José Esteban Muñoz (1967–2013)

José Esteban Muñoz. Photo courtesy the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of Arts, NYU.

THE WORK of José Esteban Muñoz—as a student, a teacher, a writer, and a friend—was electrified by his desire to tip the world toward something joyous in the face of intense opposition to that joy, toward a place that is more just and generous, but also more ferocious.

José’s lifelong passion was to express the utopian gesture that responds to the awfulness of things as they are. The work of balancing hope against despair ran through his writings from the earliest to the most recent, and it was a work he associated with the queer, the minoritarian, and the brown. Under his attention, those terms became not generic categories but critical passageways. Queerness, for José, named the possible but also the “not yet.” The “sense of brown” (both the title and the subject of one of his books still forthcoming from Duke University Press, and first theorized in a seminal essay on the playwright Ricardo Abreu Bracho) indicated a form of discontinuous commonality, “not knowable in advance” but actually existing as a world, in the here and now. He mined a Marxist tradition that included Althusser, Bloch, Adorno, Fredric Jameson, and Jean-Luc Nancy, and used this radical tradition to show how the affirmations in his work required negations of and deviations from the status quo.

“The challenge here,” José writes in an essay on the LA punk band The Germs, “is to look to queerness as a mode of ‘being-with’ that defies social conventions and conformism and is innately heretical yet still desirous for the world, actively attempting to enact a commons that is not a pulverizing, hierarchical one bequeathed through logics and practices of exploitation.”¹ There was something heretical about his own work in the academy, the art world, and everything betwixt and beyond them. In making a world for himself in which to flourish, he couldn’t help but build one for others too.

Born in Cuba in 1967, brought to Miami by his parents as an infant, José Muñoz was always on the move. Leaving the Cuban-America enclave of Hialeah, where his youth played out to the sound of bands like X and the Gun Club, he studied at Sarah Lawrence College, where he first read Cherríe Moraga’s Lo Que Nunca Paso por Sus Labios (Loving in the War Years, 1983), which became for him a touchstone (especially its chapter, “La Guera”). José then entered Duke University’s doctoral program in Literature, which at that time was at a high point of prestige and influence. Under the guiding love and friendship of his mentor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and among a precocious, brilliant cohort of fellow students, José, a rising star and only twenty-six years old, was hired to teach at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He brought the “symposium of Eve” to “the broke-ass institute,” as his friend Fred Moten put it in a poem for José that appears in Moten’s 2010 collection, B Jenkins.

When he arrived in Greenwich Village in 1994, José planted himself at the center of a circle of influence that would expand over a short two decades. His home functioned as a true salon. The most ferocious personalities conspired amid stacks of comic books and philosophical treatises, surrounded by punk ephemera, the remnants of late-night sessions, toys belonging to one of his adored animal companions, piles of manuscripts, and friends’ artwork. “José had this endless stamina for socializing,” friend and dramatist Jorge Cortiñas remembers. “It was a wonderfully seamless way of engaging with art and with artists.”

José brought to the academy an archive of film, art, and performance that still astonishes readers of his first book, Disidentifications (1999). And he interpreted this archive using a sturdy theoretical apparatus that was never directed toward its own legitimation, but was instead devoted to the value of queer and minoritarian life, and to the mourning of queer and minoritarian loss. For José, experimental art, performance, and poetry were keys to “the practice of survival.” Prescient readings of the work of Félix González-Torres and Isaac Julien (attending to the forms of queer exile that shape the aesthetic practices of both) sit alongside groundbreaking writing on figures who, at the time, had received little or no critical attention. From the very beginning of his development as a thinker, he formed intense and collaborative relationships with artists. Vaginal Davis, Carmelita Tropicana, and Nao Bustamante figure heavily in his thought, and he figured heavily in their lives as an advocate, a friend, and as a critic. “José’s serious engagement with artists’ lives, practice, and work,” social theorist John Andrews observes, “has changed how many academics conceive the practice of theorizing. His work as a theorist countered the more rarefied modes of how academics and art critics use and produce theory.”

The list of other artists whose careers José supported through his advocacy, his intellect, and his friendship is vast: Wu Tsang, Justin Vivian Bond, Kenny Mellman, Marga Gomez, Tony Just, Miguel Gutierrez, Jorge Cortiñas, Michael Wang, Kevin Aviance, and Kalup Linzy to put names to some. José sought links among artists few had the capacity to imagine as part of the same world. His second book, Cruising Utopia (2009), an exciting antidote to both mainstream gay and lesbian politics as well as to the “anti-social” turn in queer theory, set LeRoi Jones’s play The Toilet in conversation with the philosophy of Ernst Bloch, the paintings of Luke Dowd alongside performances by Dynasty Handbag and My Barbarian or poetry by Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. Some of the book’s most moving passages grow from his familiarity with a wide range of gay scenes in New York City and beyond, especially those off the white, homonormative map. Underground and experimental social spaces were as important to him as Marxist philosophy and queer theory. He encouraged people to follow him, as a thinker and happy participant, into those zones.

In José’s writing a performance, painting, photo, or literary text is not merely an “object of study” but a philosophical encounter, one that sits alongside other kinds of encounters, moments of collision and contact. For this reason, in his writing he did not lead with the information that facilitates the absorption of an artist’s work into the academy (a defense of the work’s relation to a canon, to art history narrowly imagined, to a disciplinarian articulation of “performance”). He offered instead a language that invites the artist’s work into the reader’s life, by way of his thinking. He drew other scholars into conversation about his muses, his Furies; his experiences of their work were not intended to be “his” but “shared out.”

José redefined the meaning of “academic superstar” in Warholian terms: He had a way of finding beauty in what others considered to be their own damage, recalls Jonathan Flatley, a friend and co-editor (with Jennifer Doyle) of Pop Out: Queer Warhol (1996). José quickly transformed the academy not only through his writing but through his mentorship of a generation of scholars, many of who now work at some of the country’s most dynamic and prestigious departments.

And so we met the news of José Esteban Muñoz’s death on December 3, 2013 with a collective howl. A constellation of artists, writers, curators, and scholars have spent the winter shaken by paroxysms of grief: José’s lifework as a philosopher/critic, which includes his practice of friendship, has been so integral to this community that we feel as if the very ground beneath us has disappeared.

On February 8, at a memorial gathering at NYU, Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman reprised Kiki & Herb’s rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in tribute to José. Later that afternoon, Carmelita Tropicana welcomed his friends to a Village basement bar, where filmmaker Guinevere Turner roused the crowd with a performance of her correspondence with José; the electronic duo Matmos staged a “Germ Burn for Darby Crash” in his memory; Miguel Gutierrez amplified a farewell “I love you” into a gorgeous sonic loop; Gus Stadler and Barbara Browning sang their cover of “Take Ecstasy With Me”; Kay Turner led a rousing reprise of Cruising Utopia as a punk anthem; and Nao Bustamante, wearing a nude body suit and veiled in the black cloud of a Vegas widow, planted herself face down on the stage and tore through “Lara’s Theme.” Nao peeled the skin off its lyrics (“Someday my love…”), marking out the distance between its sweet fantasy and the place we are in here and now. Then she rolled and crawled across the floor, from the front of the stage to the back of the bar.

Jennifer Doyle is a professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Tavia Nyong’o is an associate professor at New York University.

¹ José Esteban Muñoz, “ ‘Gimme Gimme This… Gimme Gimme That’: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons, Social Text 31, no. 3 116 (Fall 2013), 95–110.