José Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown / Marcos Gonsalez

Interrupt, by Rob Oo.

In the cheekily eponymous, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1977; 2020), Barthes identifies the German composer Schumann’s work as “intercalated,” a “pure series of interruptions” and “fragments one after the next” (94). The effect reflects Barthes’ approach he takes in the book itself, fragmented ideas clustered around headings and subheadings with no sense of sequence, an effect which stands out emphatically in the organizational structure of posthumously published books like The Preparation of the Novel (2010). This intercalated approach constructs a mode of argumentation that is non-linear, collage-like, and accretive. Knowledge heaps up like a pile of laundry.

José Muñoz’s posthumously published The Sense of Brown is a work best understood in this Barthesian fashion of intercalation, “a pure series of interruptions.” Editors Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong’o assemble together talks, published articles, and unpublished drafts for a book-length project the scholar was working on originally titled Feeling Brown, then modified to The Sense of Brown. The editors bookend the work with the most “introduction-” and “conclusion-” like pieces since Muñoz himself had yet to write them, but still there is little sense of telos, linear argumentation, or a comprehensive theory. Like Disidentifications (1999) and Cruising Utopia (2009), the book is arranged into multiple short chapters of intensive case studies largely focused on performance and theatre. The studies examine a multitude of performers and playwrights, most of which are Latinx, like Tania Bruguera, María Irene Fornés, and Ana Mendieta, along with those he has written on extensively like Nao Bustamante and Alina Troyano (or known by her stage name as, Carmelita Tropicana). What brownness is, how brownness operates, and the potential for a brown commons, is what these various case studies labor to answer.

Significantly shaped by Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of “being singular plural,” and Deleuzian difference and becoming, Muñoz capaciously conceptualizes brownness as a racialized affect and comportment—“ugly feelings” in Sianne Ngai’s formulation—communal feelings situated in the abject and the thrown away, where “feeling brown is feeling together in difference. Feeling brown is an ‘apartness together’ through the status of being a problem” (39). A frequent term deployed throughout these writings is attunement. Muñoz wants us to pick up on the sensorial nature of brownness, that it can be felt, sensed, and perceived in the here and now. This attunement is one tapped into the “owning the negation that is brownness is owning an understanding of self and group as problem in relation to a dominant order, a normative national affect” (40). He explicitly situates brownness against any set notion or fixed identity category though most of the performance texts Muñoz analyzes to support his theory of brownness are by performers who are locatable within the Latinx identity, many of which are of Cuban descent. He points to the racialized affect and embodiment they perform that resists the enclosure of normative, hegemonic neoliberal nationalisms.

In order to flesh out more precisely what brownness is and how it functions, Muñoz points out through the pieces the differences of this project on brownness from his earlier Disidentifications and Cruising Utopia. “It is certainly akin to what I described as disidentification,” he elaborates in reference to his sense of brown, “but even that description may hinge too much on linearity of direct alignments” (149). In Cruising Utopia, he situates queerness in the not-yet-here of futurity, though for brownness he locates it as “already here,” as “vast, present, and vital,” and “an ontopoetic state.” These distinctions from his prior books help to better contour what he is getting at with his sense of brownness. Brownness is not a one-to-one correlation, a toggling between identifications, not even a practice of dis/identifying with or against. Brownness is not a future dawning concept but one of presentness, what is so affixed in the here and now. As his reading of María Irene Fornés’s short play Mud illustrates, brownness’s conceptual and theoretical thrust is captured in the paradoxical properties of mud: wetness combined with thick firmness, not quite a liquid and not quite a solid, a texture both sensuous and discomfiting to the touch. The sense of brownness forwarded by Muñoz, evidenced in the various studies of performance he expounds, exemplifies these qualities of mud. Brownness is shape-shifting, unstable and unpredictable, producing aesthetic responses and embodied affects that are discernable through careful attention. Brownness is about attunement to a sensing and perceiving the world otherwise.

Method is key to brownness, Muñoz suggests, through the very act of being-together in performance and in analysis. Perceiving brownness is as much the work of the analyst as the performer performing brown affect and aesthetics. The Sense of Brown poignantly demonstrates how it is not just the responsibility of the performance or the performer to instantiate what Muñoz calls otherwiseness, that is, “the production and performance of knowledge that does not conform to the mimetic coordinates assigned to both the designations “wise” and “other” (100). It is also the being an audience member, the analyst on the page, who must co-collaborate brownness into existence through how they describe, interpret, and present the analysis. However, this amorphousness of brownness raises concerns for who constitutes this brownness and who exactly deploys its critical possibilities. He emphasizes at length that brownness is not reducible to Latinx identity or that Latinx identity doesn’t automatically align itself with brownness. Latinx, he asserts, is not a steady identity, cohering along lines of race, nationality, and language, but rather is, citing Norma Alarcón, an “identity-in-difference.”1 For Muñoz, following Du Bois, he postulates how the category of Latinx and the possibility for latinidades is better understood to be a problem, a site of contention in which to not sidestep or alleviate the condition of being a problem, but to dwell and amplify in it. He explains how “brownness is coexistent, affiliates, and intermeshes with blackness, Asianness, indigenousness, and other terms that manifest descriptive force to render the particularities of various modes of striving in the world” (138).

Through the book, Muñoz is at conceptual pains to delimit a more concrete sense of brown that is not reducible to identity, or to a generalized notion of Latinx. Moreover, these reminders are certainly in place to address potential charges of comparativist logic and thinking, that brownness is a category equivalent to blackness, yellowness, and redness. Yet pinning down the Latinx category utilized to construct the sense of brown proves difficult particularly given that many of the performers and sources in the text are informed by Black aesthetics from Latin America, such as nonblack artists like Ana Mendieta. Tracing a historical analysis of how Dominican peoples have disassociated from blackness and Black identity due to white supremacist imperialism and ideologies, and how contemporary mobilizations of Latinx identity formation in the United States actively distinguishes itself as not Black, scholar Lorgia García-Peña notes how “the common practice of referring to Latino/a/xs as a race—rather than as an arbitrary conglomerate of ethnic and racially diverse peoples who trace their origins to Latin America—further erases Black Latinxs from literally every space, institution, and possibility of representation.” García-Peña’s call here is critically important to address the rhetorical distinctions made by nonblack Latinx people to distance themselves from blackness, and in hopes to carve out a kind of raced category distinct from it in the United States. An unspecific, pseudo-universal racialization of the Latinx category is no longer viable if we want to ensure anti-blackness and violence towards Black peoples comes to its much-needed end. Muñoz’s brownness, then, requires more fine-tuning, especially to establish it in non-comparativist and essentialist ways, and this will be the task of scholars to come.

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Had he more time Muñoz would have probably further fleshed out the conceptual limitations of brownness in relation to Black Latinx identity and aesthetics, as well as provided a more concretely schematized sense of brown. Rather than frame this posthumously compiled text as a shortcoming, or even a failing, it might be generative to use this as instructive to assess the conceptual and theoretical possibilities of latinidad; a latinidad, perhaps, not bound to the flattening of identities and experience in order to attain some uniform sense of consensus. Rather, a latinidad of dissensus, attuned to differences and how differences shape contexts, engaged to forms of mutual care and humility, readily willing to address and counteract centuries long violence, trauma, and suffering. Or we find that latinidad is not even a concept worth working with anymore. In fact, it might be imperative to delink latinidad from brownness given Muñoz’s own troubles with the term.

More broadly, Muñoz’s theorizing on brownness provides a pathway for thinking Latinx studies in anti-identitarian ways. As someone who teaches Latinx literature, students often enter with pre-established notions on terms, categories, and beliefs on what constitutes Latinx literature and identity. For instance, widely held notions of Latinx identity as new to the United States is combatted by encounters with Tejanx and Chicanx literature and identities. Students correlate Latinx identity with knowing Spanish, which effectively erases indigenous and African-based languages in the Americas, as well as the countless U.S. raised Latinx people who don’t know Spanish. Racial essentialisms around national identity categories like Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Colombian, for example, are challenged by African and indigenous descendant writers who remind us those categories are not unilaterally or universally experienced. Even the disciplinary bounds of what constitutes Latinx literature and studies are incisively expanded by scholars like Anthony Christian Ocampo’s work on thinking through Filipinx people and culture as Latinx,2 and Megan Jeanette Myers’ book proffering more robust and critical ways of understanding Haiti’s relationship to The Dominican Republic and latinidad.3 Conceptualizing Latinx studies within the terms Muñoz offers, those of affect, aesthetics, and performance, gives way for more room in which to construct a Latinx studies that seeks to counter anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity, assimilationism, settler nation-state borders and boundaries, language essentialisms, and other settler colonial logics which merely reify the power structures perpetuating global precarity, exploitation, violence, and death.

“What does her loss signify in the here and now?” Muñoz asks of Ana Mendieta’s passing in the penultimate chapter of The Sense of Brown, and we, in turn, ask the same of ourselves in relation to Muñoz: What does his loss signify in the here and now? This here and now that is tomorrow, too, as it will become yesterday. Analyzing Isaac Julien’s triptych collaboration with Venezuelan dancer Javier de Frutos, The Long Road to Mazatlán, and following Deleuze’s thinking on the function of the triptych, Muñoz writes this way of the installation: “a perpetually flowing triptych of image combinations, a phenomenon of recomposition and redistribution, not unlike the ways in which different forces bearing upon the dancer’s body lead to a composing and recomposing of self. The game of corporeal distribution and redistribution is mirrored through the triptych format” (34). The Sense of Brown is the third book in Muñoz’s oeuvre, his triptych, the scholar as self as theory, where a composing and a recomposing of his ideas, of Muñoz himself, is the work we must continue to do. We must situate this unfinished monograph not as the closing of a scholarly venture Muñoz began but didn’t complete, and not as the end point of a thinker’s life and work. I’ve written elsewhere on the need for an open-ended and speculative posthumous relationship to the thinker’s work. We can approach The Sense of Brown as an intercalated project: a non-linear and out of sequence amalgam of insertions, emendations, and interruptions rendered through collaboration, between Muñoz and us, through art and scholarship and activism. This book is an impossible book yet we must tarry in this impossible space in order to build upon Muñoz’s sense of brown. This murky brown zone of what ifs and what next, where many dally on the daily, feelings and comportments and gestures uncooperative, unbecoming, in many ways like mud, muddying up the structures and powers which seek to purify, to sanitize, to do away with the many who are the weirdos, the queens, the loners, and the down and out. Nearing brownness, whatever it is yet to be, the further elaboration it requires, is what Muñoz leaves behind for us.

Endnotes

  1. Norma Alarcón, “Conjugating Subjects in the Age of Multiculturalism,” in Mapping Multiculturalism, ed. Avery F. Gordon and Christopher Newfield (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 127–48.
  2. Anthony Christian Ocampo, The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race (Stanford University Press, 2016).
  3. Megan Jeanette Myers, Mapping Hispaniola: Third Space in Dominican and Haitian Literature (University of Virginia Press, 2019).
Marcos Gonsalez
Marcos Gonsalez is an essayist and Assistant Professor of English. His book of autotheory about growing up a queer child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant and a poor Puerto Rican mother in white America, Pedro’s Theory, is forthcoming from Melville House. His writing can be found or is forthcoming at Public Books, Avidly, LitHub, The New Inquiry, Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, and The Rumpus, among others.