Note on José Esteban Muñoz’ “Ephemera as Evidence” // Letting go of things that do not serve us

Rigor mortis

José Esteban Muñoz (1996) “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.Women and Performance. Vol. 8, Iss. 2. pp7-8. 

This week I was reading the above cited article by José Esteban Muñoz, when I was struck by the passage which I have excerpted and marked.

At the beginning of the coronavirus, I had this feeling that we were all in a stage play, wearing our costumes, holding our props, and speaking our lines from a well known script. All of a sudden that script, those words, vanished. And we were left holding ourselves in absurd postures, wearing costumes that did not fit us. At that initial moment of crisis, back in March, it felt strange, and often wrong, to be going through the motions. The starkness of crisis revealed the contours of intellectual structures and practices that we have irresistibly carried with us, but not consciously wished to do so. Cultures, traditions, structures of thought persist through repetitions, internalizations, citations; these are living and embodied practices. When the coronavirus revealed what it was we were actually doing — when the national uprisings in the fight for Black Lives underlined what we have been doing, what we are still doing — these were and are moments to reframe how we relate to ourselves and to each other. To return, then, to Muñoz’ words:

“This is true despite the fact that, on the level of publishing and not much else, alterity is currently in vogue… (I can not begin to count the times I have been advised—or I have advised—friends, colleagues, and students to make their projects look ‘straighter’: conservative in thematics and rigorous in methodology. Rarely do I suggest that someone ‘queer up’ their application for a fellowship or play up the heuristic or performative dimensions of a book proposal. Academically [p8] and institutionally the communities of scholars that I live in are often in the position of ideologically and theoretically dressing down.)”

In my field as much as any other, we are rooted in scholarly traditions and practices and proceed with these prior works as guides to our own thought, carrying these weights with us to load down and substantiate our own work. Yet, moments of rupture such as the ones we are currently experiencing reveal that there are other modes and practices which we desperately need. “Alterity” as a process seeks — not just “otherness”, and not just the “counter-cultural” — but, specifically, putting our eyes and our attention where it has not gone before. This means broadening our horizons, including texts and artefacts we haven’t considered before, citing the work of scholars outside of the gravitational pull of the citational traditions we currently have. But it also means examining our own interior commitments to structures which ultimately do not serve us.

Muñoz refers here to the process in which scholars and students learn to mute themselves, to form themselves into commodities based on the marketplace of scholarly desire which rewards presentations of comfortable sameness. Yet the image we’re supposed to be reflecting and performing is obsolete, artificial; the standards and shapes we replicate in our bodies and our thoughts are dependent upon eras in which we ourselves did not live, and which had values we no longer share. Muñoz wrote these words in 1996, but these processes are still happening around us and within us. Sara Ahmed wrote in Living a Feminist Life (2017: 4) about how feminist work must operate at the most interior level:

I began to realize what I already knew: that patriarchal reasoning goes all the way down, to the letter, to the bone. I had to find ways not to reproduce its grammar in what I said, in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was.

We are living in rupture. Many things are shifting, opening, falling away. What stays and what goes? What inherited beliefs about scholarly and pedagogical practice — ideas and behaviours which never quite sat right with us in the first place — are we going to get rid of? What new words and new thoughts are we going to use?

Martha Graham, essays on the internet, Sara Ahmed; tempora cum causis (3)

Ancient. This week at BU we had an incredible visit from the Martha Graham Dance company. Artistic director, Janet Eilber, lectured on Martha Graham‘s innovations in dance, showing clips of past productions, as well as bringing on stage two dancers, Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Mayor, who performed parts of works by Graham which draw from Greek mythology, Night Journey and Errand Into the MazeNight Journey dramatizes Jocasta in the moment of devastating self-knowledge, Errand Into the Maze has Ariadne encounter the Minotaur. Eilber vividly described the Graham dance technique as one focused on the effortful physicality of contraction and release, coiling; how the body behaves when it experiences intense pleasure or pain. This effortful physicality was brought before our eyes by the dancers themselves in their demonstration. It was an incredible thing to witness. Up close, in an intimate environment. 

This week I also took a trip to the University of Toronto Mississauga to speak in the UTM-JHI annual seminar series, this year on Fragments. I spoke about the fragments of Latin verse in the Ciceronian corpus (the topic of my book), as well as on the theory of the “fragment” more abstractly; here’s the handout and the slides.

 

Modern. I find myself with a large appetite for personal essays about the internet. A lot of them are ultimately negative. Famously, there’s Lindy West’s account of the troll who pretended to be her dead father to harass her online; also told in Shrill (2016) and on This American Life. West eventually quit twitter, though not because of that; plus, she has a happy life on instagram. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror (2019) starts with an essay — “The I in the Internet” — describing how the performative construction of the self is pushed to the limits when faced with an ever present, internalized, and usually hostile audience. Not to mention, as Tolentino notes, the fact that internet hostility is deliberately manufactured to make money; we seem not to be drawn so much “to the puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise” (pp4-5) but choose instead to engage in an economy designed to thrive on the heightened emotional state of its users.

Maeve Higgins is more optimistic. In the final essay — “The Golden Record” — of her most recent book, Maeve in America (2018), she describes the phonograph records carried by the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. These 12-inch gold-plated copper disks hold sights and sounds carefully chosen to represent life on earth at that moment by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Voyager 1 and 2 have reached interstellar space; the images and sounds on the Golden Record can be played, as Sagan said, “only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space.” For Higgens, instagram stories, which show videos and images on a feed that disappears after 24h, have something in common with the golden record. Hope, for one thing. Hope that someone will encounter the message and understand it: the golden records are inscribed with instructions on how to play the media contained within. Higgens writes (p239): “Today, with these images I get to share with anyone who cares to look, I am asking the question: Do you understand me now? Here is what I’m trying to tell you.

An optimistic view of the internet is hard for many reasons. In classics, we have to reckon with the ways toxic online communities use ancient material for malicious ends, as Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (2018) so vividly describes. We also seem unable to escape the idea so often repeated that social media is inherently superficial, vain, vapid; and that it is these qualities in particular which harm us. The first episode of Broad City season 5 (“Stories”) presents itself as an instagram story, documenting a day in the life of Abbi and Ilana, coopting the forms of the medium to undercut and satirize it. In the last scene, Abbi says: “because we were filming it, it’s not even our ‘story’ anymore.” With these final words (of the premier of the final season), Abbi and Ilana ask their audience to contemplate how a comedy act between two friends, developed out of the sparkling chemistry of their private intimacy, has grown beyond itself into a stage play for a massive audience. Real life performativity is amplified when we make ourselves public: via “publication,” art no longer belongs just to you, and on the internet your image takes part in more than just your own selfhood. 

Internet.

Excerpt. Sara Ahmed 2017: 15-16: “My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our [p16] way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.”

Daily Life. In Toronto the autumn leaves were just nuts! 

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