On Sociality

*This post is part of contributor Marquis Bey’s On Suite series.

Sociality, n.

  1. The state or quality of being sociable; (the enjoyment of) friendly social interaction; sociability
  2. The disposition or tendency to live in a society or to associate with others

It is not that I cannot abide y’all. Surely that is not it; I got much love for, and in fact come into a kind of social beingness, through y’all. Y’all are indispensable to me, my me-ness. It is, rather, that sometimes sociality — the practice of being-social — is not where I feel that I can, in the all of me, live.

Scholars and thinkers in Black Studies have come to understand the social or sociality as the place where Blackness happens, as it were. While there are radically departing views on sociality’s relationship to Blackness, it stands that it is the site where these different understandings of Blackness come into themselves. On the one hand, put simplistically, there are those who have relegated Blackness to a state of being “death-bound” — Blackness is only to the extent that its definitional heft in the world is that which is expunged from the world — Blackness, in other words, equals social death. On the other hand, some have relegated Blackness, definitionally, to a sense of optimistic zeal, or that which withstands even in the face of pervasive death. Blackness, this argument goes, is not nothingness tout court; it is the generative circuitry that enables life, and that comes from its “unrestricted sociality.”

I’m not touching this debate right now. Do not get me caught up out here. My aim is different, a skirted differentiation with asymptotic highlights to the aforementioned debate. My aim is the primacy of sociality as the site of determination. However one slices it, it is sociality that proves the determinant factor for how to conceive of Blackness, and in other discourses queerness as well. In this I find an elision of the possibility of sociality not quite being so hospitable to how one’s subjectivity can or ought to be defined.

Let me level with you, contextualize this seemingly not-super-important topic. Let me, as it were, fess up. I’ve been hailed, and hail myself, as Black, queerly related to sexuality, transly (if you will) related to gender, and generally radical. Yet I find, time and space again, that my bouts of introversion, penchant for domestic dwelling, habit of reticence, and simmeringly constant interrogation of interactional scripts do not permit the kind of social engagement, the kind of sociality — which, in honesty, is not really a kind but sociality as such — that characterizes me. The social, even when amid those with whom I am expected to be in solidarity and proximity, prohibits me. How, then, am I to sit comfortably in sociality as the sine qua non of my existential definition?

There is, to my lights, a glorious rejoinder to the dominance of sociality in introversion — a certain Black queer radical introversion, textured away from pop culture-esque Nobody understands me of the emo kids that litter cinematic depictions of introversion, or asexualized cat-ladies the butt of the joke for introversion’s extremity (and neither of these demographics are to intended to be denigrated — these might in fact be my kind of people). I have the intention of salvaging a radicality and validity in introversion when behaviors like retreat or “self-care” or aloneness or simply not wanting to be around any of you are being assaulted as neoliberal or individualistic. (Pause: Please keep assaulting things that are actually neoliberal and individualistic.) I intend to express a radicality and political efficacy in introversion, one that does not see in sociality an entirely hospitable terrain.

Consider it this way: to be part of the interaction amongst, say, cis dudes or white folks or wealthy people or straight people, you must agree to engage in the interaction in ways that permit those operative identities to remain unmarred by the very demographics and political inflections denigrated in order for those hegemonic identities to exist. Or, to be wealthy one must either disregard, forget about, or pathologize poor folks in order for the integrity of the validity and righteousness of one’s identity as wealthy to remain intact. If you bring up the ravages of racial gender capitalism in such a setting, you have breached the social contract, the interactional codes of conduct, and you must be punished. The sociality of that situation was not neutral, not just humans interacting with other humans. It was a carefully structured milieu that required lawfulness — a lawfulness that, like Law itself, demands brutalization and enforcement (often by violent means).

To even be legible as a speaking subject, to exist with others, to interact and commune — to be social, to inhabit sociality — there are rules one must follow. To not follow those rules means that you are infecting sociality, you are sullying the good time, you are bringing everyone down — goddamnit Debbie. Sociality, in other words, is not innocent; it is not neutral, which is precisely the assumption that disallows certain people’s — and indeed certain ideas, certain thoughts, certain topics — entrance. We’ve all agreed to these terms, it is thought, so to breach those terms means that you, breacher, are the problem. You brought these bad vibes, dude; our crunchy groove has been tainted by your “bringing in” gender, by your “making things about” race, by your use of that “slur” cis.

There is violence in the purportedly mundane. And sociality is a serial mundanity. Yet because of its quotidian nature, it is just assumed as natural, as unladen with any presumptions or anything. Just neutral. But there is, I need to stress, violence in all of this, prohibitory violence. Sara Ahmed has written, shared so kindly with us, a story, a typical one that reveals the mechanisms that concern me here.

Say we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something that you consider problematic. You respond, carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, or you might be getting “wound up,” recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. The violence of what was said or the violence of provocation goes unnoticed. However when she speaks, the feminist [or the Black radical, or the queer insurgent, or the trans troubler] is usually the one who is viewed as “causing the argument,” who is disturbing the fragility of peace.

An occasion as innocuous as having dinner has rules. It is a social space that prohibits certain things. Which is to say, it is a space that proves violent to some. To seek to mitigate that violence by embodying that which the space prohibits, or speaking in alliance with that which the space prohibits, means that you disturb the “peace” — a peace not so peaceful for some. And if you express the particularity of that peace, that that peace is only for a select few, you disturb the peace — you are the problem. Violence happens to you. And it is because of inhabitation of that space of sociality. That space of sociality can only hold so much.

Sociality, what I’m getting at, is structured by some stuff you can’t say and some stuff that ain’t cool. And I’m talking about the very things that allow sociality to be so pleasant for most. Do not bring up the problematic stuff because that will make people feel bad; do not bring up BLM or wealth disparities to white Republican family members, do not bring up misogyny with Black dude hip-hop heads, do not bring up homophobia and transantagonism with Black church women, do not bring up cisnormativity with well-meaning white liberals who “didn’t mean anything by it.” Do not make anyone feel bad because we need you, in order for us to continue on our merry way, to continue feeling bad. That is our joy.

I retreat into myself, want nothing to do with y’all sometimes, because I do not wish to be hurt right now, not today. To give myself to you, which is what it means to be amongst you, is to conduct my own harm. Sociality certainly has its charm and sustenance, an abundance of it, but I just can’t with y’all sometimes. And I can still be as Black, as queer, as radical when I’m lying in bed, phone on silent, thinking thoughts and penning words with no one else around, goin’ ‘head with my bad self.

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Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Marquis is the author of Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2019) and Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism​ (2020). Currently Marquis is working on an academic monograph on Black trans feminism. Find Marquis on Twitter at @marquisdbey.