Summary #2: Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries by Karen Tongson
Susan Petrole/English 985 Dr. Alexis Lothian
13 June 2013
Karen Tongson calls upon readers to examine and to re-examine the suburban landscape. Using her Southern California location as a model, her aesthetically pleasing style incites critical analysis of queer space in dynamic and exciting ways. Her language entices, beginning with the second sentence: “We enter these counties that glow at night like neat sherbet grids from the twisted surfaces of concrete cloverleaves, the elaborate off-ramps that spiral toward ‘home’ past earnestly edged lawns, big-box shops, and tawdry strip malls looking wan beneath layers of worn stucco, yet teeming with more than mere commerce” (1). Thus, Tongson frames the suburbs with reverent yet critical precision, her introduction exploring rhetorically and imaginatively the “structures of suburban sociability and aesthetic practice” (1). Her aim appears to be to effect critical awareness of suburban possibilities that extend to queer spacing, color queer spacing, and re-envisioning a simulacrum of an illusory American Dream, one that is white, heteronormative, and ultimately as confining to the white privileged as it is to the marginal groups that also occupy these vast locations. Using metaphors of roads and movement, she engages critical questions about the suburban imaginary and how the collective perception of the suburbs remains, despite recent pop culture interventions, unchanged (4).
In the first section of the Introduction, “Framing the Suburbs,” Tongson explores the history, trajectory, and epistemology of the American suburbs. In doing so, she also wants to map out a queer space in the suburbs, one that allows for possibilities beyond the metronormative. Using Halberstam’s neologism as a model, she calls for queer studies to address the presumption that “even the postmillennial suburbs remain the presumed natural habitat for normativity” (5). Unlike the “rich urban histories and metropolitan forms of cultural production” (5) that the city presents, the suburbs remain an “intermediary space between the rural and the urban, a nether zone that…doesn’t even have its own U.S. census category” (9). How, then, can this “nether zone” become a queer space and, beyond that, one of greater authenticity? Tongson continues to explore the current climate of queer studies in relationship to place and space throughout this section, focusing mainly on the urban queer and the metronormative.
I was also intrigued by her framing of the motivation behind suburban sprawl. I was certainly aware of the post-World War II glorification of the American Dream and the subsequent expansion of the suburbs for the purpose of placing the heteronormative, white nuclear family in an idealized, although artificially constructed, edifice, one that was “meant to achieve the architectural embodiment of similitude” (2). However, Tongson does illuminate the true motivation for suburban sprawl and “white flight” that extends beyond a sociological imagination to one of globalization as a motivator. America can always be counted on to use capitalism as its primary instrument in achieving global dominance; using the suburbs to connect to this end was not something I had considered before. She refers to Beauregard’s point that “American global ascendancy and the growth of the suburbs after World War II was not about subjugation or territory. Neither colonialism nor expansion was the goal. Rather, the United States hoped to establish itself at the center of an international economy based on free trade” (Beauregard qtd. in Tongson 12). In typical American fashion, this goal has been attempted through “the liberal (and now neoliberal) spread of capitalism and free trade” (12) over more European models of colonialism. The suburbs were (are) by their very make-up a space for capitalistic embodiment; the American Dream is to buy that dream.
“Reading, Watching, Listening,” Tongson’s second section, connects imaginative and artistic culture to the American Imaginary of the suburbs. First, she examines the more morose, empty, and artificial façade that has been depicted in various forms of media, including novels. Referencing Jurca’s White Diaspora, Tongson notes the “’systematic erosion of the suburban house as a privileged site of emotional connection and stability,’ revealing through her [Jurca’s] supple readings…how the house ceases to be a spiritual ‘home’ for the twentieth-century novel’s anguished, primarily white, male protagonists” (20). How, then, does Tongson place this dichotomy, that of a persistent yet illusory notion of a suburban ideal alongside of one empty of meaning and happiness? At the close of the introduction, she returns to more direct, objective description, evoking pathos in readers:
Queerly, this all brings us back to our bedrooms, but not in the way you might think. It brings us back along, with a flashlight under the covers so that we can read after-hours, with a RV screen as our companion…In this little box we sit, think, and dream alone until we find those precious others who’ve done the same, who’ve maybe even swayed the same in nowhere elses or in desperate elsewheres, teaching themselves every painstaking move and note until someday we can raise our lighters in unison, as umistakable voices sing with a tender, distant sorrow. (27)
Here, we see the feelings of otherness that emerge among the suburban queer; however, the inclusive tone of the quote above also speaks to the “queerness” of all of us, even the male protagonists and, by extension, the white male privileged.
In her last chapter, Tonson visits the particular subcultural trajectories of the suburban landscape. While in the introduction she notes the amusement park, the strip mall, and the freeways of the normative people as well as the “bourgeois bohemians,” (9) here Tongson synthesizes her central ideas by focusing on the queer temporalities and spaces by examining both “gay urbanity.” Specifically, she focuses on one band’s contribution to queer culture, BdP. Discussing the characters Lola and Perla at length, “butches who found themselves surrounded by ‘dirty white girls’” (209-210) and who own performative spaces by challenging their marginalization. Although enlightening in the context of queer space and temporality in general, I did not see the relevance to her overall discussion about suburban relocations in addition to urban landscapes. Of course, I did not read the entire book and may have had more insight into this choice if I had. What I did find compelling about this concluding chapter is a point she makes in the last paragraph: “Reading space vis-à-vis queer studies now requires shifting our spatial fantasies about sexuality from one kind of street life to another: to the compensatory forms of motion and contact in spaces seemingly (if not actually) bereft of the urban luxury known as ‘walking culture’”( 213). Basically, Tongson calls on us to “queer” our perceptions about both the heterosexual and homosexual American space imaginary. In doing so, perhaps greater spaces of freedom may emerge.
Questions to Consider:
1. How does Tongson address methods of “aesthetic practice” that she notes on the first page of her introduction? In what ways do these practices reinforce, and in what ways do they challenge, both hetero and homo normativity?
2. What does refer to when she makes this statement: “Proposing an alternative queer anti-urbanism that, in his [Herring’s] own words, threads a ‘delicate needle’ between undoing the encompassing symbologies of ‘the city’ for queer subjects—while still acknowledging that the force of urbanism persists in its negative articulations through rural stylistics” (7). What exactly does Tongson mean by “rural stylistics”? Is she addressing the rural perception of queer, or is she referring to the actual performativities of queer in a rural context? I had trouble unpacking this passage.
Thanks for this summary and these great questions! I appreciate your attention to Tongson’s language especially, and look forward to unpacking what she is doing with the BdP and with the notion (borrowed from Herring I think) of a “rural stylistics” in class.