The Estrangement Principle
(Nightboat Books, 2016)
Ariel Goldberg borrows the title of their book-length essay on queer art, The Estrangement Principle, from the experimental writer Renee Gladman, who edited the “dyke zine” Clamour from 1996 to 1999. In a forward to an issue of that publication, Gladman wrote that the zine was intended to grapple with the difficulty of translating experience and knowledge to language, especially from a culturally marginal position like that of Clamour’s contributors, who were mostly queer women of color. Gladman describes this difficulty as a feeling of “estrangement.” As she writes in an editor’s note appended to Clamour’s fourth issue, “I want to present the difficulties I perceive one faces when speaking of experience and knowledge in language, especially when one’s sense of identity is complicated by an estrangement from the dominant culture.”
In The Estrangement Principle, Goldberg adopts Gladman’s notion of estrangement as a methodological principle, finding in this expression of alienation the permission to inhabit a community of writers with a self-critical distance, and to report back as a critic from the queer artistic scene in which they themself participate. Establishing ambivalence toward language’s ability to adequately define categories of identity, especially such a protean category as “queer,” Goldberg refuses to provide a settled definition for the term, instead obsessively documenting its various usages, critiquing its ethical stakes, and imagining its possibilities as a category for art.
Goldberg’s essay examines the category of “queer art” across a corpus of writing and visual art since the 1970s, examining the term as, among other uses, a marketing strategy, a utopian ideal, and an alibi for oppression similar to that found in straight institutions. In their quest to understand what makes something queer, and to consider whether or not that categorization is deserved, Goldberg became a roving reporter of the term, turning up at panels, reading series, film series, art exhibitions, and at archives and social gatherings that all claim the label. Their explorations touch on a variety of visual and performance artists and institutions (among them David Wojnarowicz, the Fire Island Artist Residency, Carlos Motta, Peter Cramer and Jack Waters, and Catherine Opie)—but they delight most in digging into contemporary writing (Goldberg is a poet who serves as the Friday Night Readings coordinator at the Poetry Project), with particular attention devoted to Gladman, the New Narrative writers, Kay Ryan, Audre Lorde, Eileen Myles, and theorists and essayists like José Esteban Muñoz and Maggie Nelson. The world of contemporary writing is its own queer testing ground for Goldberg’s inquiry, set as it is at a slant to the more lucrative networks of the contemporary art world.
Goldberg’s book is in part the result of a residency at the New York Public Library’s Wertheim Study, where they studied the collection’s zines and other queer-art ephemera. Clamour, they write, emerged from the library’s array of archival documents as a “messenger from a near past,” and its influence on Goldberg is evident throughout this volume, not least in adopting “estrangement” as a means of guiding and defining their own process. But Goldberg, careful to acknowledge the stakes of their appropriation of Gladman’s work, questions their position as a white writer using a conceptual framework established by and for women of color. The boundaries of such a racial cross-identification force Goldberg to reconsider what it means to be a writer in relation to different communities of writers. The “queer issues” that trouble the contributors to Clamour include those that persist for Goldberg and the rest of us today, including white supremacy, cultural appropriation, and gentrification, among others. These are intersectional concerns that enlarge the territory of the queer for Goldberg, while also placing limits on what one writer or artist can know of them (for example, as a white writer reading work by women of color). “Estrangement functions as a beginning, a way of making something from loss and distance,” Goldberg writes. It allows Goldberg to imagine a community as an entity impossible to grasp in its totality, populated by members who know only their partial experiences of it.
Though Goldberg resists an overly academic theory of the queer, their own idea of what counts as queer art wrestles with sometimes competing criteria of social representation and a work’s content. Take their discomfort with the Queer Division reading series hosted by Andrew Durbin at the Bureau of General Services. In Goldberg’s estimation, the invited readers never seemed queer enough to merit the designation. Other similar queer events also elicit Goldberg’s criticism, suggesting that Goldberg’s dissatisfaction lies in what they see as a usurpation of the term by artists lacking in intersectional engagement with contemporary “queer issues” like white supremacy and gentrification. In these instances, Goldberg’s own notions of what counts as queer lead them into a difficult position as a critic. Who serves as the arbiter of who or what may be considered sufficiently queer? For example, poet Alex Dimitrov’s invitation-only Wilde Boys Salon claimed allegiance to queerness, but Goldberg justly cites the exclusive atmosphere (predominantly gay men dressed in upper-class aspirational attitudes) to deflate these queer pretensions as cover for the Salon’s own discrimination. Goldberg similarly rejects the use of queer in the title of AA Bronson’s 2011 MoMA film series “Queer Cinema from the Collection,” which only included the work of gay male artists. And indeed, Bronson’s gender separatism as a curator of the broad category “queer cinema” is problematic, but so, too, is Goldberg’s assessment of the series in the context of their own efforts to explore the borders of the queer. Goldberg offers no more than a summary criticism of the gender-identity of the artists included in the film series, and gives no attention to what various “queer issues” their films may have addressed. The same question that pits queer identification against queer content bedevils other moments in Goldberg’s essay; in another chapter, Goldberg writes, “my critique aims to lessen the expectation for artists who are queer to have this supposed identity so explicitly tied to their subject matter.” But, among the critiques of Bronson and Dimitrov, the respect for the intersectional “queer issues” raised by Gladman’s Clamour, and this statement, where lies the queer? In a set of necessarily policed identities or in the content of artworks?
In response to Goldberg’s uneasy gut reaction at the Queer Division readings (based partly, as Goldberg acknowledges, on the fact that they never received an invitation to read), one of their friends offers a simple explanation: that Durbin just invited his friends to read. For Goldberg, the obviousness of this fact points to the power of social relationships in defining who or what passes as queer, or as part of any given queer in-group. “I came to value not being included so I could watch myself briefly slip into that pernicious role of policing what is ‘queer,’ which doesn’t result in making anyone more or less queer,” Goldberg concludes. Goldberg’s ultimate implication of their own—and, indeed, most of our—identity-policing tendencies makes a suppler argument for prodding the ambiguities of the queer while respecting other limits of self-identification. This acknowledgment by Goldberg, as with their sensitivity to the trespass they might commit as a white writer claiming to identify with the writing of women of color like Gladman, accedes to the (queer) critic’s responsibility to not only criticize but to accept criticism in return.
Goldberg is also a photographer, and The Estrangement Principle has been packaged in the subtle codes of photography. Their photograph Triangle Microphone (2012) illustrates the book’s front cover, and in a text on the back cover they reflect upon being “pricked” by the phrase “queer art.” Readers of photography theory will recognize this prick as conjuring Roland Barthes’s theory of the photograph, in which the studium of a photograph (its ostensible subject, or the scene depicted) is shattered by the punctum—a visual detail, or psychologized non-sequitur—that pierces the smooth transparency of the image. Of this chance encounter with a detail in the image, Barthes writes, “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” (For me, the punctum in Triangle Microphone is the ripple of the jean jacket’s collar, as if it had until recently been in contact with someone’s warm neck.) The obsessive impulse to collect—represented by this queer, photographic “pricking”—places Goldberg’s essay in the company of other recent queer interventions by Maggie Nelson and Brian Blanchfield, among other LGBTQ-identified essayists who create texts out of fragments and details.
In the book’s conclusion, “To Act the Instant,” Goldberg discusses the relationship between photography and the compulsion to examine and document queer art. Whereas the Barthes-infused pricking of Goldberg’s blurb evokes psychological processes of affinity and recognition, Goldberg is more interested in the social practice and conditions of taking a photograph, proposing a more practical take on the activity of taking pictures in the world. In response to David Wojnarowicz’s refusal to identify as a photographer, Goldberg writes, “I am taking a picture of a landscape to include where the photographer stands. Photography epitomizes unstable, multiple identities right now. Anyone with a camera in their pocket is becoming a photographer. This is similar to queerness not being so contained or separate but bleeding into everywhere.” Goldberg reveals the recursive, self-reflexive voice that has narrated this essay to be that of the critic-as-photographer, taking stock of themself in the social context of the image as well as in the varied social contexts of the queer.
In the book’s closing anecdote, Goldberg recounts attending the 2013 Dyke March, a protest organized each year in June over Pride weekend. One of Goldberg’s friends holds a protest sign and asks if Goldberg would like one, too. Instead of raising a sign, Goldberg spends the afternoon taking pictures of these friends and other marchers. These photographs, once developed, evade categorization for Goldberg, like the category of queer itself—a contingent way of life regimented by avowals and disavowals along lines of relation and sociality. As with the photographer who sticks to the edges and interstices between bodies during the march, Goldberg finds a way to be alone together with the crowd of all this queer art.