June Author Spotlight: José Esteban Muñoz, Intersectionality & Queer Futurity
Learn more about our June BOTM's author, his methodology, and contributions to queer academia!
Image ID: A black and white image of a Latino man sits on top of a purple floral background with yellow light and stars.
Our BOTM, 1998’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, is a landmark work within various realms of queer academia, given Muñoz’s intersectional approach to queer theory, exemplified when applying his theory of disidentification–
“Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.”
–to various queer artists of color, investigating the nature of queer performance through their exemplary & disidentificatory works. It is Muñoz’s approach for which he is best known, one that draws out the practices which Muñoz states allow queers of color to navigate majority populations, which are often oppressive and inhibiting. The performative aspect of disidentification allows one to create and imagine futurity within present reality, enacting the world-building we’ve recognized in the works of other authors of color here at Hardcover Hotties, such as Octavia Butler.
Making Queer Studies Intersectional
Muñoz, born in 1967 in Cuba, immigrated to the United States and spent his childhood in Hialeah, Florida, which experiences he integrates across his academic texts, adding a relatable dimension to a style of writing which can often leave out the personal. Beginning his academic career at Sarah Lawrence College, and eventually receiving his Doctorate in Literature from Duke University in 1994, Muñoz’s work spanned disciplines, greatly contributing to the field of queer theory. Muñoz’s first publication was Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics in 1998, followed by 2013’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. As established through Disidentifications’ visionary methodology merging cultural criticism, aesthetics, and performance studies, Muñoz quickly established himself within queer academia with the publication of Disidentifications and contributed greatly to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for years as both a professor and as the Chair of the Department of Performance Studies.
Muñoz filled a need in academia’s construction of queer theory by incorporating race and class into critical discussions of queerness, putting forth his theory of disidentification, which importantly recognizes the intersections of racial and queer identities previously unrecognized in queer scholarship. In the book’s introduction, Muñoz describes “race as an addendum” when discussing its rarely-found place within queer theory, prompting his call for an intersectional approach to queer theory following in the tradition of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory, and Chicana feminist writers and scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Chela Sandoval’s work.
Muñoz’s Methodology & The Aesthetics of Performance
The field of aesthetics is a branch of philosophy focusing on the study of beauty and taste, and is closely linked to experience. Alexander Baumgarten, an 18th century German philosopher, related the perfection of beauty to the experiences of the senses, separating aesthetic taste from logical knowledge when considering one’s experience viewing and experiencing art. Baumgarten’s contributions emphasized the emotional aspect of art, proving how art has the ability to affect its viewer by opening up space for the viewers’ reflection. Performance studies is a field which ranges far beyond theater, film, and even contemporary art as one might think– it encapsulates a variety of critical cultural approaches which provide insight to the ways performance functions as a mode of action that spans both artistic and inartistic spheres. Muñoz touches on this in Disidentifications’ introduction, explaining the relevance of performance studies in daily life through Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding in popular media. Disidentifications is exemplary of Muñoz’s contribution to the field of performance studies, bringing the aesthetics of performance into our everyday world to interrogate the ways various social identities are constructed and embodied through performance’s inherent world-building.
Muñoz himself enacted this world-building within his own writing. Writer and doctoral candidate Marco Gonzalez recalls his “decade of falling in love” with Munoz’s writing in Cruising Utopia and Disidentifications, affirming the author’s ability to transcend stiff academic prose and proffer moments of utopia to his readers through sentences whose structure gives their reader the space and time necessary to “wonder and wander, going astray for a little while which feels like utopia, feels very queer to me.” By adding personal experience into his academic writings, Muñoz is able to relate to his readers on a personal level, incorporating discussions of his experiences growing up as a punk queer and Cuban-American immigrant.
The term “queer theory” was first brought into academic consciousness in 1991, with Teresa de Laurentis’s “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities,” although it finds its roots with theorists such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, and Eve Kosofysky Sedgwick. Muñoz, who would go on to study under Sedgwick, brought a dimension of queer futurity into queer theory, advocating for the imagination of queer utopias within discussions of the past and present, along with the future. This, along with Muñoz’s intersectional approach, prove his legacy, his works imparting readers with his signature sense of hope for queer futures.
Muñoz's contributions to queer academia have been emphasized by many contemporary scholars such as Juana María Rodríguez, Daphne Brooks, Ann Cvetkovich, and Robert McRuer, citing his works as highly influential within the fields of affect studies, queer of color critique, conceptualizations of Latina/o identity, queer ephemera, and more. Disidentification theory has been used across academic disciplines involving queer of color critiques, and Muñoz’s legacy is carried on through each application. Muñoz passed away in 2013, and is honored through the academic communities who lovingly remember him as more than a fellow scholar, but a close friend, a bold voice who constantly advocated for a utopian vision of queerness.