Queer Feelings

As people have mobilized in response to
the September 11 attacks, I have found
myself uncharacteristically dissatisfied by
analysis of foreign policy and by teach-ins that
consist of supplying information. They’re
absolutely crucial, and I applaud all of those who
have coordinated their energies in this way. But I
also want to see, as AIDS activist and theorist
Douglas Crimp has argued, mourning and
militancy brought together. Crimp has
suggested that activism ignores mourning at its
own peril, that it cannot simply displace
mourning with militancy or fail to address the
ways that anger is also motivated by loss.
I want to see us address the complex range of feelings
about what happened on September 11, feelings that
have rapidly been mobilized to build a national
discourse of patriotism.

The primary affect of left critique seems to be
righteous indignation and anger, in its own way a
relative of the anger that is being mobilized into
militarism. For those of us who also feel grief, fear,
compassion, and just plain confusion, other public
forums of expression are necessary.

The shrines and memorials that have appeared
around New York City in places such as Union Square,
the Times Square subway station, and fire stations
suggest the range, complexity, power of emotion, and
they offer a popular alternative to the mainstream media
that is encouraging. Within my classes, I have mostly
created a forum for students to listen to one another
about their responses. This, in itself, is not an easy task;
it involves being prepared to hear people say things that
I may radically disagree with. I also organized a meeting
of faculty and students affiliated with women’s studies in
order to discuss the emotional effects of the crisis; a
surprising number of people voiced their sense of the
inadequacy of the discourse at the anti-war rallies we’ve
had here in Austin. I find it important to acknowledge
the “queerness” of affect and to consider contradictory
and confusing responses to be a possible resource rather
than a liability.

So I ask that we add the work of public feelings to
our strategies, that we take on the challenge of
addressing people where they are rather than
haranguing them. It will build a stronger more effective
movement in the long run. To this end, we can take
inspiration from Amber Hollibaugh’s call for a politics of
sexuality that embraces “dangerous desires,” that
acknowledges the riskiness and unpredictability of
feelings. It is short-sighted to dismiss those who are
affected by the damage here in the US as distracted by
sentiment from the real issues across the globe. It is
important to consider these feelings of terror and grief
as the evidence that people have been touched by
systemic forces and to start from there.

I’m asking for something more than a mandatory
nod in the direction of feeling bad about what
happened before we get on with the real business of
critique. Queer perspectives on sexuality encourage us
to embrace non-normative emotional responses as we
build public cultures of feeling that can make our
opinions not just heard but felt.

Ann Cvetkovich is an Associate Professor of English and
Women’s Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.