From the Series: Queer Futures
My queered anthropological life began on the streets of San Francisco and from there traveled south to Nicaragua, where I studied the postrevolutionary struggle for LGBTQ rights. Through the intimate spaces of discussion groups, the street politics of protest, and the media interventions of those involved in the lucha (struggle) for sexual rights, I found myself drawn into different political convictions, from the perspective of political economy to the liberal values of human rights and finally to what Nicaraguans call “sexuality free from prejudice.” My objective was to understand how activists were remixing political principles in the context of a country that had, after the end of the Sandinista Revolution, instituted the most repressive antisodomy legislation in the Americas. All of this is captured in my book Intimate Activism (Howe 2013). Before, during, and after this work, I’ve also been interested in and writing about sexual migration, asylum, and queer movement(s) more generally (Howe 2007, 2014b; Howe, Zaraysky, and Lorentzen 2008).
Now I am writing about the wind: how it matters and materializes across lives, and how the kinetic energy of the sky is being contentiously domesticated for energy production. This research on wind power in Oaxaca, Mexico takes up questions of transitions, climate, and the future that form, for me, an ecologics of the Anthropocene. For the last several years, when presenting on this work, I am often asked: “what do queer Nicaraguan movements have to do with Mexican wind parks?” Perhaps, on the surface, not a lot. And that is okay. I have tried to resist the temptation to smuggle in genealogies of intellectual reproductivity that seek a linear path from “x” to “y.” Of course there are correspondences; activisms, for instance: for sexual rights in Nicaragua, and in Mexico against certain kinds of extractive renewable energy development. But it is surely an inheritance of queer anthropology’s disjunctive pleasures that I have appreciated finding the dissonances, and not only the constancies, between these two projects.
Queer theory shows us again and again how the margins make the middle and how the “off” makes the “on,” to put it in energetic terms. Lee Edelman’s (2004) proposition in No Future is that queerness has the potential to undo dominant social and political orders, even if some LGBTQ people’s life choices and political projects have been more assimilative than transgressive. If heteronormativity and reproductivity have been prevailing expectations for sexuality and gender, we can find similar ideological (and material) effects in the economic and epistemic hegemony of energy extraction that has fueled modernity or “carbon democracy” (Mitchell 2011). Each of these fossilized logics and commitments runs deep. Really and literally deep: a kind of sludgy lifeblood to the world as we know it. And thus peeking under the skirts of the status quo, or unearthing the sediments of the expected, is a fascination that these projects share.
Because queer anthropology has contranormative impulses by definition and because, as a subfield, it has historically struggled to be legitimated, queer anthropology has had to balance its political, theoretical, and substantive penchant for subversions against conceits that would consign it to triviality, salacious preoccupation, or a “minority” concern. Like the feminist anthropological work that was so foundational to its evolution, queer anthropology may well be a permanently liminal or, better still, an iteratively experimental mode of ethnographic practice. Much of our pride, as it were, is based on innovative and transdisciplinary engagements that, at times, make for radical departures. Like most anthropologists, we’ve been intrigued by the continental theorists and philosophers. But we’ve also been fascinated with the edges, and this is both an anthropological and a queer heritage that has allowed us to seek out new meshworks and locations of intraconnectivity in both the global north and the global south.
In many ways, to begin a new project is to launch one’s self again, to project a project forward into the future. It starts out in fetal form, an idea, a place, a commitment. It is exciting and rewarding and thrilling, and it is also labor. It means becoming conversant with new literatures, paradigms, conversations, and the political and social histories of different places, actors, and dynamics. A motivating force must be there. When I began my work on sexual rights, it felt incredibly urgent and important. Consequential. Now, nothing strikes me as more pressing or necessary than negotiating our way out of the catastrophes of carbon incineration. The real kindling for the energetic fire in my current project is the Anthropocene. However contested that term might be, I am convinced that it is upon us (by whatever name) and that it is our responsibility to bring anthropological work to bear upon questions of climate, environment, nonhuman life, and the messy entanglements among them.
In the fraught debates and standoffs that have transpired around the massive and rapid development of wind parks in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a dramatic tension exists between local residents’ perceptions of ecological conditions and transnational forms of environmental purpose directed at greenhouse gas reduction. What Istmeños see as ecological destruction by turbines, renewable energy developers see as climatological redemption. These divergences, I have argued (Howe 2014a), demonstrate distinct ways of imagining and articulating anthropocenic ecoauthority. Anthropocenic ecoauthority, as I am thinking of it, is predicated on a series of experiential, scientific, and managerial truth-claims regarding ecological knowledge and future forecasting. Whether enunciated by resident communities, state officials, corporate representatives, or environmental and scientific experts, ecoauthority gains its traction by asserting ethical claims on behalf of, and in regards to, the anthropogenically altered future of the biosphere, human and nonhuman.
Queer anthropology would not have the unique contours it does were it not for our collective devotions to the quality of form and our willingness to trespass against norms. And therefore, while there is an intellectual infrastructure connecting these projects, there is most definitely a porous pleasure too.
Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Howe, Cymene. 2007. “Sexual Borderlands: Lesbian and Gay Migration, Human Rights, and the Metropolitan Community Church.” Sexuality Research & Social Policy 4, no. 2: 88–106.
_____. 2013. Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
_____. 2014a. “Anthropocenic Ecoauthority: The Winds of Oaxaca.” Anthropological Quarterly 87, no. 2: 381–404.
_____. 2014b. “Sexual Adjudications and Queer Transpositions.” Journal of Language and Sexuality 3, no. 1: 136–55.
_____, Susanna Zaraysky, and Lois Lorentzen. 2008. “Transgender Sex Workers and Sexual Transmigration between Guadalajara and San Francisco.” Latin American Perspectives 35, no. 1: 31–50.
Mitchell, Timothy. 2011. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. New York: Verso.