The Theoretical Usefulness of Mess and Black Queer Studies

This post is part of our online roundtable on Jafari S. Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us.

Disco Ball During Pride Week, August 22, 2022, Montreal, Canada (Shutter stock)

For a while now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond to Jafari S. Allen’s truly expansive book, There’s a Disco Ball Between Us. I’ve been trying to figure out how to publicly enter a conversation I have been quietly responding to in the margins of so many texts and on the sideline of so many scenes that Allen so lovingly brings to the center for us to sit with and stew in. These texts and scenes have radically altered my ways of seeing and being in the world. The difficulty for me has been that I have never read a text quite like this—have never felt myself so directly implicated in the “you,” “we,” or “us” of an intimate public—for it is rare to be so fully addressed in all our messiness. So much of our academic training (also known as “professionalization”) is directed toward minimizing those moments of rupture or “collision” where everyday life threatens to bleed into our theorizations. But Allen, dancing alongside Audre Lorde, Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, and Kevin Aviance, has permitted us to play with and in the mess. So here it goes.

I have been called messy my whole life–and I should add that this accusation has nothing to do with my cleanliness or tidiness, for which my spotless apartment is proof. It is, instead, because I tend to let my thoughts wander from topic to topic, drawing connections between seemingly disparate strands that aren’t readily apparent to anyone not in my mind. I suspect many of those who shifted ever so slightly in their seats when they first read and felt the force of Allen’s “dear reader” or “you” may have also been called out for being “a bit too much” or “all over the place.” When people throw around the word ‘messy,’ they mean that something about you is perhaps unfocused, unruly, and/or unorthodox. Being messy makes people uneasy because it challenges them to slow down and take in the present. Allen admits that he is at times frightened by and tries to avoid being messy (Allen 247). And, if we are all being honest with ourselves, who doesn’t? “Keeping it cute” so often means keeping it frictionless. But seeking out and orienting ourselves toward ease can itself be a “habit of mind,” one that we often associate with the norms that structure experiences of everyday life that are rife with racialized and gendered violences that have come to be called “white heteronormative culture”.

Of course, norms are not always violent or injurious to the body and mind. And, as Allen tells us, messiness’s opposite is not necessarily respectability politics—that position that performatively yearns for acceptance by any means necessary. Yet so many of us have come to believe that our primary political project must be to point out how the ease and comfort of norms rest on the punitive and often violent discipline of others, particularly Black queer folks. And in our effort to articulate the how, why, and when of those conditions under which the good life seems always out of reach for those of us on the margins, we abandon those episodes (and our feelings about them) that don’t fit neatly into the narrative arc we so desperately hope will bend toward freedom. What would it mean to take up messiness as an orientation to writing, theorizing, researching, archiving, and teaching? And what avenues of thought are currently unavailable to us because we are so focused on minimizing it?

Allen writes:

One of the central meta-theoretical impulses in this book is to try to faithfully caress in between the material and affective: listening intently and occasionally showing the work, allowing the seeming messiness and unseemliness of everyday life to be felt, but also often economizing the language—sometimes only obliquely naming. Telling it elliptically (like we do) (11).

To tell it elliptically is to hold fidelity to the everyday and all the ambiguous attachments that move us through it. It is to show the sometimes ugly and often contradictory ways we strive to find flourishing within the world, even if only for a moment, and to theorize those contradictions not as aberrations but as integral to Black queer world-building.

Mess, in what I’ve learned from Allen, is not inherently unfocused or unsophisticated; nor does it indicate a lack of serious or critical attention. It is not necessarily sloppy or half-assed. Instead, mess can reveal a deeply complex tension that motivates our desires to scream at each other, carry-on, dance, laugh, and fuck. To say it differently, messiness can sometimes be what we do to endure. And being attentive to the mess is another way of acknowledging that it is a fantasy to imagine our ethnographic translations of everyday life as seamless or innocent. In Allen’s carefully crafted, archivally rich, stunningly written, and theoretically dense book, we find the unseemly ways that we have built lives filled with pain and pleasure, alongside desire and disgust, and with our epidemic living and dead. Here, the everyday isn’t conveyed in the register of the heroic—these are not stories of us having it all figured out. Even those whom we consider to be our intellectual heroes are referred to by their first names (gasp!). But, in so doing, Allen brings them just a little closer so that we might listen to all those subtler things we couldn’t or refused to hear.

Saying that the everyday is messy isn’t in itself a radical utterance nor a new way of approaching our ethnographic practices. What is exciting and challenging to think about is Allen’s commitment to having the poetics of life mirrored on the page. For me, this style opened up new questions about the ethical thrust of our desire to know the “other” that is ourselves and how that desire structures how we see and what we say. There is so much confusion and concern that comes from being a member of the community one studies—you are so directly accountable in socially intimate ways that are often not for public consumption. I get this. And as I read and reread Allen’s methodological triptych, I wondered out loud how many of my own attempts to simplify were actually reductions of complex issues in an effort to keep the peace.

I am reminded of Allen’s story of a classroom in conflict. His students wanted/needed to know why their heroes had white partners, and how their heroes could square their urgent call for and dedication to Black love with their most intimate sexual choices (97). The readymade answers abound—we know them so well we might even call them ordinary. But Allen, with patience, asks us to slow down and take seriously the historical, psychic, and aesthetic qualities that organize “the economies of racial desires.” There are misunderstandings and unacknowledged truths in this story, shame and fear and pleasure and unabashed self-love. What we gain from this thought exercise is not clear or clean because nothing ever is. But when we think through the mess, we arrive at a different kind of question about the good life. Allen writes, “how can we live best, within (perhaps multiple) communities of support and kindness, toward total liberation?” (112). How, indeed?

Disco balls make a mess of light, throwing it out in little chunks of color and vibrancy that pull the body into movement despite itself. When a disco ball is between us, we sense things differently. We might be disoriented, bumping into each other on the floor that seems to sway underfoot. But we can also be bold in ways we can’t be when things are clearly illuminated. Allen’s book is not an easy read. Like the mirrors that distort and disrupt with each rotation, this text spins from archive to text exchange, from ethnographic scene to theoretical analysis, so swiftly that we might not know where we are or what we are to do once we’ve exited the club. But I suspect that this was Allen’s point all along. We are entrenched in a habit of mind that gives us professional and theoretical cover to skim the surface of our encounters in the field, in the library, and in the classroom. Allen is asking us to do better. Yes, as he writes, “together, we add up to more than the calculus of our compounded vulnerabilities” (18). But what does this mean? To me, it is a call to read, think, and act differently. Where the mathematical precision of our essays, articles, and books relies on expert translations that often cancel out the excess, Allen is reminding us that we are so much more. So, what then? What might a Black queer habit of mind tell us of the mess we find ourselves in?

I think it tells us that when someone is brave enough to write a theory of “Black gay life” that is organized around “Black desire for political empowerment or autonomy, fun and carefree play in the face of social suffering, and erotic desire for one another,” it behooves us to pay attention, slow down, and listen (xi).

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Emily R. Bock

Emily R. Bock is a cultural anthropologist whose research and teaching are situated at the intersection of black studies, queer theory, performance studies, ethnography, social theory, and ethics. She is currently writing her book manuscript tentatively titled, Ordinary Queens: Queer Performances of the Good Life, which is a multi-sited ethnography of the contemporary ballroom scene—an underground, predominantly black, queer performance community. In considering how members strive to imagine and secure existence beyond mere survival within an ordinary haunted by anti-black and anti-queer violences, the book tracks the practices for living that emerge from experiments with and against normative US values. Bock received a BA in Anthropology and Dance with a minor in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from Barnard College in New York and earned her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago. Prior to joining the Department of American Studies at George Washington University, she held a joint appointment in Gender and Sexuality Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies as a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.