“[W]hat is the matter of the political, and what is the matter of politics?” (Cheah 2008, 156)
The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots inspired cultural actors in Berlin and elsewhere to take stock. June 2019 has seen Puqs in Love at Gorki theater, The Present is Not Enough at Hebbel am Ufer Theater (HAU), the Queer Alms conference at Haus der Kulturen der Welt and other events. I used the occasion to investigate contemporary ‘Queer aesthetics.’ As a result, I want to distinguish ‘the Esoteric left’ from ‘Virtual Materialisms’ and determine their shared blind spot: Pink Washing Imperialism.
I – The Esoteric Left
A series of Queer Manifestos at HAU sets the standard for the most dominant of contemporary queer aesthetics: Exceptions granted, an ‘experience’ of confinement, omission and constraint seems paradigmatic. It is faced by queer actors, embracing weirdness and exclusion, claiming freedom from external interference and sometimes generating ‘futures’ by way of the universalization of marginalized experiences. In this sense, most ‘Manifestos’ celebrate past futures: freedom from oppression, universalization of marginalized perspectives and realities, a 1990s revival.
A critique of the commodification of identity and the connection between the differentiation of identities and the generation of new market grounds is hardly to be seen. The ‘freedom from’ or ‘negative freedom’ promoted across the spectrum is, however, the freedom of commodities: “I can exclude everybody else from the usage of my property.” Accordingly, the fantasy of ‘identity as property’ grants the imaginary right to rule over one’s identity as one rules over one’s mobile phone, all strings attached.
The ‘futures’ generated appear distinctively neoliberal in their insistence on ‘individual experience’ and inaccessibility from an ‘outside.’ They come as absence of external interference, control of signification and visibility. It is the fantasy of an esoteric matrix as normative ideal, where ‘experience’ maps onto ‘identity’ and ‘representation’ and vice versa.
The matrix is ‘esoteric’ in that it focuses on an imagined ‘inside’ of experience and identity, reading ‘representation’ as a mere transparent double of such inwardness. In this vision, ’empathic understanding’ of one another will pierce through the shortcomings of wrong apprehension, false representation, prejudice. It will thus therapeutically undo our (allegedly shared) mourning of lost primordial connectedness to one another and to oneself. Representation itself does not bear any weight, has no existence outside of its referent. In this sense, an aesthetics that accumulates ‘true expression’ of otherwise inaccessible ‘experiences’ — ‘racialization,’ ‘disability,’ ‘trans*’ — can understand itself as inherently political. It combines the traditions of ‘enlightenment’ as political education with a mystical ‘becoming oneself.’
This esotericism is a ‘matrix’ in that it maps categories onto one another as though everything about them was ready at hand, actual, present: Political subjects will connect to their experience through ’empowering’ erosions of externally infused ideologies. Such ‘experience’ can be translated into modes of signification – visually, verbally etc. – without much loss. It can be apprehended by willing observers in a mode of appreciative absorption. No mutual discursive labor is necessary in principle. Thus, the esoteric matrix maps the inward ‘experience’ onto its artistic expression and its consumption subsequently. In this theory, disturbances within that matrix ensue from external influences – such as lack of self-awareness/connectedness in political actors or ideological resistance a.k.a ‘privilege’ in apprehending subjects. Consequentially, the core political project becomes a neoliberal inflection of Foucaultian ‘Self-care’.
Can ‘experience,’ ‘identity’ and ‘representation’ be mapped out in such a way?
“[…] paintings or sculptures are already […] ‘distorters’, forcing us to create movement – that is, to combine a superficial and a penetrating view, or to ascend and descend within the space as we move through it.” (Deleuze 1968, 56)
The other side of a sculpture, for example, requires us to move around it, and hence engenders its sculptu-reality. The same counts for performativity, theatrical and quotidian: The fact that something escapes us is a vital part of reality. Particular kinds of incompleteness constitute ‘the performative,’ ‘the visual,’ ‘the conceptual’ etc. This virtuality of existence, inevitable inaccessibility, can be understood as a ‘positive’ force rather than as mere limitation. “The light dove cleaving in free flight the thin air, whose resistance it feels, might imagine that her movements would be far more free and rapid in airless space. [But once the air is gone, the dove suffocates].” (Kant 1786, B9) The very same counts for freedom: External interference is not mere inhibition, but also an engine of freedom. It is the reason to move your queer ass and get out in the first place.
Furthermore, such ‘virtuality’ is the cultural surplus value skimmed by neoliberal capitalism: Fantasies of living without external interference (on identities, experiences, representations) generate resistances that in turn manifest in cultural output, art, music etc. Such cultural capital is being marketed, consumed, exploited, commodified. In this way, the cultural (re-)production of the idea of ‘negative freedom’ (promoted in esoteric leftism) is neoliberal ideology: individual struggle becomes surplus value, becomes benefit of the few. Capitalism wins.
II – Virtual Materialisms
The restriction of ‘identity’ into a controllable entity comes as a reduction of the general messiness of representation. In fact, the ‘virtuality’ just discussed is what Spivak calls ‘overdetermination’ — the inevitable possibility of yet another interpretation, yet another category, yet another shape of existence.
“[…] I am going to suggest that to disclose only the race-class-gender determinations of social practices is to see overdetermination as only many determinations.” (Spivak 1999, 219)
A polydirectional view on a sculpture does not grasp its sculptu-reality. A polydirectional understanding of all (or many) identity categories does not tell you anything about ‘identity’ or about this or that person. As long as ‘overdetermination’ or ‘virtuality’ is not front and center, ‘identity politics’ remains an abstraction, mere aggregation of eclectic pieces of information. Without working the virtual, the reality of incompleteness, ‘identity politics’ keeps transcending itself into yet another neglected category, giving way to an infinite regress of guilt and maintenance of the police officer as principal figure of social interaction. For whenever you chase the back of the sculpture, you will find yet another part of the sculpture. Total inclusion will not solve the problem, if the problem is — literally — the virtual: How can we meet one another, organize a society, a collective, knowing that reality harbors inaccessibility, inevitably?
I call ‘Virtual Materialisms‘ an aesthetic politics that meets this challenge. Here, representation and its ‘virtuality’ is the material of political aesthetics and not merely a nuisance to be overcome. ‘Identity politics’ in a full sense, ‘virtual materialisms’ focus on virtuality, fantasy, stereotypes, prejudices, structural and institutional modes of oppression and domination as a reality, not just as an (however naturalized) aberrance from normative ideals. They use associations, anticipations, collective imaginaries. They suspend interpolations to do it right, to claim truth where there is none. These materialisms are queer in that ‘queer’ has traditionally been the symbolic location of the intermediate, omitted, unfinished — from a patriarchal (though institutionally real) point of view. They engage in emancipating the un-emancipatable.
An example: Tonight by Melanie Jame Wolf, featuring Sheena McGrandles and Rodrigo Garcia Alves. 30 minutes in, Phil Collin’s In the Air Tonight decelerates into an infinite Lynchian gesture: Wolf leaves the microphone, her voice keeps singing – for infinitely slow fifteen minutes, “’tonight’ isn’t gonna happen. But it could.” (Melanie Jame Wolf in: Truehart/Wolf 2019) As absence of ‘happening,’ ‘tonight’ becomes visceral in that song – as anticipation, the not-yet itself takes center stage. It is as though the back of a sculpture was turning around, confronting you with its constitutive absence. This indeterminacy, «Tonight … !» is the essence of Virtual Materialisms.
Another example: The Ring of the Dove by Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, featuring Kilian Madeleine and Théophile Alexandre. Other than Tonight‘s (apparently) ‘pure’ virtuality, here virtuality is rife with allusions to ideological imagery. Forever not yet present, this aesthetics interpolates a politically engaged subjectivity — in this case: me. The piecemoves from citations of geometric form projected onto stage and actors through a religiously seamed scene of (potential?) desire between feminized, racialized, culturally determined, potentially trans* bodies, one encircling the other with increasing velocity. The scene is interrupted by a sudden shower of tennis balls — it’s raining privilege, testicles, apples or whatever. Geometry covering human shapes transforms into a court of class relations, mediated by implaceable desire. And so the piece continues, generating virtual landscapes that, though strongly emotive and politically charged, remain hospitable to interpretation, inexorably insinuating (self)-reflection.
The esoteric left teaches what everybody knows: society excludes and violates in manifold ways. We should include, ‘hold space,’ reflect on complicity, feel guilty not guilty, represent differently. While true, the logic of categorial determination remains in place — race, class, gender, body type, ability status etc. – forever transcended by the gnawing forces of virtuality. And so does the logic of neoliberal capitalism, banging its head against the walls of virtuality. Esoteric leftism keeps trying to stabilize the indeterminable. Virtual materialisms, however, attempt to untrain the need to determine and protect — towards an ‘identity politics’ in the full sense of the term ‘identity,’ confronting its virtual ‘component.’ They unleash the disconcerting creepiness of existence, its virtuality — grounded in concrete political images of their temporal and geo-political context. They are working the dream rather than just dreaming it.
III – Pink Washing Germany
Berlin is the capital of Germany. Germany is currently the most powerful actor in Europe. Berlin is a center of imperial power. Its comparably high living standard for (some) queer people has a distinctive effect: Pink Washing Germany. For years, the country has been under the sway of right wing racist rhetoric against ‘asylum seekers’ and an imagined ‘culture clash’ between ‘Muslim immigrants’ and a ‘German culture’ imagined to be distinctively white. ‘Progressive cultural superiority’ in this discourse bears names such as ‘diversity’ and ’emancipation,’ understood as integration into an exploitative market system and expressed in ‘individual rights.’
European imperialism utilizes queerness (consciously or not) as ‘proof’ for the civilizing and inclusive force of market virility. However, “[t]he coincidence between valuable queerness and racism is far from random.” (Haritaworn 2015, 84) ‘Good queers’ consume and pay taxes individually. ‘Bad queers’ (often of color) appear conflated into populations to be controlled, managed (and/or left to die/maimed).
A certain ‘inclusion’ of ‘queerness’ in Berlin — individualized, market virile — is granting Germany the ideological halo of a progressive and inclusive country. It is used to (implicitly) justify neoliberal policies against southern and eastern Europe, against allegedly less emancipated (read: ‘culturally inferior’) ‘refugees,’ carrying the torch of a superior culture around the world. It serves to make you want Berlin — Berghain — German imperialism.
That is why a major showcase of Queer Aesthetics in Berlin is relevant: It has a geo-strategic centrality, based on its imperial shadow. In this context then, both, ‘the esoteric left’ and ‘virtual materialisms,’ are omitting — unconsciously for sure — the real political function that Queer life in Berlin has, as well as the growing number of conservative and right wing queers who favor and produce racist, imperialist and neo-colonial policies.
Real queer nationalisms stretch from Peter Thiel through Alice Weidel, Jens Spahn and beyond — and produce damage on an intersectional downward spiral of oppression. They remain unacknowledged and hence unchallenged. I am certainly not calling for a liberal debate with the enemy. However, it seems an urgent artistic task to address the issue of real integration of ‘queers,’ as tokens and as actors, into the real violence that dominates global politics today (current example: ‘radical CSD 2019‘).
What would anaesthetics look like that integrates the slow implosion of queerness without neglecting the real virtuality of identity? ‘Intensivtäter’ (‘repeat offender,’ code for ‘structurally criminalized young men of color attacking nice white women and gay men’), ‘pink washing imperialism,’ the commodification and weaponization of experience on the left and on the right, queers in the military, in conservative and right wing parties — these are just some buzzwords. Queerness is dead. We should wonder how long that will remain relevant — and to whom.
Luce deLire is a ship with eight sails and she lays off the quay. A time traveller and collector of mediocre jokes by day, when night falls, she turns into a philosopher, performer and media theorist. She could be seen curating, performing, directing, planning and publishing (on) various events. She is working on and with treason, post secularism, self-destruction, metaphysics, infinities of infinities, fascism and seduction — all in mixed media. For more click here.