My Decade of Falling in Love with the Writing of José Esteban Muñoz
Marcos Gonsalez Looks Back at a Landmark Queer Text, Cruising Utopia
Devoid of markings, my 21-year-old self in the early years of the 2010s takes this as an opportunity to mark the newly purchased text, to make José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity mine. Younger me highlights recklessly. Something is in the text, he tells himself, a wannabe intellectual, as he puts bright green and blue across the words. He can’t articulate it at the time but my younger self knows he is looking for all-knowingness, this getting beneath the layers of words, this more than surface reading. He is looking to master the text.
That copy now, six or so years later, is unreadable. I’m too distracted by all the blue and green highlights to read it again from start to finish. I decide to fork over the money to buy the 10th anniversary re-issue of the book. There are additional essays in this version, one published in an anthology and the other a lecture he gave for the launch of a women and gender studies Ph.D. program, and a forward from the editors of Sexual Cultures, the book series he co-founded with Ann Pellegrini at NYU Press. Reading it this time around is from a totally different vantage point: I finished undergrad, have spent several years undertaking doctoral work, and have read much more theory and scholarship since then.
Muñoz is celebrated as one of the forebears of fields like performance studies, queer of color critique, and Latinx cultural studies. His work is read and cited well beyond those fields, and well beyond the realm of scholarship and academia. Quotes by him are circulated across social media platforms like Twitter, soundbites cherry-picked from their original contexts, free-floating excerpts meant to awe us or remind us of his intellectual grandeur. By this point, it almost feels obligatory to cite Muñoz if one is talking in any way about queerness, performance, and minoritarian aesthetic practice. His name has monumentalized, reaching mythic proportions. In becoming so well-cited and referenced, one seems to lose a sense of his particularity, the sense of him being singularly Muñoz.
But what do I know of José Esteban Muñoz? I know nothing more about him than the words I read on a page.
In my queer theory course taken my sophomore year of undergrad, we read an excerpt from Muñoz’s first monograph, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Which passage or chapter I can no longer recall but I know the electric feeling coursing through my body, the fully embodied ah-ha moment I experience when I first read it. If I have to take a guess as to which passage it is where I first get this striking feeling from Muñoz’s work, basing the guess off my earliest memory of noting the most memorable part, I would have to say it is the final paragraph of the chapter focusing on the gay Cuban American Pedro Zamora. One of the first openly gay Latinx men living with HIV/AIDS to be portrayed on television, Zamora is the focus of chapter six in the monograph. Muñoz argues in the chapter the ways in which Zamora outfitted the televisual to stage a defiant presentation of queer Latinx life in order to form subaltern counterpublics. The scholar concludes the chapter with an anecdote.
As I sat in the living room with my parents, I marveled at the televisual spectacle of this young man and his father, both speaking a distinctly Cuban Spanish, on television, talking openly about AIDS, safe sex, and homosexuality. I was struck because this was something new; it was a new formation, a being for others…
Here is where I see the televisual spectacle leading to the possibility of new counterpublics, new spheres of possibility, and the potential for the reinvention of the world from A to Z.
I want to say this is the chapter excerpted in my queer theory course. I want to say this paragraph, which struck me in my countless readings before, as it strikes me again now, is what first moves me when I encounter Muñoz. This concluding paragraph which breaks from the monographic time, breaking away from the regimented and objective prose of the scholar. It’s not that the passage is anecdotal which makes it memorable. It is the flare of it. The flaming staccato of the opening sentence which asks us to note it, to luxuriate over it, to notice what he is doing. The jerky rhythm of the clauses documenting the body and relations of the scholar, the affinities and intimacies the scholar is having with the object of analysis, the movements between space, time, and materialities reaching out to the reader. It is the insistence to conclude otherwise, to tie the spectacle that Pedro is doing on the screen to the one Muñoz is doing in the book, this queer flashiness. But what is he doing, exactly? What is this textual performance of making distinct, the demand to notice, the desire to stand out in prose? Am I cruising after Muñoz’s style? To feel his distinction in words, to touch his prose singularity? Do I want to be cruised on by him?
As the highlighting of my first read through of Cruising Utopia attests, my younger self is interested in the big ideas, large chunks of prose, hell-bent on absorbing the knowledge. In a year or so he will apply to literature doctoral programs. He does this knowing intellectual savvy and competence looks a certain way. He wants senior scholars to take him seriously, to think he is worthy of being one of them. He highlights thinking it will give him mastery over the text and ideas. He puts all the blue and green on the page wanting to prove wrong all those teachers and professors who said he would amount to nothing, who said he would never be a thinker or writer because of who he is.
The highlighting of my younger self is a failed effort because I dreamed of comprehensiveness, of all-knowingness. This failure, though, is integral to utopia, as Muñoz notes in the lecture given for the inauguration of a women and gender studies Ph.D. program added to the 10th anniversary edition, “Hope in the Face of Heartbreak.” “Hope’s biggest obstacle is failure” he writes and, if we can acknowledge failure is a necessary obstacle, if we can brace for the fact we will be disappointed, then hope remains possible, then hope endures. For my younger self, hope is in the highlighting. It feels like permanence, guiding me in how I read. Some highlightings, like the many I do when younger, are pressed in harder when moving across a line effectively scarring the surface of the page, making the texture rough and indented. Highlighting, like death, is not ephemeral. It’s material. It remains. Highlighting is a practice of preservation against the loss that is death, the loss of knowledge, the loss that is forgetting, and to forget is the ultimate death.
What is the hope I cling to now? The wanting of the touch by the style of a thinker I will never know? The hopeful intimacy of style’s reach?
This time, in the unmarked text of this 10th anniversary edition, I notice what I could not notice before or what I might not have been ready to notice before.
Scholarly in construction through and through, nevertheless, I’m struck by this sentence in the second chapter: “I see world-making here as functioning and coming into play through the performance of a queer utopian memory, that is, a utopia that understands its time as reaching beyond some nostalgic past that perhaps never was or some future whose arrival is continuously belated—a utopia in the present.” The placement of the em dash, its end of sentence forcefulness, is an emphasis Muñoz wants us to pay attention to. Scholarly, again, in tenor, though radiating a magnitude I had not noticed before: “Utopia is not prescriptive; it renders potential blueprints of a world not quite here, a horizon of possibility, not a fixed schema.” I pause over the semicolon. Staying awhile and letting it become a thought, a story, a showy interruption on the speeded up reading I have been taught to perform in graduate school. Both sentences let me linger, let me wonder and wander, going astray for a little while which feels like utopia, feels very queer to me.
This attentiveness I give to the 10th anniversary edition is surely afforded by my growth as a writer and scholar. Many of the ideas Muñoz expresses in the book about queer methodology, ephemeral archives, the anti-relational turn in queer theory, and the critical possibilities of hope, I have come to embody in thought and writing practice. Though needing to still cite his work, though needing to still read him, Muñoz’s work generously moves beyond citationality, moving into the realm of doing his ideas in everyday thought and life.
Turning to this text time and time again through my doctoral work, feeling this monumentalizing of his work, had shielded me from the surprise and chance of the words. Reading the 10th anniversary edition attunes me to Muñoz again. The experience of reading him anew becomes sensory. The reading of this new edition produces a kind of intercalated effect: a non-linear temporal and spatial layering, a tacking on from the thinking of my younger self reading it in NYCHA housing in the Lower East Side to my now self reading in an overpriced apartment in Washington Heights and my future self wherever he may be. The foreword by the editors reminds us he was a person who was cared for, whose intellectual contributions resonate still at different intensities for different people.
The additional essays build onto the original monograph, putting into constellation writing produced for other contexts which speaks to the project Muñoz gives to us. My own intellectual journeying, coupled with reading this 10th anniversary edition, produces a kind of intercalated reading practice which doesn’t hold to the belief that thought progresses through an arch of beginning, middle, and end. An intercalated reading practice which is accretive, open to chance and modification and insertions, ready and eager for all kinds of thought and sensory experience.
I underline more sparingly this time around. Underlining for my future reading self, underlining for those who might acquire this book if it is to leave my bookcase, underlining as a form of paying attention differently. An underlining practice which attests to my search for the mark of specificity, the mark of singularity, the mark which designates our being us. The mark of style. This impossible desire to mark him with my reading style and he to mark me with his writing style. It’s in those asides, those cuttings away, those prose flourishes, those syntactical immediacies, which strike most pleasurably, most astoundingly, most memorably. They shake us from our readerly complacency, and remind us there is more than the top-down relation where the book is to impart on us its all-knowingness. As a result, we construct other modes of being together, breaching binaries like words and flesh, mind and body, yesterday and tomorrow, New York City and Los Angeles, the scholar and the reader, the dead and the alive.
The excessive highlighting of my younger self is—if I might look at the act differently than how I posed it earlier in this essay, if I might imagine it other than an attempt at all-knowingness—a queer utopian act. Full of hope, idealistic, the boy swipes across those lines in efforts to mark a not yet here, a not yet us between Muñoz and I. A hoping against hope to remind the future self and the past self and the self that will never be to slow down, to pay attention, to read carefully and generously. What my younger self and I have in common is the cruising after style, and our desire to be cruised on by style.
It must have been immediate, the impact of those lines, when I read the first edition as a twenty-or-so-year-old queer, and today, in 2019, reading the 10th anniversary edition, I agree with my former self, appreciating his decision to mark in blue highlighting the first three sentences in Cruising Utopia, admiring his need to mark those lines as something to remember: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer.”