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he above image comes from the 1995 film Safe, written and directed by Todd Haynes (who is frequently associated with the New Queer Cinema movement coming out of the 1990s). Safe follows Carol, a homemaker in Los Angeles who slowly becomes overwhelmed by her suburban environment and begins to experience mysterious bodily maladies. She has headaches. She can’t breathe. Her body erupts into seizures. Carol’s mysterious illness confounds biomedicine, but can be understood through the framework of the political ecology of health and body in which “health and sickness are more-than-human; they are an ecology” (Jackson and Neely, 2015: 2). Carol’s body is reacting to her geography, a home and social life infused with de-politicized silence and disconnection. Reecia Orzeck (2007: 499), working with Harvey, argues that “the body, for Marx, is porous: the dialectical product of worlds without and within.” As a result, she argues, “if the body reflects the world it must have a mechanism for absorbing that world.” Carol’s body is allergic to her world. As she tries to absorb her “place,” she becomes sick from her everyday life, what the film calls “multiple chemical sensitivity” (for more about the condition, see Murphy, 2000). The film theorist Dennis Lim (2014) says Safe is an “existential horror movie in which the monster is both all around us and nowhere to be seen.”
Carol becomes increasingly isolated due to her condition, and she finds a safe space in the landscape of New Mexico, a retreat for people whose bodies are also rejecting their environments. Using this site of alternative healing, Todd Haynes—who was ACT UP activist at the height of the AIDS crisis—depicts the “blaming the victim” attitude that was pervasive around HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s by examining how “we attach meaning and personal responsibility to illness” (Tobias, 2014). This commune does not heal Carol. A withdrawn figure in a hazmat suit that constantly circulates around this commune represents the unlikeliness of a cure. Instead, Carol ends up alone, getting sicker and sicker. The film, and Haynes, never reveal any cause for Carol’s sickness. Peter the commune leader tells his followers, “The only person who can make you sick is you,” echoing many very real New Age thinkers in the eighties and nineties who said that positive thinking was a miracle cure to any ailment. In the final scene Carol, alone, looks into the mirror (which is also the camera) and repeats “I love you.” It is a stark reminder of the limits of self-care in a culture of relentless individualized self-help.
A counterpoint to Safe’s bleak message can be found in artist Johanna Hedva’s (2015) "Sick Woman Theory". Hedva lays out her ideas in a piece that begins with a story about a bad spell of her chronic illness that coincided with the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles. “I listened to the sounds of the marches as they drifted up to my window. Attached to the bed, I rose up my sickwoman fist, in solidarity.” Hedva questions our assumptions about who a political being can be and what she can do. The central question of Sick Woman Theory is “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” Hedva proposes a figure of a grand Theory with traditionally anti-heroic qualities—“illness, idleness, and inaction.” She says:
“Sick Woman Theory is to resist the notion that one needs to be legitimated by an institution, so that they can try to fix you. You don’t need to be fixed, my queens—it’s the world that needs the fixing.”
This figure she asserts can take a variety of forms, such as the victim of police violence Freddie Gray, the refugee, or the homeless person:
The Sick Woman is the abused child.The Sick Woman is the person with autism whom the world is trying to ‘cure.’
The Sick Woman is the starving.
The Sick Woman is the dying.
And, crucially: The Sick Woman is who capitalism needs to perpetuate itself.
Because to stay alive, capitalism cannot be responsible for our care – its logic of exploitation requires that some of us die.” (Hedva, 2015)
By ending this partial list with capitalism, Hedva implies a dance of pain and care, isolation and solidarity that rages in the geographies of our everyday lives. This dance has the potential to open spaces up to queerness or to queer social reproduction. To embrace marginalization, and your fellow marginalized, reclaims what those in power view as your weaknesses or flaws and then to throw it back in the faces of those who hate and despise you. Queerness means not going away and transforming the very institutions—a fictional healthy home life—that are based on your rejection.
In a recent review essay Marcus (2005) argued that “queer has been the victim of its own popularity, proliferating to the point of uselessness.” So what then is gained by modifying social reproduction? Would queering social reproduction require subverting the “normal household” or would it be articulating and advocating for non-hetero households? 'Do we support safe spaces from the hetero-capitalist world or do we try to transform that world?' We don’t have to choose. We can embrace contradictions. The tensions between these two approaches can be embraced. In the rest of this essay I want to return to theorizing from the 1960s to the 1990s for guidance and inspiration on how to queer social reproduction in conservative and increasingly privileged homonormative times (Duggan, 2002; Warner, 1999) in which selective rights (e.g. gay marriage) are expanded for those who buy into systems of power.
In Warner’s (1993) Fear of a Queer Planet, queer is a term that is defined against the normal, but normal as a context of terror and violence. These normal “sites of violence” are not only bashing, but structural violence, emotional trauma, slow violence, and slow death. Almost 25 years later, the fear of a queered world persists, even while gay marriage is an option as a path to normal. Instead of global transformation, crip theorists Johnson and McRuer (2014) counter the famous gay teenage suicide prevention campaign: “the willful crip rejoinder to ‘it gets better’ is ‘it’s always something.’” To queer social reproduction be to retreat into isolation or a promised future of achieving normal, but rather to push for collectivizing caring for one another and all forms of life’s work.
Hence the usefulness of the framework of social reproduction, a perspective of everyday life that takes labor as a starting point (i.e., who does the work of keeping people alive) and grounds analysis within questions of political economy. Strauss outlines social reproduction as having “three components: biological reproduction, the reproduction of the labouring population, and provisioning and caring needs”(Strauss, 2013: 182, Meehan and Strauss, 2015) Social reproduction theorists have included much more than political economy in their thinking, starting with feminist analysis and more recently embracing intersectional analysis and queer studies that sees sexuality as an expansive concept. Marcus (2015) says:
“[in] queer studies today sexuality often does not refer primarily to gender or sex; instead, sexuality can mean affect, kinship, social reproduction, the transmission of property, the division between public and private, and the construction of race and nationality.”
Accordingly, Katz’s (2001) fleshy messy everyday life can also include this expansive notion of sexuality, but as a geographer she reminds us to think of the counter-topographies of this concept.
I want to return to home and the household—key geographies in Safe and Hedva—but also to the nuclear/biological family. For many feminists, the home has been a paradox and a geography to criticize (Blunt, 2005; England, 2010; Milligan, 2005). In the United States, the home was always ready to explode, put under pressures by the military industrial complex, financial crises, and state violence. The home is like a Fabergé egg, gilded and rare, but also so fragile, easily broken by desire, by sickness, by violence. At the same time this fragility was held together by capital and the state, along with whiteness, suburbanization, and divisions of labor. Marion Werner suggests that social reproduction obscures as much as it reveals. This figure of the family conceals queerness, that which was outside this institution because “queerness was understood as the antithesis of the normative nuclear biological family” (Marcus, 2015). But now, as homonormativity grows, is that true anymore?
Taking a page from Hedva this means clearly “fixing” the home itself, not merely including same-sex couples, a chosen few who were previously rejected from this world. To further expand the project of queering the home can find guidance from Mel Chen:
I do not imagine queer or queerness to merely indicate embodied sexual contact among subjects identified as gay and lesbian, as occurs via naive translations of queer as the simple chronological continuation or epistemological condensation of a gay and lesbian identitarian project. Rather, I think more in terms of the social and cultural formations of “improper affiliation,” so that queerness might well describe an array of subjectivities, intimacies, beings, and spaces located outside of the heteronormative (Chen, 2012: 104).
The project of queering social reproduction then becomes not just what comes next as part of an identity project, rather how can we explore and support all the “improper affiliations” that can open up our geographies of work, home, family, children, and intimacy. By celebrating the improper ways that we connect, survive and support one another, we can start proposing new futures. I will end with some “improper” attempts.
To build upon the isolation of bodies in the home, including the limits of community in the two examples of Safe and Sick Woman Theory, I want to lean towards the economic base in the classic base/superstructure debates. Historian of gay identity John D’Emillio (2012) and iconic feminist Selma James both deal with how identity is shaped by isolation. They see the home and the family profoundly shaped by economy and labour. D’Emillio argues that gay identity and gay social life can be explained by somewhat crude economic determinism. He suggests that gay identity did not always exist and has an economic foundation. D’Emilio traces in his long history how capitalism undermined the family as a nurturing “affective entity,” for example individuals could purchase their means of care and sustenance in terms of cleaning, food preparation, etc. Accordingly, D’Emilio argues that:
Affection, intimate relationships, and sexuality moved increasingly into the realm of individual choice, seemingly disconnected from how one organized the production of goods necessary for survival (D'Emilio, 2012: 11).
Yet at the same time, capitalist ideology valorized the family and the products of family—children—as the sole basis of stable human relationships. Then, in the 20th century that intimacy and sexuality became detached from home and survival strategies. Gay identity emerged outside of family and household and a gay group life formed in urban spaces and new key institutions (bars, cruising, etc.). D’Emilio’s recommendations in the 1980s are even more essential as austerity and precarity has become pervasive in our current moment:
Gay men and lesbians are well situated to play a special role. Already excluded from families as most of us are, we have to create, for our survival, networks of support that do not depend on the bonds of blood or the license of the state, but that are freely chosen and nurtured. The building of an “affectional community” must be as part of our political movement as are campaigns for civil rights (D’Emilio, 1983: 475).
Gay life emerges from this exclusion and though it has been captured by capitalism in the form of consumption, exclusion makes it possible to queer social reproduction. However, our current moment is defined by expanding precarity, where only the elite can afford care through the market. So does the future mean a return to a slightly modified heteronormative family, what Duggan (2002) calls homonormative? Or will queer affectional communities be formed and break the “bonds to blood” and the state?
Similar to D’Emilio, the feminist Selma James—co-founder of the Wages for Housework Campaign—grounds her project in the contradictory relationship between capitalism, family, and community. Taking the historical perspective, she acknowledges how working outside the home was no great prize, but at least it was an alternative to the isolation of the home. For James, the woman in the home can be a figure of subversion, the center of social relations that can bring forward the contradiction of politics and the economy. Similar to Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory, the woman in the home is a potential spark to set off a general struggle. James wrote:
Dalla Costa considers the community as first and foremost the home, and considers therefore the woman as the central figure of subversion in the community. Seen in this way, women are the contradiction in all previous political frameworks, which had been based on the male worker in industry. Once we see the community as a productive center and thus a center of subversion, the whole perspective for generalized struggle and revolutionary organization is re-opened (Dalla Costa and James, 1973).
To combine and build off these interventions, I think Donna Haraway’s move around kin and making kin troubles the pro-natalist world we live in and can further expand our notion of home and family beyond ancestry. Haraway includes the nonhuman: “Kin-making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans.... making kin and making kind (as category, care, relatives without ties by birth, lateral relatives, lots of other echoes)” (Haraway, 2015: 161).
But not surprisingly, dangers abound.
With kin, the dangerous “we” is always lurking. In the 1980s, Adrienne Rich brought up an “i/we” tension or paradox by asking the question: “isn’t there a difficulty of saying ‘we’? You cannot speak for me. I cannot speak for us. Two thoughts: there is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I’; there is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through” (Rich, 1984). This merely gives queering social reproduction another tension and critique to add to list, which may seem frustrating. But as Muñoz wrote queer thought is an “arduous mode of relationality.” Queer thought and action needs to include positionality, intersectionality, and relational dialectics. Queer social reproduction is about breaking down siloes, and demarcations, but importantly promoting an “expansive idea of the common and communism” (Muñoz, 2015: 210). Queering social reproduction must be a utopian project.
To end I want to make five propositions about the worlds of work, children, family, intimacy, and home, as seen as institutions. Now a proposition is a suggestion not declarative statement. Like any proposition these can be turned down, connections can be missed, glances can be misunderstood, moves can be rejected. Propositions can fail and that is part of the art (Halberstam, 2011). My propositions suggest ways to queer/common these spaces while arduously embracing the contradictions. These institutions are supported by other institutions (the state and the law, religion, police). I want to embrace the spirit of Sick Woman Theory. Queer social reproduction does not? need to be legitimated by these institutions and “fixed,” rather it is these worlds “that needs the fixing.” Like rethinking the notion of work as a struggle over the wage, these institutions need to be practiced as a process, not an identity. The Wages for Housework campaign’s demand for a wage is many times thought of as a demand for a thing, for “a lump of money.” But this was always more than a simple demand: it is also a political perspective. It is not about reifying or objectifying institutions, but about turning them into sites of struggle. This is what these propositions try to do.
Proposition 1: Work is “improper." All of it. The improper affiliations that arise from waged work are the first step, so we must celebrate new forms of working affiliations because the wage cannot be the sole means of survival.
Proposition 2: Children are about time, not biology. To care for kin means being open to new ways and forms of kinship. This means moving away from the figure of the child and to challenge the biological basis of family.
Proposition 3: Family is an i/we paradox. Family can be a choice, an open relationship. Family can be a form of stability, but when closed to the world horrible things can happen.
Proposition 4: Intimacy is a form of commoning, but is often arduous. Intimacy is overdetermined by desire, but can also be built upon common suffering.
Proposition 5: Home is not a place – like work is not a wage – but a process to make more and more kinship. To queer social reproduction the home must be open and not a space of isolation.
In the film Safe, as Carol gets sicker she moves between two homes, starting in a suburban mansion and ending in a porcelain igloo. According to Lim (2014) ), “The first home is opulent, the second one spartan; both are designed to keep out the world, safe havens that are also prisons of the self.” Queering social reproduction might be a way to combat this isolation and sickness, and Sick Woman Theory offers us a way out of these prisons of the self through caring for others. To not blame our afflictions or affiliations on ourselves, and to work for each other rather than retreating from the world. Working against isolation requires survival strategies, but not a return to the fragile nuclear household. As Hedva says:
Because, once we are all ill and confined to the bed, sharing our stories of therapies and comforts, forming support groups, bearing witness to each other’s tales of trauma, prioritizing the care and love of our sick, pained, expensive, sensitive, fantastic bodies, and there is no one left to go to work, perhaps then, finally, capitalism will screech to its much-needed, long-overdue, and motherfucking glorious halt. (Hedva, 2015)
What are our suburban homes and our porcelain igloos, and, correspondingly, where are the monsters in our existential horror films? The monster of isolation is familiar: No one wants to die alone. Queer theory, like crip theory, (and, at the best of times feminism and Marxism) is about communing and collectivity: the way home to queer social reproduction.