The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of Brown by José Esteban Muñoz, edited by joshua chambers-Letson and tavia Nyong’o. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 224 pages. $26.

The cover of The Sense of Brown

ONE OF THE LAST THINGS the queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz published before his untimely death in December 2013 was an essay titled “Race, Sex, and the Incommensurate.” In it, Muñoz reflects on a question that had colored much of his career: politics’ relationship to queerness. The essay was, more simply, Muñoz’s reflection on what he described as “the strange and compelling collaboration between Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and her friend Gary Fisher.” Fisher was, like Muñoz, a graduate student of the queer theorist Sedgwick. He was also, unlike Sedgwick, queer and African American. When Fisher died in 1994 of AIDS, Sedgwick took on the project of editing his posthumous collection of short stories, poems, and journals titled Gary in Your Pocket (1996).

If the intimacies here—between teacher and student, critic and friend—feel uneasily entwined, that was partly the point. “Race, Sex, and the Incommensurate,” written after Sedgwick herself had died of breast cancer, sought to reframe what many viewed as her questionable sponsorship of Fisher. That a straight white woman controlled the legacy of a gay Black man’s writing felt, for some, uncomfortably close to home. Yet what others found inappropriate in their uneven gender and racial dynamics, Muñoz found to be impossibly queer. It was Sedgwick and Fisher’s undeniable differences, Muñoz argued, that exemplified what he called “a queer politics of the incommensurable.” Such incommensurable asymmetries were, moreover, “most graspable to us as a sense rather than a politic.”

By “sense,” Muñoz did not mean to be vague, or apolitical. Instead, he sought to capture a way of life irreducible to the logic of identity. Sense was Muñoz’s way of gesturing toward a queerness that rejected established notions of the self, and toward a “commons of the incommensurable” that could accommodate a “plurality of senses.” If Muñoz’s language sometimes lapsed into the squishy and diffuse, this was partly because of how capacious he wanted this queerness to be. His elliptical rhetoric—“queerness as a sense of the incalculable and, simultaneously, the incalculable sense of queerness”—aimed to express the kind of incommensurability he saw in Fisher and Sedgwick’s collaboration through sentences that tried to say similar things in different ways. What could be more queer than that?

A sense of the incommensurable runs through Muñoz’s body of work. His first book, Disidentifications, came out in 1999 in what was then the predominantly white field of queer theory. It was an expansion of Muñoz’s dissertation, written under Sedgwick’s mentorship and intervening in a discipline she had no small part in building by turning its focus on, to quote its subtitle, “queers of color and the performance of politics.” Unlike white queer communities, Muñoz argued, queers of color interfaced with mass media through acts of “disidentification”—practices that recycled and reclaimed hegemonic culture for counterpublic spheres. Because the queer of color was necessarily outside the mainstream—marginal to dominant as well as queer culture—their identification with it would always occur through disidentification.

Disidentifications rejected traditional theories of identity formation that understood the self to be either socially constructed or essentially fixed. Instead, Muñoz drew inspiration from the coalitional politics of women-of-color feminists, and especially Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s influential anthology of multiethnic women’s writing, This Bridge Called My Back (1981). Third-world feminism offered Muñoz a vision of interracial solidarities that drew on an array of performances, films, and aesthetic experiences that manifested a queer commons, however fleetingly. In eight eclectic chapters, Disidentifications offers readings of Isaac Julien’s queer cinema, Richard Fung’s video art, Vaginal Davis drag performances, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s disidentification with Andy Warhol. What Muñoz found so powerful and poignant about the “crisscrossed identificatory and desiring circuits” among queers of color was that disidentification was not merely a theoretical aspiration—it was a way for them to inhabit new worlds, even if only temporarily.

Muñoz’s next book, Cruising Utopia (2009), took Disidentifications’ project of queer world-making even further. The thesis of Cruising Utopia is fundamentally idealistic: “Queerness is not yet here,” goes its first sentence. At a moment when queer theory had taken a rather pessimistic turn—exemplified by the radical nihilism of Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004)—Muñoz held out instead “the idea of hope” as “both a critical affect and a methodology.” Like his first book, Cruising Utopia offered a reality check on trends in queer theory by revealing their implicit whiteness. Queer critique could not afford to reject the future when there were still so many children whose futures were actually in question. This is why Muñoz’s theory of utopia had to be forward-looking—to another time and place that is “not-yet” here “where youths of color actually get to grow up.” Cruising Utopia finds inspiration for queer futurity in encounters of our passing present: at a queer-of-color bar, in the middle of a dance club, between the stage and the parking lot of a punk show. Here and now, Muñoz suggests, lie blueprints for a collective future still to come.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Silueta Series, Mexico (detail), 1976/1991, silver dye-bleach print, framed 24 ¼ × 18 ¼". From the series "Silueta Works in Mexico," 1973–77.
Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Silueta Series, Mexico (detail), 1976/1991, silver dye-bleach print, framed 24 ¼ × 18 ¼". From the series "Silueta Works in Mexico," 1973–77. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

The Sense of Brown is Muñoz’s posthumous collection, published recently by Duke University Press. It contains thirteen essays written over the course of fifteen years, from 1998 until Muñoz’s death. Like his prior work, this collection ranges across fields—from performance studies and queer theory to Black and Asian American studies—as its individual essays concatenate into something like Muñoz’s theory of brownness. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, Muñoz’s sense of brownness. As Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong’o note in their editors’ introduction, the book is far from what Muñoz would’ve published had he had more time. “The Sense of Brown is Muñoz’s most direct address to the field of Latino/a studies,” they explain in the introduction, “and the queer intellectual formation that would come to be known, in the years since his death, as Latinx studies.” The sentence’s tense switch—in which Muñoz’s work finds an implicit afterlife in what “would come to be known . . . as Latinx studies”—resonates melancholically. Almost all the essays in The Sense of Brown are still in draft form. The editors acknowledge their introduction to be a strange placeholder for the one Muñoz himself would have liked to have written.

Cruising Utopia argued that queerness did not yet exist—necessarily could not yet exist—until the utopian social collectivity it promised was available to all. The Sense of Brown, much of which Muñoz wrote alongside Cruising Utopia, contends that “Brownness is already here.” While Muñoz’s notion of brownness followed the anti-identarian ethos of his queer theory, it did so to reveal all the ways the world was already brown. Brownness is a sense, a feeling, an affect—a racialized mode of being that draws from Muñoz’s own Cuban heritage, but is not reducible to it. Instead, Muñoz sees brownness as broader than any single ethnic category, such as “Latino,” “Hispanic,” or “Asian American.” Adapting the language of queer collectivity, The Sense of Brown seeks to capture something like a “brown commons.” Brownness, for Muñoz, is a structure of feeling outside dominant American culture. In these essays, Muñoz asks readers to practice “an attunement to brownness as partial, incomplete, and not yet organized in relation to a hermeneutics dedicated to foreclosure.” What this means in practice is a brownness that attempts to destabilize fixed ideas of identity and ethnicity—a sense of brownness that, if framed and felt properly, would become visible as already present in the world.

Reading The Sense of Brown, one is sharply reminded that the book emerges from another era. Like other umbrella terms such as “POC,” Muñoz’s brownness feels poignantly loose, almost too capacious to define any kind of theoretical terrain for the current moment. Even Muñoz’s joyride across an eclectic range of theoretical fields—given the current dearth of academic jobs, as departments continue to cut back on teaching staff—feels out of time. The collection is a reminder of how fast critical discourses move, even as scholarship seeks to make permanent, field-changing, and, for Muñoz, world-changing interventions.

The last essay in The Sense of Brown is also the last thing Muñoz ever published. Notably titled “Vitalism’s Afterburn,” the essay opens with a contemplation of the “afterlife” of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban American artist who died falling out of her thirty-fourth-floor apartment at the age of thirty-six. “What comes after loss?” Muñoz asks, before answering by reflecting on “the vital force of brownness” lingering in Mendieta’s “Silueta” series, in which women left indentations of their bodies in nature. In reading The Sense of Brown, a similarly melancholic question arises: What is the vital force of queer brown world-making after Muñoz? The genius of Muñoz’s first two monographs lay in his ability to ground the high-flown abstractions of theory bros in the material histories of underground communities and site-specific performances. If what animated Muñoz’s criticism was his singular ability to combine praxis and theory in examining specific artworks, then a question arises now about how to continue his work. For despite the real gifts that The Sense of Brown gives us—its startling moments of insight and its profound intellectual generosity—what it leaves the reader with is Muñoz’s afterburn.

Jane Hu is a Ph.D. candidate and writer living in Oakland.