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o this point, queer spatial imaginaries have largely been thought through an urban/rural binary. Karen Tongson’s Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries offers many elegant and playful challenges to this logic, but one of my favorites is this:
“And yet these little boxes, these micro-parcels of contact and commerce, teem with lives cosmopolites won’t deign or dare to imagine” (page 154).
This incitement captures so much about what’s important about Tongson’s intervention: its reparative engagement with the unlovely, unlovable suburb as a place not of normativity’s triumph but as a site of queer possibility (suburbs here are not metronormative geographies of shame, but spaces of complex affective relations that cannot be productively understood through simple binaries); its engagement with the soundscapes so central to suburbia’s queer aesthetics (here, the citation of Malvinia Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” invokes not just the televisual productions of suburban excess in show like Weeds, which borrowed the song from ’60s protest culture, but also its staple role in the anti-suburbanism of lesbian feminist women’s music); and its commitment to what might be thought, through its exploration of “lesser Los Angeles” (page 162), to lesser geographies (geographies that Tongson shows are not so distant from empire as urbanites used to a more vertical imperial architecture might think).
Tongson’s interest in empire asks the reader to situate southern California’s suburbs globally, and in doing so offers an important demonstration of the centrality of gender and sexuality to the politics of post-urbanization. With great hesitation about any generalization about “the global city,” I do think it’s fair to say that the transnational suburbanization of poverty has become a widely recognized phenomenon, as elites reclaim urban centers in search of a cosmopolitan diversity Tongson powerful demonstrates is indebted in part to queer gentrification – not just in the sense of property value, but also in terms of the cultural and social capital queer social and artistic expression create. The role of empire and transnational capital in these global relocations have drawn attention to the centrality of racialization to these processes, but gender and sexuality have been less well theorized – an omission that Tongson demonstrates may lead to a radical misunderstanding of both suburbs and queer racialized subjects. (A similar lack of attention to the centrality of racialization structures much of the debate about queer geographies, it’s worth noting).
What I appreciate about Tongson’s approach to spatialization is the creative methodology she uses to disrupt optics that position suburbs as sterile, isolating dead ends. That in and of itself, as Tongson notes, might have opened a queer reading of the suburbs akin to the questions about futurity Lee Edelman (2004) raised in No Future, but Tongson moves in a different direction by thinking about suburbs as sites of circulation that produce complex temporal socialities. Taking her inspiration from the commute and even more particularly, the freeway cloverleaf – one of the many places that Tongson deftly explores the relationship between the material environment and spatial imaginaries – these forms of movement lack the purposeful teleology of gay urban migration narratives of the kind Kath Weston (1998) has described, driven instead by a range of necessities from the practical – the strip mall that provides one-stop shopping – to the affective – riding around with friends, going if not going somewhere.
These mobilities might be thought of as the cornerstone of what Tongson describes as a suburban aesthetic – something metronormative logics might perceive as a contradiction in terms. In this sense, the suburb is not a bounded place, whatever cultural norms might position it as both a haven from urban disorder and a domestication of rural unruliness – but a geography produced by particular kinds of mobilities. I find this idea tremendously helpful in understanding one of the basic challenges that Los Angeles presents to the outsider – with the exception of a very small downtown, the built environment of “the city” and “the suburbs” look exactly the same. Thinking of the ways different kinds of mobilities produce these spaces in relation to both infrastructure and mass culture offers a creative and exciting methodology for understanding the role of embodiment in spatial imaginaries. Tongson returns again and again to the idea of “remote intimacies,” which she reworks from Jennifer Terry’s project on surveillance to mean “the communities for whom intimacies cohere across virtual networks of desire through radio, music, and television, on the Internet, and now through online social networking sites” (page 130). It’s a provocative way to think about suburban sociality – for example, the kid sitting in a suburban bedroom as a car rolls by with the music turned up too loud may experience a connection enabled by song that creates social possibilities that excite, incite, and sustain.
One important contribution of this book is the unseating the urban as the primary spatial referent for the suburb’s geographic Others. Tongson suggests that there are important relationships between suburbs that must be understood, something that resonated for me as the child of a Los Angeles white flight suburb whose sense of possibility emerged not by going to the city – that geography had to wait for my adulthood – but to the Inland Empire, where my great aunts lived in a Boston marriage in a ranch house amid orange groves that gradually became a suburb of what were not quite McMansions, but certainly aspired to be so. In thinking about this personal Southern California geography, however, as well as my experience teaching in north Orange County – where one of the great dream of our Women’s Studies program was to find a way to lure Gwen Stefani back as a keynote speaker for women’s history month, a desire that Tongson’s book helps make sense of – I found myself wondering about the complex racialization of southern California suburbs. In my experience there, part of what defined “city” for a range of subjects in the area was its persistent association with blackness, so that blocks of ranch houses in Compton remained urban even if very similar looking streets in Anaheim, occupied by Latino or Asian American subjects, were positioned as suburbs. It seems fitting that Relocations, in rethinking the terms through which we imagine suburbs, seeks to shift the focus from the black city/white suburb imaginary that no longer makes any sense in thinking about the demographics of southern California suburbs, but Tongon’s work suggests to me further opportunities to explore the role blackness might play in the surburban aesthetics mapped in Relocations. I found myself wondering, for example, how a city like Atlanta might offer a way of thinking about comparative racialization in the suburbs – suggesting some of the new lines of inquiry Tongson’s work might inspire.
Another big question I was left thinking about is the important role of the aesthetic in this work. In some queer metronormative imaginaries, the suburban occupies the position of the anti-aesthetic – unlike the rural, which can be eroticized, the suburbs are the thing too tacky to reclaim. Of course, that tackiness has been a site of pleasure for some white queer male cultural producers – I think about John Water’s Serial Mom and Mark Cherry’s Desperate Housewives (Cherry is from Fullerton, California, not coincidentally) as popular examples. But these kitsch engagements with the suburbs may in fact produce an urban aesthetic in the ways in which they engage the suburbs as a delightfully despised spatial other – which is to say, there may be a difference between urban kitsch treatments of the suburbs and the suburban kitsch Tongson sees in a performer like JJ Chinois. Tongson offers an important discussion of the role of race and gender in the urban critique of suburban aesthetic excess, noting that such attacks position women, immigrants, and people of color as aesthetic failures (page 34). I found myself thinking also about the role of authenticity in this debate, in part because of the ways that Tongson suggests that the cultural workers she discusses both engage and deconstruct this concept. In this sense, I think Tongson challenges the role of aesthetic in queer authenticity. Queer kids shopping at Hot Topic are too easily perceived as tools of the capitalist machine rather than, as Tongson suggests through her exploration of dykeaspora, subjects who “choose pop culture signifiers that allude to the pervading ethos of capitalist consumption in suburban spaces while at the same time refusing the homogenizing imperatives of mass consumption” (page 61).
But is there a role for something like an anti-aesthetic in this argument? I found myself thinking of the strategies of representation of Deanna Erdmann photos that Tongson includes in her discussion of the Inland Empire. I’m not at all interested in some kind of binary positioning of these terms, but I am interested to think about what something like an anti-aesthetic might mean as part of suburban imaginaries. I think of this as the “grocery shopping in sweatpants” dynamic – if the aesthetics of urban imaginaries may make such a practice unthinkable, as one friend in New York informed me – what pleasures and freedoms emerge in suburban spaces? I’m particularly interested in Tongson’s discussion of “Lolo and Perla Return to Avenge Klub Fantasy,” where the character Lolo “produces herself as an agent of tastelessness who very literally ‘acts out’ against the club’s new social order” (page 211). This moment, like many others in Relocations, incites the reader to imagine the peculiar pleasures and freedoms that may inhere in suburban spatial imaginaries – and which may inspire the recognition of other thriving queer geographies that a meteronormative optic grounded in gender, race, and class privilege fails to recognize.