This, a recent entry for THEOFFCENTER blog. Peep this important dialogue later this month on queer economies from artists and thinkers at theoffcenter.org.
As I see it, there is now only one way left to talk about ourselves. And first we must close our eyes.
Imagine yourself under water. You are a human being, submerged in the depths, able to breath through your human-gills, able to walk along the ocean floor and fraternize with the deep sea fauna. They are your friends, and you have many down here, from the sea lion in a shimmering bubble to the critters that crawl across your toenails and keep them clean). You have all of the freedom that the ocean allows: endless expanse, the ability to float and to contort and to, essentially, fly. You are an anomaly, and therefore not-prey to anything with sharp teeth. You glisten constantly. You shine. And yet you are also human. You are not of this world, this under-the-sea world. With your gills and your webby phalanges, your unbridled capacity to shine and to fly, neither are you a member of the land-bound caste. You have all the freedom that the ocean allows - and yet, your self-actualization is hampered by your distinction. There is the rub, aye.
Okay, open your eyes. And now you realize, with a sigh, that it was all a fantasy. But a useful one: I don’t believe that one can speak of any economy from a queer, ethnically-rooted, gender-transgressive, anti-capitalist and pro-art standpoint without taking account for the ways capitalism constructs fantasy subjects. To be brown, to be queer, to be gender non-normative,* and to be an artist as well is to be confronted with the contradiction that who you are does not exist on paper. We are nomads with prosthetic bodies and chosen families, over-represented in prisons, mental hospitals, and free clinics and under-represented everywhere else. We are many - we are certainly not alone - but the ramifications of being written out of social, political, and historical life are undoubtedly isolating.
However, the isolation that one who identifies in these ways might feel is written about extensively elsewhere and isn’t as relevant to this discussion of queer economies. What I am more interested in is the social disavowal of one’s existence as a queer artist of color that is instrumental to capitalism. Queer artists of color: 1. Engage in sex acts that do not reproduce and serve no obvious economic function; 2. Pose a threat to racial and sexual power structures; 3. Function in capitalist economy as the defining opposite to normalized power; 4. “Work” in a frequently ephemeral and therefore unquantifiable fields that defy monetization.
Plainly: we (brown and queer artists) don’t make money for a system whose priorities are laid bare in the term “corporate personhood.” Yet we also can become enveloped in the same system that devises ways to use us as both examples of what not to be and as opposites of what is. In this way, we can be employed by the system to help it define its Subjects. They are the opposite of us.
Jesse Hewit says this economic invisibility can make us feel like “less than people.” I lean more towards Judith Butler’s position, which properly contextualizes this less-than subjecthood within a capitalist power structure. Butler argues that standing both outside capitalism - and also fitting neatly within it as a functioning foil to normalized power (white cisgender maleness) - makes one’s life less “viable.”
Take this example. A dear friend of mine died last fall. They were a young, queer, poor, gender-transgressive, artist and community worker who lived with bipolar disorder. That is to say, their life did not function very well within capitalism. The day that they died - from a fall, off the side of a building - they checked themself into the downtown university hospital. They are on record as having been checked out several hours later. We still do not, and may never know what happened that afternoon, but it’s very likely that they recognized their mania as verging on dangerous and were attempting to save themself. And it is even more likely that they - a young, queer, poor, gender-transgressive person who lived to create what has not yet been seen (as is the vocation of all artists) - were not a viable life in the eyes of a system that still classifies “transgenderism” as a mental illness.
A system that needs us to be inviable - and, depending on who we are, inviability can mean being locked up, or medicated, or overworked, or dead, etc - works hard to make our experiences and desires seem unreal. This feeling of unrealness can lead us to doubt our impulses. To create, to love, to ask for help, or to be fucking mad as hell can feel like illegitimate pursuits, and when we feel illegitimate we move ourselves closer to the margins. Or perhaps we should think of those margins as a cellar, a foundation, the thing underneath the structure that gets all the attention, the thing that the supserstructure can’t function without. And also, the thing that could just as easily be the rooftops if one simply flips their perspective.
It strikes me that the system that names a full and generous life like my friend’s inviable is the same system that encourages me to stop myself from making art instead of money, and leads me to question why I would invest in a queer loving relationship that will never be recognized by the sate or most of my blood family. Fuck this system. I feel overwhelmed by this system that let my friend go, that I see creeping into the parts of my life that are sacred and should never be trespassed upon - certainly not by a colonialist state. There is nothing to counter this overwhelm, except for the knowledge that as queer artists, and as artists of color, and as poor queers, and as artists who struggle with mental health, and as people of color with physical challenges (and so on and on) we are all existing - FULLY, and TOGETHER - within that cellar-cum-rooftop of inviability. And our only real economy in the face of a capitalist economy is love.
The only thing we can do is love ourselves and each other. I mean love as in seeing one another. Love as in allowing our impulses room to dance. Love as in validation, encouragement, and celebration. Real love, and the wealth that accompanies it. That’s it.
Corny as that sounds, it’s all we really have - but damn if we don’t have have so much of it.
*When I say gender non-normative, I am not attempting to recapitulate to the idea of a gender norm, but rather to acknowledge the socio-political normativity of cisgender maleness.