“Little Things Pile Up:” Ordinary Lessons

“Little things pile up. But these ‘little things’ don’t close or intensify in such a way that a thisness is easily formed. It is hard to pull a thissness out of the ongoing flow of the everyday because so much decomposition happens below the threshold of awareness and theorization. The event is a pile of clothes in the washroom, a roll of linoleum in the kitchen.”

-Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment

There is an unusual power in the ordinary. It has a unique gravity that tugs on us and pulls us in close without our ever knowing it’s there, or at least without our ever caring that it’s there. Until we encounter the extra-ordinary, or find ourselves in circumstances that seem somehow “out of the ordinary,” the one-thing-after-another of ordinariness, the this-then-that-then-thisagain of the everyday holds us together, swaddles us, props us up like scaffolding. The ordinary makes sense, and is sense making, without being sensible or sensed. Or, we don’t sense it as such, even if our senses are constantly brushing past it, straining against it, shaking hands with it, sharing a bed with it. You know the texture of your favorite jacket and the places you’ve stained it, you know the way the concrete feels underfoot as you walk to the train in the morning and the smell of the meals you’ve made over and over again, you know what it is for the water to be too hot, or too cold, and what it is for the shade to be lifted too quickly after staying up too late. The ordinary makes sense, and is sense making.

**

A little less than a year ago, I woke up with a sore back; sorer and stiffer, that is, than usual. My hips were stubborn, both leaden and frail, as if they’d been filled with concrete then left to crack and crumble, heaving and twisting in the winter, slackening again in the spring. I blamed it on the mattress and the pillows, which weren’t my own. They gave too easily, were too soft, pressed and yielded in all the wrong places, not like the bed at home, which was firm and steady and held me in line–head with spine, spine with hips, hips with feet. A bit of extra stretching and some pills, and I forgot about it.

But the stiffness persisted through the next day, and the next; that soft bed putting bolts into my joints every night, leaving me to painfully unscrew them in the morning. If the ordinary is like a scaffold (a term I am poaching from Kathleen Stewart)–some patchwork of bars and planks and rivets lashed together with scrap plastic and aluminum–this new ordinary did not fit my body. Or the other way around. It doesn’t matter. It was as though I were being squeezed into some shape that my body wouldn’t (Or couldn’t. It doesn’t matter) tolerate, and my bones were staging a general strike–standing their ground, blocking intersections, interrupting business as usual.

On the third day, or the fourth, I began to lose feeling in my hands and feet; strange tingling around the edges at first, then gone altogether. My gait became clumsy and my hands, never quite sure of what they were doing, started to fumble with things whose shapes I was certain they knew. I dropped knives and struggled with my shoelaces, and the concrete on the way to the train in the morning (by now I was home) started to feel different, soft and slack like that damn bed. I stomped as I walked, trying to prove to myself that I was taking the steps I thought I was.

As the days went by, my feet started to feel heavier, and my legs weaker. At first, stairs became difficult, then the step up to the bus, then curbs, then everything. I tried to run to catch a taxi one morning, and my knees buckled in the street. I tried to lift myself out of a patio chair in a friend’s yard, and I collapsed into the gravel. Little things pile up.

One doctor told me I was depressed and very quickly gave me a prescription for SSRIs. One found out that I was a vegetarian and suspected a B-vitamin deficiency. Blood work proved her wrong. Xrays showed no noticeable loss of bone density, and basic strength tests suggested that I wasn’t actually losing muscle. And yet I was getting weaker, and the numbness was spreading, creeping up my forearms, nestling between my ribs, spreading across my chest. With no news becoming bad news, I checked myself into Emergency (which felt like exactly the wrong thing to do; it was all too slow, not eventful enough, too mundane, too ordinary; “below the threshold of awareness and theorization”).

Some basic laying-on of hands and a few questions later, a kind doctor, staring down at her notes, said “it seems to point to MS, but you don’t fit the profile.” Not fitting came as some small comfort. Having edges that didn’t line up and curves that didn’t match was something to hold on to. It created a craggy surface full of little footholds and accidental handles. Now, so much of this seems to have been about fit and fitting ,and not; how a person fits or doesn’t, how a mattress holds their hips at night (or doesn’t), how a pillow cradles their neck (or doesn’t), how one’s blood composition and bone density and reflexes make sense (or don’t), how one’s foot hits the ground, how it trips or stumbles, how well it remembers (or doesn’t) the height of a step, the slope of a street, the weight of a body. When you hear something like “MS,” where you fit, how you fit, and if you fit–the question of what scaffolds hold you up and pin you together–becomes fraught. Fitting gets dragged kicking and screaming away from the ordinary.

“We’ll run some more tests.” An MRI first, then more xrays, then more blood work: nothing, nothing, and nothing. This apparently means it’s almost certainly neurological. Neurological conditions, you see (or more often, don’t), are hard to detect and diagnose because they primarily act on the way you feel. At least in their primary stages, they don’t often change the way you look, they don’t show up on the skin, and they don’t generally change what you excrete or in what volumes. If I can paraphrase Aaron Gordon’s brilliant writing on tasers, they’re conditions that get under your skin without breaking it. There’s no sores to wrap in gauze or wounds to suture closed. They’re hard to make sense of exactly because they mess up our ways of sensing and making sense. They comfortably inhabit the everyday because they look ordinary, but where they position themselves is exactly between you and your sense of what ordinary is, in what objects and practices and forms and movements you think it consists.

The last test they run is a spinal tap. They’re going looking for protein in my cerebrospinal fluid. Too much protein in your cerebrospinal fluid, apparently, means that something has gone awry with your nervous system (but oftentimes, by my doctor’s own admission, no one is quite sure exactly what). Leaned over a table, head buried in my hands, I feel the needle slip between two of my lower vertebrae. I begin to sweat immediately and profusely, less from the pain than from a kind of panic I wasn’t aware existed. Somewhere, a nerve is touched, and my right leg twitches slightly. Touch begins to lose touch with itself; a wild surplus of sense, and so little to make of it. This hand here feels like that needle there, this numbness here feels like that anxiety there, this weakness here feels like that intensity there.

Inside of a minute or so, it’s over. Only later do I learn that it often takes two or three punctures for doctors to get a usable CSF sample, which is a horrible thing to know, but anyway.

The sample is sent off somewhere for analysis and I am instructed to lie extremely still on my bed. The stillness is supposed to stop a person from developing migraines after the procedure; it helps promote the closure of the puncture site and prevents further CSF leakage. It’s the leakage that causes the migraines. The sudden drop in fluid pressure within the spinal column creates what my doctor calls, using a phrase I have since fallen in love with, a “gravitational tug” on the brain.

All these little tugs and touches, these ways of being nudged into and out of place, these little closures and openings, slippages and leaks–these ordinary, procedural parts of medical practice–they land in the body, this body, like buckshot. Getting under the skin without, or only occasionally, breaking it. All these ways of being entered and passed through and broken into and held together and stretched and patched up, they live inside and outside the everyday. The everyday is where we are effaced. Kathleen Stewart writes, “the ordinary registers intensities–regularly, intermittently, urgently, or as a slight shudder.”

The test confirms that I do not fit the profile. It is not MS, but rather a rare and poorly understood condition known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome. GBS takes root when your body mistakes its own nerve cells for an invading virus–usually some severe respiratory infection–and attacks the myelin sheath. In severe cases, it takes the form of an ascending paralysis. Beginning as a weakness in the lower limbs, it claws its way upward, eventually implicating the diaphragm. A ventilator will keep patients alive while the myelin inflammation recedes, but this recession can and often does take more than a year. Some die, not many. But those who do ultimately die of misrecognition, of confused cells, of antibodies whose anti- is not firmly enough anchored, whose anti- fits all too quickly. The anti- of the antibody is always already magnetized, always ready to do its destructive work in the name of preservation. But for reasons that we don’t yet understand, it interacts with the wrong fields, forms the wrong attractions and makes the wrong affiliations. It misrecognizes, it sees at an angle, and the body is where that unfortunate kind of seeing is played out as a paralyzing and sometimes fatal mistake.

As it turns out, I am not one of the severe cases. My breathing was never in danger, and though I was extremely weak for a time, I was never fully paralyzed. I am now mostly recovered. My muscle strength has returned and I can walk and run exactly as well as I used to. Which isn’t very well at all, actually. But around the edges, and often in conditions that are other-than ordinary–when I am under strain, when I am anxious, nervous, or otherwise unwell–the remnants of the condition return, and likely always will. My hands still tingle and my fingers sometimes go numb. Occasionally, when I smile, a band of nerves that stretches across the centre of my face wildly misfires; little traces to remind me that this body now lives in another kind of ordinary, that it is held up by a different kind of rigging; a rigging that rusts and creaks and shudders, but that works okay, in the end. When I feel the pavement under my feet, and some small nervous shock radiates up my leg, I remember that I am not walking alone, that I am being tugged on by little rogue antibodies and fluid imbalances, by the kind doctor who never took her eyes of her notes, by the friend who brought me water when my reluctance to stay still after my spinal tap proved the doctors right–too much motion will give you a migraine worse than almost anything you’ve felt.

In the film The Examined Life, disability activist Sunaura Taylor goes for a walk around San Francisco’s Mission district with philosopher Judith Butler. They speak at length about the social organization of bodies–what we think they can do, why we think they can do it, and how we arrange our worlds such that some bodily capacities are supported while others are frustrated. At one point, Butler remarks “nobody goes for a walk without having something that supports that walk, something outside of ourselves.” Because it always involves brushing up against other people, certain forms of socially acquired knowledge, and so many mundane interactions with an actual material world, to walk is to be reminded of all the ways in which one doesn’t walk as one. Now, for me, to walk is to be reminded of all the ordinary touches that organize and enable and constrain my walking, of all the ways I fit and all the ways I don’t, of all the little things–all the forms of composition and decomposition–that happen below Povinelli’s threshold of awareness: over eager antibodies, stiff joints, pills.

A year on, I am still frustrated and sometimes upset at my condition. I do not like it and am certain I will never grow to accept it or appreciate it and I don’t think I ought to. But I am in the world now in a way that I wasn’t, and I am learning from touch, and I am learning to touch, and I am learning to be supported and held together, and I am finding ways to care for this uneventful body, full of little things.

Making-Count: On Citizenship as Right and Privilege

I have written in the past about the social force of rights claims; the ways in which they mediate relationships of response and responsibility between subjects who are, for better or for worse, entangled with one another in the complicated play of world making. Earlier this week, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander addressed an assembled crowd of journalists regarding Bill C-24, a piece of legislation that would dramatically overhaul the nation’s immigration system. During that press conference, Alexander made a curious claim: “Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege.” Reflecting on this pithy declaration, I am compelled to return to my earlier thinking on the rights claim as an occasion for sociality. What might it mean to divorce citizenship from the structure of right? What work does the language of “privilege” do for Alexander and his government?

“Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege.” Rarely in government is so much said with so few words–typically, it is the other way around. To begin with, it is a claim freighted with a smarmy paternalism, akin to the kind of scolding a parent gives a child who demands too much or who protests too loudly–who takes what isn’t deserved. It is a slap on the wrist meant to reinstall modesty, meekness, and undeservingness as the nation’s core affects. And in this sense, it is a claim that produces (or, rather, relies upon and reproduces) a profoundly gendered conception of both the claim to citizenship and the institutions to which that claim is addressed. For if citizenship is a privilege to be conferred through a paternal-parental structure of address, itself wedded to an affective economy that valorizes (stereotypically feminine) characteristics of modesty and meekness, then citizenship itself becomes a site of encounter between a benevolent state imagined to be masculine and a feminized would-be citizen. Within this structure, making petition to the state for citizenship assumes the form of ritualized feminine supplication; a ritual that doubly ‘others’ citizenship claimants by reviving the colonial figure of the feminine “Oriental,” that mysterious and submissive other who must be tamed and normalized through the discipline of the paternal nation-state.

How does the state benefit from this structure? What work does constructing citizenship as a form of gendered privilege do? What problems or contradictions does this articulation seem to solve? To ask after these questions, we may need to ask after the nation state itself. Though the state has always been a complicated and contradictory institution, in its contemporary iteration(s), it must grapple with two seemingly opposed interests. On the one hand, it is actively invested in making its borders as permeable as possible to transnational flows of capital, goods, and labour. Yet on the other, it retreats into itself in the name of defense, shoring up those same borders against immigration and the movement of what Canada now calls “illegitimate travelers.” In light of such split priorities, we might ask how, or in what ways, Alexander’s claims about citizenship intervene in or salve the division; how reworking citizenship through gender and privilege is an attempt to make these seemingly opposed investments work for the state.

If the granting of citizenship is already configured as a benevolent and paradigmatically masculine gesture, then we might also see Alexander’s statement as reviving or conjuring up the figure of the sovereign, the (male) acting subject charged with doling out individual benefits and punishments by fiat. In the context of the state’s split priorities, its volatile and often violent oscillations between permeability and exclusion, this mythical sovereign plays a particular role. I would suggest that it conjoins the Thatcherite vision of a nation absent society–a nation composed only of “individual men and women”–to the contemporary security state, which works aggressively to recentralize the work of population control and management (the gendered valence of Alexander’s claim returns here). The figure of the sovereign allows the state to retain the centrifugal force of neoliberalism, which splits the social into so many individual subjects, yet simultaneously works to (re)bind those subjects to a central, authoritative state apparatus governed largely by fiat; by the arbitrary conferring and stripping privileges in which the security state so heartily partakes (we might think, for example, of the ways in which indefinite detention without charge has become normalized in and among security states, even as those same states justify the practice by promulgating the vague juridical language of a ‘state of exception’).

Alexander speaks this script precisely. In the press, he alloys citizenship to the structure of privilege or gift. In the legislature, he tables bills that would empower the federal government to strip dual nationals of Canadian citizenship if they are found to be members of a force or group with which Canada is engaged in armed combat. The citizenship-as-privilege framework thus conjures up a mythical sovereign authority that sutures the post-social rhetoric of the neoliberal nation-state to the arbitrary patterns of othering, exclusion, and expulsion that characterize the security state. It evacuates citizenship of its sociality by redefining it as a gift to be granted–and revoked–solely by this fictive agent. This is one possible intention of Alexander’s declaration: the production of a new kind of state, one stitched together out of the ideological fragments of Thatcherite neoliberalism and neoconservative securitization, governed by fiat and as if by a single national sovereign.

But if this is the intention, how precisely does it operate? How does this emptying-out of citizenship by way of privilege take shape? How exactly does Alexander’s claim liquidate the ‘withness’ that citizenship seems to name, and to what ends (recognizing, of course, that citizenship, as mediated by the nation-state, is always also a structure of exclusion in itself)? Here is another function of the privilege framework. Rights are not objective, they are not static, and they do not exist outside of their articulations in discourse. This is to say that rights are made up of many things operating together: there is and must be a rights claimant, an institution or body to which that claimant makes petition, a more or less common language (written or spoken) through which that petition is expressed, and certain conditions of audibility and communicability that make the petition comprehensible.

Rights, in this sense (as I’ve written before), though often spoken about as objects that one does or does not possess, are relations. They require speech, they require that this speech be heard as speech, and they require institutions to act on that speech in a way roughly commensurate with the substance of the claim. The right is a form of social intercourse. It gains its status as a right only and precisely because it is claimed, asserted, rehearsed, and spoken in public; because it gathers bodies and institutions together in the work of speaking, hearing, and translating. This is as much the case for the right to citizenship as any other: it is a space of and occasion for social intercourse. Citizenship-as-right requires speaking, hearing, and acting, and it requires political and social conditions under which all three are made possible. To put citizenship in the orbit of the right, then, is to allow citizenship claimants to make bids on sociality and intelligibility, to participate in public economies of hearing and comprehension. It is to open the realm of social intercourse to the claims and participation of others/Others. Certainly, the right does not in itself guarantee such participation, insofar as the gates separating intelligibility from unintelligibility remain racialized, gendered, and historically and linguistically inscribed. But minimally, the right keeps open the possibility of an expanded publicness. It provides a framework for speaking that extends rather than limits opportunities for speech.

The privilege of citizenship, by contrast, requires none of this sociality. As privilege, citizenship rests solely in the hands of the imagined sovereign who presides over a non-society of individuals. As privilege, citizenship is emptied of the social content of right. It is reworked from a (not unproblematic) way of thinking relationality, belonging, and nationhood as social questions into a disciplinary instrument to be arbitrarily deployed and retracted in accordance with the exigencies of the security state. The forms of social intercourse that make a right a right, those complex circuits of speaking, hearing, comprehension, and rehearsal that hold open the possibility of an expanded publicness, are thus entirely split off from the notion of citizenship. Citizenship, that is, ceases to function as a space for speech.

The discursive dislodging of citizenship from the grip of right is thus a form of what M. Jacqui Alexander (Pedagogies of Crossing, 2005), drawing on Rae Langton, calls “illocutionary disablement” (p. 123). This is a “kind of silencing” wherein “the speaking agent does not have the requisite social authority and is disabled from performing illocutionary acts in the relevant domain, the domain where they matter most.” It takes shape under discursive and political conditions that allow certain authority figures (like Chris Alexander) to “stop another’s speech from counting as the action it was intended to be” (emphasis in original). Illocutionary disablement is the making-unspeakable and de-actioning of speech acts. It is the ensemble of discursive, political, rhetorical and disciplinary tactics–for instance, the cleaving of citizenship from right–that conspire to make certain utterances fail as forms of action. To once again paraphrase Langton and Alexander: it is a way of hypostatizing speech in “the amber of disqualifying metaphors” (p. 153).

While citizenship as privilege, then, may permit the claim to citizenship to be spoken, it deliberately deprives that claim of an audience by divorcing it from the domain of hearing named by the right. It stops that claim from counting by keeping it separate from those who might count it. Again, here is Langton: “Let them speak. Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as the action it was intended to be” (as cited in Alexander, 2005, p. 123).

Citizenship is often understood as the staging ground for rights claims. That is, citizenship rights are in many ways the precondition for securing what we might call secondary rights. One must have the right of American citizenship, for instance, to stake a legitimate claim upon the American ‘right to free speech.’ The rightness or wrongness of accepting the nation-state as the arbiter of rights claims is, of course, is another problem worth addressing. But at present, this is how rights operate as a practice and technology of subject-making: the state grants basic rights of citizenship, and these rights become the ground upon which we articulate subsequent rights claims through collective political action and policy formation.

What happens, then, when citizenship itself is removed from the structure of the right altogether? What happens when the very precondition of rights-claiming is redefined as a privilege over which some imagined sovereign has sole jurisdiction? As Hannah Arendt once put it: what happens when the subject is deprived of the right to have rights? For Arendt, this social (and indeed, illocutionary) impoverishment evacuates the very possibility of making claims upon rights; it produces a negative space of non-recognition that empties out the hope for an expanded, contestatory citizenship. To the extent that it blocks certain subjects from entering the space of social intercourse where they might appear as subjects “outside of” themselves and “for others”(Butler, as cited in Gordon, 2012, 123), it is a deprivation that contributes to the making of what Arendt in the Origins of Totalitarianism calls “superfluous” people; people who might be disappeared without a trace, who are barred from even registering as people, who are undone in advance of all publicity.

The deprivation of the right to have rights, which emerges in the course of emptying citizenship of its social content, is in this sense (as Arendt claimed) a proto-genocidal one. Not only does it make mass disappearance possible, but it integrates this possibility into the very structure of belonging that citizenship-as-privilege names. It is a deprivation balanced on the ethically untenable belief that one is ultimately free to choose–whether by sovereign fiat or the granting of state privilege–with whom to cohabit this earth. And that choice, as Arendt wrote, points toward genocide. Or toward what Donna Haraway has more recently called “exterminism:” the making-killable of certain populations (When Species Meet). It is a choice that retreats to some imagined position of sovereignty from which we produce and deproduce subjects, make and unmake lives. Where we count, and where our failure or refusal to count–our unaccountable (because finally sovereign) un-counting–puts others at risk of being uncountable.

Loss, and Where it Isn’t: For José Muñoz

When confronted today with the news of José Muñoz’ untimely passing, like so many others, I found myself at a loss; a loss for words, as the turn of phrase would have it. Unable, or perhaps unwilling to speak; coming up against the limits of what speech could do, what debts it could repay, what it would leave unsaid despite all its best efforts. Pre-emptively haunted by the prospect of its falling-down or its coming-up short. How does one, in the end, give voice to that which leaves one speechless?

I wrote these words many times today-”I’m at a loss.” And so, while Muñoz often ruminated on the then and the there, I now find myself pondering what those words do here and now. What do we mean when we say we are at a loss? It’s a curious turn of phrase, one that imagines loss to be something like a location or a terrain; something at which we arrive, or upon which we happen. But for being a loss, this arrival is always spoiled, revoked. We arrive at, come up against, find ourselves at something called ‘a loss’ only to find that something cancelled precisely by virtue of its status as a loss. To find oneself at a loss is to find oneself not at all. Or rather, to find oneself in a state of wanting, coming up against the very limits of finding. To be at a loss is to be at a somewhere whose status as a ‘where’ recedes in the very instant we approach it or reach for it. Indeed, it seems to recede precisely because we arrive at it. This is the only way that a concrete ‘where’ might register as something called a ‘loss.’ 

Surely, this is an unhappy kind of finding; a finding whose promise of closure is undone by what is found. Perhaps this is why the phrase “to be at a loss” takes up residence so frequently and circulates so easily in moments of grief, death, and killing. It names the effort to locate oneself when the very notion of location is confounded by the appearance of the unspeakable and the unbearable, when our sense of locatability is upended by a certain bodily disappearance, by the slipping-away of one of the axes that makes location possible. To be “at a loss” is to arrive at a destination that retreats from our arrival. This is unhappy. It gives us grief. It spoils, causes trouble. It upsets and damages us. But the retreat of the destination is not wholly negative. It preserves, as well as spoils, and what it preserves is the act of reaching. To reach the anti- or non-location of loss is to find oneself with one’s arm outstretched and to be caught mid-stride. Reaching endures only and exactly because what is reached for retreats from. Loss, the place called loss, sustains reaching as such. To be at a loss is precisely to reach and to always reach; indeed it is to have no choice but to reach, to be reachingover and over.

Muñoz’ death is a loss at which we find ourselves; it is something we come up against, but that nonetheless eludes our apprehension. It is something at which we arrive, but that falls away from us. We are left, then, at a loss, reaching for something that cannot be reached. This is a reaching fraught with sadness and grief, but a reaching all the same; a reaching-out toward something that might yet be, even if it is not yet, even if it is passed, even if it is otherwise or elsewhere. It is an unhappy (or, minimally, not automatically happy) reaching, but a hopeful one. Indeed, it is precisely the kind of reaching in which Muñoz found such beauty, and to which he attached the longing for a queer future. As he wrote in Cruising Utopia: 

“Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbuded with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present… We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there… Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing…Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”

I encountered Cruising Utopia at a difficult moment; I was living a life that (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed) should have been happy, but just wasn’t, one that ought to have been full but felt empty. Muñoz’ remarkable words recast the scene. What had once seemed barren was suddenly rife, heavy, rich with possibility; what had been dead matter was quickened to life, reworked into so many ethical, political, and affective calls for more. Those unhappy knots and entanglements that make up a queer life, or a life lived queerly, remained in some sense unhappy, but at once bore witness to a past and promised a future. The world became captivating. It hailed, it spoke, it moved and it called upon, bound me to, and held me in thrall with. Grief remained. Grief always remains. But grief, as Butler has written, does nothing if not reveal the ways in which we are inscribed within one another from the beginning, in ways we cannot fully know; in ways that we can neither predict nor control. Grief compels us to ask how else we might find one another, how we might speak otherwise and go on speaking:

“What grief displays is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control. I might try to tell a story here, about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very ‘I’ who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very ‘I’ is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing.”

Grief, that is, puts us once again at a loss; it is a place where our speech, our attempt to narrate ourselves, becomes cluttered. But just as grief remains and must remain, so too does the attempt to speak remain, so must it remain. So must we reach. Perhaps, then, to-be-at-a-loss is better understood as to-be-in-thrall-with, to find ourselves bound to that which can’t quite be reached, to find ways to speak that which cannot be spoken, all while learning to be at home with the failure of that speaking. Perhaps when we find ourselves at a loss–deprived of language, of history, of belongingness, of fullness–we ought to approach the occasion as a reason to look beyond ourselves, to desire, and to reach. As Muñoz wrote, perhaps being at a loss ought to be thought of as “an invitation to desire differently, to desire more, to desire better.”

For me, this invitation was the promise of Muñoz’ work. To be queer is often to find oneself at a loss–to be unhoused, to be unable to speak, to be forcibly barred from speaking, to live through grief that cannot be expressed. In all this rubble, Muñoz found an ember: “Queerness as utopian formation is a formation based on an economy of desire and desiring. This desire is always directed at that thing that is not yet there, objects and moments that burn with anticipation and promise.”

Perhaps, then, up against the loss of Muñoz himself–to encounter him as that which is not there–we might also find the kind of hope and the kind of future he so beautifully defended. Perhaps when we find ourselves at the loss his name now describes, we might also find ourselves in thrall with him, with his utopian longings, and with all his embers. And perhaps we might, through our own scholarship and our own reachings, nourish those embers on the oxygen of prose, poetry, dance, and desire.