Notes on: Blackman, L.  (2011) 'Affect, Performance and Queer Subjectivities', Cultural Studies 25 (2): 183-99.

[This is about performance as the enactment of queer subjectivity].

Performance can designate alternative possibilities.  Genealogy has always shown important dimensions of the construction of subjectivity and their legitimation, the effects of discourses.  They can sometimes seem as if they are purely internal to the subject, or habitual.  The trick is to expose them for critique, an aspect of what Butler calls ‘troubling’ subjectivity.  She examined transgender drag performances and camp.  Butler’s work has been highly influential in subsequent studies  including Bell 2007 (184).

Bell argues that performance indicates a co-extensive dimension to subjectivity [as in others as mirrors?  Dressed up here as ‘relational ontology’, with hints of Goffman as well].  The co-extensive dimensions have to be denied in asserting individual subjectivity [really?  In California?], but crises and trauma can undo this domestication [Butler apparently has written about 9/11].  The potential to deindividualise the subject can be managed by official mourning rituals, an affective process which reintroduce is official forms of collectivity.  This work will help understand inter and intra generational processes of the transmission of affects.

There might exist, for example queer families.  The argument is similar to that of Gilroy on the transmission of feelings across generations in the black Diaspora.  These can be systematised in ‘performative routedness’ [citing Bell, 185] [blimey, a guilty echo of Roots?].  These expose relations across generations, not necessarily with copresent others.  They can be embodied ways of communicating shame and trauma.

There are traditions in anthropological research about embodied performances, such as dances showing ‘the performance of amnesia’ (citing a study by Pollack, 186).  [Any ritual will do?].  The family concerned were refugees who could not articulate the genocide they had left behind in Cambodia.  Instead they practiced strategic forgetfulness [we are nearly into Freud on compulsive repetition?] The dance offered [illusory] communication with their forebears and those who had not survived, in response to some [supposedly external] dialogue.  Overall this presented an ‘affective symbiosis which allowed a reaching – toward the unrepresentable and the unknowable’ (186—bullshit way to rephrase Freud on neurosis?] Apparently this ‘resonates with’ some more work on the tango offering ‘an infra – language of attunement that bypasses calculative rationality’ (187).  This is claimed to be just like queer rationality.  A film about two gay men leaving for a new life in America shows the same characteristics, as ‘an enactment – together of multiplicities’ [fuck me!], an unconventional friendship.  beyond the usual constraints of gender etc., showing the very movement of desire.  [very basic interpersonal sociology larded over with Deleuzian language].  The characters constantly struggle with more conventional conceptions of relationships such as fraternity, just as tango is constantly threatened by being turned into a tourist commodity.

There can be others involved, not just dyads.  Here there is a difference between Butler and Braidotti, the former focusing on melancholic, the latter on more joyful becomings.  This reflects the different psychoanalytic backgrounds.  Butler draws on Lacan, lack, and the dominance of normalisation, which produces her stress on ‘loss, mourning, depression and psychic cost’ (189): queer desire becomes non normative and negative.  Braidotti draws from Deleuze and Guattari an interest in Artaud and the staging of schizophrenia, in the form of theatre and poetry, suggesting the BWO as ‘an organ – less vitality’, [189, quoting Logic of Sense].  Apparently, the vocabulary of ‘nerves’ affecting in transforming the body was a way of referring to the social outside.  Artaud apparently literally acted out his madness in the Theatre of Cruelty to attempt to channel the intensive energies he was experiencing—was it acting or an actual nervous collapse?  Massumi says it was demonstrating becoming – other, breaking with conventional representation.

Massumi also warns of the dangers of such becomings, and Blackman reminds us that Deleuze himself was an alcoholic and a suicide.  However, Artaud certainly pioneered what became known as ‘in – yer – face’ theatre [compare with the extraordinary Danish theatre described in Sundbo and Darmer], engaging audiences viscerally to break conventional spectatorship.  It does raise the possibility of new queer performances as neither negative nor joyful.

There are interesting debates in social sciences.  Early work on male gays insisted that they possessed a lot in common with straights except the objects they chose for sex.  Kitzinger, by contrast suggested that lesbian and queer subjectivities were constructed, and therefore were capable of a critical political stance of straights, not a licensed inclusion within an agreed normativity.  This produced ‘gay affirmative research’ arguing that gay identities were perfectly well psychologically adapted—‘the happy queer’ (192).  This in turn led to an attempt to normalise gay lifestyles as equally healthy and implicitly demanding the same kind of rights as hetero ones – ‘homonormativity’ (192).  This does not contest heterosexual dominance, and explains gay life as subject to the same kinds of constraints and happinesses.

One problem arose with official statistics showing that queer identities were in fact associated with psychological and social problems, ranging from alcohol abuse to suicide risk.  This has led to a debate about whether these statistics, and the campaigning groups which cite them, have encouraged the notion of gay as victim instead.  [NB, gay and queer are used pretty well interchangeably here]. This article picks up on the idea of queer performance as a useful methodology and on inter generational affective links which might explain some of these traumas.

Queer culture has been associated with the camp, and therefore the insincere and artificial.  This has reduced the possibilities of using performance to represent various social problems, and seems to reproduce the split between happy and sad queers.  An alternative is represented by the work of Hoyle which is more autobiographical (193).  The performances are shocking and frank, and also witty, focusing on topics such as AIDS, the media, or dogging and have produced ‘visceral’ audience reactions, including heckling and abuse. 

The shows are live but bits are also available online, so they can become part of an archive.  Another feminist performer (Baker) deliberately depicts the elements of such an archive.  The elements are not processed by social science perspectives, but are parts of a ‘counter memory’ (194).  They can therefore act as components of ‘shared experiences of suffering and trauma’ [there is at last comparison with classic studies of hysteria as performance as in Freud].  Individual performances can be seen as prompts for this more shared form of understanding.  This in turn highlights representational practices, not just individual forms of expression.  [Took a long time to get here].

This enables a link with notions of the construction of subjectivity [with Deleuzian embellishes].  Apparently Ettinger has talked of ‘matricial communication’, and ‘border linking’, where affects can be shared by links between bodies.  Ettinger [who is apparently an analyst] thinks these are expressed as ‘non verbal intensities’, a form of ‘artworking’, and is interested in inter generational transmission of shame and trauma which are particularly transmitted by certain practices (all quotes 195).  Blackman thinks there is a potential here for an idea of a whole queer unconscious, made up of a matrix with contributions from several partners.

So performance is not just about expressing personal views, but demonstrating this kind of subjectivity, and permitting audience engagement at the level of sensation.  The audience plays a part in the performance as well.

The idea of the matrix apparently is being used now to understand art.  Walkerdine has used it to represent processes of community regeneration in Wales.  Blackman is developing the insights of Bateson and Laing [so this is the old interpersonal matrix of Laing?], and is working on new controversial performance artists (see page 196).

The idea of the matrix with its range of possible affects breaks with the old dualisms, and reveals the inventiveness of queer performance.  This in turn implies a more flexible communal understanding of queer subjectivity.

back to key concepts page