Ghosts

To tell the stories of a blackqueer heartbreak and forestalled nostalgia provoked by the Disney Channel is to draw energy from a ghosting of severed connections, an otherwise movement of unnamed but present intimacies

My friends laughed and shook their heads, chagrined, when I said Taylor Swift’s 2018 “cover” of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” went right over my head as something I should find reprehensible because, I said to justify, I watch too much Disney Channel. But it’s true, I watch the station a lot, and have since it was a premium channel that I could only watch on those special preview weekends Comcast Cable offered when I was a kid. I’d schedule my days around the television shows, mostly The Mickey Mouse Club. I was jealous of the fun it looked like they had—the jokes, the skits, the performed friendship. And, mostly, the music. That time in my life, I’d wake up early on Saturday mornings to watch Kids Incorporated, a show similar to The Mickey Mouse Club, featuring lots of comedic sketches and singing. I’d watch Jem and the Holograms, too, though I sensed there was something not quite right about a young black boy learning and singing songs like “Twilight in Paris” and “Mood I’m In.” So I’d watch clandestinely.

There was so much in these shows about the complexity of life for preteen, teenage, and early-20s interior life that I longed to feel, but I always felt a bit at a remove. It wasn’t only because I was a good church boy who carried a gray tape recorder with me to churches to record music, a good church boy who—upon receiving my driver’s license—began visiting area churches to listen to the music, see friends, and hang out, because church was recreational to me. It wasn’t the secularity that made the music and skits seem to be at an uncomfortable and unconquerable distance but the uninterrogated and unmitigated straightness of it all, a straightness I could not claim to have but, at that time, at least desired. The music and skits and situations were never meant for someone like me, even when the songs would make me wanna exclaim in joy.

My friends laughed at me—and probably you too, now—but Taylor’s cover of EWF’s song sounded like something I’d hear on a Disney Channel commercial interlude while watching Andi Mack. I love Andi Mack. Thinking about Andi Mack makes me think about forestalled nostalgia and desire for what has never been, the kind of shame and embarrassment that accompanies an impossibility so many years in the making. I recently tweeted, “watching shows like Andi Mack . . . reminds me how growing up queer really interrupts normal teenage life stages.”

When I watch shows like Andi Mack, I only partially pay attention. I cannot tell you the names of her friends or the boy she has a crush on and likes very much. I cannot tell you the name of her mother or the guy that’s her father or what the intricacies of their relationships are. I only glance a bit because the feelings these shows produce in me, by way of the intimacies they represent, make me feel like I’ve missed out on something. I only kinda-sorta pay a little bit of attention because of the way it dramatizes youthful butterflies and disappointment with boyfriends and girlfriends, with likes and crushes, with youthful possibility and disappointment. Shows like Andi Mack produce intimacies that have never been real for me, not in any sustaining way. I am only slightly attentive to this show, and to a lot of shows like it, in other words, because the desired intimacies depicted for me have not yet happened.

What when the crush you have is not really for this person or that but for a kind of life that you desire but will be forever beyond grasp because linear time has progressed into impossibility? That seems a bit imprecise, the givenness of spacetime as linear. To wonder about the possibility of otherwise movement would be a gift.

Shows like Andi Mack illustrate the conundrums of growing up: first kisses and held hands and miscommunications, desires for being liked and liking, dressing up and appearing to the world with heartfelt joy because of the fulfillment of hope for youthful love. The Disney Channel illustrates parents and friends who are available to talk through age-appropriate ideas of love and heartbreak. Yet so much of what queer folks have experienced is a withdrawal from these kinds of discussions lest we be found out to be abnormal or different. So I watch these shows with a bit of a nonchalance, not because they are not compelling but because the nostalgia for those experiences cannot be had. I watch with a nonchalance because of an affective distance from what is imagined and performed, a distance that produces a space of ghosts.

Nostalgia as a kind of ghost, a ghosting. What are the intimacies held in the space in which ghosts appear? The glance, the graze, the gaze.

I recently told the story on Twitter of why I came out the closet. It wasn’t because I was convinced that scripture wasn’t a compelling reason to believe myself sinful—although I was certainly, at that point in my life, age 23, questioning enough about scripture to breathe a bit. It wasn’t because I’d found a boyfriend and wanted to exclaim to my parents and friends a kind of love and relationship that made me feel exuberant, light, and free. It was because of deep heartbreak after severed intimacy.

I’d spent about a year with a boy, us seeing each other almost daily, for hours on end, talking about all kinds of things, and learning all about each other. We never touched. I cannot remember once shaking his hand, giving him a hug or anything physical at all. So we, of course, never kissed or found ourselves in embrace. There were moments of brevity—a hand brushing the other’s hand; sitting on the couch next to each other with knees faintly, gently, grazing; a quick glance lingering a bit beyond the beat; a gaze that had been forestalled. To learn about someone is deeply intimate, but the shows—Mickey Mouse Club, Kids Incorporated, Jem, and today Andi Mack—did not then and do not today have ways to explain to me what to do with intimacy that is unnamed but certainly there, unnamed but certainly happened, unnamed and thus able to be denied at a moment’s notice.

After my eventual declaration of love, he said he wasn’t gay and that was that. The withdrawal from the intimate made possible through the declaration of identity could not deal with the graze and gaze and glance of an intimacy that was, no doubt, reciprocal.

Distance and the refusal of reciprocity and disappearances are all about heartbreak, about muffled, muted desire making unfelt the vibrations of life—an abundant flourishing against violence and death.

I have known heartbreak. It is a blackqueer heartbreak, a kind of heartbreak that intersects at the avenues of settler-colonial dispossession’s need for private property and antiblack racism’s need to produce itself through capital exploitation. The kinda blackqueer heartbreak that is felt acutely, felt sharply, through the silence of family, once-friends, acquaintances, and strangers. My parents have never asked me about my blackqueer life, even though 38-years-old is on the horizon. They have never asked who has brought me happiness or joy or pleasure or sadness or heartbreak. I have not been able to carry the sadness of severed intimacies to them, to a host of people, because the very grounds for queer sociality is considered by some to be sinful.

Blackqueer heartbreak prompted by violent outpourings against our nonnormative possibilities realized, the pleasures of and in our flesh as a fundamental way we make our lives—our refusal to renounce that which is most basic—is the very context of our emergence and eventual exclusion. This blackqueer heartbreak is the underside of blackqueer aesthesis, blackqueer love, joy, peace. Like rivers, deep, but unjoyful. A blackqueer heartbreak acutely felt through an unholy ghost, a kind of ghosting, an apparition of desire fulfillment set against material and physical foreclosure.

My turn to agnosticism had a bit to do with the silence of gods I once presumed existed. The silence of gods was and is not unlike the silence of family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, not unlike the silence that prompts intimidations and spiritual abuses, not unlike the silence that is the foundation for declarations of queer life as sinful, as in need of remediation and renunciation. The silence of gods was performed again and again through peoples, through how we organize against the ones with whom we find disgust in their living, in the funk of their existence. Some have family and friends that love and affirm their lives, not unconditionally but, as my friend says, under all conditions. Such affirmation cannot be taken as a given, such affirmation is the gathering of noise, the gathering of vibration, in the cause of celebrating life abundant, life full and free. Such affirmation is the antithesis of spiritual, economic, and political silence, the silence of gods and sovereign figures.

This silence produces relations that are conditioned on compliance, not a common, shared fleshly existence. And the silence of the gods just as often shows up in words and phrases as it does in eclipsed speech. It shows up as, “I love you, but . . .” and “but the Bible says . . .” Such silence shows up as continued rejection, like a close friend, an intimate companion, rejection being the grounds for many of our relationships, the fear of rejection structuring how we interact with others, an anticipated grief about the very possibility that the people, places of worship, neighborhoods, family, and friends, will reject us. Affirmation is important, not just declarations of abstract “love” folks wanna claim. So sometimes the word “love” is not enough to combat silence but rather makes the silence acute. Sometimes claims of caring while remaining steadfast in rejecting queer flourishing make that care and concern the more strange, the more terrible.

Silence is not absolute, because matter vibrates as a fact of its existence. Silence only names a quality of refused relationality, refused sociality, which is to say refused intimacy. So it’s not so much silence as it is the ghost, the ghosting, of severed connection, a renunciation of the possible in the service of the coherence of normativity. Such ghosting is the presence of loss.

The place and practice of ghosts might be the affective space and register in which queer desire is formed.

Digital technologies are concerned with loss. The concept of loss with regard to sound was prominent when technologies began to move from vinyl records and cassette tapes to CDs and MP3s. Vinyls and cassettes are analog and CDs and MP3s are digital. With each conversion from analog to digital, and from digital format to format, music technologists wondered about how much supposedly unnoticeable, undetectable sound and image can be removed without losing something of the essence of a file, something of the essence of the event captured.

Jonathan Sterne, a historian of music and technology, states, “To save more dataspace, the mp3 encoder saves sounds at either end of the frequency spectrum only once. . . . Since most human adults cannot hear above 16khz, some mp3 encoders also throw out all of the data from 16-20khz to save even more space. Psychoacoustically, the mp3 is designed to throw away sonic material that listeners supposedly would not hear otherwise.” Digital technologies compress audiovisual material; digital technologies make files smaller. This compression is based on imagining what it means to be a normal human, what it means to hear and see normally. But perhaps this compression in the name of normativity is a problem.

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator opens by telling readers his underground apartment contains 1,369 light bulbs. And if there were 1,369 light bulbs in the narrator’s apartment around 1950—about the time the novel was published—the light bulbs would have certainly been felt on the skin as light and shadows. But the lightbulbs would have also been felt as the hum and buzz of electric currents and, importantly, as heat. The intensity of illumination would not remain with sight-specific sense but would be felt in a range of ways: heat and cool, sound and smell. The distinctions between the senses of sight, touch and sound, sound and smell, are undone by inhabiting a room full of intensity. What is desired in that underground room is intimacy with feeling, intimacy with flesh that is about feel.

It’s all about feel.

What is intimacy in the age of the digital? How can openness and vulnerability be practiced as a way of life when so much happens through text messages and inboxes? What are feeling’s ephemera when carried in 0s and 1s? Intimacies felt deeply just beyond the edge of the ended—but not concluded—dream.

There have been times when I text someone after awaking from having had an impression of and for them—having sensed them—in a dream. I text to see how they’re doing, with a hope that that questioning would open out into something that was sensed briefly in the dream, a kind of intimacy that withdrew at the moment of awakening, an intimacy that was dense and full and intense. You wonder if you ever felt it outside the dream or if it was indeed something that was and could only have been produced in the dream, a kind of nostalgic mood reached for but never achieved, reached for and prompted in an otherwise consciousness that material practice and life interdict. After waking from some such dream—of television shows, refused intimacies of love and joy—it’s not cognitive but emotional dissonance that is most pronounced and felt.

To tell the stories of heartbreak and forestalled nostalgia because of television shows like Andi Mack is to reach for intimacy in the digital beyond the possibility of the ghost. Such tales are told with the hopes that the digital would be a way to connection. Abilities to swipe left or right, to hook up with persons in the next hotel room or in the bathroom near the airport gate a couple of feet way or down the street, the ability to slide into DMs and inboxes, have increased communicative possibility but not necessarily the capacity for intimacy.

I was recently on a panel with poet, translator, and scholar Jennifer Scappettone in which she read from work about what degradation digital communication does to the earth, how streaming services and cloud storage require so much material energy in order for us to enjoy them. Her talk made me think about modes of severed communication in a digital epoch, how the waiting for inbox replies, email responses, and iMessages beyond the ellipses also require energy, how waiting for parents to ask about loves lost or never had requires a deep yearning and longing that is really about the establishment and maintenance of intimacies in a variety of ways.

Young folks call it, that disappearing to never be fulfilled, ghosting. It’s a practice of ending a personal relationship—no matter how ephemeral but no less felt—without announcement, without explanation, withdrawing from communication. So, the likes and retweets and shares, the inbox messages and DMs, the double-taps on IG, all that elusive ephemeral information being held and housed in the cloud, clustered together under networks that created algorithms such that the first person you’d see in your lists of likes and shares would be the one you were interested in, withers away. The proliferation of digital technologies that have the capacity for connection makes me wonder about the relationship between ghosting—the sensing of apparitions—and a kind of degraded form for communication that is made possible because of the proliferation of digital means to connection.

Maybe ghosting is the lack produced by not believing we have intimacy with the earth, a kind of settler-colonial desire for expansive possibility that is at the same time a renouncing of what effects material exchanges that are not ephemeral, even if cloudy, have on one another. Perhaps ghosting is a kind of refused intimacy with earth that cannot imagine what happens in the digital to be because of how we treat each other. Perhaps ghosting is what happens when we imagine ourselves separated against and categorically distinct from the earth, though we are made of its dust.

This is why I like Michel Foucault’s interview “Friendship as a Way of Life.” He never says that friendship, of itself, is a good thing. He just claims that friendship is an anti-institutional form of relationality that must be invented by the ones that commit to engage in it. It is an intimacy that can produce, he says, bright, happy joys but also deep and dense sadnesses. This is what I believe the digital to be, the possibility for the flourishing of mood across 0s and 1s. But we must ask what kind of people we want to be before we even enter into the webs, networks, and clouds of possibilities lest we reproduce the hierarchies of racialized, gendered, sexed, classed positions of difference and deficiency. Sylvia Wynter would have us question the genre of human that overrepresents itself, called Man, and the ways that we reproduce Man digitally. Is there an otherwise genre of human, an otherwise feel for connection and intimacy, that we can go after and attempt? We have to attend to what is lost and produced as loss in the conversion of our daily lives to the digital.

I think about my singleness and my desire and my being near 38 years old, and it makes me feel worry about my never having had an Andi Mack experience, or a Jerica/Jem experience, or a Mickey Mouse Club kinda love. This is what blackqueer heartbreak announces, a kind of impossibility with normative spacetime. But this is what blackqueer flourishing—thinking, imagining, and interrogating our lifeworlds with queer potential—has the capacity to introduce, the possibility for a kind of intimacy that is grounded in otherwise modalities, something other than normative striving for normative Man. It is an intimacy grounded in the capacity for and the sharing in joy.

And in the attempt to interdict and inhibit this having joy is also then the attempt against the flourishing of life and love. The saints taught me that you can have joy in sorrow, though that doesn’t mean, I now realize, that sadness and sorrow will not occur. What they taught me and what blackqueer joy encourages me to remember is that even in that, you can have joy. What does it mean to be joyful in a world that is surrounded by practices that interdict such possibility? How to have joy within imperfection? This is what blackqueer joy makes available in the space that would be the zone of ghosts. And if ghosts, then haunting and hallucination but not according to linear cause and effect. Cause withdraws, leaving effect as gap. To enter into blackqueer friendship is to enter into the land of ghosts, wherein fear of abandonment looms. Looms as a kind of excess and remains. But this is also an occasion for joy.

Blackqueer joy is about the resistance to dominant narratives of degradation, and the disposability of blackqueer life. To perform joy and seek to spread, elaborate, write about and receive joy—in its ongoing practice—is to discover blackqueer life as the resource, the well, from which to draw energy, strength. I write about blackqueer joy because we are not supposed to have it, because the incessant nature of antiblack racism is supposed to interdict and inhibit the very possibility for its being found.