by Amy Villarejo, Cornell University
“[T]here is no hope without anxiety and no anxiety without hope, they keep each other hovering in the balance…”
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope1
José Muñoz gravitated toward Ernst Bloch’s voice and logic for Cruising Utopia. Why? What in those wildly uneven 1400+ pages of The Principle of Hope or Bloch’s other writings compelled him? Several years ago, I read Bloch in part because José told me to, and, despite the weirdness of Bloch’s exilic take on America, I came to feel deeply invested in the method of hope, in the relentless pursuit of micro-details of possibility. It has nevertheless taken me these weeks after José’s death to understand, as it were, the attraction. I think I have come up with a provisional answer, and it is not the familiar one that Cruising Utopia sought to answer the “anti-social thesis” of Lee Edelman and other thinkers of “the negative” with a fierce defense of hope. While that may be true, I think it is also likely, and more Blochian, that, in the imbrication of hope and anxiety, we learn something about the risk that we are and that we take in each other. We learn, moreover, less about anxiety (the less the better!) and more about the critique of what is present.
Queer thinkers I loved keep dying. Eric Clarke died, and Alex Doty died, and José died, none of them of AIDS or of “risk factors” we have discussed much in our queer cultures, but they died nonetheless, before their time. Or they died in an improper time, as Alexander García Düttmann says in his reflections on the time of and beyond AIDS, a split or fractured sense that “foils the constitution of a coherent time and of the coherence of a life.”2 It is in fact the contention of At Odds with AIDS that the threat of dying before one’s time makes visible, or renders palpable, a fundamental “being not one” (a German pun on uneins/un-eins, “Un-eins-sein”, with which the translators wrestle) of the subject, an improper or non-identical subjectivity, as well as this fractured time or timeline. And it should not surprise us that sometimes this impropriety both of life and of time, of “lifetime,” is felt precisely as anxiety and its complement, anger, even or especially when the point ought to be to recognize a more fundamental impertinence or primordial non-belonging that alone can measure up to the horizon that is AIDS. Such, I think, was José’s pursuit, too.
The word “anxiety” does not appear a single time in Cruising Utopia, a book that is also not exactly about AIDS, although it certainly situates its flourishing lifeworlds of performance and art in the prehistory of the disease. Anxiety need not attend the conviction, the same one articulated by García Düttmann in what I have just cited, that we need to step out of the “rigid conceptualization that is a straight present” (185). This is the gift of impertinence. Stepping out, however, entails, as José knows, risking the imaginative line of a queer horizon. Whether those risks have the name AIDS or other names (disease, drugs, nightlife, travel, poverty, migration, unsafe sex, police…), whether we ecstatically embrace or resistingly refuse them with all of our energy, they will have enlisted us in our self-definition all the same. Or all the different: the project of Cruising Utopia is to offer us an anatomy of queer utopia as well as disappointment in many different guises, noticing exactly how potentialities become submerged in recollection, reflection, and other sober insistences upon so-called realism.
Cruising Utopia is emblematic of José’s irreverent and improper riposte to such realism not in the anxious disavowal (or avowal, amounting to the same thing) of identity but in the critique of what is, a critique elaborated in an impertinent reading practice. When he cites Bloch in conversation with Theodor Adorno, for example, it is in the service of reading queer performance artist and poet John Giorno’s text about unsafe sex in the Prince Street toilets, understood, rightly and breathtakingly, as a utopian vision of noble transport and social transformation. José enlists Ernst and Teddy, that is, in the vigilant work of negation not to “queer” them but to steer the critical energy that José finds exciting in them toward something else that Giorno, too, discloses. He calls this reading practice an oscillation: it sets something in motion, it repeats, it vibrates, and it touches us. He feels he has to defend it all the time throughout Cruising Utopia: I know I’m taking a risk in citing these together, he says, but, really, look what happens! Feel how you’re learning. Let it shift. Let it happen again. Like a heartbeat. Like this beautiful body of work José left for us that keeps us moving, returning and edging toward something else.
Visit the full José Esteban Muñoz gallery here.
1. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Volume One. Trans. by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1986), 333.
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2. Alexander García Düttmann, At Odds with AIDS: Thinking and Talking About a Virus. Translated by Peter Gilgen and Conrad Scott-Curtis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 3.
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