Bodies and Landscapes of Control: In the Neoliberal City

With many still feeling the effects of a post-election depression, around forty people attended
CLAGS’s panel “Bodies and Landscapes of Control in the Neoliberal City” on November 16th.
The panel sought to examine the concrete ways in which neoliberal policy (re)shapes the urban
landscape and the relationship between these macroeconomic factors and the construction and
deployment of erotic identities and experiences. Lisa Duggan (American Studies, NYU) hosted the
panel, while Edgar Rivera-Colon (Puerto Rican and Latin American Studies, John Jay College), Melissa
Ditmore (Center for the Study of Women), Manolo Guzman (Sociology, Marymount College), and
Jasbir Puar (Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers) spoke at the event.
Rivera-Colon began the event on a revolutionary note by examining the coming out process
experienced by lesbians and gays in relation to a similar “coming out” undergone by urban guerillas,
notably members of the New York-wing of the FALN (the Armed Forces for Puerto Rican National
Liberation; a group most active during the 1970s and early 1980s) with whom he has conducted
research. Arguing for a loose parallel between the violence of neoliberal development and the violence of
state repression, Rivera-Colon noted that state terrorism is a necessary condition for the development of
normative spatiality (in which people “of the right sort” are found in the “right places”) and its associated
bourgeois subjectivity based upon overwork and hyperconsumption. As the neoliberal response to the
new social movements, gentrification (along with state terror) had been a key factor in disrupting both
the FALN and the community of queer youth of color at the Chelsea piers. Rivera-Colon looked for hope
in models provided by Samuel Delany and Gayle Rubin in which the fragmentation of the postmodern
opens up space for the supplantation of heteronormativity with love, sex, and bodily pleasure.
Melissa Ditmore also looked to the ongoing displacement of queer youth of color in the West
Village, tying this to their earlier displacement from Times Square. The Disneyfication of Times Square
was linked to a more general Giuliani-era push against X-rated businesses throughout the city. Ironically,
Ditmore argued, sex-related businesses had long paid higher rents than others in Times Square, helping
to make the area economically viable for later development. Gentrification has also been facilitated by
the “Quality of Life” campaign of harassment against street-based sex workers (and the outreach workers
who provide services to them). Noting that the Patriot Act now enables wiretaps to be placed on the
phones of sex workers, Ditmore suggested that the marginalization of sexuality forms a link between
many different forms of neoliberalism.
Manolo Guzman also examined the changing sexual dynamics of male same-sex contact at the
Chelsea piers, noting that the area had previously provided space for a “positive-sum game” in which the
maximization of pleasure was achieved collectively, with an orgiastic center enabling private couplings
nearby. While there were many sexual transactions within this space, there were no “contracts” as such
and no third party to enforce them. Instead, transactions were conducted through silence, anonymity,
and a partiality of self and of participation, creating a “mismanaged identity” from a neoliberal
perspective. The “game” is persecuted, Guzman suggested, not because it is seen as ugly, but because –
as a game which has no losers – it provides an alternative to neoliberalism. Neoliberal development
sought to annihilate these habitats, replacing them with privatized spaces which ultimately aim to
support bourgeois competition and “progress.”
Jasbir Puar was perhaps the most pessimistic of the four presenters. Taking the Israeli occupation
of Palestine as her point of departure, Puar referenced Eyal Weizman’s work on “The Politics of Verticality”
(www.opendemocracy.net), noting how Israel had partitioned space in new ways in order to occupy
more and assert control. Questions of who was on “top” and who was on the “bottom” were thus
enacted literally through a spatial politics of constructing Israeli-only highways over tunnels marked for
Palestinians. Where complete apartheid between Israelis and Palestinians has proved impossible, Israel has
established “kissing points,” zones of highly contained interpenetration between the communities.
Surveillance at these points is established “from above,” and marks “an intimate kind of proximity that
refuses contact.” These tactics are increasingly deployed in the U.S., Puar noted, particularly through the spatializing aspects of the Patriot Act, which
creates “Patriotic citizenship” (through the “report
your neighbor” TIPS program, for example) and
concentric networks of surveillance and control.
While “the terrorist” may seem to be constructed
solely through race, in fact normative sexuality
serves to construct a fictional private realm of
whiteness which is notionally separate from the
“of color” terrorist. Citing Chicago professor Cathy
Cohen, Puar argued that heteronormativity is
about race and class privilege as well, and (as
Foucault suggested) that queer sex must therefore
be seen in the realm of biopolitics and state
racism.
Many of the questions after the panel
focused upon the situation at the Chelsea Piers.
One questioner asked what kinds of solutions
progressives might propose to the noise problems
in the area. While some in the audience noted
that there had been a drop-in center in the past,
and that the city had promised (yet failed) to
rebuild it, many of the panelists challenged the
terms of the question. Guzman noted that “noise”
is here a coding for non-white racial groups, and
wondered how it was that a high-fiving white
man is less offensive to white residents than black
kids. Rivera-Colon additionally suggested that we
should not put ourselves in the position of only
cleaning up after neoliberalism’s messes. Other
questioners asked about the recent election,
wondering what kind of a difference, if any, it
would have made if Kerry had been successful,
and asking how to best organize against the Right
in general. Panelists generally conceded that
neoliberalism’s logic extended through both Bush
and Kerry, and that neither would have helped
the situation at the piers. Ditmore noted that
some measures, such as the Global Gag Rule,
affect NGOs operating outside the US, and that
Kerry would have made some difference there.
Not surprisingly, little consensus was reached
regarding an overall direction for organizing, and
Puar noted the limits of sexual strategies of
liberation, arguing that the logics of public sex,
for example, did not necessarily undermine the
logic of racism, nor did they seem to much affect
the racist structure of the criminal justice system.
Rivera-Colon suggested that the only way groups
seemed to get any attention within the current
moment was essentially to riot or otherwise
directly disrupt the functioning of the system.
With the recent electoral loss perhaps driving
home a sense of urgency, commentators on both
the panel and in the audience seemed keen to
address the challenges ahead in a more direct
rather than indirect manner.

Kerwin Kaye is a Ph.D.
student in American Studies
at NYU. His dissertation
concerns issues of addiction.

The event was co-sponsored
by The Center for the
Study of Women and
Society, CUNY Graduate
Center; The Department of
Sociology, Marymount
Manhattan College; and
The Center for the Study
of Gender and Sexuality at
NYU.