Filed under: Dance | Tags: alton sterling, arts council of greater baton rouge, baton rouge, CKA, CKA: enough (2), climate change, coco loupe, Dance, enough, mina estrada, orlando, philando castile, protest, transgender
I wrote and performed this text for CKA: Enough (2), a dance performance event produced by CKA (Currently Known As) at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 15, 2016. An audio recording of the text can be found below.
Enough is enough.
I’ve had enough.
Am I enough. Am I doing enough.
When is “doing” itself already enough?
At what point have I done enough to be enough?
Which might also be asked another way: how much must I do in order to become myself? If we might understand the self as not necessarily a persistent being unto itself, but rather the accumulation of a set of activities, an ongoing repetition of stylized acts—a bit like a dance actually—a process of doing doing doing doing doing until finally—or perhaps never actually finally, but always tenuously, always conditionally, always precariously—I become legible to others and myself as I am, as a person, as a human being, specifically under the conditions that to be human, to be a person, means that I am worthy of recognition, worthy of basic care and respect.
How much doing is enough to become recognizable as a person, as human, as worthy of recognition, care, and respect?
And how much is not enough?
And Philando Castile.
And Sandra Bland.
And Freddie Gray.
And Tamir Rice.
And Eric Garner.
And Trayvon Martin.
And “Goddess” Diamond.
And “Reecey” Walker.
And Keyonna Blakeney.
And Shante Isaac.
And Maya Young.
And and and and and and and you know some of those names and the ones you might not know are the names of transgender women of color who have been murdered already this year, this year that follows last year—the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States, more than 22 reported murders of transgender people, and when no matter how much you do to live your life, you might still die, how much doing is enough to stay alive?
What will it take—what would be enough—to prevent state and social violence?
Enough is enough.
And what the fuck about Orlando? 49 people were killed and they were lesbian and gay and bisexual and queer and transgender, and on that night, in that space, dancing was enough to bring people together, but for many of them, it was not enough to keep them alive.
And the following week, members of Congress staged a sit-in in order to demand a vote to change gun laws in our country, and the sit-in was not enough, and the laws did not change.
From the Old English genog meaning “sufficient in quantity or number.” The first part ge- meaning “with, together.” The second part nog from the root nek meaning “to reach, to attain.”
With, together, reach, attain: what can we attain, what can we reach, together?
I just spent a week in Melbourne, Australia at a conference on performance and climate, and we spent a lot of time talking about artists making work that deals with the global climate crisis, and on the 15-hour flight back to the U.S., I kept wondering: is any of it enough?
Is any of this art enough to affect how we think or live our lives, specifically in relation to the planet, to climate change, to this vast world of nonhuman others to which we belong—when world leaders can’t find a way to stop the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees, when all the promises about policy changes might not be enough to mitigate global warming and major extinction events?
Enough. With, together, reach, attain.
What can we do together to reach a future earth, and who gets to come with us?
And what if we can’t do enough to be part of the “us” that reaches that future earth?
What if we cannot or will not do enough to mitigate our own extinction. When time is running out, when time might already be up, “enough” means something different.
So when is dance and dancing enough?
This dance was enough to bring us all here, to share our time and space and bodies with one another.
Dancing was enough to mobilize bodies, to put our bodies into motion, not only here and now tonight, but also for weeks and months preparing for this performance—and also for years and years, as we’ve developed ourselves as dancers.
And watching dancing can be enough too. It asks us to stay attentive to bodies not our own, staying open to witnessing whatever comes next, the unpredictability of bodies, the moment by moment emergence of moving bodies not our own, and in watching them, allowing ourselves to be acted on by them, perhaps even to accept them, come what may, and in this way, dance—the event of both dancing and watching dancing—might be enough—or might begin to be enough—to foster a kind of ethics, an orientation of patient, receptive attention towards others…
This is not a protest dance, but it is a dance that’s taking place in a world of protest, protesting bodies, bodies gathering in rallies and vigils, bodies gathering in the streets, as our bodies gather here, and any dancing that we do or view is not separate from this world of other bodies that gather.
Whatever else it might do, dance gives us an opportunity to move and be moved.
As we watch, “enough” remains a question: for what is dancing enough? For what is moving and allowing ourselves to be moved enough? If we are moved here and now by the bodies that we see, will that be enough for us to be moved by other bodies in other times and places?
We keep asking: is this enough? And when we ask, “Is this enough?” we also continue to ask: enough for what?
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: balthus, immersive dance theatre, rashana smith, torrence 6-36-86
It was the kind of show at which you might end up in bed with someone.
On May 27 and 28, I performed as part of an immersive dance theatre project entitled Torrence 6-36-86, directed by Rashana Perks Smith and presented throughout her house in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. This project was developed over many months, with about 17 different contributing artists generating site-responsive contributions—in the forms of dance, interactive performance art, sculptural installations, and video art—to a 50-minute production. Together we explored the meaning of proximity (to others), accessibility (of material), and domesticity (within the social constructs of a private residence in a suburban midwest neighborhood and through the retrospective eyes of a personified ninety-two year old house). Over the course of two days, nearly 90 audience members were met by an ensemble performance that began in the front yard/driveway, proceeded into the basement garage, up into and throughout the rooms on the main two floors of the house, and finally out into the back yard. Dances took place in almost every room of the house—the kitchen, the guest bedroom, the dining room, a child’s bedroom; 3D video of the house at other times and places was projected onto the walls of the study and offered to viewers through the frame of a small handheld monitor; installations in the forms of light, fabric, origami, and sound created a multi-sensory ameliorations to the space as it is usually inhabited. Each performer embodied a distinct role; some performed very clear “characters,” while others performed actions that were more reminiscent of archetypes. As an ensemble, we offered a plethora of opportunities for the audience to create their own sense of meaning for the piece. Some perceived ambiguous narratives of marriage, infidelity, and aging; others described a sense of mystery, never quite knowing why all of these figures were together in this house, but experiencing a series of moments that came in and out of focus, resonating with their own histories and feelings.
My primary contribution to the production was a series of interaction-driven performances, in which I invited select guests to come with me to the master bedroom. Over the course of four days—including our test audiences for our dress rehearsals—I invited nearly thirty people upstairs to join me in the master bedroom. The bedroom was staged very simply: the bed was the prominent feature, along with bedside tables, the indirect light of two lamps, a small stack of books (each relating directly or indirectly to eroticism, sex, desire, or love), music playing softly (a mix of Etta James and Nina Simone), and a few other pieces of bedroom furniture—two dressers, a chair, and a stool. With each of these guests, I ushered them inside, closed the door all but a sliver, turned to face them and said, “This is the master bedroom. What would you like to do?” The interaction that unfolded with each person remained unpredictable, shaped primarily by their stated desires, their responses, and occasionally by my suggestions when they didn’t know how they wanted to proceed or when they asked what I wanted. The majority of these interactions ended up in bed; many ended up in ways that were beyond anything I had imagined or anticipated. Many of these scenes were observed by other audience members or performers peering voyeuristically through the tiny opening left by the door; on two occasions, other audience members walked right into the room (uninvited but not explicitly discouraged either) to observe the intimate interactions in the bedroom. Each interaction lasted approximately seven minutes, measured out by a fairly complex cueing system between the performers in different rooms. Each interaction ended abruptly, sometimes with someone outside the bedroom pushing against the door, and sometimes with another performer rushing into the room and throwing herself onto the bed. In each case, I alerted my guest that our time was up with an urgent declaration: “We have to go.”
What happened in the bedroom is beyond precise accountability. I could describe specific actions or interactions—one person wanted to jump on the bed, one person wanted to watch me as I held and stroked the pillows like lovers, another suggested that we rub each other’s feet, many ended up in bed lying next to me or spooned against my body, a few shifted nervously and made anxious conversation, for instance—but none of that exactly captures the moment to moment eye contact and shift in posture, the small smiles and laughs and careful balancing of cordiality with nervousness, the subtle actions and reactions, the words they spoke and my sultry, suggestive responses. I could fill volumes with descriptions of how people looked at me and looked away, the counterpoint of glance and counter-glance, the moments when a stranger or friend’s body relaxed in my arms or how cuddling our breathing fell into synch. I could write about the people who remained tense, anxiously looking towards the door either hoping to leave sooner rather than later or worried that someone else might enter. I read to many people from Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos and The Sensuous Woman by “J”—lines about a beautiful, cheating, disappointing husband or transitioning from vibrator masturbation to hand masturbation respectively. But those descriptions of the action would not capture the feeling of being together in a small room with the door nearly closed, the associations of reading to someone in bed or being read to in bed, the banging and thudding of performances in other rooms mixing with the rich tones of Nina Simone and Etta James as we together tried to figure out what we would do together in this situation. I could transcribe conversations about memories and stories of childhood, families, work, sex, and the performing arts, but such transcriptions couldn’t capture the way her hair fell across one eye as she laid next to me speaking through her smile or how he shifted forwards and backwards decisively, as if each movement was being choreographed moment by moment. I don’t know how to transcribe the state of attention that I was maintaining—trying to direct all of my focus on this one individual, crafting opportunities for interaction out of the things they said, while also staying attentive to cues coming from other performers in other rooms. Each interaction in the bedroom was itself an improvised dance of actions and reactions, propositions and responses, anticipation, projection, and uncertainty. With each stranger, we became more familiar, more intimate within a context; with those I knew, friends and loved ones who I brought to the bedroom with me, our familiarity became strange as we navigated a situation we had never been in before. Multiple people who I did not know before the performance afterwards described our time together as charged with potential eroticism, feeling illicit as they became intimate with a stranger in someone else’s bedroom. Several people who I did know described similar but distinct impressions: the fact that they knew me sometimes made the situation even more strange or unfamiliar, as if we had gone “off script” from the familiar relationship we both knew, inventing a new way of being together within the context of this bedroom/performance.
For the rest of the audiences—the majority of those who moved through the performance, who were not invited to the master bedroom—I was a more peripheral figure, someone who slinked around the edges of rooms, posing in a corner or perching on the edge of a desk, someone who invited the person next to them to the master bedroom then brought them back a short while later. One audience member (Angela Dufresne) described me afterwards as “a nymphette in a Balthus painting,” which I felt was an apt characterization of the figure I performed.
My interests in this performance project were multiple: first, I wanted to create a structure for scenarios that brought issues of intimacy, privacy, power, and decision-making into and out of view. I wanted to proposition people I knew and did not know, in ways that shifted their own attention to their responses, their desires, and their choices when they found themselves in semi-private one-on-one interactions in an unfamiliar bedroom. The scenarios that played out in the master bedroom—which began from the moment I approached someone and asked, “Would you like to come with me to the master bedroom?”—complicated the audience/performer roles, putting audience/participants on display for themselves. I did not know in advance what would transpire; neither did they. In a sense, the audience/participant performed for me as well, in as much as I performed for them. Although every single person who I asked to come with me did so, they didn’t have to make that decision. And yet they did: they chose to come, not knowing what would happen and also not knowing what else they might miss, perhaps not even realizing that they were choosing to have one unknown experience rather than others. This experience of making choices without all the information, as well as the experience of perhaps realizing that you had made choices without all the information, was also of particular interest for me, if for no other reason than that it utilized this performance situation to frame and accentuate an experience that is certainly germane to life beyond the performance. Most of all, I think I hoped that the audience/participants who joined me in the bedroom would leave with a heightened sense of self-awareness or self-consciousness—observing, reviewing and questioning their own behavior—mingled with what might include excitement, exhilaration, anxiety, pleasure or desire—if not for me or my company, then for the resolution of the scenario that remained interrupted and unfinished. No doubt the structure for the scene—an intimate liaison with someone in a bedroom that belongs to neither of us—creates the conditions for a number of affective responses. It was this affective potential as well as the audience/participants’ actions that followed from their immediate feelings that I wanted to put on display for each of them.
In posing the question, “What would you like to do?” I hoped to give audience/participants an experience of articulating or giving voice to their own desires, however mundane or rarefied those might have been. For those who did not know what they wanted or who asked for suggestions or asked what I wanted, I think I wanted to give them intimate experiences that maybe they had not had before, or maybe they had not had in a semi-public space before: lying in bed or cuddling with someone they did or did not know—a friend or former student, a stranger, someone whose gender presentation is ambiguous—having someone read to them in bed or seated in a chair, slow dancing together to Etta James, watching me dance at the foot of the bed, etc. It is a questions perhaps many of us have not asked before: if someone took us into a bedroom and closed the door, turned to us and asked, “What would you like to do?”—how would we respond? What desires would we be capable of naming? What actions would we give ourselves permission to venture? How far would we let ourselves go into our own fantasies?
I was also interested in the experience of exclusivity, both for those who came to the bedroom with me and for those who watched other people go to the bedroom, without knowing what happened there. Multiple audience members commented afterwards that they were disappointed that they didn’t get to go to the master bedroom; conversely, quite a few people who were with me in the bedroom expressed worry that they were “missing something” elsewhere in the house. Several people asked why I picked them; several people also expressed something like jealousy after having been to the bedroom with me then watching me take someone else after them. All of these reactions interest me, and they are the kinds of affective responses that I hope became palpable elements in the audiences’ experiences.
Each audience member’s experience of Torrence 6-36-86 was different. Of course, this is true of any performance—in that each viewer occupies a position/perspective entirely their own, and brings to the experience their own associations and meaning—but here this difference/uniqueness was heightened, with the audiences separated into different rooms, different positions in different rooms, seeing different parts of the performance in different sequences, sometimes experience a part (like mine) that few others experienced, sometimes missing something that many other people saw. For me it was an experience of following someone else’s desires, sometimes entangling them with my own, and somehow finding our way into one another’s arms and into bed—but only for a short while.
Filed under: art | Tags: columbus OH, larry doyle, mercury, mouton, retrograde
Retrograde, a new series of works on paper by Larry Doyle on display at Mouton in the Short North, develops an emotive iconography for a culture of feeling that unfolds between cartoonish figures that might very well mirror ourselves. Each piece depicts similar although not identical figures drawn in Doyle’s signature style, little bodies composed of imperfect geometries, hard lines, and sometimes blushing with watercolor blues and pinks and violets. These figures aren’t specifically human; their little alien bodies include only a few shapes, yet there is something recognizable about them. Maybe it’s the subtle ways they seem to hold themselves upright or slouch into themselves, the ways they seem to incline towards or away from each other, or the fragility of what seems to be their spindly legs. Maybe they all seem shy and insecure because of how their tiny eyes are almost always set low and to the side, shifty and uncertain. These figures do not depict us in a literal sense, but perhaps their forms emerge from the details by which we know our feelings—the sensation of “towards” or “away,” “downcast” or “uplifted,” that feeling of “just to the side” or “just out of reach.” On their own, in pairs, and in groups, these little figures begin to compose metaphors—for loneliness, for intimacies, for desire, for displacement, for community—with their stationary choreographies of position and placement in relation to each other and the minimalist contexts in which they are set. Often adrift in white space, or sometimes set in the foreground of a light watercolor wash, these scenes function as illustrations telling familiar stories with bodies not our own in abstract spaces to which we may have never been.
Yet despite the minimalist quality of these illustrations, they seem at home in Mouton. Mouton is a small bar that specializes in classic and innovative hand-crafted cocktails. I’ve spent many first dates at Mouton, and returned here again and again with friends and people who I love. It’s an intimate space, a place to drink and talk and flirt, sometimes a place to see and be seen, and occasionally somewhere to maybe meet someone new. In this sense, Mouton is both a place and a kind of a place—the kind of place for dates and dating, for going out with friends, and maybe for cruising. Doyle’s drawings may have an otherworldly quality to them, but they are also very much of this world—a world of sustained or anticipated intimacies, intersecting socialites, and the mixology of hope and disappointment that can accompany the search for love and connection in this modern age.
Doyle’s pieces—all created during the planet Mercury’s recent retrograde, an astrological time at which communication and clear thinking can feel the celestial backwards pull of Mercury’s path—are titled things like “I Will Keep You by a Thread,” “Everyone is Looking but No One Can See,” and “Cover The Path to the Heart (Don’t Let No One In).” Each title offers a comment on some social, personal, or intimate state of affairs which then becomes the basis for that which the piece illustrates. Moving through multiple stages of translation—life and lived experiences to recognizable feelings and affects, then onto short but cutting phrases, then into visual iconography—Doyle uses the retrograde as an opportunity to reflect and process, the artworks emerging from experiences that seem to include retrospection, revelation, and rumination. In each case, Doyle uses the concise images and phrases as strategies for depicting and sometimes critiquing how we act and interact in our search for connection, companionship, friendship, and love. In many cases, the figures Doyle situates within these scenarios find themselves accompanied by specific entrapments—head encaged by wiry lines, perched precariously on a tiny ledge, surrounded by dark inky clouds, wrapped up together in red thread, and so on. These additional elements and objects in the images extend the metaphors, offering perspectives perhaps not only of ourselves but of the situations that we create for ourselves—and for one another. Even when they are shown together, their connections and collectivity seem tenuous at best; together or alone, the loneliness of these little beings remains relentless.
One of the most overt critiques in the show is entitled “Thirty is the new Death” and shows thirty little skeletal figures all laid out in individual coffins alongside each other, tinted in a spectrum of bright and soft pinks. Reflecting on the tendency in the gay community to mark 30 as the end of one’s life—or at least one’s dating life—the pink skeletons in pink coffins on a field of pink seem more like infants than anything else, a morbid nursery of pink-on-pink-on-pink. Death and infancy cross into one another in this flamboyantly rosy field of tiny coffins. If the piece is a metaphor for turning 30, it seems to ask us to consider what might only be beginning at 30? If we figuratively terminate ourselves or others at 30, what might never have the opportunity to grow, mature, and thrive? If 30 is a coffin, it’s a tiny one.
What I find most compelling in these works, however, are not the stories the seem to tell or the familiar scenarios of dating, isolation, and companionship to which they refer; rather, it is the vocabulary and syntax of their visual composition that fills me with feelings. Doyle’s use of line, scale, orientation, and repetition are evocative, in ways that both support and extend the implicit narratives of these pieces. The hard black lines with which these figures are drawn present clearly bounded forms, discrete within their seemingly impenetrable isolation. The images may suggest stories of seeking connection, but in their composition, these figures—alongside each other, overlapping, or even tied together by a thread—will remain outside of one another’s hard lines. My eyes might drift smoothly across these pages, but they register these lines, these borders, these boundaries, perhaps longing to be crossed while nevertheless perhaps also signifying “keep out.” More often than not, these figures reside in a primarily flat two-dimensional plane, a seemingly shared space, but in multiple pieces—particularly those entitled variations of “I’m Not Looking” and “Still Not Looking”—Doyle’s use of scale and orientation suggest that these figures may not be in the same place at all. However flat the space may seem, these figures—upright, sideways, upside down, far, and near—seem to ambiguously occupy different dimensions, with perhaps far more distance between them than first meets the eye. The repetitive use of form—all of these figures are more alike than they are different, nearly but not quite identical—envisions a pervasive sameness, and between what seems to be the same, connections remain elusive. Homogeny is not given as the cause for isolation in this self-same society, but it is evidently its condition. To the extent that Doyle’s works offer mirrors or metaphors for reflecting on our lives, we might ask: in what ways do we repetitively reinscribe our edges as such bold borders? How might we become attentive to the ways in which others who seem to be right next to us are potentially near or far in ways that are less immediately visible, or maybe even standing on an entirely different ground? How does homogeny or the expectation of sameness not only minimize or elide our differences but potentially condition our isolation, our difficulties connecting, and the breakdowns of our communication?
Doyle writes in his artist statement: “My works are centered around connecting, dating and searching while all these feel retrograde. As my little beings are crowned, boxed and tied I hope you can place yourself within their adventures seeking companionship, friendship and truth. Please include us in your story.” While illustrating the search for love and belonging in this modern age, Doyle invites our projections, simultaneously or alternately asking that we place ourselves within his work as well as include him and his little beings in our own stories. Inasmuch as the exhibit “centers” around connecting, dating and searching, it also seems to reach out from itself, asking for connection and companionship as it depicts ways in which they are thwarted.
Retrograde will be on display until the end of July at Mouton.
Filed under: culture | Tags: denison university, denisonian, naked week, nudity, the bull sheet
At 12:30pm, as a small pep band plays “The Final Countdown,” hundreds of people have gathered around the edges of the Academic Quad at Denison University to watch as a small group of student bodies run naked out of the front of the William Howard Doane Library. These naked bodies streak down the steps, tear through a large paper banner that reads “LOVE YOUR BODY,” and sprint across the quad as the crowd cheers and gazes. I didn’t get an exact count, but it seemed like fifteen to twenty-five bare bodies amidst the hundreds wearing clothes; the whole event—the opening ceremonies for Naked Week—were over almost as quickly as they began.
My introduction to Naked Week has thus far been mostly in the form of rumors and myths: a long-standing tradition of students appearing en masse, in public, and naked all week long. This is only my second semester teaching at Denison, and my first experience witnessing this spectacle. Beforehand, I heard several different accounts of the significance of this event. For some, it is a festival of body-positivity, breaking with social conventions in order to affirm the inherent worth and beauty of bodies. For others, it’s been described as another excuse to party or to get attention. I heard one person say that it inspires them that people are so brave; another said that it just makes them uncomfortable. To be sure, the motivations and intentions of Naked Week and today’s opening ceremonies are plural, shifting, at times communal, at times individual, and likely sometimes contradictory. But as an artist and a scholar of performing arts, a reality with which I am intimately aware is that the effects of any performance, any actions, will always exceed any motivations and intentions. The potential effects of any performance will remain in part unpredictable, and will vary more than anyone can control. Rather than speculate about the intentions or motivations of those who ran naked in front of their university community today, I want to take a moment to consider some of the possible effects of that action.
There was such a specific temporality to the event: first, there was waiting. Having been told that the event would start at 12:30pm, a crowd had already started to gather at noon. Having worked for years as a queer burlesque performer, I’ve learned that there is a particular energy to waiting for nudity: anticipation, an edge of urgency that seems to intensify as it decelerates, moving slower and slower. Then when the band began to play, there was the announcement that something is starting, a prelude, a preparation for the act that would follow. Finally, the first naked body emerged, at first seeming to be a little lost, then as others joined, turning and moving swiftly down the stairs. Within moments, they had all appeared through the doorway of the library, and all that remained was a trail of naked body running across the grass. It was over and the crowd quickly broke away, drifting back towards their Monday schedule. It was an interruption in the regular timing of a Monday—an interruption for which many of us gathered, bringing our bodies together in order to interrupt—and it was an interruption paced out in specific timing. If we take the event as a kind of performance, and if we can understand performances as an experiment or proposition in how an action or bodies might occur, one effect of today’s opening ceremonies is a kind of temporal conditioning, in which naked bodies are anticipated, in which we wait and wait and wait to see naked bodies, and then as quickly as they appear, they are gone. They don’t stand still; they do no wait. They rush past, they do not linger, they are gone, and the interruption is over—even if the memory of the event continues to interrupt us throughout the day.
My initial reaction to the group of bodies was how young they all were. As a student action on a university campus, it isn’t surprising that they were all young, but youth became part of what we were invited to celebrate and gaze upon. With a turn towards how this event might present a meaningful presentation of bodies, we might say: we wait and wait for young bodies, and then they are gone, rushing past, barely here before they are gone. I found myself wondering if we would gather for a crowd of older naked bodies moving more slowly across the quad. There’s a relationship between the timing of the event, the age and ability of the bodies, and the ways in which both condition how we might view the nudity that we saw.
There were similarities and differences between these naked student bodies. Many were white or pale, a few had darker complexions. They varied in height and width. They curved in different places, had longer and shorter hair in different places, were small in some places and larger in others. This range of differences, even within its limitations, provided an opportunity to see and recognize how different bodies can be from one another, something we perhaps forget or ignore within a culture that constantly provides us with images of bodies that look similar or the same. We as viewers could then appreciate the differences as so many unique—and beautiful—variations of physical form. We might also judge, compare, measure, preference, and value some of the bodies that we saw more than others. The event allows for all of these effects and possible outcomes, celebration or judgment, an appreciation of variation or another scene in which to reiterate personal and cultural hierarchies of value, in which some bodies are viewed as better than others. In a sense, I hope, the event provided a context in which to critically observe and reflect on how we reacted to these bodies.
Nudity also introduces a particular challenge; it presents an organ-ization of signifiers that often passes as an object that is fully known or recognizable: gender/sex. It might be said that there were different genders on display, and that might be so, but I would rather say that each body presented a unique configuration of unique parts, and even in their nudity, the genders of these students remained opaque to me. However, when gazing upon chests and breasts and hips and hairy legs and vulvas and penises and wide shoulders and narrow hips and small hands and long hair, in arrangements that seem familiar, we tend to immediately read such bodies as female or male. We overlook or forget—or perhaps we’ve never considered—that in doing so, we are performing a culturally mandated act of interpretation, aggregating a set of fleshy signifiers to conform within one of two binary possibilities for bodies. This interpretation happens so swiftly, so automatically, that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. This is one of the ways in which the performative force of gender gets applied to and circulated on the surfaces of bodies: how we see and make sense of bodies is often already overwritten with gendered assumptions. [And, drawing on the work of queer theory, transgender studies, and various strands of activism around gender, I would argue: attributing a “biological sex” to a body based on physical cues is also already a gendered assumption, an organization of bodies into a binary that supports a binary system of gender that facilitates a culture of presumptive, compulsory heterosexuality.]
In this sense, the opening ceremonies of Naked Week today gave the viewers multiple opportunities: on the one hand, we were given the opportunity to see the extraordinary variation and differences between bodies, differences that only fit neatly within two genders/sexes when we ignore all of the various ways in which they are different; on the other hand, we were given the opportunity to either unconsciously attribute sexes/genders to bodies based on the various attributes and physical features within view, or to suspend those assumptions, to look again—however briefly—at all that makes those bodies different, and to appreciate the failure of a binary systemic organization of bodies.
The spectacle was of course also an erotic opportunity. The basic structure of the event staged a kind of desire—masses of people gathering because of what we wanted to see, to witness—to gaze upon the flesh of other bodies. It didn’t have to be erotic; there are certainly ways of normalizing nudity, of integrating naked bodies into daily life in ways that do not solicit desire—even if the various parts and bare flesh of bodies themselves are already predisposed to desire and eroticism within our culture. I think prolonged exposure would be one way of normalizing nudity; seeing a naked body go about its daily life could be erotic, but I think the more we see of it over time, from this angle and that, how it supports itself, how it leans, how it sags, how it swings or pulls tight or interacts with mundane tasks, the more familiar and less taboo it might become. But as a burlesque performer and as a choreographer, I know that there are structural mechanisms through which we can and do generate desire. Anticipation, as I mentioned above, stirs longing. Waiting is a kind of distance, and across that distance of waiting, we reach for that which we came to see. Disappearance is another kind of distance, bodies receding across the lawn, barely here before they are already gone again, out of reach. Choreographically, this anticipation and vanishing solicits longing, and with those formal structures in place, bare flesh, the revelation of parts that usually remain hidden, are set up within an erotic frame.
So what then can it mean that the Academic Quad became a stage for longing, for desire, for viewing and being viewed, en masse? What is the significance of student bodies on display for other students, for staff, for faculty, for the outdoors, all organized within a desiring arrangement? Perhaps it transforms the space, makes it another kind of space than how it functions day to day. Or perhaps it intensified and made visible dimensions of the space as it always functions: a place where bodies gather and meet one another, setting the stage for all kinds of encounters; where bodies pass each other, glancing towards each other, perhaps longing after one another; where bodies desire to see and be seen, a longing that saturates so much of collegiate life.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that this event took place within a culture that remains largely misogynistic, a rape culture, a culture of violence against women and people who are assigned and attributed “female” based on their physical features. In an event like this, naked bodies are made visible within a culture that already gazes differently at the bodies of women, in which the bodies of women are often at more risk than other bodies, in which the inherent vulnerability and precarity of being a body is disproportionately exploited for women. And while there were many different bodies on display today, it is worth recognizing that those who were viewed and apprehended to be female or women performed an action than was different from those with whom they ran, different because the dominant culture already interprets the significance of actions performed by people who are viewed as women differently. As I said at the start: the effects of any action remain unpredictable and will always exceed their intentions and motivations. Perhaps presenting naked bodies that are viewed as women can function as an assertive feminist act, a reclaiming of public space with bodies that are in many ways often kept in private. Perhaps this presentation provided the viewers the opportunity to view these bodies with respect and reverence, in spite of the tendencies of our culture. And perhaps the event simultaneously recreated a familiar scene, in which crowds of people wearing clothes—many of them not women, many of them identified as men—gather to view other people—some of them women—who are naked and on display. The subversive or political potential of this act is haunted by the specter of a culture that puts women’s bodies on display for consumption—usually by men—a culture that objectifies and devalues those bodies on display, a culture that comes to equate “femininity” and “women” with less value, with objectification, with display and consumption.
The effects will remain multiple and unpredictable. Nothing I’ve written here should be considered a final word or an exhaustive analysis of potential interpretations. We might also think about the fact that these bodies ran, contextualize this action within the frame of sporting events and athletic heroism. We could consider the arrangement of the crowd gathered all around the edges of the quad, viewing and being viewed by one another far longer than any of us viewed the naked running bodies. We could think about how an event that is structured around a taboo—being naked in public—becomes a tradition, and the complexity that is generated by the concept of a taboo that is traditionally broken. The possibilities are countless. But I hope that my viewing and response can off a critical perspective—a perspective that I hope will be joined by other such perspectives—as we consider the campus and culture that we are living and making and performing with and for one another. There is apparently a whole week of Naked Week activities ahead of us. For those of you at Denison, I hope with each event, you use it as an opportunity to not only celebrate the beauty of bodies, but also to critically reflect on what such events might mean, what they might reveal (other than flesh), and what they might show us about ourselves—those parts most hidden, those parts most bare.
*There is also a helpful, funny list of “Dos and Don’ts of Naked Week” in today’s The Bull Sheet:
Filed under: Uncategorized
I want to think and write about the inconsistencies of self, how any self is already divided from itself in any number of ways, how “a self” is already a swarming multiplicity of partial selves, possible selves, who one is or can be or might be within any number of settings or relations. Perhaps part of what it means to be a self (I might also say “subject,” which implies more of a specific position within language and social relations, but I want to focus more on the “self,” here as one’s sense or experience of who or what it is that one is. Or made personal: the self as my sense or experience of who or what it is that I am. Or made relational: the self as your sense or who or what it is that you are…) is to always experience or understand that self in relation to such divisions, partialities, multiplicities, and inconsistencies. Some of what I am thinking is in response to reading Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, Or the Unbearable. But it is also in response to or an extension of my own questions about identity, identification, how I come to try to know or recognize myself and extend that sense of recognition to social relations—how I try to extend the experience of recognition (which will always be in part misrecognition; it’s a matter of degree) to my experience of self in relation to others. It is in part bubbling out of a stew of family relations. It is groundwork for choreography that I’m developing. And it’s in response to something my best friend said to me from South Korea this morning.
Over the last two years, I have shifted my preferred pronouns to they, them, their. This was a development in the ongoing process of my gender, finding/making a place for myself in language where I felt like I could be recognized. By “recognized,” I mean something like “feel like I exist” or “feel like it is possible for me to exist.” To the extent that language is a device/system with which we not only name and navigate our world, but also structure our understandings of what our world—including ourselves—can mean, where “naming” and “meaning” also enables and constrains what can occur, what is allowed, what is unthinkable or foreclosed, how we are named or called and the meaning of how we are named or called shapes how we are positioned not only in words but also in the world that words organize. To be called “she” or “he” is to be categorized within a system of gender that operates on personal and political scales (the two are not mutually exclusive, the two are perhaps the same system perceived or framed at different sites and with different degrees). To be called “he” or “she” is to be cast within a role that is not of your making, a role in which your actions, your behavior, your body, your relationships, etc., are given some meanings and not others, some options and opportunities and not others. These roles and meanings are not entirely fixed nor are they consistent or stable across time, but neither are they infinitely flexible or fluid. Even when their parameters are malleable, these linguistic terms still demarcate a limited territory for what a person so called might be or become.
When I first encountered people who identify as genderqueer and use pronouns other than he or she, I felt like I glimpsed a space—in both language and in the world that is organized by language—or territory of possibilities for being/becoming that more closely coincided with how I perceived myself. This is not to say that such terms are identical to me or perfectly demarcate the contours of my lived experience of gender or personhood; no word or signifier is identical with that to which it refers. This difference—between lived experiences and the words with which we come to describe them, understand them, and attempt to know them—is an inescapable condition of language, and is integral to the kinds of ruptures, divisions, breaks, and displacements that I am thinking about in regards to the self. I think it may be true that in every application of language, there persists this simultaneous recognition and misrecognition, this gap between what something or someone is and the words with which they become known. This dual recognition and misrecognition is perhaps even more acute when it is our selves that are addressed or named in language, because as the self that is addressed, we have access to the felt sensations of being recognized and misrecognized in varying degrees; indeed, we come to know ourselves in part through such affective registries, the senses of ourselves that are animated by and within specific words. I’m not interested in narrating my own experience of gender in the perhaps familiar passages of trans narratives, the re-telling of “I’ve always known” or “I’ve known since I was a child” or the claims about who I “really am.” I think at least part of what holds my attention here is the degree to which the self in language always entails degrees of not-knowing, the ways in which any statements about any “real” or “authentic” self will be given in terms from which such a self is always divided. I believe it may be true that this relation to language, the ways in which it makes us both known and unknown, is a condition that we all endure to different degrees and with different sensitivities. What I can say about my own experience, which may be true for other people’s experiences as well, is that the degree to which I felt misrecognized by gendered terms such as “man” or “he” or even “gay” eventually acutely outweighed the degree to which I felt recognized by such terms; the [shifting] spaces that they demarcate in language and the world no longer felt like my home, and it’s possible that they never really did. Shifting the words with which I identify myself, to “genderqueer,” to “they,” to “queer” has been a process of aligning myself with [imperfect] terms with which I feel more recognized, words that demarcate spaces in which I feel like it is more possible for someone like me to exist. To identify as genderqueer is for me a claim that who I am does not have to fit within the binary categories of female or male, however flexible those categories might be(come). To identify as queer is for me to describe the capacity of my desires as deviating from persistent sexual norms, particularly those that would define desire within the limited frameworks of binary gender. And to identify with the pronouns they, them, and their is also to position myself outside of the gender binary, while also laying claim to the self as a singular multiplicity—which is intimately related to the realizations I am attempting to articulate here, the self as already more than one, a plurality within singularity.
And yet even these words are shifting signifiers, words with which I do not fully coincide, words that are not my invention, from which I am still already divided, and thus, in a sense, figured as divided from myself—the very self I attempt to name with such terms. Despite the degrees to which I feel recognized by such terms, they also mark ruptures between any self that I am and the circulation of those terms beyond myself, breakages between language and lived experience that cannot be mended. It is possible to claim that the self is as much this discontinuous series of ruptures between shifting, inconsistent parts from which it is tenuously composed as it is identifiable with any one seemingly stable, seemingly consistent part. In as much as I might identify myself with or as a particular word or person or personality or role, I must (or could) also identify myself with such ruptures, such divisions, such breaks, as well as my relation to such ruptures, divisions and breaks. I am such ruptures in that any self that I perceive myself to be is negotiated in and through and in relation to them, even if that relation is denial or disavowal. I could describe myself as those unnamed, unnameable gaps between my self and the words with which I identify myself—or the words with which I am identified by others—those fluctuating inconsistencies that I encounter within myself, those bursts of misrecognition where I see that I am not that word by which I am called or named, rather than attempting to utilize language in such a way that I feel myself more recognized by it. However, it remains difficult to persistently identify with such ruptures, such gaps, such breakages. To do so involves losing track of oneself, accepting the inadequacy of language even as that language organizes our lives and world, and identifying with an ineffability that is the outside of language, the Symbolic, what psychoanalysts might call the Real. Even as I acknowledge this inadequacy of language, an inadequacy that becomes the grounds through which a self persists, I remain attached to pursuing a recognizable self, a self that is more sufficiently (however imperfectly) approximated in language. Perhaps this is an effect of what Lacan called the mirror phase—staring into my own reflection, seeing an image of a body (that is also not identical to myself, that is also divided from the self that I am) and idealizing the impression of that person as a singular, whole, recognizable entity. Or perhaps it is an effect of language, the assumption of the Symbolic, in which words assume categorical entities, a thing or being to which a word can refer. Perhaps this is the tension between psychoanalysis and Deleuze, between the subject and the schizophrenic, between a world that compels the maintenance of a castrated subject as if it were whole and a world that fosters the surrender to a self as a series of positive processes and flows that never fully resolve into any consistency or whole. How can one live as a rupture? How do we bear our own divisions, breakages, and partiality?
I don’t have answers to this or a way to resolve these problems; in fact, I might be suspicious of any attempt to resolve what I perceive to be irresolvable. What I think I am attempting to describe here for myself is the ways in which language divides the self from itself. And because language—the words we use and the words that are used for us—shapes how we become the self that we are, we could say that such divisions are fundamental to the self. The self is not only divided but such ruptures and how we navigate them are the problematic origins of any self that we are.
This is not only a matter of language, although our relations to language provide an exemplary opportunity to contemplate our own divisions, partialities, and inconsistencies. We perhaps also experience this in our relations to others, the encounters through which we come to realize that however much my perception of myself and how others perceive me coincide at the position of my body, those perceptions remain invariably different. That difference—between how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others—introduces another division, another rupture. It would be easy but short-sighted to suggest that how I perceive myself is somehow the “real me,” and how others perceive me is either accurate or inaccurate depending on its correspondence to how I perceive myself. I may maintain a privileged perspective of myself from the “inside” as it were, with access to a range of affective experiences that underscore my choices, my behavior, and my encounters with others, and such insights can be crucial for how I understand myself or choose who it is that I want to become. But who I am to others is no less real, if for no other reason than this: how I am perceived by others affects how they react towards me, shaping the ways that I can move through the world to varying degrees. How other people treat me based on their perceptions of me shapes my lived experience, which then becomes continuous with how I perceive myself. Whether or not I am conscious of the perceptions of others, I am always an experience for them as well as an experience for myself, and any encounter with an other can re-introduce that multiplicity, that division. In my encounter with you, I not only experience you as other than myself, as only ever partially knowable and opaque, but I experience myself in such ways through you. In as much as you are other than me, I see the me that you see as other than how I see myself; I come to know your partial experience and knowledge of me, and in doing so experience and know myself as limited and partial. You introduce me to myself in ways that are never fully familiar to me, and the me that you know is not the same as how I know myself. And so my encounter with you presents the distance between you and I, and that distance, that difference, is introduced into my self as part of how I am constituted in and through our encounter.
I see you seeing me and perhaps it isn’t anything you say but the way that you look at me that makes me feel that the person you are seeing is not me, or not entirely me, or not the same as the self that I can see. I feel you touch me or lie beside me, and feeling you feeling me makes me unfamiliar to myself; you are on the bed beside me, and yet the person that you are lying beside is never identical to how I feel myself lying there. I feel your touch as if from the inside, and yet you feel me from the outside, from my surfaces, and so I am divided, different from myself, dispersed from different directions and perspectives. You speak to me and you respond to the words I have said, and what you have understood from what I said is not at all what I intended, and so you respond to me but also to a stranger, to someone who is not the me that I know, and yet is the me that you address. Every encounter with another presents me to myself as other than myself; I come to know myself as a social being or becoming, and in that sociality, that relationality, I am multiplied and divided, never singular or fully one.
Earlier today my best friend described visiting another country as feeling as if she had lived her whole life there, when in fact she has lived most of her life in the U.S. How is it that we can come to feel as if we have lived entirely different lives? What is the situational alchemy through which it can seem that we are an entirely different person than we had known ourselves to be only days before? I don’t presume that this was what my friend meant in her description, but I have known that feeling, this feeling I am describing: I find myself somewhere, in some setting or context, and there it seems as if I could be or could have been someone else. Sometimes it can feel like coming home, as if: yes, this is where I have been all along, right here, and it was not until now that I realized it. I think I felt that way the first time I took a Butoh class, or when having sex with someone who touched me as if they already knew my body, or when walking around San Francisco for the first time on my own. It’s the kind of feeling that gives rise to mythologies of destiny, of soulmates, of past lives, the feeling that of all the places I’ve been and things that I’ve done, this is somehow more real, more timeless, more expansive than anything before. Perhaps what I’m describing is a kind of belonging or feeling recognized, a context or exchange in which parts of oneself that have never had a place come to have a place. Perhaps in those situations we feel more whole, more complete or more actualized. But of course any pleasure or satisfaction that we feel in such moments haunts and is haunted by the reality that we have known ourselves just as often—if not more so—as incomplete, and that incomplete self is no less me than the self I experience in those moments of relative fulfillment. We are both, these selves we experience as whole or complete, and these partial selves, and we have to live with that ambivalence.
And what of those moments when you do not recognize yourself? Rushing out the door for a meeting, glancing in the mirror to check your hair, locking eyes with your reflection, and that person seems to be a stranger. Waking up in someone else’s bed, pulling on your clothes, and asking yourself, “What am I doing? Who am I?” Reading something you wrote years earlier, recognizing the penmanship, but the thoughts articulated in the words so unfamiliar that they could have been written by someone else. Hearing yourself say something out loud, and feeling disassociated with your own voice or the words that you’re saying. In so many moments, we seem unfamiliar, strange, or distinct from who we know ourselves to be. How do we live with those moments? Some get compressed into the unconscious, swept away in order to maintain some consistent sense of ourselves. Others maybe become breaking points, breakdowns, breakups, falling apart, or giving up. I think it’s difficult to dwell in those moments in which we do not recognize ourselves; maybe at other times it can be delightful, surprising ourselves, revealing that we are more than we thought we were. In either case, as in language or encounters with others, even to ourselves, we can suddenly or gradually become different, multiple, divided, ruptured.
I am not writing towards a conclusion or a thesis. I don’t quite know where these musings will lead, except perhaps towards a greater appreciation for ourselves as multiplicities, the various dimensions through which we encounter our own difference, the mechanisms through which we manage our divisions and breakages in order to carry on, and some of the complexities of trying to achieve recognition and actualization when we are also unrecognizable and in some ways impossible both to others and ourselves.
Filed under: culture | Tags: columbus OH, TDOR, trans day of remembrance, trans lives, transgender
Tonight I was humbled to speak at the vigil for the Trans Day of Remembrance in Columbus, Ohio. The Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is held in November each year to memorialize those who were killed due to violence based on bias or prejudice against transgender people. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is intended to raise public awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, and to publicly mourn and honor the lives of transgender people who might otherwise be forgotten. Through the vigil, we express love and respect in the face of national indifference and hatred.
The text that I wrote and shared is below. These words do not feel adequate. Perhaps no words feel adequate when faced with extreme violence and loss, and yet in the face of such violence, silence is death, and so we must speak the words that we have, however inadequate:
Tonight I want to speak briefly about rage and grief. But before I do, I need to acknowledge the privilege from which I speak: I am white, and that affords me mobility and security that are actively denied to others. While I identify and present as non-binary, I grew up assigned male, which gave me basic social advantages that are regularly foreclosed for people who are not men. I am able-bodied in that the world regularly meets the needs of my body in ways that it does not meet the needs of others. I have been privileged with extensive education, which now gives me the opportunity—and the responsibility—to educate others, while there are many, many others who have not been given such education from whom we have much to learn. Speaking here is a privilege, especially when we are doing so precisely because there are others who can no longer speak. I do not—we must not—take this opportunity lightly; so thank you for allowing me this space.
When I am faced week after week with another headline reporting the murder of another trans person—very often another trans woman of color—I am swept up in grief and rage. Although I did not know the people whose names I now read, something of my world, of our world, the world that we share, is now broken because the world that we share has broken them.
These acts of extreme violence and loss are unbearable first because of the unjust deaths of individuals—individuals who we must grieve, who we will name, who we must not forget—and unbearable perhaps also because these extreme violations make our shared vulnerabilities evident, make palpable the countless ways that we are all exposed to others in ways we cannot control. We cannot control how we are seen or perceived by others, how we are named or called or addressed by those we do and do not know, the places in language and the law where there is or is not space for us, or the ways in which we take on available roles in order to survive. When we encounter another, our bodies are exposed and vulnerable to them, and we cannot control how they might approach us. Violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support; violence against trans people reminds us that such support and protection are often withheld from trans people, especially those who are pushed to the margins or off the page by the existing structures of power. Violence against trans people reminds us that we still live in a world in which narrow definitions of gender constrain how we might live and also determine who might die. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such violence, because we are harshly reminded that there are limits to self-determination: we each determine who we are and who we will become in the ways that we can, but we do so in a society of others that determine the limits and consequences for our self-determination. In the face of such reminders, first I must grieve for those who have been killed, and then I must rage because we are all embedded within systems of gender that continue to act on and through us in ways we do not choose. Even at our most self-actualized, we must navigate our own becomings within systems of restrictions on how we can appear, where we can go, what words we can use, and what support we can receive, as well as the risk and danger of defying such systems. I grieve and I rage. And then, in the midst of grief and rage, I must also celebrate those I know and those I do not know who are actualizing their genders in ways that do not conform to the genders they were assigned, those who are living at the limits of these systems, and through whom more ways of living are becoming possible. I celebrate each and every one of you, and my celebration does not negate my rage and it does not negate my grief. And from grief and rage and celebration, I must also remember that I am part of this world in which we are all vulnerable and exposed. Just as I am exposed and vulnerable to others, I in turn shape how others might live in ways both big and small. If violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support, it also compels me to extend that support and protection whenever and however I can, to actively create space for difference and for others who are different from me, and to imagine livability for those lives we may not yet recognize, those perhaps I cannot even imagine.
So, as we remember together tonight, as we honor those who have been killed, I ask that we hold together our grief, our rage, our celebration, and our commitment to imagining a world made livable for more and more lives.
[Thank you to TransOhio, Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) and King Avenue United Methodist Church for hosting this event.]