Dossier - Performance
Munoz - Performing Disidentification
In this reading, Munoz describes the performative technique of “disidentification,” a tool used by queer and other minority activists that constitutes a modified interaction with mainstream ideologies. Disidentification is a means of countering the presupposed identities of audience that commonly exist in cultural works. Instead of simpy siding with or siding against a mainstream ideology, disidentification involves reappropriating, critiquing and playing with dominant culture in the promotion of counterideologies and the creation of virtual minority cultures. Working within, rather than opposing explicitly. He implies that this technique is often more effective and useful for minority pursuits than outright antagonization because the latter serves only to further assert the dominance of whatever is being opposed.
He talks about Marga Gomez, a lesbian stage performer who creates her own counterpublic world within her performances, which Munoz says was crucial to his theory. She incorporates the majoritarian image of lesbians into her show, but by viewing it from her individual, romantic perspective, she subverts its homophobic qualities.
He talks at length about the distinction between desire and identification, a topic I believe is particularly vexing for homosexuals who both identify as (fe)male and desire (fe)males, rather than a strict dichotomy a la Freud. (I wonder if this crisis is easier for heterosexuals) He mentions many scholars who argue that identity and desire are not only closely interrelated but might even be the same thing. This ends up playing an important role in film theory, as the “male gaze” and “female gaze” of early film analysis end up being meaningless to queers. He says that any theory that leaves out race, gender, sexuality etc will necessarily be incomplete. I would prefer to think about it this way: watching a film, like watching life, is not a passive task, one must adopt many different perspectives to understand characters and plot, no one is a slave to their identities.
We see again the use of fantasy or at least historical fiction and utopia being used to create parallel dimensions for queers or other minorities to inhabit that are at least reminiscent of the real world but crucially different , such as Hidalgo’s film about a farcical California dominated by chicana lesbians. Disidentification then becomes a clear staple of the queer movement in general, if you think of it as trying to queer the norm, rather than simply replacing straight couples with queer couples or, on the other extreme, a complete departure from the familiar understandings of love and sex.
Do you associate with a certain identity when you watch films? What aspects of “mainstream” or at least non-queer culture do you enjoy in films and want to preserve, and what aspects should be replaced or disidentified?
Butler - Gender is Burning
Butler begins her article by discussing Althusser's notion of interpellation. This notion refers to the formative process by which laws and punishment create a recognition of an individual as subject by compelling fear at the same time. The law is said to be the performative because it is a discourse that has the power to create that which it refers. However, some words have negative regimes associated with them, and Butler encourages these terms to be repeated over and over again in discourse in order to reverse and displace their originating aims.
Butler moves on to discuss Livingston's documentary, Paris is Burning, in which follows African American and Latino men perform white social norms in a series of drag-balls. She "calls into questions whether parodying the dominant norms is enough to displace them; indeed, whether the denaturalization of gender cannot be the very vehicle for a reconsolidation of hegemonic norms."
Butler disagrees with bell hook's review of Paris is Burning regarding gay male drag as misogynistic. While radical feminists believe that male-to-female drag is a form of imitation based in ridicule and degradation and is simply the displacement and appropriation of "women," Butler relates this to the criticism that lesbians face about how these women are only interested in other women because of failed relationships with men. She compares the two, showing that in both cases each is being reduced to a "love embittered by disappointment or rejection, the incorporation of the Other whom one originally desired, but now hates," and finds this conclusion absurd. Instead she suggests that it is more productive to view drag and lesbianism as simultaneously implicated within misogyny and misandry and subversive of them.
Additionally, Butler discusses the importance of "realness" and "readability" in performance. She questions what ideals these performers reinforce and looks to Venus' death as a failed attempt at performance and a commentary on the "cruel and fatal social constraints on denaturalization."
Finally, Butler questions Livingston for being a white lesbian trying to tell the story of black and latino male-to-female drag queens. She questions what it means that the camera "is an instrument and effect of lesbian desire."
I found this reading difficult at times but overall a very interesting discussion about performance. I think seeing the documentary will put this article into better perspective. I would like to hear the classes opinions on "realness," "readability," and performance. In the article, Butler suggests that if a performance has no readability, then the performance and the ideal that is being performed appear indistinguishable. How does this concept manifest in real life and what consequences are there or could there be? Also, I would like to hear the class' reaction to the comparison between drag and lesbianism and hear if the class thought Butler made a convincing parallel and argument. Finally, I would like to discuss more in general how discourse creates social structures and what the class thinks about this and what the class thinks are possible ways to change certain discourses.
de Villiers - Queer Camp, Jack Smith and John Waters
by the professor
Nicholas de Villiers’s article makes an intervention in debates about camp as a queer sensibility and aesthetic. He responds largely to Susan Sontag’s influential 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” (he acknowledges his own part in making this the very ur-text that he argues against). While Sontag links camp to homosexuality, she simultaneously goes to some pains to disassociate it from being a gay modality, and (according to de Villiers) ultimately emphasizes a definition of camp as a repertoire of adored objects. This is easily commodified as “kitsch” and evacuated of politics, which allows Sontag to claim that camp overall is apolitical.
De Villiers would like to recuperate Sontag’s more dormant notion of a “camp eye” or way of seeing. He argues that camp (an umbrella under which drag performance is sometimes included) CAN be a political mode if we consider how it refigures gender and sexuality and engages in broader postmodern strategies of de-naturalization. Camp is thus a queer mode but not a gay mode, since it can’t be “owned” by a particular identity group and is in fact against ownership of cultural production altogether. Camp is a fundamentally ambivalent formation that, in its rawest form, rejects rather than displays ideas about “taste.”
I’ll largely skip de Villiers’s analysis of underground artist Jack Smith’s film Flaming Creatures (which is fascinating but less relevant to this week’s material). In summary, de Villiers argues against Sontag’s reading of the film as a vapid and amoral sensual buffet, countering that Smith’s camera work literally shakes the spectator out of a state of delectation and “problematize[s] the phallicism of the camera and the erotic gaze through disruptive techniques.”
To move on to John Waters’s Pink Flamingoes, de Villiers first accounts for the fact that he is reading Waters’s oeuvre as tied to camp and drag although Waters has himself rejected both these labels. For de Villiers, they apply if we redefine them in less compromised terms. Waters’s transvestite star Divine formulates drag as “readable” and even grotesquely spectacular, building on “Mulvey’s assertion that ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ is culturally overdetermined as feminine” to revel in drag as “one of the ways in which (fat) gay men can reconfigure their bodies, and the looks directed at them, as desirable.”
As for camp in Waters, de Villiers supposes that he objects primarily to the sanitized, nostalgic, commodified version of the term. Pink Flamingoes (and Waters’s films in general) explicitly demystifies and critiques the commodity fetish (he reads the mother’s egg obsession this way) and celebrates the “trash” that lies outside the socially legitimated bounds of middle class, heterosexual, normative power (represented by the Marbles). In conclusion, “both Waters and Smith are thus concerned with the status of the object, the commodity, and ways in which ‘proper’ circulation of money, commodities, bodies, and pleasures can be subverted and rerouted. Both settle on ‘trash’ as a defining rubric with which to thematize the ‘waste products’ of proper circulation.”
I thought that the most fascinating scene in Pink Flamingoes was the concluding media spectacle of the kangaroo court, which de Villiers gets to mostly in a footnote. It seemed to both lampoon the tabloid media (which was of course the origin of the whole filth war) and celebrate it as the social apparatus supporting Divine’s power (in contrast to the police, marriage, money in support of the Marbles). How did you interpret this self-reflexive ending?
What is the status of Waters as a queer filmmaker within the orbit of queer camp? Do you think that camp can embody the sort of oppositional politics that de Villiers proposes? What connections did you see between this articles and the others assigned for this week?
Last updated 821 days ago by Julie Levin Russo