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Bobby Benedicto’s Under Bright Lights: Gay Manila and the Global Scene is an extraordinary contribution to contemporary debates on globalization, sexuality, and space. Through years of careful ethnographic attention to the clubs, house parties, and hookup and dating sites frequented by Manila’s middle and upper class gay men, Benedicto powerfully demonstrates how an emergent “bright lights scene” dreams of its perpetually deferred arrival at a distinctly modern, global gay “elsewhere,” and how those dreams are haunted by halting neoliberal inequality and racial shame.
Challenging the romance of the third world queer subject as always already redemptive and resistant, he paints a more nuanced picture of how “(globally) marginal and (locally) privileged” (page 117) urban subjects answer to the imperatives of modernity and masculinity by disavowing other queers, particularly the Filipino idiom of the bakla, as trashy, retro, and/or simply too “effem” (page 85).
Under Bright Lights is also a profoundly geographical book. Approaching the scene as an assemblage, formed in relation to imagined horizons of globality, the book is as grounded in insights gleaned from smoking patios, airports and highways as from clubs themselves. Engaging the work of Paul Virilio, David Harvey, Michel Serres, Marc Augé and others, Benedicto maps racialization and racial shame as affective and political processes that emerge through circulation, as subjects with the bittersweet privilege of mobility find themselves both lured and cast off by gay scenes in more “modern” cities – scenes that they ultimately still desire. Finally, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of academic writing I have read in some time.
The book is also tremendously provocative, and so I seek to use the remainder of this review to critically engage Under Bright Lights on two related fronts: questions of affect, and the ethical and political stakes of the project.
In the introduction to Under Bright Lights, Benedicto draws on the work of the noted anthropologist and affect theorist Kathleen Stewart (2007; 2008) as a key methodological inspiration. The introduction promises, “a more fractious set of stories that re-present the scene as a space of desire, intensity, complicity, distributed agency and the unruly movement and circulation of forms. The end effect of this writing as I [Benedicto] imagine it, is not a good enough story of gay life in Manila, but an immersive fiction of being in something that feels like something” (page 23).
This move away from the “good enough story,” away from heavy-handed exegetical authority, is surely a welcome one. Among Stewart’s key sources of inspiration in her work on affective form, attunement, attachment – her lovely universe of emergent potential “somethings” and “whatevers”—are the works of Eve Sedgwick (2003) on paranoid and reparative reading, and of Lauren Berlant (2011a) on “depressive realism.” At stake for all of these thinkers in offering a more careful ethnographic or literary tracing of a scene is the prospect of eschewing so-called paranoid readings—readings that anticipate and interpret their object, in advance, and preemptively expose the reiteration of violent and hierarchical power relations that course through that object. Wounded by bad surprises, paranoid readings risk the foreclosure of surprise altogether. Crucially, Sedgwick (2003) turns to Melanie Klein (1988 ) and Donald Winnicott (1953)—who offer a psychoanalytic notion of the “good enough”—to insist on 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. And of course, one of Klein’s synonyms for that process of integrating good and bad fragments of an object, despite the ever-present possibility of bad surprise, is love.
Under Bright Lights does beautiful work in its engagement with specific affective forms and moments that constitute the unruly assemblage of the bright lights scene. In moments, it alludes to possible ways of confronting the racist, gendered, and classist violence that structures the scene’s desire for modernity. In the book’s somewhat grim conclusion, the cruel-optimistic (Berlant, 2011b) dream of gay globality continues to form the horizon for the desire for many privileged gay men in Manila. But I remain curious about whether Benedicto’s fieldwork ever gave way to moments of what Sedgwick might call “good surprise”—moments of encounter—sexual, social, whatever—across or within boundaries of class, race or nationality that were meaningfully reciprocal, or that didn’t consolidate patterns of hierarchy. In a beautiful sentence in the final core chapter—there are many beautiful sentences, but this one really struck me – Benedicto writes that, “Race is, more than anything, a concealed part of social memory, a hidden sign with meanings that interrupt feelings of global belonging and that erupt in unexpected disenchantments that are met with unpredictable responses” (page 125). Benedicto’s argument is persuasive. But I also wonder whether the unexpected and the unpredictable might also be occasional allies to an antiracist or anticapitalist project, to a dream of global belonging beyond or in excess of the constitutively disingenuous promises of liberal universalism. For indeed, Sedgwick (2003) writes that, “it is sometimes the most paranoid-tending people who are able to, and need to, develop and disseminate the richest reparative practices” (page 150). Thus if the subjects of Under Bright Lights, faced with the shock of racial shame, have ample reason to be paranoid, Sedgwick would suggest that such inaugural shock does not foreclose the possibility of good surprise—surprise that just might nurture alternative forms of world-building. Benedicto concludes the body of the text—the very last sentence in the acknowledgments, right before the endnotes –with gratitude to informants for their “memories, trust, and love” (page 149)—in that sense, love is the very last word in the text. This allusion left me curious about the kind of love, the kind of improvisatory cobbling together, and depressive but perhaps also reparative negotiation of violence, that might characterize the practice of the author and his interview subjects, and what this love might have to teach the reader.
I will return to the book’s conclusion shortly, but I want to turn first to the stakes of Under Bright Lights. I’m curious both about the stakes of the choice of object—“the scene”—and about where the project leaves off.
On the one hand, I came away from the experience of the text wanting to know more about the author’s own affective, erotic, aesthetic or political investment in the bright lights scene. After all, the scene of writing is a scene of desire, not only the desires of the research subjects but those of the author and the reader. The book takes as axiomatic that the author was a scene regular, and then that that relationship was recast during his time as a researcher. But that acknowledgment alone felt a little too quick to me. While I got a good sense of Benedicto’s class position in relation to the scene, I was curious about the author’s desire. One of the prevalent critiques of Stewart’s (2008) work is that her own desire is somewhat muted—an ironically affectless white woman traipsing around Texas—and I think Benedicto generally does a great job of avoiding that. He’s quite reflexive about how his approach to questions, for instance, influences the responses he receives. But I found myself wanting a little bit more articulation of desire in order to better understand Benedicto’s political and intellectual stakes.
On the other hand, the book’s conclusion left me wondering about the stakes of its overall intervention. It’s not shocking to claim that gay scenes are racist, classist and valorize certain, usually masculine, performances of gender over others – that people are mean or shallow or anxious or frightened or flakey in ways that cut with particular viscerality, and often in ways that articulate with hierarchical power relations. And Benedicto is very clear that he is doing far more than rehash that important but widely circulated set of claim. Indeed, Benedicto’s insight that people who are both marginalized and privileged within those scenes are complicit in their own subjection also resonated deeply for me. This is a lesson I’ve learned very well from having a bourgeois, racially miscegenated and politicized gay male friend group and social/sex life in the weird diasporic assemblage of a city that is Toronto—a city the writer Dionne Brand (2005) aptly characterizes as haunted by “the certainty of misapprehension” (page 5).
Still, I wanted more from Benedicto on what a less cruel-optimistic relation to the dream of global gay modernity might look like. I took as promising the musings in the final chapter and the conclusion that more explicit, critical and self-reflexive dialogue about race, class and complicity might underpin such a project. But 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? It may be argued that any dream of a better or different modernity—any aspiration to repair or reciprocity—necessarily instantiates a coherent, modern and ultimately conservative, hierarchy-producing subject (Edelman, 2004). But as Berlant asked Lee Edelman in their debate on the relation between negative and reparative critique, (Berlant and Edelman, 2013), “If not repair, what?” (page 211). Following Sedgwick (2003), it seems crucial to insist on the possibility of a critical project whose idioms for criticality include both exposing complicity and showing the glimmers of alternative forms of relationality and reciprocity that occasionally flash up in the ordinary.
All told, Under Bright Lights is a fantastic piece of work that, perhaps not unlike a fun, messy, potentially thrilling and potentially devastating night out, also leaves a crop of important questions in its wake. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to read it, and it will be a pleasure to see what Benedicto comes up with next.