Thursday, July 22, 2010

Queertopia: A Strange Place

What is queertopia? Can such a place exist? And what is its future? Who is in such a place? And who is part of such a future, a rather queer future - perhaps? These are questions that are raised in a show I recently saw entitled Queertopia. According to the description of the play it is "based on true stories" that are "youth-driven oral histories" that "investigate[s] violence within and against the LGBTQA communities in America while imagining and performing a future just beyond our grasp." It is a show, an organic show whose script, as the cast discussed in the talk-back after the show, is constantly evolving and changing. It tells stories of youth, different kinds of youth, queer in different ways, but in such stories there emerges a haunting of the past - a past that haunts the lives of LGBTQA persons. Yet, such haunting propels forward uncharted possibilities not seen in the show itself, but imagined in the time and space after the show ends and the dance party begins. It is a play between the past, the present (as performed), and the future always "a day away" or "just beyond our grasp".

Within the show and perhaps the future it imagines, performance and dance become the modes not only of cathartic release, but of imagination, of not thinking about the real, but of thinking about the imaginary - about images that could someday be a part of the real images we see in our lives. It is a reach for, a dreaming of a queertopia.

Within the show, space and time is changed over time and time impacts what space is available and how such space is seen. And a part of this dynamic relates to the bodies involved in such space and time. How are bodies oriented within the space and time and what amount of time does it take to orient bodies in particular ways within a space? How do the stories of the characters illuminate different paths for "queer" bodies and different responses to the violence of existence?

But back to the concept of queertopia...

I think it is necessary to begin in the present thinking about queertopia by looking backwards to the past to the etymology of what seem to be important terms - namely utopia, dystopia, and then finally the etymology of the queer in queertopia. Utopia is a neologism, first used in Sir Thomas More's book Utopia (1516). It emerges from Greek to mean broadly "good place." More used the term allegorically, noting such a place could not actually exist, but imagining such a place offers potential critical insights into possibility. Dystopia, a modification of utopia, is according to its etymology, first uttered by John Stuart Mill in 1868 in a speech in the British House of Commons. It means broadly a "bad or ill place." Utopia is founded on the "good life" while dystopia is its negative counterpart, a utopia with a problem. So, what about queertopia? I had not heard of the concept "queertopia" until this let's look to the etymology of queer to begin an understanding of such a concept. Queer means "strange" or "peculiar" or "eccetric;" "off-center" or "oblique". And in the 20th century becomes associated with (homo)sexuality - an association that cannot be avoided with the utterance of "queer" as noted queer theorist Eve Sedgwick notes in Tendencies. So a queertopia is a strange or peculiar place, but a strange and peculiar place that is intimately connected with sexuality - particularly non-normative sexualities. It is perhaps a space and time where non-normative sexualities exist in a different paradigm BUT is neither good nor bad, it is is ambivalent about good and bad.

It is this ambivalence of the queertopia that I find quite useful and quite well engaged in the show. Depending on how one might read "queertopia" there are perhaps two immediate responses. One might imagine the show as playing with the notion of utopia - providing an overly positive spectacle of same-sex lovin' that imagines a world without violence, filled instead with love and gaiety. Or, one might imagine the show as playing with the notion of dystopia - imagining a future that is filled with violence, with queer bashing in order to provoke rage and calls for queer resistance. Both readings while somewhat present in the show, are inadequate for what happens. Instead, the viewer gets a merging of these two and in such a merging the show engages ambivalence where the good and the bad, the right and the wrong become much more complicated. The "queer bodies" are not merely victims, but also violators. Violence is not only inflicted from the outside, in BUT also from the inside out as the psychic wounds and the social wounds dance to produce the queer subjects.

And it is this production - both the literal production of the show and the metaphorical production of the lives such a show re-presents - that creates the queertopia. A space, a place and therefore a time somewhere and nowhere fleetingly showing the world we live in, the world as it once was, and how the world might be always struggling with the violence of existence and the (in)ability to escape such violence. This (in)ability both opens up the space to counter violence (an ethics of non-violence) while recognizing the presence of violence in the constitution of the human - we are violated by coming into existence (e.g. through naming, through being slapped on the butt by the doctor, or having our sex determined for us in the case of intersex babies). We cannot become subjects, we cannot become bodies, without violence but as Judith Butler argues "it is precisely because one is formed through violence, the responsibility not to repeat the violence of one's formation is all the more pressing and important" (2009, 167).

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