Incomplete, Visionary, Non-Utopian

For María Lugones

The last time we met, it was at a Thai place on Front Street, just north of where the Chenango and the Susquehanna rivers meet, in the midst of a slowly transforming downtown that still retains a desiccated Rust Belt patina, though now there’s a beer bar, a couple of coffee shops, a yoga studio. I had given a book talk at Binghamton that evening, and afterwards, you and I and a couple of other folks grabbed a meal and talked: about navigating academia as poor, first-generation (though you were anything but, being the child of a former dean at the University of Buenos Aires), and marginalized; about your long-overdue promotion to full professor, and the dossier that folks were helping you pull together to attest to your life’s work. This dossier would come to trace your long, influential arc, from recently immigrated Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison writing a dissertation on friendship and morality, to your years as a popular educator at the Escuela Popular Norteña, which you cofounded in northern New Mexico, to the last two decades, where you began groundbreaking work that has rooted and elaborated decolonial feminism.

You would, a few short months after this dinner, be granted a full professorship. But you would die before you could enjoy what that meant to you: more time to write, to do popular education, to be in movement with folks.

When our paths crossed in the early 2000s, you were already a widely read and deeply admired feminist philosopher. I was a 22-year-old queer anarchist from a fucked-up family who barely knew how to cook or dress for an upstate New York winter. In no uncertain way, you taught me how to live: how to be in deep and intimate solidarity, how to build community, how to take care of beloved accomplices. You became my dissertation advisor, yes, but also so much more. I vividly remember you describing your anger at folks who claimed you didn’t know about caregiving because you, an avowed dyke (a tortillera, in the slang you preferred), had never had children. You gestured at the classroom and said, “Look at all these kids I help raise!”

I was but one of them.

After dinner that last night in Binghamton, while we were standing on the sidewalk together, delaying our goodbyes, you told me the cancer had returned. Though you were seeking treatment (and already knew the best doctors, the best hospitals, from your first go-round on this horrible rollercoaster), it was probably terminal. We held each other by the elbows and cried. Then you shrugged and said, in a kind of glib and resigned summation, “Sucky,” a word that I hadn’t ever heard you use before. But you were right — it fucking sucked. The specific helplessness that informs the recognition of the imminent death of a caregiver, a mentor, a beloved elder, a friend of the heart and the mind (to me, you were all of these things, and surely more) renders most of us kidlike. On the day you died, I reverted, walking around the house in tears, kicking the baseboards, periodically muttering “stupid death” in complete exasperation and something just short of shock to anyone who might have been listening (my partner, the dogs), as if my recently acquired belief in object permanence had been completely shattered. As if I really believed that you would always be around, that I would always recognize your gait and your impeccable marimacha sartorial sense in otherwise dull conference hallways and run to throw my arms around you, give you kisses and hear you shout “Querida!” in surprise at my sudden appearance.

We’ll never know what killed you, not really, with cancer being just a placeholder for all of those toxic forces arrayed against us and how our bodies do or don’t hold them at bay or in check. That your death arrived in the midst of a global pandemic meant that those who loved you and didn’t know the exact cause of death were forced to wonder whether it was related to COVID-19. In the immediate aftermath, I didn’t have the wherewithal to reach out to those few folks who would know. And later I didn’t want to know. I wanted your death to remain singular, not statistical. I didn’t want to think of you in conjunction with think pieces on the racial, class, and gendered politics of disease and death, though I will, and I guess I already am. I don’t want to think of the fact of your death at all, though I must. The official report says cardiac arrest, caused by “pneumonia-like” symptoms that descended after a recent radiation treatment. In this historical moment, I can’t write “pneumonia-like” without placing the phrase in scare quotes and wondering about state strategies of statistical underreporting.

One force arrayed against you was toxic in the material sense. IBM had a manufacturing plant in Endicott, NY, the town just across the river from both the university where you worked and the old hunting lodge where you had made a home. Sometimes, when I was in graduate school and studying with (alongside, under) you, we would go into Endicott for a panini or an Italian ice or tiramisu or a pizzelle. The town still had a thriving Little Italy, and you being raised in Argentina and me being from a family part Sicilian meant that we both had a hard time staying away from this small cluster of blocks and would meet there regularly to talk and write together.

This manufacturing plant poisoned the town — there is a well-documented cancer cluster in Endicott. IBM settled a toxic tort case out of court in 2015, for an undisclosed sum; the case had over 1,000 plaintiffs. The town of Endicott itself has, to date, just over 12,000 residents.

Maybe it was this exposure that was at the root of your death, though there were certainly other forms of toxicity you endured and absorbed. You were so often in spaces but not of them. Your life was a master course in the complexities of conditional and incomplete belonging: a queer woman of color trained in a discipline — philosophy — that remains enduringly cis, white, and male, more so than any other discipline in the humanities, with diversity stats more akin to what we see in engineering departments. You learned from Marxist and socialist men, aware of their critical limitations around questions of gender and sexuality; you embedded yourself in a White-dominated lesbian feminist movement, where you found consciousness around questions of migration, transnationality, race, and coloniality consistently elided. Moving from Argentina to the U.S., you discovered that, in this particular nation-state, you were a Woman of Color, and you had to learn what that meant — so you moved toward Women of Color spaces and pursued deep coalition there, though not without difficulty. But reflection on navigating all this misfit became one of the most salient through lines in your work: You wrote extensively over so many years about the complexities of radical coalition, about the barriers, misrecognitions, inaccurate translations, and misunderstandings that shape the act of hablando cara a cara (speaking face to face).

You were ever unafraid to do the thing we’ve come to shorthand as “speaking truth to power,” and you were also never acquiescent in your disagreements with colleagues. You developed, over many years, a reputation for being difficult, confrontational. My first time witnessing you issue public comment in an academic context was at a conference panel sometime in the mid-aughts. Your read (and it was, to be very clear, a read) of the presenter ended with the phrase “white feminist savior complex.” Some in the room winced, but many folks — self included — smirked and seemed on the verge of exploding into spontaneous applause. You weren’t wrong, and you said the damn thing. You were deliberately impolite and in deep violation of the unspoken norms of academic engagement, where one is expected to embroider their critical commentary with niceties and provide far too much context for their intervention and conclude with the verbal equivalent of a noncommittal shrug and an advance invitation for the subject of critique to dismiss your comments (“maybe this is something you want to take under consideration, maybe not . . . ”). We sometimes call this being “generous.” But you were one of the most actually generous people I’ve ever known, unsparing with your conversation, with your care, with your affection, your money, your commitment to what you called “‘world’-traveling.” In these contexts, what was happening was simple: You were angry, and you believed that solidarity meant holding one another accountable. The way your anger was met in academic spaces illuminated the massive and unsurpassable gulf between spaces of radical political movement and spaces of intellectual exchange ostensibly animated by questions of justice and resistance. I watched your outrage become tokenized and fetishized; I saw the way you were implicitly marked as belligerent, troublesome, not good administrative material. I absorbed these lessons tacitly over the course of the years we worked together. Having you as my advisor was a lesson in the high cost of not taking shit from bureaucrats, and about the incommensurability of certain worlds of sense.

Much ink has been spilled lately about feminist rage, about its use values, about its clarifying impact, about its ability to prompt radical existential shifts and fuel the psychic and physical breaks necessary to divest from toxic relationalities, both institutional and interpersonal. But precious little has been written about how to survive the consistent recurrence of rage, and what kinds of supports need to be in place to endure. I return again and again to your work to sort through this, and again and again to my memories of the spaces we cocultivated within and against academic business-as-usual. Turning to your writing in Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes (the only book you published over your very long career, a collection of essays ranging decades) during a time of pandemic, social distance, and the deep longing for touch and body-to-body connection this context has engendered is devastating. You believed so deeply in the transformative potential of embodied community building and collective action. You believed in the imperative of presence.

In your essay “Hard-to-Handle Anger,” you theorize what it means to experience foreclosed and illegible anger, anger that resonates within dominant worlds of sense as irrational, non-sensical, and thus dismissed. You call this the kind of anger that “recognizes this world’s walls. It pushes against them rather than making claims within them.” Folks often wondered why you chose the battles you did, why your anger was so seemingly outsized in relation to the tenor of a given situation. Why you’d be outraged and sometimes tearful in meetings with upper administration, why you would interrogate a junior scholar at length during a conference Q and A, ignoring the time constraints placed on a session, in the hopes of transformative dialogue, which does not abide administrative temporalities. In this essay, you answer those inquiries implicitly: It was about refusing the logical and affective terms of the world you were in, in order to make other worlds possible, in order to bring about a different kind of self — one that “rejects being terrorized intimately.” You also understood that anger can be a gift, a crucial means of developing solidarity across difference, that honesty is the very least of what we owe each other. When you argued with someone about their work, or confronted them about the energy they brought to a room or a conversation, it was often out of this generous sense of anger, the kind of anger that we owe to those with whom we genuinely wish to be in community. This generous and not cruel kind of anger we can express in order to stay honest and in touch with too often denied aspects of ourselves, in order to keep those more fragile, inchoate, long-suppressed or repressed selves alive and to reach out to one another through them.

You were fully aware that your relationship to anger meant that a lot of folks thought of you as intimidating and serious, or irrational, outraged, and outrageous; this response to your anger signaled, to you, the sharp distinctions between certain worlds of sense, indicated which ones were toxic and which ones you might have a possibility of thriving in. This was a litmus for you, who wrote this sentence in 1987: “I am not a healthy being in the ‘worlds’ that construct me unplayful.” You wrote, in that same essay, that you were “scared of ending up a serious human being, someone with no multi-dimensionality, with no fun in life, someone who is just someone who has had the fun constructed out of her. I am seriously scared of getting stuck in a ‘world’ that constructs me that way. A ‘world’ that I have no escape from and in which I cannot be playful.”

In the worlds you cocultivated, you were so often playful. I have tripped over your feet learning — and failing to learn — to dance tango, I have exploded with laughter in your kitchen, I have watched your voice drift to the timber rafters of your den as you sang and sang and sang. I have so many gifts from you — shells, miniatures, rocks, a railroad spike, all object lessons of sorts. The railroad spike, for instance, came to me after you had wandered away from a backyard bonfire at my falling-apart place by the railroad tracks. You returned from this small sojourn with a handful of rusty old spikes that you then doled out to the women and queer folks in attendance. You then demonstrated how to use them in self-defense and promised that you’d knit us all koozies for the thick end that we were supposed to hold while in battle. I’ve never used it, but it’s been the talisman of a protective spell you cast over our lives that I’ve kept close for well over a decade. Even the suitcase I use — you bought it for my 26th birthday, and I still lug it with me everywhere, thinking of you and your very specific sense of world traveling: not touristic, not exploitative and appropriative, but rather about minoritized subjects intimately learning one another’s worlds of sense.

You articulated this concept in your groundbreaking essay “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception,” which was about how important it is to understand minoritized subjects as ontologically plural, beings who shift as we move through multiple, often dissonant, worlds of sense. This is how you described what a “world” is, and what it means to travel between worlds:

a “world” may be an incomplete visionary non-utopian construction of life or it may be a traditional construction of life. . . . Those of us who are “world”-travellers have the distinct experience of being different in different “worlds” and of having the capacity to remember other “worlds” and ourselves in them. We can say “That is me there, and I am happy in that “world.” So, the experience is of being a different person in different “worlds” and yet of having memory of oneself as different without quite having the sense of there being any underlying “I.” . . . The shift from being one person to being a different person is what I call “travel.”

You have gifted us this way of thinking about contingent and transformative selfhood. You have given me the ability to think, with life-sustaining fondness, of the incomplete visionary nonutopian constructions of life we built with one another, to remember — wherever I have traveled since — that is me there, and I am happy in that world.

And I have traveled, surely, at least half a gender or maybe a whole gender, depending on who is doing the figuring, if we even want to quantify it. Your work means so much to so many trans folks, though you never wrote explicitly about transness. But you understood, intimately, the violence of reductive and dehumanizing forms of misrecognition, and the corpus you’ve left us details tools and strategies for bearing that, surviving it, outliving it, resisting it. You had your own tense and inventive relationship to gender, which you understood as a colonial imposition rooted in emergent modern Eurocentric scientific knowledge formations that articulated sexual dimorphism as the first and last word on sexed embodiment, and naturalized categorical differences from there. Ever your student, I tend to understand gender that way, too: a kind of prison house we are coercively forced to dwell in, try to make habitable despite its overwhelming inhospitability. A world against whose walls we must push.

Academia remains, quite obviously, one of these worlds, and all my earliest lessons in how to push against these particular walls are from you. True story: I am a proud graduate of a Ph.D. program that no longer exists: the Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture program (PIC — the irony of the acronym was not lost on us), formerly at Binghamton University, one of the supposed crown jewels of the State of New York system. For many years, you headed up an interdisciplinary research center affiliated with the program, the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture (CPIC). Through CPIC, you ran — with the assistance of many other faculty members and graduate students — a number of working groups over the years: the Politics of Women of Color, Decolonial Thinking, and, later, Decolonial Feminisms. This last working group was in collaboration with sister groups at UC Berkeley, UNAM Mexico City, and a feminist popular education collective in Bolivia. My first encounters with the now ubiquitous videoconferencing format were in those meetings, which were glitchy, rough (on account of tech issues), long (on account of the slowed pace of multilingual translation), and thrilling. This was where you worked out, and workshopped, much of your thinking on what you came to call the “colonial/modern gender system.” Your articulation of this concept has traveled transnationally, and the English-language articles in which you lay it out — “Heterosexualism and the Colonial Modern/Gender System” (2007) and “Toward a Decolonial Feminism” (2010) have thousands of citations between them. As you pulled together your file for promotion to full, I told you that, at that time (October 2019), your works were the most cited works that Hypatia — the signal feminist philosophy journal in the U.S. — had published to date. You were delighted and made sure that I included that bit in my letter for your file. I also wrote to your chair, who I had TA’d for in graduate school, to let her know this. I was happy to do these things, but also had the sinking feeling that you were, in fact, deeply anxious about this promotion, worried that it wouldn’t go through.

And you had reason to worry. It’s not as if you had an easy go of things, institutionally speaking. When the university decided to defund the program that I graduated from, where you had placed the entirety of your tenure line, you had to go door knocking to ask another department to absorb you. The mainstream philosophy department subjected this decision to a faculty vote and ultimately refused you, as did a few others; finally, you were able to convince comparative lsiterature to house you. All of the Ph.D. students who were still in PIC at the time it was defunded were also forced to seek new intellectual homes or quit: Some were farmed into comparative literature, some to art history, some to sociology, some English, and very few — perhaps none — into the conventional philosophy department. They didn’t want us. They didn’t seem to think that what we did was philosophy, because we did it in ways that were too queer, too Black, too brown, too decolonial. In 2010, the year before the program was defunded, a consortium of minoritized philosophers pulled together an alternative ranking system to evaluate philosophy departments according to criteria that took epistemic and demographic diversity into account, in part to counter to the conservative trolling of philosophy professor and blogger Brian Leiter, who issued his own ranked list of programs each year. Within this alternative ranking system, PIC placed at the top of the list. This was mentioned, to no avail, in our repeated meetings with upper admin as we argued for the continuing need for the program. But they, in the name of austerity and “streamlining,” wanted to use the funds we ran on to enhance the more traditional philosophy department; their long game hinged on using that department as a feeder for a 3-2 program for a new law school at Binghamton. The law school has yet to materialize. At the start of the semester after PIC was defunded, former PIC students held a ritual of mourning on the central quad, dressed as skeletons, wearing calavera masks, and holding signs listing the research areas that thrived within the program — Latinx feminism, Black Europe, Queer of Color critique, and on and on.

The day you died, I tweeted a small homage to you, an attempt to self-soothe, to reach out in the limited way I could, because the folks who loved you were unable to gather in the ways we wanted to: “my beloved friend, advisor, and comrade María Lugones passed very early this morning. She taught me, and so many others, how to think and be in resistance, how to dwell in coalition, and every important lesson about queer love and queer worldmaking. May she rest in power.” Hours later, Harpur College (the College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton, the entity responsible for defunding us) retweeted it. I didn’t get publicly salty about it, but god, I wanted to. You’d have wanted me to, I suspect, to combat the way official, officious memorialization papers over the structural and interpersonal violence that shapes relationships among the living. (I still refuse to donate to Binghamton, though, and cite the defunding as the reason why every chance I get.)

Rumors circulated in the aftermath of the defunding, chief among them the notion that the only reason PIC was able to stick around so long — a kind of surly, wild-haired, and undisciplined sibling of philosophy proper — was because the founding director of the program had donated large sums of money to the university, and the program was his pet project. He was a wealthy white continentalist who wrote, primarily, on questions of excess, instability, and unsurety. He sometimes wore a dashiki, which caused near-universal cringing within the program. My grand entrance into the program involved spilling red wine on his white carpet at a beginning-of-term welcome party. I was a shaky, nervous first-gen, low-income student intimidated by his wealth, which was said to have come from investing in IBM very early on. If all of this is true, it means that our space in the rapidly neoliberalizing academy, where we believed we were engaging in a form of fugitive study, in the production of insurgent knowledges, located in the physical space of the university but not dominated by its operative logics, was, in some significant way, purchased at the cost of poisoning and disenfranchising the local population.

But you were never invested in a politic of purity, unlike the overgrown kid I was when we met, a rigorously anti-petrol bike punk with anxiety about the clarifying agent used in the beer I drank, a strict policy of only ever buying secondhand, and a habit of hand-wringing over the micropolitics of sexuality, desire and act alike. At the tail end of graduate school, I started dating a cishet man, a fact that I could not bear to tell you for fear that you would be disappointed in what you might read as a lapse of queer praxis. One night, we were cooking together, getting ready for a dinner party, and you said to me, “I was so relieved when I found out you had switched.” I panicked, thinking someone must have told you about this man. My jaw hung. I stuttered. You, sensing my distress, followed up with, “It’s so much easier to cook for someone who is vegetarian, not vegan!” You didn’t care who I was fucking. You were just happy you could serve dairy. My anxiety about this was testimony to the fact that I still had a lot of learning from you to do.

You were deeply invested in thinking the relation between subjectivity and coalition, but all of your thinking and writing on that relation hinged on an understanding of subjectivity as always already impure, and resistant sociality as a matter of what you called “curdling” — multiplicitous subjects together, coconstitutive, in resistance to the twinned logics of purity and subjective transparency. You understood the demand for purity as nearly always a matter of fascism by degree, macro or micro. It was always the call of a little internalized cop, a moral simpleton. You wrote, in 1994, “I ask myself who my own people are. When I think of my own people, the only people I can think of as my own are transitionals, liminals, border-dwellers, ‘world’-travelers, beings in the middle of either/or. They are all people whose acts and thoughts curdle-separate. So as soon as I entertain the thought, I realize that separation into clean, tidy things and beings is not possible for me because it would be the death of myself as multiplicitous and a death of community with my own.” For you, coalition was curdled-separation: a decision made by multiplicitous and impure selves to come together in order to resist the splitting and fragmentation that occur when one is embedded in worlds that fetishize purity, and to further curdle through their intimacies with one another.

You understood that everyone has work to do in order to be in real and significant political solidarity. You had been inspired at a young, young age by thinkers like Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN, in order to develop resistant coalition between poor White Appalachian laborers and southern Black folks. While teaching in the Blue Ridge Mountains of east Tennessee, I’d help organize retreats for the women’s and gender studies program I worked in at the Highlander, and the issues we were struggling with — systematic targeting by conservative state officials and university administrators, developing pedagogies that enabled predominately poor, White, first-gen students to grapple with questions of intersectionality and the entwinement of racial, gender, sexual, and economic justice, decentering the classroom, and building beloved community in and through enmeshed crucibles of extensive structural violence, expropriation, and abandonment — necessitated bringing every lesson you’d ever taught me to bear.

Your life’s work exhorts us to intervene on every front: to challenge the masculinist biases of decolonial and radical left thought, to articulate and enact resistances to Eurocentric and White-dominant modes of feminist activism and epistemology, to perpetually queer conceptions of kinship and collectivity. You have left us, in your transformative vision of decolonial feminism, a coalitional framing under which many can gather to engage in the multifronted work of historical recovery and the making of radical futures beyond the horizon established by colonial-cum-neoliberal logics of profit, extraction, appropriation, privatization, and dehumanization.

The tributaries we navigate are toxic, no doubt. And you always insisted on the necessity of understanding ourselves as permeable, interimplicated, and open, always already steeped in the waters we inhabit, traverse, and transverse. I met you, studied with you, came to love you in a town where two rivers, simultaneously poisoned and healing, meet, become stronger together, and remain indissolubly interimplicated after their moment of convergence. An obvious metaphor for all of us who go on loving you, who go on learning from you.