I’m currently teaching an upper level Queer Theory course (as an adjunct), and it’s been one of my most rewarding and fun teaching experiences, mostly because I get to go back to scholarship that formed the foundation for my thinking about aesthetics, materiality, and intersectionality. The course centers queer of color and lesbian feminist genealogies (usually of the socialist variety), and one of its main arguments is shaping up to be about how different aesthetic modalities, cultural politics, and media technologies become available to us as historically and spatially situated subjects. Some of the questions I keep coming back to are: What do practices of cultural production have to do with world-making projects? How do affects, imaginaries, virtualities–phenomena usually conceptualized as immaterial–materialize or “make happen” complex social worlds?
Nia King’s book Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives usefully framed these questions in terms of art activism, hierarchies of value of creative labor, and the nitty gritty of how/where/why culture is made. My students couldn’t stop reading! Paired with a hands-on zine workshop and a look through my collection of queer, feminist, and antiracist zines, our conversation about the book attempted to think about what counts as “theory” and what counts as “art”–is making zines theoretical? Conducting interviews and producing a podcast? Occupying and moving through space in our complicated embodiments? In the coming weeks we’re picking up on the issues of gentrification, safety, violence, and activism raised by the interviewees, reading Christina Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary Award-winning Safe Space, Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, and Eva Hayward’s “Spider City Sex.” Today we tried to lay the groundwork for thinking about these theoretical and poetic approaches to the spaces of the city through Karen Tongson’s 2011 Relocations and Scott Herring’s 2010 Another Country. Unfortunately, two weeks before spring break, both my brilliant students and I were exhausted and the early announcement of tomorrow’s snow day meant that those who showed up to class were having a hard time staying there.
What was exciting to remember as I reread Herring and Tongson is how seriously they both read what other theorists might overlook: singing in the car on the commute, paper cuts into the political body of capitalism and nationalism, “micro-intimacies” and “joke work” (Tongson 15). Tongson explores how performance, in its everyday and ephemeral forms, allows queers of color to use humor to disidentify with both popular culture and what Halberstam has called the metronormativity of white, gay men’s subcultures, using a pastiche of styles to articulate a queer of color suburban imaginary. Similarly, Herring shows how “taste” and “style” can enact forms of aesthetic violence, imposing normativity by homogenizing the social space of habitus. Both of these books open up ways of thinking about how queer structures of feeling are connected to space, place, race, and class. Racialized and queer cultural capital shape how we understand and assign value to the materialities of different media–how is it that we can so easily make judgments about “high” and “low” aesthetic forms and techniques, and why do the kinds of art that feel so vital to us seem meaningless or boring to others? These economies of attention don’t just have to do with whether or not we “like” art, they also matter when it comes to social differences and the ways of being into which we are willing to put time, energy, and care. Whose political issues and social existences are we curious or passionate about, and how do we make decisions about when and where to take a stance? How do we recognize creativity and innovation not just when it comes to aesthetics, but also living and moving in the world? Being able to answer these questions means understanding social life as aesthetic: sensory, saturated with affect, subjective, situated, embodied. Structures of feeling are habitual, habituated, and inhabited. So we form habits in relation to what we care about, based on how we inhabit the world.
I’ve also recently reread parts of Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling for my ongoing project “Making (Queer) Love: A Kit of Odds and Ends,” which is working through craft as a speculative feminist materialism. Cvetkovich coins the phrase “utopia of everyday habit” for naming the way that creative practices, specifically modes of crafting emerging from middle and working class domesticities, can mediate between the humdrum of ordinary life and what we usually think of as political action (191). I think Tongson offers a nuanced account of the ways that suburban domesticities, often assumed to be the prerogative of white bourgeois subjects, are intimately connected to imperial projects and trans/national migratory patterns. For whom does suburban domesticity constitute a utopia of everyday habit, and what aesthetic habits do inhabiting the suburbs cultivate? Tongson perhaps more explicitly brings these questions back to service and consumer economies than Cvetkovich, who seems to gloss creative industries through the trope of white hipsterdom. Here I’m not critiquing Cvetkovich so much as noticing how our own habitus can keep us from seeing the material specificities that make up aesthetic milieux.
These queer imaginaries are helping me think through what my own creative labor might do, as a student and as a new member of an emergent precariat, as a white woman born and raised in the suburbs on several generations of working class values, pleasures, and fears, who can no longer (if I ever could) afford to live here in the shadow of the capitol. How is it that I came to practice crafts such as knitting and cross stitch, and how does it matter that I’m practicing them inside a rented house in a neighborhood situated squarely on the county line, which most people tell me is too brown to count as this place or that?
You can take the girl out of suburbia….