On Possibility

It was done from a desire to live, to make life possible, and to rethink the possible as such.
– Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

I keep re-learning queer theory. More precisely, I keep learning from Judith Butler. I came to queer theory seeking a method through which to live. It offered one of the few spaces that something named as “me” could be, lost in wonder, amazed by the possibilities, the infinities of thinking beyond what was around me. Abstraction opens spaces, creates new worlds that can be thought and inhabited. I have stayed with queer theory because the “not yet” of the “could be” anchors a way of “being here.” (This impulse drives José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia.)

What might it mean to think about possibility? What is possibility between and across lifeworlds?

Despite my best efforts—and perhaps because of them—the lifeworlds I imagine tend to be off-balanced, away from certain worlds I can’t inhabit. “Gay” is a lifeworld I can’t imagine or inhabit. And so I struggle to imagine what possibility might be for that particular lifeworld and those adjacent to it.

That struggle matters, if only so I can acknowledge the limits of my desire for other possibilities, my desire for thriving to happen in lifeworlds I do not know how to imagine.

I have been thinking about my reaction to Jason Collins coming out: I don’t get it. I sincerely do not get it. Partly, this is because I don’t follow sports and so I don’t really know much about sports culture. Partly, this is because the lifeworlds that interest me rarely intersect with those in the public eye: I’m interested in forms of unintelligibility and precarity that barely register as “living.”

Because of where my eyes turn, because of how my ear is tuned, because of the peculiar tracks my mind follows, I do not know how to think about “mainstream” U.S. life. I don’t know how to think about celebrities and their effects on young people. I don’t know how to think about the kinds of possibilities Collins has opened for others. And I’m not even sure I know how to value them.

This is a limit: there are places my imagination cannot go. There are worlds and possibilities I cannot imagine. And, perhaps, dare not.

If I had the ability, perhaps I could trace how illegible, unvalued, and undesirable lives and bodies have made Collins’s coming out possible. And I could also trace a story about the gay and lesbian celebrities in sports and entertainment whose lives in the spotlight have made Collins’s life possible. There are, of course, aspects of his decision to be public that are lubricated by the convention of coming out: truth to self, truth with the world, freedom from silence. Convention performs valuable labor.

Because, for better or worse, “gay” now marks a convention, even “black gay,” and because I don’t know how to inhabit that particular lifeworld (I’ve never learned its rules, languages, practices, habits, conventions, desires, imagination), I can only react to Collins’s announcement as an alien might experience on being told how to react to an unintelligible convention.

I write this because what I wanted to write felt too conventional, too automatic, too ungenerous in the mode of a certain predictable queer critique.

Learning from what I take to be the best impulses of queer thinking, what I now recognize as the difficulty of queer ethics: I’m grateful for the lives that Collins’s announcement has made more possible, including his own.

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