Utopias can assume many forms, but are most commonly considered dreams of ideal societies, whose goals are the betterment of our present state through enhanced notions of sociability, communality and solidarity – some of the basic principles of democracies (see more on this in last week’s post).
As a continuation of last week’s interesting reflection on the roles of utopias and dystopias in democratic societies, here I briefly consider queerness as a category imbued with utopian potential for democratic transformations. Queer, a term that entered public and academic consciousness in the 1990s as it was being reclaimed from its earlier pejorative meaning (signifying “odd” or “strange”) is commonly used for describing a broad spectrum of non-normative gendered and sexual identities and politics. What I am interested in when thinking about queerness is its political promise in challenging the processes of normalization of sustained, ossified identities, especially sexual, but also raced, gendered, classed, national or religious. As I reflect on queerness’s (utopian) potential to disturb and transform, I sketch out one of the works that has greatly influenced my understanding and approach to utopia: that of queer scholar José Esteban Muñoz, focusing specifically on his 2009 study Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.
“Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there” (1, emphasis in original).
These are the very first words of Muñoz’s study. Indebted to the German idealist tradition emanating from the works of Kant and Hegel, as well as to critical philosophy of the Frankfurt School, and most prominently to the three-volume philosophical treatise The Principle of Hope by Marxist philosopher Ernest Bloch, Cruising Utopia develops a framework that emphasizes the utopian potential contained in queerness, and the queer potentials of utopias.
This “manifesto-like and ardent” study is a call, writes Muñoz, to leaving behind the narrow confines of the present, that uses the concept of utopia – inspired by Bloch’s work on concrete utopianism and educated hope as an antidote to abstract utopianism – as a starting point for a collective political transformation (233). Muñoz’s utopian hermeneutics promises “a human that is not yet here, thus disrupting any ossified understanding of the human” (51). In such a way, Muñoz’s queer utopia is a political project, that aims to restructure societies, based on rethinking notions of marginality, positionality, collectivity and sociability – in my view the basic tenets of democratic societies.
The efforts for queering “utopia” in the writings of a Cuban American scholar, that are indebted to the works of Chicana feminists as to the critical thinkers of the Frankfurt School might seem far removed from the Central/Eastern European contexts that are at the center of my project. But the political potentials emerging from these two contexts that find their concretization (if we could invoke Bloch’s term here) in the borderland, be it in the utopian narratives of early 20th century Yugoslav thinkers, or in the liminal spaces of the New Mestizas, are what establishes a dialogue between them. Queer utopias are the utopias of the marginalized and of the invisible, of the untranslated and of the untranslatable, the utopias based on the hope for a collective and concrete transformation of (democratic) sociability and sociality.
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