There is always a certain magic to be found in the moment of queering. As bodies are opened to unsanctioned desires and sensations, tense moments of wonder unfold before them. Static charges crackle and spark as genders and sexualities are peeled away from the sticky fabric of the everyday.
Such moments and times pulse with magic; they ask us to overreach ourselves, to live in other bodies, to step outside of axiomatic truths and ways of being. To be queer, or to queer, is, in this sense, a kind of spell or invocation; an incantation, an enchantment, and an act of imagination all at once.
Yet despite this apparent congruity, the magical resonances of queerness are rarely given their own voice. The themes of affect, embodiment, and performance that have been so central to queer theoretical work for two decades have made the specifically magical tangential at best, marginal at worst.
AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs’ 2011 volume Queer Spirits (Creative Time), however, seeks to change that. A delirious, indulgent, beautifully printed and bound collection, Queer Spirits hazily chronicles a series of invocations, or séances, staged by Bronson and Hobbs in four communities across North America: Banff, New Orleans, Winnipeg, and Fire Island.
Ostensibly a series of performance art pieces (although the status, place, and even existence of audience is, with one brief exception, largely ignored throughout the text), Bronson and Hobbs’ invocations were staged in communities that sit, in their estimation, at the intersection of disparate historical trajectories of marginalization.
In the “queer shaman” imaginary occupied by Bronson, colonialism and the extermination of indigenous populations comingle with legacies of slavery, the HIV/AIDS crisis, the extinction of animal populations, hate crimes and racism, suicide and bullying.
The invocations call these multiple bodies and spirits, all lost to the violence of systemic oppression, into an ethereal and indulgent co-presence. In the mode of a séance, candles are lit, sage is burned, clothes and inhibitions are shed, and offerings given to “all the dispossessed and abandoned; to all those who have died but cannot leave.”
The sumptuousness of these performances finds an eager ally in the text’s primarily photographic content. Images of the invocations — some re-staged, some from the actual events, some purely archival, some historical-but-modified — run into one another and make up the bulk of the collection. Yet, beyond some short captions and a pithy series of curiously indexed “Lessons,” Hobbs and Bronson neither contextualize nor explicate the majority of these images.
They refuse, quite consciously and wisely I think, to yield to simple indexicality. Rather, the odd visual assemblages, which capture the overlapping histories that the invocations themselves call upon, echo the project of the book as a whole: the conjuring up of some specifically queer magical practice. Quite literally, by stitching together curious assortments of prop, text, image, memory, and trickery, the book formally mirrors its subject matter, attempting to invoke particular queer moments that cannot and will not be reproduced.
That said, I can’t help but feel that some of the richness of this grandiose project is lost in the translation to text. The attempt to reconcile and collectively invoke the histories that Hobbs and Bronson engage — indigenous, colonial, racialized, queered and gendered — remains mostly in the realm of passing reference. Rarely do the relationships between these histories feel substantively thought through, an oversight that in fact becomes politically and ethically troubling at a number of points.
Most obviously, Queer Spirits is overwhelmingly male and white. The text that precedes each invocation, for example, specifically valorizes “all-male” forms of association, and in the same breath, equates the homosocial communities that predated colonial incursion — indigenous and first nations — with the very homosocial communities that in fact exterminated them: “the French explorers, trappers, traders.”
The indifference shown to this dangerous (a)historical misstep is striking. Similarly, while the iconography and language of indigenous, diasporic, and racialized communities factors heavily into both the project and the text, the body of colour itself is almost entirely absent from the printed images.
Such oversights extend to the realm of gender, as well. Where the feminine spirit is certainly invoked and celebrated throughout the collection, the only female bodies that actually appear (outside of one shot of two female spectators) are those in archival and historical images.
The closest that Bronson and Hobbs’ own photos get to representing a female body is an image of the first governor of Fire Island (apparently an avid crossdresser), in drag. And so it is that one of the key “lessons” imparted by Queer Spirits is that “history wears a tiara and a five-o’clock shadow.” In other words, while history might periodically don the feminine as ceremonial garb, it remains inescapably, irrevocably, and inexplicably masculine.
These tensions ultimately unhinge many of the conceptual and metaphorical anchors around which Hobbs and Bronson organize the text. Their fixation on the image of the rhizome is a case in point. The rhizome — a vast network of hidden roots that sprawls across whole landscapes, connecting periodic aboveground flourishings — serves as a critical parallel to the connectivity between marginalizations supposed by Queer Spirits. Yet the text, pockmarked as it is by the kind of historical oversights noted above, betrays this all-important anchor.
For the reader (or, at least this reader), the “queer spirit” never becomes a truly rhizomatic one — one that connects without subsuming, binds without denying difference. The gaps between the histories at hand are simply too great, too conflicting, and too fraught to be explained away by the device of the invocation. There is no indication as to why the invocation in particular might function as the immanent practice that connects our variable histories.
And while the brief written meditations that close the collection sometimes move toward addressing these gaps, in the end, I think they do more to inflame them by way of implicit denial. For example, Hobbs writes in Lesson 27, “history is a litany of plagues, destruction and genocide.” Only a few pages prior to this grim (and accurate) assessment, he writes that “Queer spirits turn history on its head.” However, given the enduring invisibility of women’s bodies and bodies of colour in the text — the very same invisibilities that the invocations aspire to undo — the lesson seems lost.
Of course, it may simply be that the book fails, as all books are bound to do, to capture the richness and intersectionality of the invocations as living, breathing events. But all the same, if there is any accuracy in my claim that the text itself attempts function as a kind of invocation, then I would have to confess that the attempt falls short. It feels, in the end, more consumptive and appropriative than reconciliatory, more a re-presenting of history as we know it than a truly queer and magical intervention that gives voice, at long last, to the forgotten.