More Nearly: On José Esteban Muñoz’s “The Sense of Brown”

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NOVEMBER 21, 2020

THREE YEARS AGO, my friend handed me a thick stack of creased pages fastened with a binder clip. The top sheet was a table of contents covered in red pen marks that listed 13 chapters under the title The Sense of Brown, the manuscript left behind by José Esteban Muñoz, our teacher, when he died unexpectedly and too soon on December 3, 2013, at the age of 46. I spent a full day with the loose pages at a coffee table, carefully turning over each sheet. The book is a moving philosophical study of our “ability to flourish under duress and pressure,” and it could not have come at a better time.

The final page proofs for The Sense of Brown, edited by Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong’o for Duke University Press, sit next to me now, in the makeshift workspace I’ve constructed at my dining table, where I’m also preparing to teach Muñoz’s previous work on queerness, race, and hope via Zoom to my students at UC San Diego, who will themselves be plugging in from improvised workspaces on desks and floors and beds across the country, all of us frozen in place by COVID-19. Holding the book now, I feel at once relieved that Muñoz was spared the danger, isolation, and authoritarian brutality that followed his passing and that hit a booming fever pitch this year. But I’d give anything to hear his biting assessments of what’s afoot and see him enlivened by mass Black and brown protest. The Sense of Brown offers a political recharge, a consoling new proximity to one of the most influential thinkers in contemporary queer theory, and a rekindling of a collective readership.

Muñoz was an influential scholar in the fields of performance studies, queer theory, and Latinx studies. His first book, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999), all but recreated the field of performance studies, moving away from an anthropological strain in the field and centering the political and aesthetic strategies of minoritarian artists. Essays on performance artists Vaginal Davis and Carmelita Tropicana, reality TV star and HIV/AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others, gave us more complex ways of understanding queer people of color’s relationship to dominant racist and homophobic ideology, a way of enacting the self “that neither opts to assimilate within such a structure nor strictly opposes it.” Concerns about the dangers of assimilation prompted Muñoz’s urgent move to Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, which responded to a specific moment in queer politics when a dominant and most visible faction of the LGBT movement stalled at the demand for open military service and gay marriage. The work sought a third space between the antisocial thesis of queerness that drove work by white male theorists in particular, and the mainstream march for upward mobility and national belonging at the expense of feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist critique so vital to queer art, thought, and activism. Drawing from the work of Frankfurt School philosopher Ernst Bloch, Muñoz understood queerness as a political horizon rather than an identity — a practice of critical hope that keeps queers from surrendering to the stultifying effects of gay pragmatism. “Queerness is not yet here,” he says at the opening of Cruising Utopia. “Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present.” In a way, The Sense of Brown returns to this quagmire.

Muñoz’s theory of brownness diverges from the theory of queerness that anchors Cruising Utopia. “I suggest queerness is in the horizon, forward dawning and not-yet-here,” Muñoz writes. “Brownness is already here. Brownness is vast, present, and vital.” In contrast to the urgency that impelled Cruising Utopia, writing The Sense of Brown was a slow burn for Muñoz. The book is his most pointed intervention into Latinx studies and the contradictions of Latinx racializations, and it represents the work of nearly two decades, done alongside and around two books and over a dozen essays and lectures. The stakes of this move made him careful. He wanted to get it right — or, more nearly, he wanted to make sure it offered openings, something politically useful and enlivening. He sought to provide alternatives or supplements to what he saw as the dominating positivist trends in Latinx studies. He shared the work promiscuously, publishing facets of his argument in essays and lectures that worked like weather balloons for the larger project.

This incrementality surfaces in his move from feeling to sense, which tracks with his desire to find a place for the individual within a shared commons. The oldest material in the book is “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and other STDs),” first published in 2000, shortly after the release Disidentifications. “Feeling Brown,” which remains one of Muñoz’s most widely read and taught essays, displays his characteristic promiscuity with archives as he moves from Marxist literary theory, urban studies, Jean-Paul Sartre, Chicana feminist poetry and theory, and finally to Bracho’s play. This seemingly associative archival technique shows the legacy of his mentor, queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose book Touching Feeling describes a reparative mode of critique in which “life, loves, and ideas might then sit freely, for a while, on the palm of the open hand.” This technique of assemblage is itself guided by the sense of things fitting together to offer queer and brown thought a mode of analysis that is simultaneously critical and reparative.

In The Sense of Brown’s later essays, where Muñoz engages with the work of phenomenologist Jean-Luc Nancy and the poet and philosopher Fred Moten, the author figures brownness as a commons — a shared space of both racial abjection and political vitality to which minoritarian subjects can attune themselves and become what Nancy called “being singular plural.” Muñoz’s shift from feeling to sense might seem like a split hair, but it represents a pivot through which the singular subject can be envisioned as part of a commons made up of multiple, attuned selves and their histories. Feeling and sense are two vectors of relation toward a network of shared experiences of racialization. If feeling is the immediate experience of being racialized — inward and reactive — then sense is about sharing, touching, and experiencing that feeling in the immanence of a collaboratively fashioned commons. Muñoz’s shift to sense adds precision and complexity to the affective life of race.

Muñoz’s attachment to brownness is not about Latinx uplift, nor about claiming a Latinx racial identity apposite to Blackness. The Sense of Brown is a rejoinder to Latinx studies and politics and the field’s inability or refusal to better theorize the contradictions between racist disparities and competing political interests among Latinx groups. On this premise, the book builds a philosophical case for the role of performance as a passageway to sense, rather than a representation of fixed identity. “Identity is indeed a problematic term when applied to Latinas/os — groups who do not cohere along the lines of race, nation, language, or any other conventional demarcation of difference,” Muñoz writes. “Latina/o identity itself is thus a problem.” Instead, he argues that “Latino/a can be understood as a new social movement.” (Muñoz never took to the cyberqueer spelling “[email protected]” and we’re left to wonder what contribution he might have made to the debates concerning “Latinx.”) As he saw Latinx studies “vectoring toward positivism and the empirical,” Muñoz pushed back. “Although the empirical has its place and utility,” he argues, “I see it as crucial that the far-reaching questions and heuristics that we invoke under the name of theory be applied to the experience and particularity of US Latinas/os.” While Latinx criticism needs sociological rigor in the form of data and material history, Muñoz argued that an overreliance on these methods, at the expense of a critical theory and philosophy of brown being, has institutionalized false and problematic narratives about nationality, sexuality, political difference, and race within Latinx culture. In conversation with Muñoz, critics across a number of fields, including not just cultural studies but more positivist fields like political science and sociology, have further elaborated the failure of Latina/o/x to unify the constantly shifting populations it attempts to gather up.

Much of Muñoz’s work is shaped by his intellectual touchstones in Chicana feminism and Black Marxist philosophy. Blackness is of particular importance for understanding brownness, and it plays an important role in the critiques of brownness that some are now articulating, too. Black art and thought figure prominently among Muñoz’s objects of study. In “‘Chico, What Does It Feel Like to Be a Problem?’: The Transmission of Brownness,” Muñoz arrives at one of the strongest expressions of how Blackness and brownness live together, and the ideas here mark a halfway point in the intellectual arc of The Sense of Brown. In that chapter, Muñoz describes Latinx studies as a field that is emerging, in contrast to the expansiveness and long history of Black intellectual thought. Opening with W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous question in The Souls of Black Folk, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Muñoz makes a swerve to Black phenomenology and shared minoritarian sense by attending to Du Bois’s invocation of feeling, arguing that Latinx thought can benefit from Black phenomenology’s theorizing of shared sense. “Rather than mapping belonging through exhausted narratives of identity,” he writes, “there may be considerable value in thinking about the problem of feeling like a problem as not simply an impasse but, instead, an opening.”

A white racist imaginary distinguishes between Black and brown in measuring others according to their proximity to whiteness. Nonetheless, Black and brown signify differently. Brownness has a long anti-Black, developmentalist history in the Americas as a signifier of racial advancement. From paper bag tests in the American South to celebratory theories of mestizaje (miscegenation) and the Caribbean reproductive injunction to mejorar la raza, brownness-as-whitening can look like — and has in fact served as — a refuge from Blackness. That history of racist dissimulation among Latinx immigrants is long and ongoing, as Dixa Ramirez reminds us. Given such conditions, then, is brown theory fundamentally a manifestation of possessive whiteness, an erasure of Indigenous and Afro-Latinx existence, and a retreat from Blackness? This is the impasse that emerges in The Sense of Brown, and that commanded Muñoz to take his time writing it: the consequential, and incommensurable, relationship between skin and sense. As Chambers-Letson and Nyong’o tell us in the book’s discerning and loving introduction, “[i]t is to this intractable problem,” that of the US Black/white color line, “that Muñoz addresses his sense of a brown world.” The development of his thinking on Black and brown life in tandem reminds us that a sense of brown should not — must not — attempt to supplant, resolve, or transcend the Black/white terms of American racism. The brown commons are only worth mapping — are perhaps only possible — if the work shoulders a critique of latinidad itself, deconstructing Latinx aspirational whiteness (what we mean when we say “Hispanic”), and enabling conspiratorial alignment with and for Black life. In other words, brown can never leave Black behind.

Part of this project is a disaggregation of Cuban American identity’s racist political DNA, and much of the writing collected in The Sense of Brown is part of Muñoz’s concerted (re)turn in the book to the study of Greater Cuba — that is, the imaginary nation created by the transmission of culture between the island of Cuba and Cuban America. Muñoz was born in Havana shortly before his family migrated to Hialeah, Florida. For this and other reasons, his relationship to the island and his take on the revolution were complex. (Among the many global events during which I most felt the absence of Muñoz’s wit and discernment is the death of Fidel Castro in 2016.) As the introduction to The Sense of Brown explains, he was never able to return for a visit like he assumed he would. Yet he has had a profound influence on the interpretation of Cuban American performance, some of which has been transmitted to the island and back — via artists and writers who’ve taken up his ideas — as mobility between the island and the United States opens and closes, depending on the political vagaries of Washington. Like many of the ambivalences regarding ethnic identity that Muñoz elaborated, he figured his displacement from Cuba itself as an opening, and much of his understanding of brownness comes from performances of racialization by other exiles, including multimedia artist Ana Mendieta and playwrights Nilo Cruz, Carmelita Tropicana, and María Irene Fornés, all of whom are featured in The Sense of Brown. One of the most salient and thorny facets of theorizing Cuba and Cuban America together through these artists is the task of making sense of the (sometimes starkly) different place of Blackness on and off the island, work Muñoz had only begun to do in the later pages of The Sense of Brown and which remains incomplete.

The permanent incompleteness of these critical beginnings mark The Sense of Brown, but they’re not altogether antithetical to Muñoz’s style. “More Nearly” serves as both title and epigraph for this review. Muñoz used the phrase “more nearly” in almost everything he wrote, a touchstone for the liveness of his thought. “More nearly” is a grammar of searching, of moving closer to the idea or a semblance of it, slowly defining yet maybe never arriving or outright failing. It declines the customary either/or, wrong/right dialectic that prevails in academic argumentation. Riding in an elevator with Muñoz sometime in the late aughts, he told me an editor had once removed all instances of “more nearly” from an essay manuscript, replacing them with the more conventional terms rather or instead. With some pride (he delighted in gossip) he said he restored them all and appended a note that read simply: “These stay.”

His attachment to the phrase revealed it to be more than a stylistic tic. “More nearly” performs an ethic for writing theory and evokes the guiding principles of approximation and postulation that ground The Sense of Brown. You can hear it in his idea that brown is not (just) something you are, ontologically, but something you feel and sense, phenomenologically, through proximity — nearness and attunement — to others. The expression captures the incremental movement of his thinking across all his projects and investments, and the political possibility and psychic repair he believed art, writing, friendship, and teaching can share if we undertake thought as proximity rather than mastery. In The Sense of Brown, these more nearlies perform the incompleteness of a project cut short. As students, friends, and readers, we meet The Sense of Brown, finally, as a consolation in the midst of a global crisis that’s paradoxically lonely and chaotically social. “Feeling brown is an aspect of a larger sense of brown that is simultaneously singular and plural,” Muñoz assures us. “It is through feeling that we know, or more nearly sense, the brownness of the world and each other.”


Roy Pérez is an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California San Diego. He is writing a book on queer intimacy in Latinx art and performance titled Proximities. Thanks to Jennifer Doyle, Oscar Gutierrez, Ren Ellis Neyra, and Leticia Alvarado for their generous help in thinking through José and his sense of brown.

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