Learning from Queerness

Shawn Van Sluys, Guelph, Ontario
April 1, 2016

The etymology of the word queer traces its origin to that which is oblique, unusual, and out of the ordinary. It suggests an alternative to the status quo. Another way to think of it is as “eccentric.” However, in choosing “queer” we also invoke powerful social justice movements around the world.

We are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.

Jose Esteban Muñoz begins his book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), with these words. Queerness is an aspiration toward the future. To be queer is to imagine better possible futures. We begin our thoughts about queerness with this frame.

To be queer is to imagine better possible futures.

Most of contemporary society’s forms—institutional, spatial, relational—are based on the assumption or belief that those forms are absolute and timeless—as though they are products of the laws of nature. But as we know from the Brazilian philosopher and democratic reformer, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, our economic and social forms, among others, are, in fact, flawed and temporal, and they tend toward inequity and subjugation. Most of these forms come out of moralistic views of the world. We need only list a few forms to illustrate the point:

  • private property as a spatial and institutional form that has diminished public space;
  • marriage as a social and religious institution that has undermined so many other relational (i.e. sexual) and physical (i.e. non-gendered) forms;
  • right-wing versus leftist political forms, as though there are only two political expediencies; and
  • economic institutions based on consumption, growth, and individual wealth.

The heteronormative family is one of the most dominant institutional forms at tension in the world today. United States Supreme Court Justice Kennedy (the deciding vote) recently asked why we should “suddenly” change millennia of history of this form (that marriage is a bond between two genders, male and female) to allow same-sex marriage. Australian same-sex marriage activists declared a tiny uninhabited island to be the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands—a utopia of queerness set apart from the world.

In The Religion of the Future, Roberto Unger offers us this reflection on form:

No institutional form of the life of a people —that is to say, no law—can be neutral among social ideals or visions of the good. Every such order encourages some forms of experience and discourages others. The claim of neutrality in favor of a particular set of arrangements will always be found in retrospect to serve the entrenchment of a provincial and exclusive ideal and to inhibit our movement toward a greater life. Moreover, the false goal of neutrality helps prevent us from advancing in the realization of twin feasible goals: that the regime be open to a broad range of experiments in individual and social life and that, above all, it be maximally susceptible to correction in the light of experience.

Unger isn’t calling for the end of all institutional forms, but he suggests that no form should remain unchallenged, no possibility untested, and no complexity reduced. He calls for experimentation and vigilance.

We believe that queerness offers us forms based on desire, love, deep freedom, and self-determination. These four offerings have their philosophical roots not only in queer theory but also in broader philosophical thinking such as that of Roberto Unger, Caroline Levine, Joseph Heath, Jan Zwicky, and Edgar Morin. The Queer City São Paulo program is a deep dive into queer forms—desire, love, deep freedom, and self-determination—in relation to the urban centre, to racialized and minoritized peoples, and to the need for a new global imaginary for the future.

As mentioned earlier, the etymology of the word queer traces its origin to that which is oblique, unusual, and out of the ordinary. It suggests an alternative (or options) to the status quo. Eventually queer became a derogatory word for those who exist outside of heteronormativity. However, as language is beautifully mutable, the word was embraced by the queer community to resist labels that gender-normative communities insist on imposing. As in Jean Genet’s novel (and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film), a Querelle is a quarrel with the present—such is queerness.

Queerness is a way of being, thinking, relating, and knowing.

Queerness offers a way to approach the production of counter-narratives—and their formal manifestations—to the dominant ones in ecology, health, justice, architecture, urban planning, and even in artistic creation. This gets to the core of Musagetes’ Manifesto which renounces the dominance of rational thought, linear forms, and moralistic reasoning. We enquire into the life of the spirit, embolden our imaginations, and write new narratives in our pursuit of forms that shape the world anew. Through artistic inquiry we demonstrate that new options come from marginalized and overlooked ways of being and knowing—in indigeneity, in improvisation, in queerness.

Queerness is a way of being, thinking, relating, and knowing. Musagetes’ research and convening on this is an extension of its work with improvisation and indigeneity as ways of being, thinking, relating, and knowing. Free Home University experiments with these forms in the question “how do we want to live?” In 2014, the three modules on death, the image, and the commons considered old and new intersecting forms through an emphasis on togetherness and slowness. As in the 2015 iteration of Free Home University, we insist on a relational view of queerness that considers race, gender, and class through a queer lens.

Finally, why reflect on queerness through artistic thinking? As Edgar Morin tells us, art encompasses “the lived realities of human experience, the contingencies, the seeming trivialities, the emotions, subjectivities, and uniqueness of life in all its manifestations, while at the same time uncovering the epistemological dimension, addressing how we make sense of the world, how we construct our knowledge.”

Queer artists such as AA Bronson, Will Munro, Feminist Art Gallery, Adrian “Buffalo Boy” Stimson, and Tomson Highway—just to mention a few Canadians—have been questioning the seemingly “normal” for decades. Now we ask, what new thing can we learn from queerness that will illuminate our work further?

Shawn Van Sluys

Shawn Van Sluys

Shawn Van Sluys is the Executive Director of Musagetes, a foundation that makes the arts more central and meaningful in people’s lives.

Leave a Reply