In her book Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism (2015), Madhavi Menon exposes the queerness that exists in our day-to-day lives. She uses the term “queer universalism” to recognize that desire cannot be restrained or designated to a finality of any kind. “Queer” because it’s about the impossibility of fully acquiescing to state-designated categories of identity, “universalism” because desire resists all containment attempted by all humans. Living indifferently to the categories into which we slot people would prevent violence and oppression based on our differences.
Desire’s association with multiple things at once cannot be associated with the fictional, unified “self” (16). It expands beyond the boundaries we give ourselves. Even the liberal ideal of multiculturalism can be dangerous. Multiculturalism is about valuing people because of their differences, but tying people to the specific elements that make them “different” often leads to a simple reversal of power dynamics. As Menon writes, “Naming creates conditions of scarcity because only so many people can be called by the same name” (41). The oppressed can easily become the oppressor by delineating themselves from and shunning “others” for not meeting their requirements. The process of naming and identifying is unstable anyway, because “we are never fully any one or multiple things. We are always moving across and beyond markers attributed to us. Universalism asks us to consider this impossibility of identity seriously because it is the condition of the real world in which genetic, linguistic, regional, and sexual purity barely and rarely exists” (43).
Each of us already recognize that our own personal desires don’t fully match the identity that others have given us or that we give ourselves. Desire is indifferent to identity, and that is a universal truth, as none of us are fixed, rigid, unchanging things. We should live our day-to-day lives accepting this fact by being indifferent to our own and others’ differences. Before you get all angered and condescending and feel the need to comment with something like “how could you be indifferent to the struggles of so many people and ignore the differences that empower them??? HOW COULD YOU BE SO CRUEL, LUKE BROWN?” here’s how Menon describes it: “This indifference is not skepticism so much as the ability to think anti-ontologically” (119). Simple. Being indifferent means we overcome the habit of fixing other people in place, and instead allow them to surprise and excite us.
She goes into specific examples, such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and how the play explores the impossibility of embodying desire. As a result of colonialism and its resulting social habits, we think we can “read” a person by looking at their body. We make assumptions based on what we see.
Crucial to Dream is the Indian Boy, or changeling, who is the object of Titania’s and thus Oberon’s desire. Their fight over the body that is never actually seen (despite many productions’ insistence that he be present on stage) results in multiple conflicts and disorder in the play world.
Importantly, the object of desire is not embodied on stage, as Shakespeare seems to be addressing his own skepticism toward corporeal identity. There are characters who desire this boy, but he is never actually seen, proving that our desires need not be correlated with a physical being. Furthermore, this insistence that the object of desire is not seen theorizes that “‘character’ itself [is] a thing that does not ever have a body” (73). In the theatre, seeing a “character” on stage is actually impossible, because the character does not exist in our physical world. Shakespeare plays with this absence of desire’s materialization, proving that our need to formulate people’s identities based on desire is fickle. Desire cannot be contained by simple, corporeal entities.
If bodies cannot be looked to in order to explain desire, then how can we understand it? We are always searching for a way to explain desire and its implications, and we get anxious if we can’t somehow materialize or embody it (which is why you get so many artists putting the changeling onstage). If desire can’t be contained in people’s bodies (ie if we can’t understand a person fully through their embodiment), then how does it work? It becomes clear that desire is always migratory: it’s constantly moving across borders. “In Shakespeare, desire travels universally. It crosses generic, national, imaginative, conceptual, sexual, borders” (75).
We have the constant desire to explain the cause of desire, but by watching Shakespeare’s comedies we see the impossibility of capturing its essence. In addition to the changeling boy, there are no real, corporeal reasons given for the lovers’ obsessions with each other. Their attractions are played with and change considerably with no real cause, displaying the queerness of desire in its inability to stay within designated boundaries. And further, the comedy only works within this structure. Acknowledging the impossibility of capturing desire is enjoyable!
I’ve been trying to apply queerness to theatrical practice in such a way that practitioners can use it as a “tool”. This has been a struggle of mine for a while now, but Indifference to Difference has helped me articulate an approach through its concept of queer universalism. Again, and most likely because I’m not that great of a writer and depend too heavily on the articulation skills of others, I’m going to provide a quote from the book:
“Suggesting that embodiment refuses self-presence, and desire moves freely among characters, theater showcases the recalibration of identity as indifference. In different modes, indifference reimagines interpersonality as impersonation, as a serial constitution of selves that are transient and nonessential” (23). In the theatre, we are constantly shifting between identities. “Fixed selves” are understood to be dispensable. Desire constantly migrates and can never stand still. That’s not something that theatre practitioners have to try really hard to accomplish; it’s inherent in the basic process of performing with and in front of other people. Applying queer universalism to the theatre, then, is only “natural”.
Of course, not everyone will receive theatre the same way. There is an infinite range of possibilities for how we perform and how people of different backgrounds receive performance. But, no matter what approach we take to understand its semiotics (how it creates meaning), theatre itself is always gonna be queer. In fact, it is the “queerest art form”, as David Savran explores in A Queer Sort of Materialism (2003): “If theater is the queerest art, perhaps it so [sic] because writing and performance always function to disarticulate and disrupt identity – whether the identity in question is that of the playwright, the performer, or the spectator” (70). It is this queerness of the theatre that can universally expose the instability of identity through an exploration of our desires.
I, Luke Brown, through theatre decentred (2017), argue that the inherent queer potential of theatre should be harnessed more directly and thoroughly in order to encourage an indifferent attitude toward difference. If anything, theatre shows us that we cannot attribute particular desires to particular bodies. The more we can explore this through innovative forms and uses of storytelling, the less likely we will resort to the violence and hatred that attempts to enforce rigid, identitarian structures. We are all different. Yes. But that doesn’t mean our differences should define us. If we allow them to do so, we risk limiting people’s potential. This is ridiculous, because thanks to our ever-changing desires, not one of us can be easily defined.
This brings me (1200 words later… sorry ‘bout it) to a ridiculous controversy happening right now.
Mark Crawford, the inspiring and brilliant playwright that he is, wrote a play called Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures. Carousel Players has been touring it to schools across Ontario and it has recently been met with multiple cancellations by Niagara catholic schools (read J. Kelly Nestruck’s article by clicking here)
The play explores a child’s questioning of their identity, and their frustration with society’s imposed gender norms. In a letterposted on their website, Carousel’s AD Jessica Carmichael wrote the following:
“The core message from the main character, Simon(e), in Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures, is that every child needs the support of friends and family no matter who they are, what they dress like, what toys they like to play with and what they imagine they can be. I wholeheartedly believe in this message.”
AS SHOULD EVERYONE. This play is a great opportunity for children to see that it’s OK to be confused about who they are. We ALL get confused about our desires and identities. The play takes this further in advocating for a rejigging of society’s limiting and thus harmful understanding of gender. All of this is done through magical and entertaining storytelling (there are MERMAIDS, for chrissake!) It is an absolute shame that parents are limiting their children’s exposure to such an important topic.
Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures is not going to make your children think they “need” reassignment surgery (see the transphobic comments attached to Carmichael’s letter). It’s going to comfort them by showing a family who accepts their child for being who they are. That’s a much more positive experience for a child than having parents “who want to limit children’s access to art, theatre, beauty, magic, joy, humour, and big ideas” (from Crawford’s online letter)
Promoting an indifference to difference at a young age is crucial to building a more optimistic and less violent society. The transphobia exhibited by these parents and schools is a disgrace, and the resulting cancellations are restricting children’s ability to expand their minds and practice empathy.
“An attitude of indifference would remove the sense of ownership over moral propriety that is the basis for much of the violence in the world today. It would allow us to undo the burden of identitarian specificity that prompts brutal actions every day” (Menon 16).
Imagine the world we could create if we were to allow our children to explore and act out this attitude of indifference.
Carousel Players. http://www.carouselplayers.com
Menon, Madhavi. Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Print.
Nestruck, J. Kelly. “Niagara Catholic Schools Cancel Touring Play on Gender Identity.” The Globe and Mail 2 May 2017: n. pag. Print.
Savran, David. A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Print. Triangulations.