Following a recent visit to one of DC’s amazing museums—free, and so good, and so good for you—my best friend commented that we must have sounded terribly homophobic. We had set ourselves up in a prime little spot to have a snack (museum prices) and had started tracking the gay couples. All three thousand of them. Pretty much close to a third of all the couples. At first, the sheer numbers were delightful. And then irritating. And then aggravating.
Not the numbers. But the absence of numbers. Only a slight paradox.
After seeing three or so couples, we noticed that the partners in each couple looked the same. Dressed the same. Had the same shoes. The same hair. Walked the same. Wore their shades in the same way. Were, in fact, Narcissus and his liberated mirror-image. The sameness was overwhelming, even as it tracked across generational and racial lines. Never, as far as we could tell, class lines.
It was frightening.
To be fair, DC is a fairly clone-like place. A trip on the metro reveals the types: the professionals who make up DC, the strivers who want to be professional, and the professional anti-professionals. Weekday DC is uniform DC.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland)
To be fair, I should mention that I am similarly discomfited by uniform Nairobi, a place where too many people dress professionally—the men in their inevitable navy blue suits depress me. Along with Helga Crane, I wish someone would write A Plea for Color.
Back to clone DC.
The clones frighten me. That blend of performance, defensiveness, privilege, and hyper-normativity. The last perhaps a bit much, but it feels that way. These are disciplined bodies, yet lacking the sense of play and pleasure Foucault suggests when he discusses classical self-fashioning in HOS vol. 3. One might say homonormative, but even that feels imprecise.
As I prepared to leave the Midwest for these here parts, a former denizen described the DC gay caste culture, which, as any one who lives here can attest, permeates all DC interactions. In DC, as the new Housewives suggests, we have tiered lists for everything.
A-list housewives. A-list politicians. A-list gays. A-list lobbyists. A-list hangers-on. A-list designers. A-list teenagers. A-list restaurants. A-list dogwalkers. A-list sex workers. A-list minorities. A-list thugs. A-list listmakers. A-list A-lists.
And while this description sounds like urban life writ large, DC’s size, its very tiny size, makes all these lists perform valuable work. One can travel between lists by virtue of being on one or the other. But one can also, very quickly, fade into insignificance. I have no real interest in discussing the mechanics of A-lists. Read the Washington Post or The Washingtonian.
I am more interested in how this A-listing culture permeates down to all forms of social interaction. Where the possibility of meeting truly interesting people always seems to be short-circuited in this town of network, not contact.
And I am equally interested in the disciplinary constraints imposed by A-listing, especially on would-be queers, whose queerness manifests itself in tasteful polo shirts and overpriced shorts. Queer style has never been so unqueer. Or so unstylish.
Being here, it’s easier to understand how gay can no longer be queer. Or, rather, that the two fissured a long time ago—Cathy Cohen’s fabulous “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics” (GLQ 3.4 (1997) is still probably the most acute analysis of this fissure. She argues that gay and lesbian and even queer cultures contracted to the point that they could not account for and did not want to include other historical trajectories of queering, especially those around race and class.
When I teach this essay, I encounter profound resistance. Not simply because it is rhetorically difficult—I find it absolutely readable, but my friends tell me that my finding something readable says nothing about its inherent readability—but because it is ideologically and affectively difficult. Students are absolutely willing to expand the boundaries of the designation queer to accommodate their own raced and embodied practices, but remain wary of inhabiting certain proximities, especially those that Cohen theorizes: I am a happy queer and happily queer on campus, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t take me near the “welfare queens”!
For this reason, I ended up turning the last few weeks of my queer class last semester into a discussion of dangerous proximities, and the queerness of such proximities (helped along by Samuel Delaney, Howard Cruse, and Alison Bechdel).
Granted, speaking of dangerous proximities in the context of a museum may be stretching things. Although, on a recent visit to said museum, a delightful group of baby dykes posed and preened as yet another friend turned professional photographer and queered the hell out of the museum. It is possible. Dangerous proximities.
Clone culture has no place for dangerous proximities. No doubt it has its threesomes and its dungeons and its drugs and its alcohol and its fetish of working class and, in DC, non-working men. No doubt it traffics on the wild side at exclusive or not-so-exclusive orgies and thus retains the appearance of queer radicalism. Not quite sure what is so radical about dungeons and orgies at this point. No doubt it does all these things.
But then, if I understand Cohen and Delaney, dangerous proximities do not take place in safe spaces. They are dangerous because they create dangerous complicities. One risks being undone, and not simply in the great orgasm way—the question, here, of whether Bersani’s self-shattering can have a public life and whether Tim Dean’s recent book articulates this public life. Undone in a more foundational way. Undone in a way that unsettles and dismantles clone culture and its disciplinary demands.
I have argued, tediously, that I would love to see Samuel Delaney append a section to Times Square Red, Times Square Blue that engages the rise of internet publics. Clone culture appears deeply intertwined with the new forms of public privacy available through internet cultures. And in DC, a place that thrives on its open secrets and leaky sources, internet culture might have an even more disproportionate effect. This, I hasten to add, as a supplement rather than driving force behind the secrecy culture of government and the class-stratified culture in DC’s dna.
I might be registering the structuring ambivalence that tethers me to gay cultures, cultures to which I am indebted and even rooted in, even as I resist their disciplinary force. And those who have read this blog will recognize a formulation I use to describe ethnicity and national belonging. I am fundamentally ambivalent.
But I hope this foundational ambivalence yields to reveal something about the world we inhabit in its subject-forming, abject-creating, life-sustaining, pleasure-giving, comfort-depriving poverty and richness.