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Afro-FabulationsThe Queer Drama of Black Life$

Tavia Nyong'o

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781479856275

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479856275.001.0001

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Critical Shade

Critical Shade

The Angular Logics of Black Appearance

(p.27) 1 Critical Shade

Tavia Nyong'o

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter revisits key debates over documentation and authenticity in the emergence of queer studies, which it considers through the work of a contemporary choreographer who engages in a process of what he calls “fictional archiving.” By reimagining black queer aesthetics as always already central to the development of postmodern dance and other contemporary aesthetic innovations, the chapter shows how this performance enacts a form of “critical shade” on white normative histories and pedagogies of dance, fashion, and performance.

Keywords:   Harrell, Trajal, Paris Is Burning (film), queer temporality, queer dance, postmodern dance, chusmeria, shade, performance

The performance begins while the audience is still waiting for it. The dancer/choreographer is moving through the crowd, greeting arriving guests and fussing with the arrangements, like a good host. The audience is seated on the stage of this one-hundred-year-old proscenium theater located in a working-class district in downtown New York City. We, the audience, are arranged around a catwalk as though we are expecting a fashion show. But unlike in fashion, there is no backstage area, just a rack of clothes off to one side. Just before show time, the dancer/choreographer personally moves two guests of honor—an important curator and her plus one—from their temporary perches off to one side to special reserved seating front and center. Just as it is at a fashion runway, front row is part of the show. With this final adjustment, the audience is seated, and the latest performance of Trajal Harrell’s solo dance piece Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, Size Small can begin.1

The performance has not yet begun, even though it somehow has. All eyes are now on Harrell, who has just casually changed in front of us into the first of an expected twenty looks: “West Coast Preppy School Boy.” The house lights are still up, but no curtain has been raised; and there is no other ritualized indication that we have crossed over from “everyday life” into “performance.” Harrell hasn’t even moved onto the catwalk; he stands beside the runway, rather than walking down it. The mood hasn’t shifted from one of quiet anticipation. There is no frantic audience applause, no pumping music, no flash of the cameras. From Harrell—no fierce poses, just the almost blank stare with which he breaks the fourth wall, as he stands there insouciantly in his flip flops, looking at us.

For those in the audience familiar with the world of haute couture or with the world of ballroom houses that have stylized a queer, black, (p.28) and brown response to fashion, or with both, this solo dance piece feels like an abstraction, even a subtraction. Audience handouts explain the quotidian, anti-spectacular note on which the show starts by referencing the postmodern dance that Harrell aims to hybridize with the movement vocabulary of catwalk and vogueing. Since the 1960s, choreographers like Yvonne Rainer have rebelled against traditional conceptions of virtuosic movement and theatrical illusionism in dance and brought the everyday and the ordinary in closer fusion with stage performance. The manner in which Harrell performs in media res reflects and refracts these influences.2

“Postmodern” is a term with at least a double valence in 2017, with equally fraught—if not exactly identically framed—itineraries in dance and in critical theory. Postmodernism indexes, on the one hand, key philosophical developments such as Fredric Jameson’s cognitive mapping of late capitalist aesthetics and Judith Butler’s post-structuralist theory of gender performativity and, on the other, artistic developments such as the Judson Dance Theater. It has been at least two decades since the term was anything like cutting edge in either art or academia, and yet it lives on as an increasingly requisite periodizing term. The distinctive strands and threads of postmodernism have, ironically, become tangled up not with the present or future, but with the quickly receding past. And it is here that the fashion system (which had its own deconstructionist moment) puts its best foot forward.3

As a choreographic meditation on fashion, Twenty Looks toys with the resemblances it espies between the cycle of fashion in clothing and fashion in theory, subjecting both trends to lightly satirical sartorial citation. As if to underscore the degree to which we, the downtown audience, are part of the concept of this piece, the third look Harrell wears is “Old School Post-Modern”: blue sneakers and a generic black outfit that well could be off the rack from Uniqlo. Seated in the audience, I look down at my own black t-shirt, black slacks, and red sneakers. Old School Post-Modern indeed, I wince. That, I recognize, was a read.

“No single entity marks something as queer dance,” Clare Croft notes, “but rather it is how these textures press on the world and against one another that opens the possibility for dance to be queer.”4 By the time Harrell completes his twenty looks, all the expected elements of a fashion show have eventually appeared, albeit in a deconstructed and synco- (p.29)

Critical ShadeThe Angular Logics of Black Appearance

Figure 1.1. Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks, postmodern.

pated manner. A day before, in this same theater, another performer had taken the stage with a virtuosic display of vogue and hip-hop dance styles that would have gone over in a Berlin nightclub at 3 a.m. But reaching that level of heat was not Harrell’s ambition this night, shot through as his most recent work has been with a melancholic languorous slowness. Looks 12 and 13—variations on the category “Legendary Face”—took me back to the one time I had the privilege of seeing the legendary Octavia St. Laurent walk a ball.5 And now here was Trajal Harrell, in large yellow sunglasses, hiding from the nonexistent paparazzi, almost cringing at the recorded “clop clop” of stiletto heels, coming out of the speakers. The dancer raises his arms before his face, and his hands give off the pronounced tremulous hauteur of a grande dame. She is aged; a crone. Without the instant verdict of a panel of judges, without the chanting of an opinionated crowd, without the flash of a hundred cameras, Harrell can retreat into a languorous, interiorized vogue during his penultimate look, “Legendary with a Twist.” I am transported back to Sunset Boulevard and can almost hear Norma Desmond lament how she was still big; it was the pictures that got small.

(p.30) Shade and the Angular Logics of Appearance

The performance analysis of Twenty Looks I commence with helps answer questions about how critical fabulation might work in the realm of dance, movement, fashion, and aesthetics. Like Harrell, I have been fascinated with the problem of history and memory in performance, a medium that is supposedly tethered to the here and now. Twenty Looks is in some respects a choreographic response to these critical debates, at once a reading of them—as in an engagement—and a read of them—in the black queer vernacular sense of “throwing shade” by magnifying and parodying certain flaws and idiosyncrasies in an opponent or rival. This use of shade raises a series of questions whose implications take up much of this study. If, in Twenty Looks, Harrell performs as a screen upon which images of Hollywood glamor and underground queer black fierceness can alike dance and settle, in what ways might this work for the concert stage corroborate—and in what ways complicate—the cultural contradictions that gave rise to vogueing in the first place? Vogueing—as an underground dance form—reflects back, in both homage and hyperbolic parody, the world of whiteness, wealth, and privilege that has become Harrell’s milieu. Given that he is actually performing in the avant-garde milieu that was once the stuff of vogueing fantasy, can we say that the gap between reality and appearance that once marked the frisson of vogueing has been dissolved? Conversely, when a competitive black social dance form is sublimated into solo concert dance before curators, presenters, and tastemakers, does it change in nature? What does it mean to deliver vogue into a space but as an absent presence, a withholding?

Speaking to the tensions aroused by the proposition the performance carried, the program for the evening included a quotation from a well-known essay about vogueing written by performance theorist Peggy Phelan. In the essay (as excerpted in the program) Phelan argues:

The balls are opportunities to use theatre to imitate the theatricality of everyday life—a life which includes show girls, banjee boys, and business executives. It is the endless theater of everyday life that determines the real: and this theatricality is soaked through with racial, sexual, and class bias.

(p.31) As one [participant] explains, to be able to look like a business executive is to be able to be a business executive. Within the impoverished logic of appearance, “opportunity” and “ability” can be connoted by the way one looks. But at the same time, the walker is not a business executive and the odds are that his performance of that job on the runway of the ball will be his only chance to experience it. The performances, then, enact simultaneously the desire to eliminate the distance between ontology and performance—and the reaffirmation of that distance.6

Harrell’s program note (ephemeral evidence I cite here in critical monographic form) would invite the alert reader to ponder these words, first published in 1993, in the historical perspective made possible by reading them in 2017. This contemporary moment is when, at least for a certain orangeish hue of whiteness, ontology has indeed caught up with performance, and to look like a business executive (or a president) is to be a business executive (or president). Is there perhaps a certain amount of shade implied in Harrell’s granting Phelan’s critical analysis of the balls a first, last, and only interpretive word on the mode and meaning of this angular and oppositional black and brown art form? There is indeed something “old school postmodern” about Phelan’s confident contrast between performance and ontology in this passage, a perhaps untimely affirmation of a distance that has, in subsequent years, unexpectedly collapsed.

And yet, returning to Phelan’s subtle critique of the performative efficacy of the ball world in the context of present day critical debates over afro-pessimism, for instance, would suggest that the predicament she notates isn’t necessarily superseded.7 Performance, Phelan suggests in Harrell’s citation, is not the same thing as agency, even if the malevolent agencies of our world come draped in their own particular theater. The implicit pessimism in this excerpt can be gleaned from the distance between ontology and performance that Phelan affirms for the black queer performing subject in particular. After all, for all too many black people, even actually being a business executive, scholar, (or president) is not enough for them to appear like one, at least, not in the eyes of many of their fellow white citizens. A black person in a position of authority can always be suspected, whether openly or secretly, of merely posing as that particular position. The passage Harrell selects for contemporary recirculation thus contains a crucial ambiguity. Has Phelan missed the (p.32) ontological difference that blackness introduces into the theatricality of everyday life? Or has she insisted upon it?

One reason we cannot fully ascertain the tone of Harrell’s citation of Phelan, I would argue, is because, at least in this performance, he has chosen not to perform fully within the matrix of vogueing. That is to say, he doesn’t invite his audience to appraise him as directly fulfilling or transcending Phelan’s pessimistic equation. Instead of vogue, it is the possibility of vogue that dances around this iteration of Twenty Looks, which work collectively, as a set of appearances that, paradoxically, disappear. This particular performance disappoints expectations of hyperbolic blackness and queerness in dance and theatrical contexts instead of fulfilling them. Of course, vogueing appears at various points and through a range of performers over the course of Twenty Looks. But it almost never appears on demand or on cue, and thus, it remains difficult or impossible for the viewer to disentangle vogue from postmodern dance or, for that matter, from any of the other performance genres Harrell draws from.

In drawing from vogue as a performative resource, rather than exhibiting it as the expressive essence of black queer subcultural embodiment, Harrell adopts an analytic and even spectatorial relationship to the form that preempts any simple identification of him as a “voguer.” Harrell routinely breaks the fourth wall in his performances, sitting in the audience, talking, even sleeping. If “Old School Post-Modern” presented a look that suggested that he could be in his audience as readily as on his stage, the performative tactics used by Harrell ironize the virtuosity expected of black queer performing bodies. Harrell experiments with a kind of reversal of audience participation, by suggesting that he himself is ready to become his own audience. The public staging of his rehearsal process as part of a residency at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City intensified this hall of mirrors effect, as an audience stood behind a velvet rope, looking into the atrium at Harrell looking at his own dancers improvise. While this staging of the rehearsal process was in itself highly theatrical (in that Harrell ordinarily does not allow anyone not directly involved in a piece into his studio), the artificiality of the scenario underscored the paradoxical degree to which Harrell manages to be at once inside and outside of his performances, disrupting the evaluative and objectifying gaze critics might seek to direct toward them.

(p.33) The irony of Harrell’s project, of course, is that vogueing continues to circulate internationally as a competitive social dance form associated primarily with black and brown queer and transgender culture. His own choreographies in highly valorized venues like the Museum of Modern Art, New York Live Arts, and the Hebbel Am Ufer theater in Berlin are all staged against the backdrop of this living repertoire, even as its actual participants—dancers and announcers—only occasionally cross over into his shows. In this respect, Harrell inherits and updates a classic concern within minoritarian performance, one that José Esteban Muñoz, in his book Disidentifications, termed the “burden of liveness.” Responding to Phelan’s famous claim that performance lives only in the now and becomes itself through disappearance, Muñoz argued that such a definition tended to minimize the violence liveness does to those subjects denied history and civic standing, those for whom liveness can circulate as commodity fetish. Corroborating Muñoz’s insistence on attending to the ephemera and afterlives of performance, Rebecca Schneider has argued forcefully that “performance remains”—a point of view that dovetails with Bergsonian duration as focalized at the time and space it is however never wholly identical with—a sensibility that we very much see in Twenty Looks.8 But if performance remains—through repetition, ephemera, and haunting—so, too, does performance theory. And, just as ethnographers of contemporary ballroom performance like Marlon Bailey have shown how the vogue scene has incorporated Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning into its own historical memory, so too does Harrell in Twenty Looks incorporate the critical tradition that would make sense of his aesthetic—as indicated in the handout citation of Phelan’s Unmarked and his sardonic references to postmodernism as fashion. Reflecting the gaze back upon the critics and theorists who have sought to explicate and define the meanings that inhere in the dance, Harrell’s back and forth between critic and choreographer is playful but pointed: at its limit it suggests that interpretation itself is conditioned as much by performance as the other way around.

Channeling the diva is a familiar queer move, but what interests in me in particular about Harrell’s performances is his mercurial capacity to toggle between affable ordinariness and haughty glamour, as if he were joking about both and, at the same, incredibly serious. I track this strategic mimesis of both the exceptional and spectacular performing (p.34) body—the deep archive of what Francesca Royster terms “eccentric acts” on the outskirts of black performance—and a countermimetic invasion of the positionality of the spectator. Highly cognizant of the debates around performative agency and spectatorial exploitation that raged in the 1990s, Harrell develops new performative and choreographic techniques for performing both for and against the camera. We can think of these strategies, I suggest, as “critical shade.”

Shade as a vernacular method of active and aggressive interpretation of an unfair and unequal social order is a frequent resource in this countermimetic choreography.9 It is worth noting, in this respect, that Muñoz explicates his concept of the burden of liveness at greatest length in a chapter on the topic of chusmería, a term that originated in Cuba and its diaspora and refers to people and behavior that “refuse standards of bourgeois comportment.” Chusma, Muñoz notes, operates as “a barely veiled racial slur suggesting that one is too black” (contemporary Anglophone cognates for chusma might thus include “ghetto,” “cunty,” or “ratchet”).10 These associations underscore for me a potential relation between chusma and shade. The dilemma of visibility for the class-race-gender-nonconforming chusma, Muñoz notes, is that “live performance for an audience of elites is the only imaginable mode of survival for minoritarian subjects within the hegemonic order that the chusma live within and in opposition to.”11 The queer of color performer, Muñoz wryly notes, is often singing for her supper or dancing because her feet are being shot at. While queer of color performativity is often equated with social agency—both by its advocates and its skeptics—here Muñoz issues a sharp qualification to the “celebratory precritical aura” surrounding live performance.12 He instead casts disidentification as a specifically minor practice in the sense with which Deleuze and Guattari describe a minor literature. “A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language,” they specify; “it is rather that which a minority constructs in a major language.”13 What Deleuze and Guattari argue that the minor writing of Kafka does within and in opposition to German literature, I maintain that Trajal Harrell does within and in opposition to (post)modern dance. Rather than enliven that modernist tradition with the spirit of black dance (from which it has all along drawn renewal in the mode of primitivism), Harrell constructs a vantage point from which to peer into that tradition, reflecting back its gaze and dancing (p.35) around, rather than simply dancing, the energetic tropes of fierce and virtuosic performance. It is an indication rather than an embodiment of presence. It holds something back in reserve.

For Muñoz, the concept of “the burden of liveness” helped performance theory account for and critique the way in which queer, transgender, and racialized bodies are so often exceptionalized through temporary displays of liveness in the very institutions that reject them as permanent occupants or stakeholders. To be alive, live, or lively can itself be a burden, if through that presence one is denied a connection to history or the future. In the Marxist terms Muñoz worked with, we could say the burden of liveness stages a minoritarian “living labor” that dialectically confronts the “dead labor” represented by institutional capital. This confrontation between the living labor of the performing black body and the demands of the institutions that seek to valorize themselves through that encounter is a major theme in contemporary black art history. In a recent study of site-specific installations done by four black artists in the 1990s, Huey Copeland has built upon Muñoz’s critique of the burden of liveness, showing how the black artists he considers work to resist, in various ways, the manner in which the black body has been “bound to appear” in the afterlife of slavery. Like the visual artists Copeland studies, Harrell navigates the demand for performative availability through techniques of deferral, recycling, and subtle redirection. As a choreographer he shares in the propensity to at least partially dematerialize the black body within presentational environments that tend to engage it as vivacious surplus. At times, it is as if the dancer disappears into the ambience of his own solo, reaffirming the distance between performance and … performance.

A Fabulous Proposition

In 2009, when Harrell formulated the original “proposition” for the series of performances he collectively entitled Twenty Looks, or, Paris Is Burning at Judson Church, he named his choreographic process one of “fictional archiving.” In so doing, Harrell resists conceptualizing the archive as the exclusive preserve of credentialed experts and authorities or even as something to which the repertoire can be contrasted, as Diana Taylor has influentially proposed.14 The archive his performances (p.36) index is at once an expansive and a problematic space of encounter, loss, distortion, and reinvention. The ethics of this encounter are not given in the standard protocols of documentary evidence, but they are hardly wholly absent from the endeavor. Fictional archiving is an affective relation to archives: Harrell is literally moved by them. Through this process of fictional archiving, Harrell proposed to revisit the distance and proximity between the queer and transgender African American vogue balls that had taken place uptown in Harlem since the early twentieth century, and the predominantly white downtown avant-garde that emerged in the 1960s.15

At first blush, such a proposition sounds like a deliberate paradox: How can an archive be fictional, as opposed to simply false? If we cannot rely upon at least the ideal of truth and verifiability, how can we think about an objective account of the past? In this study of fabulation, however, I am interested in taking up the wager behind Harrell’s proposition seriously and following out the insight it may bear on the historiography of performance. If there is a basis of comparison between the procedures of fiction and those of history, as Harrell’s notion of “fictional archiving” suggests, then how does such a comparison bear out across other sites of contemporary black art and performance, with their burden of representing unbearable, impossible, or traumatic histories? Is black performance, given the quasi-fictive basis of the blackness upon which it is posited, the ultimate site of such a social and aesthetic production of fictions? Alongside the burden to appear, is there not also a kind of burden to fictionalize, or fabulate? If there is, of what consequence might this habeas ficta, as I refer to it in chapter 7 in homage to the formulations of Alexander Weheliye, have for the contemporary theory and practice of black performance?16

As Harrell staged iterations of his Twenty Looks project in concert dance spaces across Europe and America, he created a counterarchive of possibilities for dance history in the process. Aside from generating a series of remarkable performances in Twenty Looks, Harrell placed a series of questions on the table. He repeatedly asked, before each performance, “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns in Judson Church?”17 In academic history, there is a recognized subfield of counterfactual history, where small or (p.37) large variables are deliberately fabricated, and historians try to determine how this change would affect subsequent events. Historical fiction is also rife with such “what if” scenarios. But it is performance that has perhaps the richest set of affordances for approaching such speculation. Harrell’s particular approach to reworking the past began by positing a stark reversal of the established trajectory wherein, since the beginning of the twentieth century, white people have traveled up to Harlem for a night out amidst what poet Langston Hughes aptly termed “spectacles in color.” In Harrell’s counterfactual hypothesis, this well-known slumming narrative is turned on its head, and an itinerant voguer instead heads downtown, fiercely sashays through the doors of the imposing Italianate church overlooking Washington Square Park, fearlessly rubs shoulders with the cognoscenti of postmodern dance, and then dances until dawn in the cradle of the downtown scene. Nothing like this precise story was ever reenacted in any of Harrell’s pieces, of course. But it is its “fabel” in the sense that Brecht gave the basic story or drift behind a given play or performance.

Much to the consternation of some literal-minded critics, the proposition didn’t always determine the scope of the resultant dance scenarios. In co-creating a fictional archive around his own performances, Harrell was constantly thinking about how his looks would look, and thus performing in antagonistic cooperation with the process by which dance history gets written.

The ingenuity of Twenty Looks can be grasped, at least in part, by contrasting the aesthetic principles of the dance forms it claimed as its contributaries. Where postmodern dance accentuated quotidian movement, vogueing was built out of a unique movement vocabulary. Where the Judson Dance Theater was sponsored by the most venerable patron of arts, the church, vogueing was a fugitive dance form cultivated by a beloved and angular transqueer undercommons. Correspondingly, where postmodern dance choreographers enjoyed copious news coverage by respectable dance critics, vogueing was literally beneath the contempt of all but its diehard practitioners and aficionados. Postmodern dance came with programmatic intentions like Yvonne Rainer’s “no manifesto”; the ball children published no such statements of their aesthetic ideology (although independent publications like the Idle Sheet did circulate among ball-going readers). And if one looks into Rainer’s manifesto, it (p.38) reads almost like a point-by-point refutation of the very values an audience participant at the balls might cherish: spectacle, virtuosity, and so on. In short, vogueing and postmodern dance seem so diametrically opposed that attempting to combine them would seem like a recipe for disaster. And yet Twenty Looks found a basis for their union, however incongruous. It was not so much that opposites attract (although they can), as that each dance form could take shape only in the negative space left open by the other. I think of this as an angular sociality.

As a number of historians and scholars have shown, the class hierarchy in taste is deeply racialized, with black culture continuously providing a source of artistic innovation from which both mass and avant-garde culture draws, often whitewashing it in the process. For this reason, avant-garde dance forms cast their aesthetic in opposition to the commercial world of entertainment can find themselves in a particularly contorted orientation to the black culture from which that commercial world so frequently draws. If black culture is always already commodified, then a certain bad faith has always accompanied any avant-garde attempt to distance itself from crass capitalism by distancing itself from blackness. Twenty Looks knows this anxiety intimately, and makes clever use of it.18 The vogue balls originated and continue to thrive in black and brown working-class communities of the sex-and gender-nonconforming, and remain a vivid example of what Fred Moten has called “the sentimental avant-garde”: a popular, underground, and often criminalized space of counterposition to the hegemonic order of an anti-black, anti-queer, and misogynist world.19 They offer a space where quotidian violence, insecurity, poverty, and exploitation can be transformed into extravagant beauty and communitas. But they are also fierce, competitive, and saturated with shade. They present their sociality not as a permanent solution to the internecine violence of the world, but as a good-enough space for bringing queer fantasy into tangible life.

The vogue balls first came to wider public attention beyond the black and brown gay house community when Madonna released her hit single “Vogue” in 1990, and were then immortalized in Jennie Livingstone’s documentary Paris Is Burning. Twenty Looks implicitly responds to Madonna, Jennie Livingstone, and others who took an interest in documenting, interpreting, appropriating, and/or re-performing ball culture. But it does so through a strategic and often playful disruption of the norms (p.39)

Critical ShadeThe Angular Logics of Black Appearance

Figure 1.2. Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks, shading whiteness.

The dancer Stephen Thompson is in a red dress by Lars Persson.

that police which bodies appear where, under what conditions, and with which gestural vocabularies. The often-remarked upon whiteness of many of Harrell’s dancers should be read as an act of provocation, as if he were daring audiences and critics to tell him whom he can or cannot choreograph. In making their whiteness as starkly evident as possible, Harrell denies whiteness the naturalized status of normative ideal in the dance world. His white male dancers have to work, to strut their stuff, in order to measure up in this alternate world of border crossing. This is another form of critical shade: it is a critical shading of white bodies and the audiences that prefer and privilege them as the embodiments of avant-garde and postmodern choreographic experimentation. For instance, the “look” in figure 1.2 has been criticized as offensively misogynist, so the company has stopped using it. In this way, Twenty Looks does not skirt around, but rather charges directly into the vexed questions it raises. It asks whether the transgression of racial boundaries in expressive movement can ever be ethical, and has the courage not to impose a didactic answer to this quandary. Rather than moralize, Harrell remains playful, even defiant. Minoritarian subjects often suffer debilitating “imposter (p.40) syndrome” in elite white spaces, constantly second-guessing themselves as to whether they belong or have enough talent, or even whether the system that has preferred them individually is itself not structurally unjust. Harrell’s critical shade confronts this imposter syndrome by generalizing it: everyone is an imposter in his theatrical fantasias.

The proposition of Twenty Looks thus works through what I have been calling “angular sociality.” Here, angular sociality reveals itself as an edgy contact improvisation with and against the color line in art and aesthetics. Such performative angularity refuses to wish away racial difference in an impossible act of colorblindness, but it does not go all the way toward an alternative stance of structural antagonism and disempowering ressentiment. Twenty Looks bears witness to scenes of its own repeated travesty and seeks to locate spaces of affordance, intensity, and even joy therein. To say this is to note, even if only in passing, that some skeptical critics have misconstrued the proposition made by Twenty Looks as a conceptual ploy, one that furthermore is the task of criticism to dispel. The partisans of pure movement see the importation of historical fabulation into the postmodern dance world as an unfair stratagem that places a burden of proof on the critic or audience rather than the dancer. In the face of such formalism, it becomes all the more important to vindicate the proposition, precisely along the terms with which its critics seek to indict it. It is by opening the space of dance to the virtual and uneven intersection of historical forces that the proposition is afforded the possibility of finding or showing something new. There is, in other words, an alchemy at work in the proposition for Twenty Looks within which the dance is obliged to betray its premises in order to fulfill them.

Mother Would Like a Cash Award

An evening-length piece from the Twenty Looks series entitled Antigone, Sr. exemplified this passionate attachment to history in its subjunctive mood, as well his sly reading of a queer theoretical tradition in which Judith Butler’s reading of Antigone has been influential.20 At one level a mash-up between Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone and the competitive categories of vogueing ball culture, Antigone, Sr. never approached the play text through straightforward exposition. Instead, Sophoclean character and plot were employed like a dress form around which a new (p.41) performance could be draped. At almost three hours in length, Antigone, Sr. redresses Greek tragedy through sequences of posing, stripping, and dressing up, singing and emoting that together manage to conjure, with remarkable effectiveness, the mood of an all-night ball (a form that is also characterized by periods of languor, disinterest, and fatigue in between unexpected clashes of electrifying intensity). Holding together all the strands and eccentric performances of this piece were two central ball categories: “The King’s Speech” and “The Mother of the House.” An actual ball, of course, would feature a number of houses in competition: in Harrell’s fictional archive, by contrast, there is but a single house, the House of Harrell. (I will discuss the King’s speech, the speech of the King, the speech acts of sovereignty, more in chapter 5.) The Mother of this house, however, is no “dance mom” of Reality TV cliché, cruelly demanding movement virtuosity according to normative standards. Instead, she is a “good-enough mother” in terms that psychoanalytic theorist Winnicott uses: like the good-enough mother, she creates the performance space as a “holding environment” in which “the children” (as they are called in ball parlance) can act out scenes from the good-enough life.21 In thus de-dramatizing the theatrical canon, Antigone, Sr. employs the form of black queer ball culture to reshape the contents of postmodern dance’s interest in everyday life.22

As the “mother” of the house, Harrell also experimented with the role of raconteuse during his MoMA residency. During a performance entitled “The Practice,” he debuted a new line of flight: social commentary stand-up comedy in the tradition of Richard Pryor and Crystal LaBeija. One of the punchlines in the routine was: “Mother would like a cash award!” The line recalls legendary black female performers like Aretha Franklin, who stipulates that she always be paid in cash, which she then often carries with her in her purse on to the stage and places near her piano for the duration of her performance. The joke works insofar as it plays with and against the preconception of black women as nurturing, selfless figures, as “living currency” in the skin trade of race. By demanding payment in cash, Harrell’s persona (like Franklin) dramatizes the commercial transaction occluded in the sentimental fiction of the performer overwrought with emotional sincerity.23

The dances in Twenty Looks were a queer fantasia of an avant-garde dance scene that never actually existed, one that perhaps cannot even (p.42) exist now. Fictional archiving, that is to say, is an archiving of what Hartman calls the “nonevent” of black emancipation. The looks the dancer-choreographer gave over the course of performing in his own pieces—many more than twenty looks of anguish, effort, attraction, repulsion, interest, amazement, sadness, fatigue, grimace, seduction, surprise, care, concern, regret, dejection, incitement, lust, anger, side-eye, shade, signification, transport, triumph, pain, and abandon—were performances in themselves. As such, these expressions provided an index to the dance’s possible meanings. In so modeling this auto-affective response to the danced story of erotic and euphoric entanglement, Harrell did not so much supplant the critic and historian as take his place by their side, stalking the footlights of his own stage, sitting in his own audience, and breaking the presentational frame through a variety of other stratagems.

Sidestepping accusations of appropriation by dancing in the subjunctive mood of “what would have happened,” I suggest, becomes another use of afro-fabulation in motion. Fabulation in this sense is not so much imagination as it is imagination’s shadow. Stepping into the propositional mode of revised histories allows for the retrieval of abandoned practices and unspoken scenarios. Critical shade at its most generous provides a performer like Harrell a means to invent an alternative tradition within which to position his own dancing body and to mark out a space, in and through the same gesture, for blackness and queerness in the contemporary dance and performance scene. By delving into the fraught dynamics of this zone of sexual and racial dissidence, Harrell’s afro-fabulation interinanimates the present with the past, making the lively arts of dance, story, and song a vehicle for virtual memory.24

Twenty Looks was staged over years during which activist voices increasingly took the cultural appropriation of black queer and transgender aesthetics to task, and even popular media figures like RuPaul found themselves running afoul of the dictates of some who had set themselves up as spokespersons for the community. In such a critical environment it is easy enough to picture a critique of Twenty Looks, or other fabulations, as alienating black and queer social dance forms from their originators and appropriating them to a rarefied world of concert dance in which those originators, should they find themselves gaining access, would find themselves wholly out of place. Here an afro- (p.43) pessimist reading of performative blackness may prove unexpectedly helpful in response. Black studies theorist Jared Sexton, for example, has argued that the question of appropriation is less a matter of how to prevent black culture as collective identity from being appropriated, than it is a question of “how, under constant assault, to defend what cannot be possessed?”25 I want to take seriously what Sexton marks out as the dispossessive force of blackness. He continues by recounting how “in a global semantic field structured by anti-black solidarity … the potential energy of a black or blackened position holds out a singularly transformative possibility, and energy generated by virtue of its relation to others in a field of force.”26 Harrell’s embodied choreography works as such a black positionality within the field of force that is contemporary dance.

In the face of this more radically transformative possibility, the multicultural neoliberalism that would seek to restrict culture to group membership is truly un-enthralling. With Sexton’s analysis in mind, it becomes less surprising that a range of performative propositions (many that, to be sure, have little direct resonance with afro-pessimist positions) happily transgress the propertarian injunctions implicit in many cultural appropriation critiques. A parallel example in contemporary dance might be the innovative choreography of Ligia Lewis, in particular her electrifying piece minor matter, about which Mlondi Zondi has written that “a lot of care, mishandling, nonchalance, and re-assembly engenders the frictional entanglements between the three dancers, at times horizontal and conjoined, and at other times weighted, divergent, or combative.” It seems to me that what Zondi writes of Lewis could be equally said of Harrell: “While minor matter is animated by and acts alongside activist movements for social justice, it declines the invitation to aestheticize and represent those forms of insurgency and make them susceptible to increased surveillance and cooptation.”27 Instead, Harrell’s choreography experiments with the apparatus of capture that is the modern stage, taking that from odd and unexpected angles.

If the critical shade we see in Harrell’s choreography offers a new angle through which to approach history, it therefore showcases the performative powers of a critical and creative fabulation. In this book, I am less interested in giving afro-fabulation a precise definition than I am in conveying something like the varieties of afro-fabulative experience. I write at a time when the powers of the false are needed more than (p.44) ever, precisely in order to refuse the terms by which present cultural politics are increasingly being reordered to suit the dictates of a bullying and belligerent white nationalism. In the age of a Liar-in-Chief seeking to make American great again, many have argued for the need to double down on Enlightenment reason and have even sought to blame “old school postmodernism” for creating the conditions of moral relativism in which climate change denials and “alternative facts” can flourish with impunity. This critique badly mistakes oppositional performative strategies that have emerged from the margins as being the same as, or even comparable to, the enduring powers of propaganda that have long occupied the center. It blames those who have been victimized by empowered fictions for inventing countermythologies of their own. The imperative that underlies critical shade—the imperative to produce the body as a fiction—emerges precisely as responses to enduring structures of mendacity. Like other forms of minor and reparative expression, they are “weak” insofar as they fail to provide a robust self-defense against the partisans of positivist and empirical history. As we shall see in the next chapter, such critiques can be deeply hostile to fabulation even in contexts where they are ostensibly seeking to affirm and value minoritarian life. Answers to these important critiques and reservations will have to be made with care and deliberation, and I seek to provide such answers throughout this book.

If Wu Tsang, in my introduction, and Trajal Harrell, in this chapter, offer two distinctive but complementary means of performing history in this fictional tense, they both assist us in discerning the difference between such fabulative engagements with an unredeemed history, on the one hand, and the laissez-faire permission to reinvent the past to suit the present needs of power, on the other. We undoubtedly live in an era of malignant imperialist nostalgia and white supremacist fantasy. We daily observe how lies about the past serve the interests of power. Under such oppressive circumstances, what’s a queer fabulist to do? The power of critical shade rests precisely in its active skill as a reader of the social and cultural texts that exclude it. Rather than retreat in the face of mainstream appropriation, critical shade instead looks to the kairos of performance’s critical movement—the precise moment, occasion, or angle from which, in a momentary pause, the gaze can be reflected back in a gesture of counter-mimesis. To explore the (non)eventfulness of (p.45) this moment further will take us into the next chapter, which takes up the afro-fabulational antagonisms of Shirley Clarke and Jason Holliday. If the time of performance steps out of a homogeneous, empty time, then perhaps this is less a complete disappearance than a step into virtual memory—not memory of “the way things actually are” but rather memory as co-constitutive of “the process by which one identifies and engages the virtual events immanent within one’s present world.”28 This is a mode of memory that, paradoxically, does not emerge from out of the depths of the subject, but instead plays out along the folds of its surface. As memory is recalled externally, this opens out the possibility of reading a world of objects, both “fashioned” and otherwise, in terms of the deep and dark poetics that their appearance affords.


(1) The method of thick description that this chapter essays is indebted to the experimental ethnographic models of Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); and Shaka McGlotten, Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014). All ensuing errors in anthropological theory and practice are of course my own.

(2) On the relation between black dance and postmodern dance, see Thomas DeFrantz, ed., Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002); and Danielle Goldman, I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

(p.225) (3) Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition (New York: Routledge, 2002). An early statement of this theme remains influential: Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

(4) Clare Croft, ed., Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1.

(5) Octavia Saint Laurent was one of the femme realness icons of Jennie Livingston’s pathbreaking 1991 film, Paris Is Burning. I attended that ball in the summer of 1994, conducting researching for what would become my undergraduate thesis, “Fierce Pleasures: Art, History, and Culture in the New York City Drag Ball Scene” (Wesleyan University, 1995). Scandalously, the legendary Octavia lost the competition that night. Even the judges couldn’t believe it. For more on St. Laurent and vogue, see Marcos Becquer, and Jose Gatti, “Elements of Vogue,” Third Text 5, nos. 16–17 (1991): 65–81; and Marlon M. Bailey, “Engendering Space: Ballroom Culture and the Spatial Practice of Possibility in Detroit,” Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 4 (2014): 1–19.

(6) The quotation on the ephemeral program was reprinted from Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 98–99, emphasis in original. The original read, “one of the informants,” which Harrell has replaced with the less-ethnographic sounding “one participant.”

(7) Here I must at least briefly acknowledge the small bookshelf of essays and books that directly engage the enduringly controversial film, Paris Is Burning, and the living house ball culture of which it was of course but a snapshot. A fuller account of this bibliography and videography than I can give here would certainly include: Marlon M. Bailey, Butch Queens up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013); Lucas Hilderbrand, Paris Is Burning: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver, BC: Arsenal, 2013); and Phillip Brian Harper, Private Affairs: Critical Ventures in the Culture of Social Relations (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

(8) Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011).

(9) In this section and throughout, my argument about shade and fierceness is informed by Madison Moore, “Tina Theory: Notes on Fierceness,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 24, no. 1 (2012): 71–86; and E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), especially chap. 2.

(10) José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 182.

(p.226) (13) Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 16.

(14) Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

(15) On the drag balls of Harlem in the 1920s, see Eric Garber, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin B Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey (New York: New American Library, 1989). On the rise of postmodern dance in Greenwich Village of the 1960s, see Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).

(16) See Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

(17) Cited in Deborah Jowitt, “Trajal Harrell, Pam Tanowitz and Other APAP Showcases Turn New York into One Big Runway,” Village Voice, January 19, 2010, www.villagevoice.com.

(18) To be sure, black culture has often been held up as an inspiration or model for the avant-garde. But black culture is only rarely recognized as itself an avant-garde—as a militant vanguard of collective artistic expression that rejects the corrupt and ossifying culture of its day in order to imagine and usher in a better order. On this latter idea, see Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

(20) Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

(21) I am indebted to Professor Anna McCarthy of the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University for the phrase “the good-enough life,” which is a Winnicottian play on the common phrase “the good life.”

(22) On the place of object relations psychoanalysis in performance studies, see the special issue of Women and Performance edited by José Esteban Muñoz, “Between Psychoanalysis and Affect: A Public Feelings Project,” 19, no. 2 (2009).

(23) This paragraph reworks some material from my article “Mother Would Like a Cash Award: Trajal Harrell at MoMA” (2016), available freely online at www.moma.org. On living currency, see Pierre Klossowski, Living Currency (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

(24) On interinanimation in critical black poetics, see Moten, In the Break, 71 and passim. For an earlier, useful formulation of the placement of the interinanimative within rhetoric, see I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965). As we enter into an era of digital text and machine reading, the communist arts of interinanimation will encode themselves even more deeply into the staging of the secret legislation of our major and minor poets.

(p.227) (25) Jared Sexton, “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, no. 29 (2016), https://doi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.e02.

(27) Mlondi Zondi, “On minor matter,” program booklet for Ligia Lewis: Minor Matter, presented by Redcat, California Institute of the Arts, January 12–14, 2017, emphasis in original.

(28) Ronald Bogue, Deleuze’s Way: Essays in Transverse Ethics and Aesthetics (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 9.