by Gustavus Stadler, Haverford College
Although he never identified as a music scholar, musicians, musical genres, bands, and songs run across and beneath the surface of José’s writing like a vital circulatory system; indeed, his work as a whole would be unthinkable without the breakthrough acts of listening of his teenage years, instigated when he walked into an independent record store in Miami and encountered the alluring covers of records by L. A. punk bands like X, the Gun Club, and the Germs. I, too, remember that moment of invitation, when punk almost instantly turned from something one was accustomed to seeing mocked in media culture into something magnificent in its promise of an elsewhere, the exhilarating medium of, as José recently put it, “a salient desire for an encounter.” Punk rock and its culture galvanized José’s way of seeing the world, well before he became an accomplished theorist. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that virtually all of it extends directly from the messy business of being a queer Cuban-born kid on the threshold of a subculture so often oblivious to its racism and homophobia.
In particular, that early listening underwrote the theory of “disidentification” and helped to bring us together, in graduate school, in the 1990s. At that point, the main target of our shared, untidy cathexis was the arty straight-boy indie rock of bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth, and the Muppet-y floppiness of their lanky front men, Stephen Malkmus and Thurston Moore. Although the affective range of this music was less forthright and brash than the punk of his earlier fixation, José loved to think about and practice listening as a jarring process that provided breakthroughs—not just as the spark for the originary teenaged moment of quasi-initiation, but as a renewable resource providing energy for one’s intellectual and social engagements. Most of my memories of my first two years of graduate school involve sitting with José in his ever-more broken-down Mazda, its backseat strewn with books and CDs, deep in conversations, whose topics ranged from music to theory to music to seminar papers to music to gossip to music to sex, and so on. It was as though music provided a frame, an orientation, for talking about everything else. I learned so much.
In some way, I think José’s relationship to pop music scholarship was its own act of disidentification. For José, to write about music wasn’t to write “about music” because for him, as with so many things in his queer worldview, the boundaries of where music ended and began were tantalizingly blurry. For José, music facilitated privately staged scenes of self-care—the classic queer teen alone in her bedroom, listening for another world through headphones—but it also meant nightlife and sociality. In other words, it wasn’t an isolable object of study that could be extracted from its context and the social relations surrounding it. He rendered its presence the way it actually exists in the world—in the background, in interstices, and then, at a particular moment of vulnerability or necessity, stunningly forward and available.
He thought of music as slippery and evasive in the same way he thought of queerness as slippery and evasive, as a medium particularly well-suited to failure: “The queer failure . . . that is more nearly a refusal or an escape.” Pop music’s ephemerality was a vital part of its attraction. One would always need more, and one couldn’t know in advance what that “more” would look and sound like, and that was a good thing. Music resonated not primarily as a cultural object or genre but as an event, something that happened and then was gone. This explains, no doubt, his fascination with the ritual of the “Germs burn,” described in his recent Social Text essay on the band, “’Gimme Gimme This… Gimme Gimme That’: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons.” This practice, by which one Germs’ fan would burn another’s arm with a cigarette in a chain initiated by the band’s central figure, Darby Crash, was a way of marking a moment of kinship, both preserving the event of the burn and affirming its ephemerality.
Events happen and then they’re gone. In that recent essay, José invoked Alain Badiou’s notion of “fidelity”: “We understand and know the event not so much through the moment itself, but instead through the fidelity we have to a transformative spike in our public or personal histories” (99). I think we can infer that this, too, is what a term like “audio fidelity” meant to him—not a set of fixed principles of sonic quality, but a kind of fidelity to the work the medium of sound offered in helping one carry through on the promise of such a “transformative spike.” Undoubtedly, the reading of the Magnetic Fields’ song “Take Ecstasy with Me” in the coda to Cruising Utopia is his most stirring enactment of these ideas. It’s there that we see, more explicitly than anywhere else in his work, the formative, almost structural way that listening shaped Jose’s sense of queerness as always perched on the promise of the future, as an invitation to a time and place where there would always be another song.
Visit the full José Esteban Muñoz gallery here.