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n Under Bright Lights, Bobby Benedicto offers an incisive account of the lives and spaces of the "bright lights" scene of privileged gay men in Manila. The book productively complicates the place of what he calls the "third world" queer in our critical imaginaries by highlighting the complicity of members of the bright lights scene in the neoliberal capitalist order shaping the conditions of life in Manila.
Beyond the focus on hybridity, struggle, and resistance that have been central to academic attempts to decenter the "global gay," Benedicto offers a picture of local agency that “works in the service of modernist aspirations, [and] can be mobilized to reproduce the center in the margins” (page 17). We are shown how dreams of gay globality are enacted locally and contingently, and how these dreams—aided by classed forms of urban and transnational mobility—are implicated in the massive inequalities on the ground in Manila. Yet members of the bright lights scene can also never entirely escape the fact of their location, with its material reminders of poverty and its devalued location within global imaginaries and hierarchies.
Indeed, the drama of mobility and its arrest and the relation of that drama to classed dreams of modernity, progress, and the global are the consistent center of the book. From the highways and fly-overs which his informants used to navigate (and, sometimes, temporarily escape) the city to the international travel though which participants accrue a kind of cultural capital by "going global" and returning with stories and connections to centers of gay life abroad, movement is central to the operation of the bright lights scene. It is, however, not solely about movement across space, but also movement through time where, for example, the arrival of foreign DJs and circuit parties mark the arrival of modernity and progress—where “the movement of Manila along the path of gay globality is represented as a movement toward the present, toward contemporaneousness with other cityscapes coded as gay” (page 82). Yet, for participants in the scene, these dreams of modernity and progress are consistently deferred, displaced, and under threat from encounters with a number of marginalized others who become a sort of constitutive outside against which these dreams take shape. This includes the beggar knocking on a car window and thereby momentarily bringing the car’s passengers back into the reality of life in Manila. It also includes the gendered and classed figure of the domestic worker who, in some sense, stands in for the Philippines on the global stage—thereby producing the possibility of misrecognition when travelling abroad. Finally, there is the bakla—a devalued queer figure associated with lower classes, effeminacy, and, above all, perhaps, the past, who nevertheless remains a very present reference point against which members of the scene define themselves. The precarity of dreams of gay globality in Manila is further clarified as these locally privileged gay men find themselves othered and excluded as they come up against the racialized orderings prevailing in queer centers abroad.
In total, Benedicto’s deep ethnographic engagement, careful conceptual argument, and lucid prose make this book a critically important contribution and a truly enjoyable read. In the remainder of this review, I want to pull out a few threads and offer some thoughts about the implications of Under Bright Lights for queer and urban geographers in particular.
Queer Urban Topologies
Benedicto frames his project as a topological ethnography of a scene, and this approach represents an important intervention at the intersection of queer and urban geographic concerns with global circulations and the projects of worlding shaping contemporary city spaces (cf. Oswin 2015). For Benedicto, there is no single fixed territoriality to the bright lights scene, but rather the spaces of the scene are understood as:
“attenuated, squeezed, pliant, and labile—like textiles—continuous with both the failures of the metropolis and the global aspirations of its elites. They are the havens that come out of the cracks of the city and rise in the wake of travels that are real and virtual, protracted and deferred, desired and imagined. From a worm’s eye view, these spaces appear as scattered structures surrounded by urban decay. From high above, they might look, collectively, like a tiny dot reaching out, a glowing speck on a picture of the world at night, ‘where the oecumene appears, like an upside down sky, as an immense galaxy made of all the lights of the cities of the world’” (page 2).
This quote nicely gives a sense of the kind of spatialities being examined, as well as Benedicto’s engaging prose. Under Bright Lights—in its attention to both the scene as perceptual object and its urban and transnational constitution across an array of differentiated and seemingly discontinuous spaces—suggests useful angles for approaching queer urban spaces differently. While the methodological implications and conceptual underpinnings of this topological framework could have been teased out more thoroughly (cf. Martin and Secor, 2014), I think, as a kind of model, Benedicto offers us important resources for thinking through the relational constitution of queer urban spaces in new terms. Even in cities with more readily identified gay neighborhoods or districts (Brown, 2014), Benedicto’s project pushes us to understand how these spaces inevitably extend beyond themselves and thus to attend more fully to both the territorial and the relational geographies of queer urban life. There are important moves in this direction already (see Nash and Gorman-Murray’s 2014 use of a mobilities framework for approaching gay neighborhoods in Toronto and Sydney), but I think that the topological approach adopted here opens up productive avenues for understanding how the relational elements of queer urban life take shape.
In Under Bright Lights’ attunement to transnational circulations, projects of globality, and their articulation with and beyond the urban, I see openings for productive engagements with many of the questions around global urbanism that are currently at the center of urban geography and urban studies scholarship more broadly (McCann, et al. 2013; Roy and Ong, 2011; Robinson, 2011; Sheppard, et al. 2013), and I hope that sub-disciplinary tendencies to silo work on sexuality do not stand in the way of the broad engagement that the book merits.
Global Geographies of Race
Benedicto also offers an important consideration of race that focuses our attention on the ways that race works differently in different contexts while also illustrating how those differences are relationally produced—across the unevenness of global political economies—through projects of worlding and dreams of gay globality. While important to much of what happens in the book, race is encountered most directly and distinctly when informants’ travel and encounter unexpected exclusions in the racial orderings of queer centers abroad. These exclusions—exemplified in racialized segregation in club spaces, insulting comments, impossible questions, and a sense of not belonging and of not being desired—come as a kind of shock to Benedicto’s informants. Benedicto traces this surprise and disappointment to the way that, in Manila, race is a ‘minimally intelligible category’ as a result of colonial and post-colonial national projects that have deemphasized race (without, of course, ever escaping relations with race as it is understood and practiced elsewhere). To understand the dynamics at work when his informants travel, Benedicto suggests, requires attending to the ways that race itself is a sign that travels, that it is “a historical-political construction that is filtered through incommensurate interpretative frames, and a contested way of organizing difference in the wake of mobility, postcoloniality, and globalization” (page 115).
This shock—at being excluded—is rarely allowed to surface back in Manila, and informants’ silence about these experiences upon returning home:
“appears not only as the response of those who return to Manila with a sense of their otherness and of the marginal position they are fated to occupy in the imagined centers of gay globality, but it is also what sustains the dreams of globalness and modernness that animate the bright lights scene” (page 116).
Thus, the silence of Benedicto’s informants becomes crucial to the continued operation of the bright lights scene. It is, I think, Benedicto’s attention to the interplay between the mobility of people and the mobility of racial categories that is most suggestive here, and it is one that has far-reaching implications for understanding the transnational politics of sexuality and race. While not an entirely new insight—Benedicto builds on Makalani (2009), Manalansan (2003) and Saldanha (2006) to nice effect here—the way that these mobilities work together to fix racialized subjects into particular positions and spaces continues to call for more work—analytically and politically—to address the complicated sets of relations that, time and again, reproduce these patterns and experiences.
Thinking from Manila
Finally, I am left thinking about what would it mean, after reading Under Bright Lights, 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? Of course, that question itself risks retaining too strict a separation between Manila and Sydney, but posing it, I hope, can push those of us doing work in those imagined centers to simultaneously provincialize our own assumptions and open up new perspectives on the persisting questions guiding our research. In my work in Sydney, I have encountered stories of racialized exclusion that sound, at least initially, very similar to the stories of shock and shame reluctantly told by Benedicto’s informants. Discussed by many as a problem of ‘sexual racism’, these experiences are usefully illuminated by Benedicto’s insights into the interplay of personal and conceptual mobility. Just as Benedicto’s investigation of the Manila scene necessitated attending to urban life elsewhere, I wonder what new perspectives could be opened up, for example, by looking for insights about Sydney in Manila. What might we find there? Perhaps we would find, at least in part, that dreams of gay globality in Sydney are, in fact, dependent on these dreams being pursued but never quite achieved in Manila.
I want to conclude by noting that Under Bright Lights is a powerful provocation to think. In fact, it sometimes directly asks the reader to think, as in a series of passages from the fourth chapter that describe the complicated sets of exclusions underwriting the bright lights scene in Manila:
“Think of how the gay clubs, though too few and too poor (or too enterprising) to turn away any paying customer, mirrored the spatialization of class differences that marked the rest of the city” (page 101).
He goes on to describe what this looked like in terms of VIP lists, the management spaces within clubs, and the casual but powerful gestures through which exclusions are maintained.
"Think of how all the borders between classes cut through the dense thickets of the megacity, like improvised responses to the relentless crumpling together of privilege and marginality, subtle and not-so-subtle interdictions that maneuver and contain bodies along pathways and into spaces that effect the semblance of class order" (page 101)."Think of these borders—at home, among homes, on the road, and in commercial spaces—as drawn on top of one another like violent scrawls that split the city, spatially and temporally, in microscopic ways that elude the taxonomic and cartographic impulses of academics and urban planners” (page 102).
These borders are not imposed on scene spaces and dreams of gay globality from the outside, but are, at least in part, the very result of these dreams as they play out in and beyond Manila. Under Bright Lights is an incisive account of these exclusions and a powerful incitement to imagine other kinds of spaces and other kinds of dreams.