Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Otherwiseness: Thinking with José Muñoz and Lauren Berlant

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About seven years ago, I wrote a series of terrible poems, each of which was trying to work out in my own head and writing how to think about “otherwise” as a process of perceiving and thinking. I was trying to make sense of the fact that things could have been and can be otherwise, a possibility I kept encountering, both directly and indirectly, in the reading I was doing at the time about history, politics, thought, and affect (this thought also emerges in Sedgwick’s essay that I cited in an earlier post). The writers who most memorably influenced my thinking on this were Susan Howe, Kamau Brathwaite, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Gayatri Spivak. Adorno writes, “Even in the most sublimated work of art there is a hidden ‘it should be otherwise’”*; this account, along with Spivak’s questions, “What is it to learn?” and “What would it be to learn otherwise?”** were important guides for the writing I was trying to do.

After finishing my last post, which included the word “otherwise,” I searched for “otherwise” in google and came across a 2013 article by José Muñoz, “Living the Wrong Life Otherwise,” in Social Text. Here’s the link:

Muñoz’s essay is, characteristically, beautiful and incisive. He opens with an account of Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism as a way of revisiting his own argument in his book Cruising Utopia. Muñoz notes that he and Berlant share a “trajectory, that of proposing a sustaining sense of the commons that may exist in the future and the present.” Muñoz’s project is future oriented; in Cruising Utopia, he writes, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality [ . . . ] Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing”*** (1). Berlant’s argument, by contrast, focuses on affective practices or stances that bind people to the present; for Berlant, “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project.”**** Both writers are engaged in a consideration of hope, but they focus on different tenses of hoping.

So that’s some background. Here’s the foreground:

In Muñoz’s In “Living the Wrong Life Otherwise,” I was struck especially by two accounts of his work’s relation to Berlant’s. “Muñoz writes,

“The Marxist in me looks at Berlant’s idea of cruel optimism as an opportunity for auto-examination. I am interested in tracking a certain kind of potentiality during moments of what she might call suspension or the impasse of living in the overwhelmingly present moment. To this end, I think the practice of queer utopianism can be tempered by the phenomenon that Berlant unfolds as cruel optimism.”


“Berlant and I are invested in Adorno’s idea of an aesthetic that can suggest the otherwise. The otherwise of sex, gender and class reality that is encountered in Morrisoe [a photographer whose work Muñoz writes about in the article] is not change unto itself, it’s not automatic transformation. Instead, it’s potentially a part of a bigger story that I think a few of us are trying to tell. It is not about the speedy arrival at a ‘better’ or reconstitutes good life that the aesthetic offers us but it is instead about the affective resources for otherwiseness that exists both in the realms of the aesthetic and the quotidian.”

(I realize that this post is lengthy and full of quotes filled with dense thinking; please bear with me until tomorrow, when I’ll continue thinking/writing about Muñoz and Berlant)!

(to be continued)

*Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” trans. Francis McDonagh, New Left Review I 87-88 (1974): 89.
** Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Acting Bits / Identity Talk,” Critical Inquiry 18: 4 (1992): 778.
*** José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
****Laurent Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Julie Joosten

Julie Joosten is originally from Georgia but now lives in Toronto. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Program and a PhD from Cornell University. Her poems and reviews can be read in like starlings, Lemon Hound, Lit, Jacket 2, Tarpaulin Sky, the Malahat Review and The Fiddlehead. She recently guest edited an issue of BafterC, a journal of contemporary poetry. Her first book, Light Light, was shortlisted for the 2014 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, and the 2014 Goldie Award.

You can reach Julie throughout the month of April at

Go to Julie Joosten’s Author Page