vital tool for social critique.
This tension was put under the microscope in 2005 at an MLA panel discussion titled “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory,” where Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam, Tim Dean and José Muñoz faced off on the subject. At stake was whether or not queer theory would be thought of as a theory about individual refusals to participate in normative cultural projects, or, in contrast, if queer theory was a theory that sought out ways for queers to form collective social movements that would counter dominant cultural forces.
One of the more poignant arguments for the latter was offered by Muñoz, an argument he would go on to elaborate in 2011’s Cruising Utopia, is that a politics of individual refusals will ultimately benefit only those queers who already have the best chance of participating in individualist, capitalist, racist, sexist culture: “gay white men.” To be clear, the intervention Muñoz was offering cannot be reduced to the flippant argument that gay white men do not face serious struggles, nor that homophobia itself wasn’t a pernicious and persistent social phenomena, but, rather, that much of the queer theoretical work up until that point had the tendency to promote an anti-relational (i.e. anti-social), individualist politics of the negative. Muñoz’s impassioned critique of anti-relational queer politics is that they were grounded upon a denial of the ways that race and class imbricate with the politics of sexuality. Thus, the resources that might support a rugged gay individualist survival (i.e. money, maleness and whiteness) are not available to those queers who are likely to have the least advantages or protections in our ￼society. In other words, anti-relational politics held almost no future promise for queers of color, queer women and trans people.
Muñoz offered collectivity as a necessary, urgent alternative to an anti-relational queer politics because it turns central queer principles (anti-normalization, anti-homophobia, antisexism, anti-capitalism) into loci of affinity from which queer social movements can be launched and broadened. Thus, participation, in Muñoz’s imagination, is not merely an option (or opposition) between group participation in compulsory social norms or individually rejecting those norms. Muñoz’s formulation of queer refusal as a collective rejection of oppressive social norms restructures the terms of participation into a queer, social form. But what keeps this queer collectivity queer? While drawing socially affective affinities between marginalized groups and individuals was at the heart of Muñoz’s project, so was an insistence on the crucial role of individual, critical self-reflection in the shaping and embodying of queer refusals (thinking here the chapter “Just Like Heaven” in Cruising Utopia). One key element that hovers around Muñoz’s queer collectivity is the gesture of invitation, a gesture that, in my reading, is crucial to keeping collective social projects queer.
I’d like to suggest that the form of collective participation that Muñoz is suggesting, one that is neither violently compulsory nor hubristically antisocial—one that is queer—must include the gesture of invitation. In the closing chapter of Cruising Utopia, Muñoz shares with us the song “Take Ecstasy with Me” by The Magnetic Fields. The song, like its title announces, is an invitation. “The Magnetic Fields are asking us to perform a certain stepping out with them,” Muñoz writes. This stepping out, according to Muñoz, is specifically a stepping out of “straight time,” of “the here and now,” of what he termed the pragmatic politics of the present, in favor of a potential future that awaits those who are willing to accept the invitation. “That stepping out,” Muñoz continues, “hopefully would include a night out on the town, but it could and maybe should be something more.” What I want to argue here, is that the gesture of the invitation, for Muñoz, is crucial to initiating collective projects that will be utopian and not risk falling into the blunt, instrumentalizing moves of pragmatic political thinking. If our social movements, our ￼stepping out together, are to retain their queer utopian promise, then they must be attended by a queer invitation, a hopeful, playful gesture that signals our suspicion that there is more to this street we are walking along than the straight time trajectory from-home-to-work-and-back-again, and that intimates our willingness to step out of ourselves and into elsewheres that must be there. “Take ecstasy with me,” Muñoz says, “thus becomes a request to stand out of time together, to resist the stultifying temporality and time that is not ours, that is saturated with violence both visceral and emotional, a time that is not queerness...Taking ecstasy with one another is an invitation, a call to a then and there, a not-yet-here.”
I would like to conclude by arguing that Elastic City’s desire for participation, and its calls for an “ongoing poetic exchange,” is just such a queer invitation; a hopeful, winking, open gesture to step onto the street together, and in doing so, to step out of the “stultifying” presumptions of the dominant political, economic, and social logics that strive to overdetermine our experience of walking in public. The collective walk imagined by Elastic City neither rejects all forms of participation (although it will reject some), nor does it naively exclude individual subjective experience or reflection (in fact, it depends on them). Rather, the poetic exchange that Elastic City offers, or invites, is one in which the putting into motion of bodies in public spaces is rethought, reimagined, re-performed and rehearsed, so that whatever we thought the street was, is or could be, is radically eschewed—vacated—clearing a ground to move differently in the world, and, in doing so, to re-make the world according to a queerer set of coordinates; that is, to actualize a world that insists on always becoming other than what we are told it should be.
“Cruising Utopia can ultimately be read as an invitation,” Muñoz concluded about his own work. One might read Elastic City’s walks similarly. I certainly do. Yet it will be important to remember that, as speech acts, all invitations are at risk of failing. It is, no doubt, anxiety about such failure that fuels individual as well as institutional desires to set up and enforce regimes of compulsory participation. Resisting this impulse to compulsorize participation is not an easy task. But, if we are to insist on making and inhabiting worlds that overcome the paranoid logics of coercion, and if bringing about these worlds means devising and launching collective acts of ￼political resistance that will require the participation of many, of ourselves and others, then it is a risk we must seductively, repeatedly, invite.
Caserio, Robert L.. 2006. With Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz and Tim Dean. “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory.” PMLA. Vol. 121, No. 3. pp.819828.
José Esteban Muñoz. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York and London: New York University Press.
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