Thirza Cuthland, from Less Lethal Fetishes, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
Fusing self-representation with philosophy and critical theory, autotheory moves between “theory” and “practice.” It is critical and it is creative; it is experiential and experimental; it is scholarly and it is popular. It brings theory to life and life to theory. It plays with personal polemic, positing a speaking self in the act of writing “I,” and then, self-reflectively and self-reflexively, it deconstructs itself. Autotheory’s genealogies spring from the institutions it seeks to critique. It privileges thinking with over thinking against; its politics of citation unveil its relations. From social media technologies to the publishing industry, from live performance to visual art, autotheory’s escalating ubiquity in cultural production serves as a provocation: why autotheory and why now? What motivates the methodological melding of an autobiographical “I” with academic scholarship? What implications does theorizing the self have for the politics of knowledge production?
A digital companion to the special issue of ASAP/Journal, this cluster animates the autotheoretical intersections of art and art writing in time-based media. Transmedial in form and provocative by design, these works appear accompanied by autotheory’s telltale synthesis of critical-creative writing. The cluster includes film and video by Maider Fortune, Annie Macdonell, and Ree Botts; performance for the camera and documentation of live performances by Ceylan Öztürk, Calla Durose-Moya, lo bil, and Mel Keiser; web-based work, including memes, by Simon Evnine and Piper Curtis; other moving-images, including GIFs, by Migueltzinta C. Solis, and sound-based work by Arezu Salamzadeh. Off the page and on the screen, these autotheories invite as much as they imagine, contest as much as they contrive, and exude as much as they include.
— Lauren Fournier and Alex Brostoff
The practice of listing identity labels in bylines for art and academia, profiles on social media, and other bios has prompted me to begin labeling myself as mestizXXX.
I have been using this as a racial ethnic positioning for myself, but have put little effort into defining what exactly it means in academic terms. My use of autotheory manifests as a call for self-examination, self-reckoning and self-obsession, a self-defining as being a specific experience rather than as a member of a fixed identity. This is my resistance to the scalpel of academic compartmentalization and knowledge commodification, because it is a methodology that I do not employ—rather it is one which simply happens. It is a methodology which possesses me, the “researcher,” the asker of the question, a reflective moment of encounter with myself as a researcher in this particular body at this particular place and time. To this effect, mestizXXX is perhaps more meaningful as a methodology than as an identity by virtue of being fluid, troubling, wild, transtemporal and unfixed. As an identity mestizXXX is rather unoriginal and uninteresting to me. As a methodology, as a way of being, moving and making, I find the uses of mestizXXX to extend further my own capacity to imagine.
mestizXXX is an outgrowth of Gloria Anzaldúa’s hybrid mestiza, the queer Chicana who claims Aztlán as promised land, and new Chicanx criticism and re-imagining in response to Anzaldúa’s work.1 It is an ethnic assemblage of experience which is defined by its sexuality, indeed, by my sexuality, a racialized positioning produced by a particular matrix of sexualized power between colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial bodies, genders, histories and geographies.
But what in particular sets my remix of mestiza apart from Anzaldúa’s original ode to Indigenous/colonial mixing is that mestizXXX has, by virtue of its ambivalent relationship to power, an important self-criticism and self-doubt folded into its DNA. My Mexican parents raised me within a Californian Chicano-Indigenous back-to-the-lander worldview, yet now I find myself as a guest, a student, a settler and a Grindr user on Blackfoot territory. My own embodied vectors of racial, gendered and Indiginal passing/not passing, and privilege/disempowerment, highlight territory and perversity as inextricably entwined.Whatsmore, I am a passing transman with “female” genitalia and a reproductive system. More and more sex and gender options appear on institutional forms (non-binary, transgender man/woman, prefer not to say) and this is certainly a movement forward. And yet all of this does not feel mine. What is mine – that is, the thing I am is a man with a pussy.
This place, this point, of entwined territory, body and perversity is the axis of power upon which my vectors of self see-saw, an undulating sine of being which needs to be acknowledged and discussed as part of new Chicanx futurities and Chicanx-as-Indigenous discourse. If Chicanx is a landless identity, can it be Indigenous? And how does this question translate from post-Mexican identities to other settler and/or immigrant political, economic and axiological positionings?
Someday I hope to steward property on which to be mestizXXX but even then, I will be landless, and that’s ok, that’s good. I believe land back will be possible when the settler comes to know that it’s ok to surrender to landlessness, that life is possible without dominion over territory. mestizXXX invites the settler to experience the freefall of landlessness.
It says, “Settler, baby, just let go.”
The morphing gifs you see here are a perpetual shifting between an original image from my childhood and a photograph taken in the present. The image that shows me in the present is created through a simple process of taking a 30-second prolonged exposure of myself performing in front of a digital projection of the original image. Here I am borrowing from artist Meryl McMaster whose project, Ancestral, uses a similar process. McMaster photographs her and her father’s faces while archival photos of ancestors are layered over them via video projection. Ancestral speaks to histories of colonial imaging, working directly with static historical images of Indigenous people, produced by figures of settler photography like Edward Curtis and Will Soule. Through the creation of these multi-layered portraits and self-portraits, McMaster reclaims visual sovereignty, staging a transtemporal reimaging of flattened histories.
At an artist talk, I asked McMaster if she felt her work was performance and she said that while there were performance elements, her desire was more so one of image creation. In my own use of this analogue-to-digital-to-analogue technique, the photo itself is not as important as an aesthetic object. Instead, I am trying to share with you the trace of a performed gesture of me using my body in this present to remember the way it related to these photographed spaces in which a past self has appeared. Nested within the archive of the photos themselves is another archive, the archive of embodied knowledge being gathered by my body in the moment the photograph was taken. In this way, I attempt to retrieve that knowledge, to re-collect, reconstruct and remember the ways in which my body attempted to connect to a place in a moment of transient territorializing through physical interaction with a place. Rendered ghostly by the 22 second exposure time necessary to photograph the projection, my ghostly present appears at times as little more than a blur, a shadow.
I have specifically picked out photos taken in outdoor spaces or landscapes where I am looking away from the camera. The word landscape puts a frame around a place in the same way that these photos, taken between 1989 and 2019, put frames around me. The photos depict me in various states: the state of California, the state of Oaxaca, altered states, ritual states, natural states, states of undress, etc. This process of performing-to-photographs unfolded in my bedroom – you can see my bedframe appear in the bottom at times – in part for lack of easy access to a better projection space, but also because it’s the place where I often dream of the very places in these pictures. In this way, this project is not just a haunting of place, memory and identity politics, but also a waking dream state, to or from which my disappearance is just as important as my apparition. Indeed, the gif format introduces an important circularity that is not possible in linear video or the still photograph: am I appearing or disappearing? Which is the truest image? Where is the beginning and where the end?
“tzinta, can perversity be a homeland?” asks my friend, the writer Majo Delgadillo, when I send her a draft of this to read over. She wants to know what agency and agencies perversity grants you. I tell her that’s all very Kristevan, whom she promptly confesses to have just been reading. I confess that, yes, my landless mestizXXXaje and its attendant melancholy is often a luxury commodity perversely enjoyed, the wax and wane of my transnational mobility a masochism, a despicable nostalgia, from the Greek for “return home” and “pain.”A native to perversity, I can afford to leave a place, to abandon and remake life, to enjoy the pain of it, to luxuriate in banishing myself, to name myself the Exile. Is this fucked? A solipsistic and perverse willful failure of intimacy? mestizXXX could also be written mestizEXEXEX because it’s about having all these exes that are countries, places, territories. Every breakup becomes a travelogue, a narration of coming and leaving. “You’re such a masochist,” sneered an ex at me once, a few days before I left him.
mestizXXX is temporally multifaceted, as it lives in an imaginary of the moment of colonial and Indigenous contact, yet also understands and is itself evidence of colonial histories of post-contact blending as a drawn-out process that is complex, morally ambivalent and marked by perversions of both the body and the state. I have resisted parsing mestizXXX in academic terms because while on one hand I am driven to talk about it, I am also fiercely protective of this word which is in essence a foil for the layering of experiences that is me. Why should I lay it out? For whom? I ask all this and yet here I am, compulsively doing just that for you. In creative writing, a field and body of methodological craft, abstraction is frowned upon, as it impinges on opportunities for the transference of important sensorial information. So rather than further dissect mestizXXX, I will let language, text, unspool here as an embodied experience, a performance to further elaborate that.
mestizXXX is XXX because XXX is a pornographic film, a label on a liquor bottle in a cartoon, a wound sewn shut, a pre-colonial design cross-stitched with synthetic thread, a typewriter hammering over a word you aren’t meant to read.
mestizXXX is about being a fake cowboy who’s afraid of horses and cows, about being a native of nowhere, an ever-guest, unbelonging, unsettled. A tourist, a liar, a ghost, mestizXXX is ever-cruising, is looking for now.
mestizXXX is knowing what happened to Maria Sabina from what your mom and dad told you. Is knowing what happened to Selena from what your mom and dad told you. Is knowing how to make a sweat lodge out of willow from what your mom and dad told you. Is knowing how to apply for a scholarship from what your mom and dad told you.
mestizXXX is having strong feelings about the Bering Strait and strong feelings about straight bears. mestizXXX is knowing you’d be eaten by Balboa’s dogs and knowing how to get fucked by a stranger in Balboa Park. It is knowing well the part of you that enjoys these sentences.
mestizXXX is a DNA saliva sample that tells you nothing you didn’t already know, that charges you a lot of money to show you a map of you: logging into the ancestry website, your oversimplified DNA “results” display a world map with thirteen land masses in thirteen complimenting colours, each one marking a place of genetic from-ness. This map is an ethnic joke with thirteen punchlines. An x-ray of a bone broken in thirteen places. A story of the things that thirteen great-grandfathers did to thirteen great-grandmothers.
mestizXXX is uncapitalized.
mestizXXX is an ethnic junk drawer, a racial slot machine, a horrible, terrible fusion food mistake. mestizXXX is a cringy contact zone. It is the slow banality of conquest. It is about being not a Mexican from México but an Ex-ican from Ex-ico. mestizXXX is decidedly post-Abuelita. mestizXXX is being sorry-not-sorry about passing-not-passing. It is the black hairs on my body curling into the word Iberia. It is the odd protuberance of my lips mispronouncing the word In lak’ech. It is an Ángeles Azules song falling out an open window, into my open mouth.
is homesick (heimweh)
is sick in the head
is sick of writing about its grandmother and sick of writing about itself.
mestizXXX is leaving California because it cannot tolerate another poem about tortillas, is leaving the United States because it cannot take another list poem about identity, is living in Canada where there are people who don’t know how to spell Miguel.
mestizXXX is always leaving. Leaving you for something, somewhere, someone better.
mestizXXX listens to the snowed-in silence of an Alberta winter night, wanting nothing more than to hear someone yell at a child in Spanish.
This is one of twelve contributions from the ASAP/J cluster of Transmedial Autotheories. Read the other pieces here.
Read the Autotheory special issue (6.2) of the print journal ASAP/Journal here.