Plus de Panique! : On Drag as The Real, Fierce Potential Next in TJY, Paris is Burning, & Johannes Goransson
by Joyelle McSweeney on Nov.19, 2012
un: the threat of art/ la menace d’art
“[Threat’s] nature is open ended. It is not just that it is not; it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with it. […]There is always the nagging potential of the next after it being even worse and of a still worse next again after that. The uncertainty of the potential next is never consumed in any given event.”
This quote, from Brian Massumi’s “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact”, is embedded in an argument about the regime of ‘pre-emption’ that took hold of American governance during the Bush Administration; the inextinguishibility of threat prompts the perpetual generation of ‘preemption’, both noxious ‘homeland security’ practices and aggression abroad. In Massumi’s argument, threat is distinctive for its unkillability, its anachronistic perma-futurity which is nevertheless linked to a ‘pre’.
However, re-reading Massumi’s article this morning, I was struck by how well it also described Art’s threat. Art is a threat, not a tool or fact; it’s a surplus; it’s hypothetical; it is figurative and literal threat; it comes from the future to make things happen in the present; and it is ‘not’ in a way that is never over, because it is not alive. It does not marry, yet it proliferates. It is contagious. It generates nextness. It is the body of nextness. There is a ‘next’ and a ‘still worse next again after that’. No event can consume the uncertainty.
This is my favorite thing about Art! And Art’s threat is most clearly embodied in the practice of Drag. As Massumi notes later elsewhere in his essay, “The value of the alert is measured by its performance.” “Threat has no actual referent.” Instead, “It has a performantive threat value.”
In other words, threat pour la threat.
Or, as a footnote quotes a French headline, Plus de panique!
deux: the fierce and the real/le féroce et le réel
The performative nature of threat, its Edelmanian participation in a lineage-threatening alternate temporality, begins to make it, for me, synonymous with drag performance. There are many ways to contextualize and discuss drag, but two words which always come to mind are “fierceness” and “realness” . Fierceness already communicates Drag’s explicit threat; it is a weaponized aestheticism, an over-emphasis, an overtness that seizes attention and disrupts convention. Realness is Drag’s implicit threat; for realness also seizes attention and disrupts convention by revealing an array of would be ‘naturalized’ identities as assumed, performed, exterior rather than interior.
As Lee Edelman as made clear, there is a temporal (or rather anachronistic) dynamic to this performance; queerness disrupts patrilineal structures, which both disrupts our sense of a linear past with its biblical ‘begatness’ as well as the patriarchal future with its heterosexually reproducing sons and daughters. As such it undoes the temporal assumptions on which nationhood is also secured. This terroristic threat is embodied by the transvestite ‘terrorist’ in Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto; once this glamorous victim of a nightclub bombing is discovered to be a transvestite, she becomes synonymous with the terrorist who planted the bomb. More particularly, Drag disrupts conventional notions of ‘family time’. In Paris Is Burning, waves of ‘legendary children’ issue from dynastic houses; yet the ‘houses’ find their ‘patrimony’(?) not in patriarchs but in the names of fashion brands and other fiercely glamorous sounding nominations, sometimes referencing the ‘house mother’: “House of LeBieja”, ‘House of Ninja’, etc. Moreover the nomination ‘Legendary Children’ itself embodies a pre-emptive threat: the children are already ‘legendary’—in the future we will look back on them as being legendary, but they also impossibly project their legendary status anachronistically in the present, through their performance; this is their threat, and their permanence.
trois: Legendary Children/les enfants légendaires
When we look at contemporary examples of the drag/threat aesthetic, we see this indexing of fierceness and realness to both childhood and threat. Tim Jones-Yelvington’s visual aesthetic (as of present writing) enacts a fierce, glam futurity, with his weaponized cheekbones, bomb-blast hairdo, and laservision eyes. I had the good fortune to be present at Tim’s recent birthday festivities; in this performance TJY, Lit Diva Extraordinaire, takes control of her ‘genesis’, writing it over with festive tabloid hyperconfessionalism; narrativity’s lasciviousness detonates in the person of the Diva herself into a kind of pop-explosion which would blow apart the body of a suicide bomber, were she made of conventional ballistics. However, the impossible properties of the Diva’s threat body means that it is not ‘extinguished’ in its Art explosion; as a threat-body, it merely reconfigures itself.
The uncertainty of the potential next is never consumed in any given event.
Thinking about the Lit Diva Extraordinaire and her birthday bash also made me think of a recurring motif in Johannes Goransson’s work: “The Genius Child Orchestra”. The GCO is made up of Iraq war orphans who form a swarm-like boy-band which moves around the planet emitting violent spectacle along with pop sounds. This outfit has appeared in Johannes’s performance piece The Widow Party as well as in his play-book, Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. The title of both of these works suggest the art-performance is dislodged from patrilineal time; the “widow” can no longer be impregnated by the dead father, yet multitudes issue from her titular body, including the group-bodied Genius Child Orchestra; similarly, Johannes’s ‘pageant’ is simultaneously an ‘entrance’ and a site at which ‘we all begin to intricate’—the group body becomes infested with art. [‘larva’ is etymologically derived from the Roman ‘lares’—the household gods. occult communication and proliferation without mommy-daddy sex!]
Here’s what the Genius Children have to say in Johannes’s Pageant:
We are born out of photographs. An arm. Dust. There was no sound. There was a sound. Beware. The images will be gruesome. The Massacre of the Dolls, read the caption. Dolls used to represent the threat of the rabble. Now we are the rubble. We are born in a wax museum. In a nation that still believes technology is a kind of prosthesis. Kill us. Kill us. Take the bruise-shot. Sell it. Sew it into your outfits. Fit into us.
This passage well-enacts the riveting omni-violence which is the Genius Children’s metier. Violence is their genesis; it is their medium and material. It is through violence that they invite the participation of the audience (kill us, kill us) and thereby, duplicitously, involve the audience in their bodies (Fit into us.). These Genius Children make sure that their shrapnelled-bodies are so fully intricated with the audience’s that no extrication is possible. Only intrication. The threat cannot be removed; these children are a future which participate in the present as a permanent threat. Their nature is open ended. It is not just that it is not; it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with them. They are always the nagging potential of the next after them being even worse and of a still worse next again after that.
It is just such a threat-infused spasming genius-child economy that TJY describes at the close of his short-short, “Clean Babies”,
That was a few years ago. That daddy disappeared. Now that park has fewer babies. Now those babies toddle. Oh man, those babies are getting big.