Queer Liminality and The What (where) Next
Voluminous Arts, Hillary Carelli-Donnell, February 22nd, 2023
Kimberly Peirce’s film Boys Don’t Cry begins on a road. An ocean of black night and traffic lights fill the frame as asphalt unfolds. A pair of eyes appear in a rearview mirror, searching. It is dark. In the opening scene we meet Brandon Teena, a transgender teenager living in small-town Nebraska. Brandon is dressed in crisp Wranglers and an oversized flannel and he’s sitting in a barber's chair in his cousin’s trailer. He seems pleased with the haircut and we watch him adjust a rolled-up sock inside his pants. “So you’re a boy…?” prods his cousin, “Now what?” Brandon looks at himself (and at the viewer) in the mirror, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He tips his hat and responds with conviction and a grin, “C’mon!”
The dialogue as it proceeds in the next scene holds the seed of inspiration for this essay. Kids are gliding around the local skating rink. A sea of teenagers wavering on their skates, gliding in circles. Their course is predetermined, repetitive. As the camera zooms in on Brandon and his date, she says to him, “You don’t seem like you’re from around here”. After the briefest pause he replies nervously, “Well, where do I seem like I’m from?” Then with a moment of hesitation and a sidelong glance she replies: “someplace... beautiful.”
Queerness is subtle. Queerness causes us to question what we think we know. It breaks from the predetermined course. The scripts which are most likely to be followed are altered, shifted. And so it can appear as alien, unfamiliar. Queerness indeed emerges from this “someplace beautiful” identified by Brandon’s skating rink date, even if we are not sure where that is. Queerness is lived and experienced as a sort of liminality. The word liminal is derived from the Latin limen which means threshold or margin. To be at a threshold suggests an anticipation of arrival, an entering of a temporal next-space and a transition from the former. One could say that the threshold is neither here nor there, a not yet arrived at place. Perhaps queer embodiment of this liminal someplace can suggest ways to orient ourselves to our present social political atmosphere. This moment is marked by recent political upheaval, ongoing chaos and seemingly random outbursts of individual as well as systemic violence. We collectively experienced and are emerging from a pandemic, a prolonged period of fanatical despotism, a rupture, a nationwide uprising against racist brutality. These experiences were at once devastating, unfamiliar, and wholly unexpected. Yet we find ourselves now post-2020 uprising, post-pandemic still wondering what is next. These experiences did not (yet) usher in the more permanent shifts in our society and culture that many of us had hoped for. But there remains a sense of potential, a sense of what could be. What are we to make of this sense? Where are we to take it?
I was on my way to work. Fighting the morning crowds of tourists and commuters in Midtown when I heard my phone ring. It was my dad. It was February 2020 in New York City. The odd timing of his call set off the alarm that something wasn’t right. As he conveyed the news of my youngest cousin’s suicide, all of Midtown fell silent around me. The cacophony, a howling mess of construction and taxi horns, evaporated as I backed up against some scaffolding. Time and space stood still as I sunk down until I hit the sidewalk. After some moments, my father’s voice came through the phone again, “Are you still there?” I was not sure where I was, and it took me a long moment to respond. Less than two weeks later, the New York Times would report the first case of COVID-19 in Manhattan. For those first couple of weeks I continued to give hugs, and was skeptical of those wearing masks on the trains. Even the most cautious of us did not anticipate the life-altering trajectory of this virus that would become so familiar.
In Peirce’s dramatized account of Brandon Teena’s short life the viewer is constantly presented with Brandon’s bright and smiling demeanor. His affect throughout the film is palpably expectant and slightly exuberant, almost relentlessly so. Even when the circumstances portend or realize his dehumanization and his ridicule.
He is scintillating with something. He is eager and wide-eyed. It seems not to have occurred to him that his existence as a barely-passing transgender teen in the rural Midwest is a collection of invitations to violence, that his life is in itself an impossible desire unfolding. A journey along a dark road, as in the opening sequence. It is more likely that this does occur to him, and constantly. And perhaps the life of Brandon Teena in Falls City, Nebraska in 1993 is an example of the exuberance of (im)possibility. In his brilliant collection of essays Cruising Utopia queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes that Andy Warhol often spoke with a kind of youthful naivete, peppering his speech with exuberant exclamations like, “Wow!”, “Gee!” and “Gre-e-at!”.(1) These verbal gestures garnered him some criticism from contemporaries who saw them as disingenuous or performative. Muñoz challenges this reading and argues that Warhol’s enthusiastic utterances can be read as evidence of a kind of queer contemplative practice. For Muñoz, Warhol’s astonishment, when enacted in this way, reflects a persistent methodology of hope that is distinctly queer. Surprise is in one way a challenge to what may appear to be given, or expected. Astonishment can be a powerful alternative to cynicism. We can choose to see this kind of orientation to life as a philosophical orientation, rather than an annoying, affected contrivance. If the passing of time and events were not viewed as necessary logical progressions, obvious and inevitable, astonishment would be a more regular feature of our lives. Returning to Brandon Teena. Rewatching the film I found Hilary Swank's performance of Brandon’s giddiness somewhat annoying and unbelievable. What exactly disturbed me about this performance? Would I prefer that Brandon were depicted as resentful, morose, resigned? After all, we know the story. We know what happens next...
Muñoz’s reading of queer affect as giddy and excitable in the here and now suggest an alternative to glib acceptance of a given future, especially when it might appear to be predetermined by circumstance. Circumstances which are structured by hegemonic powers enforce rigid, predetermined social scripts and maintain a vested interest in a future that narrows possibility and punishes deviation. Particularly relevant here is Muñoz’s articulation of queerness as “a warm illumination of a horizon of potentiality” which suggests that this someplace is a felt place, and that we can live into it. That queer existence in itself can represent a yearning towards someplace.
The problem with liminality, being neither here nor there, is that it is an impedance to efficiency. It is an impedance to the enforced progressivism of linear time. The world ordered by capitalism provides scripts for liminality’s imminent resolution. When the strict social scripts imparted by our races, genders, ages and socio-economic statuses are not followed the system responds to course-correct, to resolve by force. Ongoing unresolved liminality results very often in violence. Hundreds of trans people, especially trans women of color have been killed since Brandon Teena’s murder in 1993. Afrofuturist theorist Rasheedah Phillips teaches us that controlling the future, through rigid management of individuals and their experience of time is key to the ongoing success and longevity of capitalism.(2) The conventional Western universe is structured by adherence to what Phillips calls the master clock. She traces the ways in which timekeeping on the master clock was a means of control and disintegration of African consciousness during the period of transatlantic slave trade. Preventing access to the past, and disorganizing access to shared future, while controlling and fixing present activity to capitalist production was and continues to be a means of social control. Importantly, she notes that any departure from the rigidity of capitalism’s mechanical time that structures our society (and consciousness) can cause trauma and dissociation for the person doing the departing. The imposed linearity dependent nature of the Western concepts of time allowed for the appropriation and control of the futures of dominated peoples. Liminality lives outside or alongside this linear progressive concept of time, it troubles path dependence, it opens space for reflection. It can also be troubling to experience liminal space time, as anyone who has experienced profound grief can attest.
Stacks of unread emails piled up in my inbox. I felt suspended in a viscous fluid of time, which was my life. “Please, just let me get through it,” whispering to soothe myself during those nights when grief felt overwhelming. My mother had died a few months earlier, but it wasn’t clear how many months had passed. Impatient, and wanting the feeling of suspended agency to come to an end I lay wracked by it, sweating stains into my sheets. The futility of starting any new project was confirmed every time I was unable to finish anything. My normally voracious appetite had disappeared as I cooked dinners and left them half-eaten. Missed calls and texts from friends were left (uncharacteristically) unreturned. Between jobs, I began countless applications only to amass a small coterie of half-written, unsent cover-letters on my computer’s desktop, unopened mail stacked up in piles on my bedside table. Normally someone who was on time to everything, I would show up too early or be so late as to miss appointments altogether. There was no clear way out of this grief. Only time would tell where and how I would emerge.
The collective experience of the COVID-19 pandemic was also an experience of liminal space time. It opened up the possibility to experience time as non-linear, as elastic. For many people it was the first time in their lives that time did not feel like an unflinching march toward something, but more fluid, amorphous and indeterminate. And for many, accustomed to the linear march of time enforced by Western capitalist culture, this was psychologically disorienting. For millions of people routine life structures were disturbed, schedules upended causing a psychological break.(3)
In his memoir Heaven, Emerson Whitney explores his transition experience in a psychedelic patchwork of personal narrative.(4) Whitney recalls how having an indeterminate (nonfinite) gender was discouraged by the same health care system that enabled his medical transition. He recalls of his top surgery in 2011, “[The] United States wasn’t interested in having a bunch of us in-between and running around. They didn’t want us going halfway anywhere.” Today many states require proof of 12 months of hormone replacement therapy as a precondition for someone seeking a top surgery. Regardless of the rationale, the function of this law is to ensure that those emerging from a top surgery with a flat chest will also have secondary sex characteristics like a deepened voice and facial hair which help round out societal expectations of what it looks like to arrive at manhood. Relatedly, it is common to require a year or more of performing one's chosen gender by wearing men’s clothing, say, before a doctor will approve hormone therapy. Such laws and norms suggest that gender is something that can and must be fixed, arrived at, predetermined and scheduled. Social scripts that are lived by individuals accompany and are enforced by state apparatuses. These scripts and systems working in tandem within capitalism, are built to resolve liminality and its traces of indeterminacy while reinforcing linearity. We can see how this enforced resolution aligns with the purpose of the master clock referred to in Phillips’ essay. The master clock is built to prohibit departure from capitalist enterprise through temporal control. Liminal lives, or lives lived out of step with capitalist time overwhelm and disorient the systems they inhabit, just as liminal experiences (of grief, say) overwhelm our individual bodies and minds. By living (in and through) such experiences of liminality, whether it be a period of intense grief, a global pandemic, or living in a body with an indeterminate gender can develop faculties and technologies which can interrupt, challenge and reinhabit.
John Lotter was one of Brandon Teena’s friends in Falls City, Nebraska. He was cisgender man who appreciated Brandon’s friendship when he understood him to be a cisgender man. Lotter could not appreciate, understand or at minimum even accept his existence as a transgender man. When Brandon’s identity was revealed to him, Lotter, confused and angry, determined to resolve what he called Brandon’s “sexual identity crisis” with violence. In the film and in the real story, he and another friend Tom Nissen attempt to do so in a gruesome act of corrective rape, subsequent violence and eventual murder. We can see how Lotter might experience Brandon (as a man born without a penis, without facial hair, queer looking and arriving in Falls City without a past) as a reflection of the unresolved, unarrived, untidy elements of his own life which has been shaped by unrequited love, alcoholism and the experience of rural poverty. Lotter’s alcoholism, and his joblessness, result from the broken systems which form the architecture of his life. But his affective response to this marginalization (which aligns with his response to his discovery of Brandon’s transgender identity) is a feeling of rage, and of emasculation. He resists the invitation to the someplace beautiful that Brandon enacts with the day to day living of his life. His commitment to live in and maintain fixed elements of his own identity supersede Brandon’s invitation offered by his friendship. In “The Brandon Teena Story”, a 1998 documentary about Brandon’s life a narrator describes the town,
“Falls City is a white community, we may have had 1 or 2 families here that were black but as far as having gay people come in, Falls City I’m sure [would] escort them out of town.(5)
This matter-of-fact reading of the pervading atmosphere of the town demonstrates how the commitment to enforcing non-deviance from a white hetero archetype is wired into the consciousness of the place and its people. We might imagine how, finding out that he has been “tricked” for months into believing that Brandon is a man, Lotter is torn from his linear understanding of time, reality, and his binary understanding of gender. It is also telling that the young women whom Brandon dated and loved who are interviewed in the documentary (including the mother of his paramour Lana Tisdel), do not respond with violence to the “reveal” of Brandon’s identity. They respond with surprise, bewilderment and finally concern for Brandon’s safety. Their love for Brandon and their identification with his humanity has as much to do with their inherent liminality as women in a town structured by white supremacist patriarchy as it does with his successful effort to bring each of the women he loved into that someplace beautiful of his imagination, and of his lived life. “It was really nice being treated like a lady, instead of like nothing…like dirt. It was different.” says Lana Tisdel, Brandon’s last girlfriend. Michelle Lotter, another friend of Brandon’s, said of the news of his identity, “It just totally blew everyone’s mind.” To resolve the irresolute mindblowing nature of Brandon’s life to eliminate threats to fixed, immobile ideas about identity, and to eliminate uncertainty about whether Brandon would report his rape to the police, they kill him.
We find ourselves here now. In the slow and painful unraveling of a political system that never invested in the marginalized who made marvelous lives within it anyway. We are here now bearing witness to the identity crisis of a democracy committed to a binary in which representation is empty because we cannot be truly represented in the narrow, politically opportunistic sense. We find ourselves experiencing the social alienation of a post-pandemic moment as we enter into a permanent-pandemic reality. But there is a palpable yearning amongst masses of people for somewhere that we have not yet arrived. The question is whether these yearnings can be coalesced to help bring about that someplace beautiful? We must take these atrocious symptoms of decline as an invitation to reject the cynicism that tells us extractive capitalism is the only way forward. Cynicism remains as the last line of defense against the neoliberal order. But as Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, uncertainty rather than certainty is what provides the strongest basis for hope.(6)
Queer pragmatism i.e. the desire to neatly resolve queerness into predetermined identity categories to meet shortsighted political ends, will not result in diminished violence against queer people. It will not ensure an expansive future that has space for all of those who have existed and those who haven’t yet. Political pragmatism, i.e. seeking to resolve this complex political moment with quick deals and outworn solutions will not result in the worlds that we’d like to live and grow into. The shared experiences of the pandemic and the nationwide uprising against police brutality have exposed more people in the US than ever before to this feeling of living outside time. More people have been shaken up and re-oriented by the prolonged period of grief, and unknowing. For many it also reawakened our sense that collectivity, communion and nearness is necessary to our human species. This moment presents an opportunity to open ourselves up to new methodologies of hope, rather than allow ourselves to settle back into the cowpaths of linear time and binary choice. Perhaps a renewed methodology of hope like the one Brandon Teena lived out can help beat back apathy and disenchantment that further feeds the neoliberal order. Perhaps orienting to reality in this way can reinvigorate our consciousness, and prevent a backslide into tired, outworn resolutions.
As Fred Moten says, “politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already…We owe each other the indeterminate.” Indeed Moten insists that, “We owe each other everything.” In this political moment the tendency towards binary thought is strong and we are witnessing slippage back into the familiar scripts and routines that structured our pre-pandemic world, many of which we had decided were nonsensical, violent or simply outmoded. We owe each other commitment to making and remaking our reality together, as a shared project of undoing capitalism's relentless claims on our lives and our futures. Standing on the threshold we have a chance to be and do differently. As Grace Lee Boggs reminds us, “the transition to a better world is not guaranteed.”(8) Indeed it will require discomfort, it will require striving, it will require compromise and rejection of the obvious options. It will certainly require a measure of hope and astonishment and what is already wonderful amongst us. There has never been a more ripe time to do this as we live through the liminality of the post-pandemic present with our eyes towards that someplace beautiful.
Muñoz José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2019.
Phillips Rasheedah and Matti, Dominique. “Dismantling the Master(s) Clock(Work Universe).” Space-Time Collapse. Black Quantum Futurism, AfroFuturist Affair/House of Future Sciences Books, Philadelphia, PA, 2017, pp. 15–33.
Grondin, Simon, et al. “Pandemic, Quarantine, and Psychological Time.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 11, 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.581036.
Whitney, Emerson. Heaven. MCSWEENEY'S, 2022.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty First Century. Minneapolis, University of Minneapolis Press, 1999.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013.
Boggs, Grace Lee. The Next American Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.