On Writing a Grim Ethnography

I want to thank Geraldine Pratt, Derek Ruez, and David Seitz for their generous and thoughtful reviews of Under Bright Lights and Society and Space for giving me the opportunity to respond to them here. I want to take this chance to directly engage reviewers, not as an occasion to “update” and thus correct certain claims I made about a world from which I have since gained greater distance, but as an opportunity to draw out from some of the reviewers’ comments issues about writing and critique with which I continue to wrestle. This is, admittedly, a rather selfish interpretation of what it means to craft a reply. I pursue it here, however, in the hopes of simultaneously addressing the questions raised and laying out, if somewhat hesitantly, some points about reparativity, empathy, the city, and the limits of narrative tone.

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“Let’s face it: this is, in a sense, a cruel book, unnervingly free of political pieties that root for the underdog.” Among the comments made by the original manuscript reviewers of Under Bright Lights, it was this line that struck me the most. Written parenthetically, following not unsympathetic remarks about how the book was “discomfiting, even disturbing, given the absence of any real sense of political progressivism,” it points to my own discomfort with the narrative desires that often accompany the reading and writing of texts about queer life in the postcolony. I am referring here to the expectation that the cruelty of critique might lead to the raising of possibilities for forms of life other than the damaged one presented—that is, for what Seitz describes, following Sedgwick (following Klein), as “critical maps of the world that make room for people’s creative practices of cobbling together the good and bad fragments of their objects in order to make a patchy, incoherent, but pleasurable and ameliorative world.” “I wanted more…on what a less cruel-optimistic relation to the dream of global modernity might look like,” Seitz writes. “I was left wanting more. I wonder, what other kinds of dreams would waking up from the bad dream of global gay modernity make possible? What might they look, feel, or sound like?”

I quote Seitz’s and the anonymous reviewer’s comments here because they raise questions that have haunted this project since its inception and that continue to haunt my writing today. These questions—about what remains possible, about how to imagine the possible—have come to me in different forms. They have been raised as points of curiosity and, at times, injunctions, but I encountered them first as an internal compulsion: a nagging pull to offer the reader something more than what the anonymous reviewer called the book’s dissipation of “any sense of consciousness-transformation.” Writing Under Bright Lights, I learned to think of this compulsion as an effect of the patterns laid bare by the ameliorative instinct reparativity evokes (rightly or wrongly) and that runs through the stories of queer postcoloniality and racailzied queerness that have enabled my own retelling of gay life in Manila. In turn, I wrote this book as a stubborn, perhaps reactionary refusal of this compulsion; a deliberate effort not to attempt to fulfill others’ (and my own) desire for a picture of fantasy-structures already under repair; a rejection of the ethnographic hunt for good surprises lodged in the everyday, the quotidian, the ordinary, and other privileged sites of unpredictability.

It should be apparent that Under Bright Lights is deeply indebted to projects that have explicated the modes of improvisory cobbling together that Seitz frames in terms of Sedgwickian reparativity, but that were once written as part of processes of “hybridization,” “vernacularization,” “localization,” and the production of “alternative modernities,” among others. These terms and the processes they name may have their own histories, their own theoretical particularities, but together they restored the agentic capacities at work in forms of life that once had no status as objects of intellectual inquiry. Built on the foundation of weak theory, they made world-making practices that make life possible in otherwise unbearable conditions visible and, thus, forestalled the still dangerous, though thankfully less common, assumption that those who live in depressed corners of the world are merely caught in the throes of forces beyond their control.

Under Bright Lights depends on the reversal of this assumption, but it was also written as an experiment, as a suspension of narratives that explicated the structuring fantasies and structures of violence faced by racialized and colonized queers only to insist that modes of reprieve were already embedded in life as we know it, and thus, necessarily, ethnographically observable. Life is tough, but look. Fantasies are hardcoded, but wait. We’re all fucked, but still. I wrote the conclusion—and it is, admittedly, grim—wondering what would happen if I wrote a story of queer life in the postcolony without the ameliorative “but” that we append in order not to contribute to a hermeneutics of suspicion. Ironically then, my desire to refuse to explicate a way out, to describe “other kinds of dreams,” was driven by the same aversion to the foreclosure of surprise expressed by Seitz. For it seemed to me, perhaps more so now than at the time of the book’s writing, that we had grown so paranoid about being paranoid that we had subsequently learned to feign surprise at what had become the least surprising of discoveries: namely, that people find ways to deal, to endure, and to draw pleasure from processes of making do. In other words, I wrote this book driven by the sense that the reparative instinct, inasmuch as it has become an instinct and inasmuch as it works defensively against the threat of paranoia, also anticipates objects in advance, also forecloses surprise. The hermeneutics of suspicion may, as Lauren Berlant rightly put it, “always find the mirages and failures for which it looks,” but I was convinced then, as I am now, that the reparative instinct also always finds the ameliorative practices on which it pins its hopes (2011: 123).

So often those hopes are pinned precisely on those whose conditions seem hopeless. It is as though we’ve replaced the image of “third world” queers—or third world subjects more broadly—in need of saving with the image of them already saving themselves, if always partially. As I write this now, I wonder, earnestly and seriously, when we insist that idioms for criticality include both the exposure of complicity and glimmers of alternative forms of relationality. I wonder if the call to find the latter, to provide a resource for hope, has not become an obligation for queers of color and queer of color critique—that is, if the desire for “more,” for other kinds of dreams to emerge out of the damaged lives of those in the beaten corners of the world, is but an effect of an unintended yet oft rehearsed slippage between alternativity, positivity, and geopolitical and georacial marginality. Lee Edelman’s pre-emptive rebuttal to the call for “more” in No Future rings loudly for me in the face of my own failure to gesture toward a way out of a condition of misery: “And the trump card of affirmation?” he asks, rhetorically. “Always the question: if not this, what"(2004: 4)?  Are we allowed to refuse to answer this question, as Edelman does? To not be the “what” that survives the near total incorporation of queer lives doubly framed by whiteness and wealth into bankrupt liberal orders? To linger instead on the miserable pursuit of an always elusive fantasy; to withhold the pleasure and relief of waking up from bad dreams; to acknowledge love but render it an afterthought?

In many ways, my refusal to sate curiosities about what a life outside the fantasy of gay modernity and globality might look like accounts for Geraldine Pratt’s observation that the book’s tone is largely stripped of empathy. For me, the greatest challenge of writing as an “insider” (a position I claimed only hesitantly and no longer can) was not to let the pleasure I took from the world I was describing—my love for it—turn the task of ethnographic writing into a salvage operation. For to do so while claiming membership, while folding myself into my object of study, would make writing a more fundamentally narcissistic endeavor that it always already is. It would make it a matter, not only of exercising ethnographic authority, but of theorizing my life in order to save it. This would not have been difficult to do. With a few interpretive switches, I might have re-described the scene I inhabited then in a manner that supplied grounds for empathy or that gestured towards a politics that would confirm our faith in the third world queer as a bearer of hope. The dance clubs I describe as weighted by the fractioning threat of class politics might be seen as spaces where gay men cobble together materials drawn from the fantasy of gay modernity in order to create a world of counterpleasures in the face of national homophobia and global economic marginality. The practice of driving to and from dispersed sites of gay life that I speak of as animated by the same logic of speed that undergirds capitalism can be thought of as the improvisory use of technology that enables gay life to exist within Manila’s harsh urban geography. The silence about racism experienced in the imagined centers of the gay globe that I suggest is integral to the perpetuation of the dream of globality can be read as a practice of resilience that allows Filipino gay men to survive the shame of unbelonging. Complicity, in other words, can itself be thought as a mode of endurance. It is ameliorative; it is the negotiation of violence. In writing that I wished to “treat the theme of complicity as an ethical injunction,” however, I wanted to put pressure on the chain of meanings that would see modes of survival raised to the status of a critical good and, in the process, rescue a world that endures through its incorporation into structures of violence from the possibility of condemnation.

Perhaps I had, in the process of writing what would become a grim ethnography, overwritten empathy with guilt, or forgotten that one can, at once, love one’s object of study and be suspicious of it. Pratt’s question about the limits and possibilities of narrative tone, however, speak to a strategy I adopted as means of evoking a sense of ambivalence. I wanted to capture the feeling of being invested in a world damned by its enchantment with fantasies of globality and by its participation in the hierarchies engendered by the pursuit of an always elusive state of modernity. I do not think, however, that the ability to recognize the damned and damning qualities of a world is possessed only by those who can partake of the authority of the ethnographer or critic. The “substance of critique,” as Pratt puts it, can be shared even by those who serve as objects of critique themselves. With perhaps a few exceptions, the men of whom I write in Under Bright Lights would readily acknowledge their implication in Manila’s ruthless class politics. Indeed, some may actively bemoan the incredible levels of inequality that define the city and express anger when faced with the accounts of the exploitation of the “masses” that regularly circulate within even the most bourgeois of Filipino lifeworlds. Still, one can recognize a structure of violence as demanding critique and yet continue to reap its benefits. One can be genuinely moved, for instance, by the stories of abuse faced by Filipino workers overseas and yet not wish to sit next to them on airplanes, or share a bed with them, or bear the consequences of a world without the lifeblood of their exported labor. Perhaps the limit of narrative tone—or my narrative tone, at least—lies in its inability to capture the relays between sympathy and indifference, solidarity and disdain that defines the politics of the privileged in cities like Manila or, more accurately, that makes it difficult to say that the avowed political commitments of the privileged (against class inequality, against misogyny, against racism, whatever) “make sense.”

The term “privilege” itself has, of course, increasingly been stripped of utility. Now common phrases like “check your privilege” expose the dependence of politics as we know it, even in its ostensibly progressive forms, on notions of positionality that remain tethered to fantasies of self-knowledge and sovereign subjectivity. In Under Bright Lights, “privilege” served a particular function; it was deployed as a substitute for the demographic information I opted not to provide. Part of the reason I did not want to answer some of the questions Pratt raises about financial dependence and independence, the nature of my informants’ work lives, and their connections to elite families is because I wanted to avoid readings of class that were bound to economic indicators. This was not because money did not matter in the world I tried to capture—it did—but because class positioning appeared to me to be far more precarious than what is suggested by studies that proceed from demographic knowledge. I was interested in the vaguer aspects of class belonging: the way others could be recognized as part of the same, classed world without knowing what they did for a living, their net worth, their last name. A partial list of social class indicators (language, education, style, etc.) may reveal some things about membership, but I was not interested in determining, for the reader, who did and did not belong, but rather in presenting the process of class formation as felt and thoroughly ambiguous. If the reader “gets” from the stories I narrate a sense (and only a sense) of what the world I’m describing is, it is because that is precisely what I imagine worlding to be: a sensory experience, an impression, the gut feeling of knowing without knowing, nothing more and also, importantly, nothing less.

This is why, as Ruez points out, the book adopts a topological approach. It is invested in the unwieldy, unmappable, always precarious movements across material and immaterial spaces that allow a world to come into being. As he suggests, the book’s interest in the relational constitution of queer urban spaces also gestures towards a looser understanding of urbanity—an image of the city as porous, always extending beyond itself, and populated by people, objects, categories, and concepts that are themselves perpetually on the move. This is not a new observation. Theories of the city have long grappled with flows and mobilities, both real and imagined. My own contribution to this work is an attempt to depict the drama of lived experiences of mobility, to provide something like a narrative counterpart to the abstract models necessitated by the sheer complexity of cities today. In many ways, the dilemma I faced while writing Under Bright Lights was how to ethnographically render the interplay between mobilities that operated on different spatial scales and conceptual registers. I wanted to depict moving parts without arresting them in their tracks. In my attempt to do this, I drew heavily from anthropological works that were not particularly interested in the urban experience of speed and hypermobility: Kathleen Stewart’s A Space on the Side of the Road, Michael Taussig’s My Cocaine Museum, Alphonso Lingis’s Abuses, among others. While these works did not have their eyes trained on the networks of flows and the technologies of urban, virtual, and transnational movement that I was interested in, they captured in their imaginative retellings of life outside the centers of the world, the nervous energy of lives weighted with uncertainty and the back-and-forth between hope and defeat, dreams and nightmares that I think characterizes the life of cities, and third world cities especially. It is their attention to the pathos of living on, in the shadows of modernity, that I fear gets lost in frameworks of mobility grounded in conceptual figurations of cities as porous, dispersed, and overexposed, as accurate as those figurations may be.

Ruez is right to say, moreover, that an attempt to unpack the constitution of dreams of modernity in places like Manila demands something of a feedback loop. “What would it mean,” he asks, “to return, anew, to those imagined centers of gay globality—London, Toronto, Sydney, New York, etc.—that have also been the center of attention for much queer urban scholarship? What would it mean, for example, to think Sydney from Manila?” His suggestion that perhaps dreams of gay globality in cities like Sydney are dependent on those same dreams being pursued but never achieved in cities like Manila is, I think, important and instructive. For if, as I have claimed, such dreams work in Manila in a manner that is difficult, if not impossible to resist, it is only because of the belief that they have already been achieved, elsewhere and elsewhen. This belief is a shared belief; it shapes not only the lives of those whose primary experience of “global cities” is that of a distant image, but also of those who live in them. Perhaps we might think too of how this belief is fostered and confirmed for those who do reside in the centers of the gay globe; how they come to believe that they have been able, in Fanon’s terms, “to attain to the source of the world” (1967: 109); and how this belief might, in fact, also serve as a mode of endurance, a way to make life in what we already know to be some of the world’s cruelest environments bearable, if not pleasurable. This final point of speculation can only be pursued, however, if we remain suspicious of the dreams that allow us to survive and which, in the end, hold no promise, not for those who think they are living it, nor for those who think they can, in time. 


Berlant L (2011) Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Edelman L (2004) No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Fanon F (1967) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.