Digital Project

How to Dress for a Riot

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between the artist and writer Gregg Bordowitz and the theorist and poet Fred Moten, which took place on October 2, 2021, on the occasion of the launch of Bordowitz’s book Some Styles of Masculinity (Triple Canopy, 2021).

Prompted by the surge of white nationalism in America, Some Styles of Masculinity describes Bordowitz’s coming of age through reflections on three figures that have shaped him: the rock star, rabbi, and comedian. These totems of masculinity enabled Bordowitz to navigate his experience of assimilation and marginalization as a Yinglish-speaking child of outer-borough Jews, and then as a queer person living with AIDS. And they gave him the tools to form an identity through continual reinvention rather than choosing between becoming American or remaining an outsider.

Bordowitz and Moten, friends and frequent correspondents, discussed the performance of race and ethnicity, the story of Exodus and the promise of diaspora, and being different when difference is under assault.

Gregg Bordowitz You probably all know Fred Moten. He’s a brilliant person and, I’m grateful to say, a friend. Talking with Fred has had a direct impact on my work for the past few years. (Don’t blame Fred for any work that you don’t like; that’s on me.) Some Styles of Masculinity is about me performing my own identity in order to understand the crisis of national identity that has led to a resurgence—an amplification—of fascism. Fascism asks us to conjugate race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality within the regime of a national identity, which privileges a white, straight, male subject.

I started working on the lectures that are adapted in Some Styles of Masculinity right after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi who drove a car into a crowd. At the rally, men in khaki pants and polo shirts were marching, carrying torches, and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” I typed “Jews will not replace us” into Google and I got a Washington Post article. In interviews, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and fascists said that the Jews are behind a conspiracy to get Black and brown people to outnumber them and take their jobs. This was the ideology behind the Unite the Right rally.

I thought to myself: how can I use the protocols and parameters of my work to speak to this moment? How can I come to terms with all these aspects of identity being subsumed by a national identity that I don’t identify with, that I can’t identify with, that I’m not invited to identify with? I wanted to draw on being Jewish, queer, and a person with AIDS, and to conjugate those aspects of my identity in relation to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Basically, after Charlottesville, I wanted to schmear myself in schmaltz and grease up the world. (The book is supposed to be funny! Or maybe it’s not.)

As I was working on the lectures, Fred, I was thinking about something that you said before the 2016 election: we don’t need a president, we need a precedent. We need a sense of what comes before the events that we experience in order to make sense of them. I went looking for the precedents to Charlottesville.

Could you talk about the importance of the precedent, especially in terms of your preoccupation with how precedents set the ground for repetition—for example, for the repetition of oppression?

Fred Moten First of all, it’s a pleasure to talk with you, Gregg. This is an extension of the conversation we’ve been having since we met, I guess. And maybe that’s one way to think about the precedent: it’s the deep from which events emerge—including people like me and you bumping into each other. The precedent is also the ground for the repetition of oppression and brutality. But the most important thing, for me, is that the deep presents the possibility of an alternative: one seeks the precedent in order to approach the alternative.

The precedent is not the origin. The precedent comes before, but doesn’t come first. So, in Some Styles of Masculinity, you think about three precedents of your identity—the rabbi, the comedian, the rock star—in order to figure out how to do away with the idea of an origin of masculinity. The brutality of masculinity has to do with the constant attempt to establish masculinity as origin. And that can never happen. The failure to do so is a kind of weakness, which leads to extraordinary viciousness—toxicity, as we say.

Bordowitz It’s interesting to distinguish the origin from the precedent. That makes me think about how you and a few others have been talking about ontology, the philosophy of being, which was supposed to end at the beginning of the twentieth century with Heidegger. Afterwards, there was a shift toward epistemology—knowledge instead of being. But to search for the precedent is to search for ontology. It’s about searching for whatever precedes us—our birth, our actions—which is not the same as searching for an origin, which is fixed.

Moten Yeah, and what’s beautiful to me about the three figures that you touch on—and, at the same time, displace—is that they’re all on the road. The rock star, rabbi and comedian are travelers; they experience and practice displacement. And, to them, displacement is about origin, home: they’re doing away with home and they’re always talking about home.

Bordowitz I grew up in a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Queens, wanting to be the fifth Ramone. But the Ramones never offered. Still, I think of myself as a Ramone.

Moten You spend a lot of time on home—Queens, the Ramones—in the book. But home, for you, is also the road. When you talk about schmearing yourself with schmaltz and taking your show on the road, I was reminded of Ginsberg putting his queer shoulder to the wheel.

Bordowitz Ginsberg helped me to understand my relationship to home. I got to meet—and offend—Ginsberg! That story’s in the book. (I’m sorry about that, Mr. Ginsberg.) I read “America” when I was sixteen, and that line ended up being the most important line of poetry I ever read—not the most beautiful line, but the most important one.

Moten The wheel speaks to motion, but Ginsberg’s metaphor is really about the kind of work that stops movement. Ginsberg is on the road but he’s sick of all the movement, he’s overwhelmed. And he’s looking for precedents for what he’s feeling.

Bordowitz The rock star, rabbi, and the comedian are all figures that are looking for precedents—they’re deeply involved with genealogies. They are performers or teachers. So there’s a shared reservoir of energy and material out of which the genre of rock music, the religious study of the rabbi, and the jokes of the comedian emerge. Many comedians are very committed to the originality of their jokes—even if, in fact, they don’t write a lot of them. Or they write their own, then they get big and they hire writers. On the other hand, there are legendary stories about jokes that have been told for hundreds of years, and in a million different ways. This goes back to the deep: the humor of comedians, the faith of rabbis, and desire of rock stars all come out of the deep.

Moten And that means that comedy, faith, and desire aren’t about what the comedian, rabbi, and rock star choose. The precedent precedes choice. The deep is about randomness, and a richness that is not predicated on the fictional modalities of freedom that tell you to become who you are through choices and decisions, which are always discriminatory. But, in the book, you talk about how committed you are to not choosing: you don't have to decide if you’re gonna see Cecil Taylor or Afrika Bambaataa or the Ramones. To be yourself is to go to all three, right? So you resist being pushed to make a decision under the guise of freedom of choice.

Bordowitz Yeah, and not having to choose means recognizing that you’re already home. The notion of the precedent leads to the idea that you’re already home, you know? You arrive in the world and you’re home; then, eventually, you’re un-homed. But the location of the desire for security and love—home—is already in you.

In Some Styles of Masculinity, I’m always asking about the desire for (and location of) home in relation to displacement. And that question rhymes with much of what we’ve talked about—my opposition to the Israeli occupation, for instance. I’m from Queens, I’m fine in the diaspora. I don’t have any land claim in the Middle East. And I’m a committed Jew. I’m not a refugee, though I try to think with the refugee. So, to me, being in the diaspora is about accessing the deep, and finding an alternative to the notion that home is all about a destination, a land claim. That’s why we listen to music so much, right? The music gives us an alternative, an impetus to find home elsewhere.

Moten If you’re a Jew and your homeland is Queens, then it’s also Jamaica, right? [Laughter] The notions of exodus and home are powerful motifs in Caribbean discourse, especially in the work of Sylvia Wynter and Stuart Hall. I’m thinking of Hall’s The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, and Nation (2017), which deals with people being marginalized and restricted by the identities that are forced on them—and how people have found freedom in difference, in “new ethnicities.”

Bordowitz The Fateful Triangle is one of the main coordinates for Some Styles of Masculinity. I saw Hall’s lectures, which are the basis for the book, in the ’90s, and I returned to the book after the Charlottesville rally.

Moten Hall’s work begs the question: who, really, are the Israelites?

Bordowitz Who are the Israelites? That’s a question I constantly return to. That’s the question asked by the Jamaican rocksteady singer Desmond Dekker in “The Israelites.”

Moten In “Toward a Future That Has No Past: Reflections on the Fate of Blacks in the Americas” (1972), Orlando Patterson says—and I’m paraphrasing—that the Creole slave is given an amazing opportunity: he must, in some fundamental way, turn his face forward, because he cannot turn it back. The condition of having a past without a heritage is generally treated as extreme impoverishment. But, for Patterson, it’s also completely coterminous with extraordinary wealth: the ability to give up a heritage, to relinquish it. Fundamentally, that’s what studying the precedent is about. Because relinquished heritage is broken patrimony; it’s about … dub music.

Bordowitz You teed up Dekker! [Laughter] Let’s listen for a few minutes and let our thoughts coalesce. [Plays Desmond Dekker and the Aces, “Israelites” (1969)]

I’ve been hearing that song all my life. As a Jewish kid growing up in Queens, I was always asking, “Who are the Israelites in this song?” Later, I learned about the Rastafarians and the back-to-Africa movement in relation to the story of Exodus, which has been taken up by many, many different people. The story of Exodus has been used by conquerors and the colonized to justify their actions.

Fred and I are part of a group of people who are reading and talking about Exodus and how the story is interpreted. Exodus was an animating narrative for the civil rights movement and, of course, it’s very significant for Jews. It’s also crucial for Rastafarians, who believe in Marcus Garvey’s prophesy that Black people had to go back to Africa.

I am not Rastafarian; I’m Jewish. I live in Crown Heights, which is split between Orthodox Jews and African Americans and Afro Caribbeans. I don’t live in the Orthodox area; I’m not Orthodox, though I’m observant. I’ll be walking down Nostrand Avenue and I’ll see a Rastafarian, who’ll see me wearing a yarmulke, and we’ll acknowledge each other as Israelites. I suppose? [Laughter] We represent two different groups that are organized around a similar narrative, and that identify with the story of return. We’ll acknowledge each other while acknowledging our difference.

When I listen to Dekker’s song, I hear a constellation of coordinates in relation to nationalism, the subject positions that we talked about—race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality—and how home is produced through affect, place, and conquest. And I immediately think about modern Hebrew, which was invented by the Zionist movement in the nineteenth century. It’s very, very different from biblical Hebrew: the idea was to make a language that sounded like an authentic Mediterranean language and didn’t sound Ashkenazic. The Zionists adopted Sephardic pronunciation even though the Sephardim, or Mizrahi Jews, were considered second-class citizens in Israel—and still are, to some extent. Arab Jews are struggling, too, even in their supposed homeland.

What’s interesting about modern Hebrew as an attempt to produce authenticity is that the language was invented around the same time that Swahili was adopted as the language of Pan-Africanism, as part of a very different set of national projects. Both acted as shows of faith in the nation-state to deliver people “home” from the diaspora.

Moten I want to go back to your neighborhood, and back to the deep, so to speak. I’m interested in the convergence of national and theological commitments, but also in how different people recognize one another through different styles. And if you walk around Crown Heights, you definitely see different styles, right? [Laughter] Today, for instance, you’re wearing something that marks you as different—as different from the others. You’re bringing style into the realm of masculinity, which, generally, is a commitment to stylelessness—not stylishness, but the absence of style. Hence the ubiquity of khakis and polo shirts in Charlottesville. That’s how white men dress for a riot, right? And how they dress for a business trip.

Bordowitz For golf, too.

Moten I remember traveling a lot some years ago and noticing how ubiquitous that uniform is! If you find yourself at the airport in Memphis in the afternoon, you’ll see so many dudes wearing khakis and polo shirts with the logo of whatever business they work for, because they’re out doing sales. They didn’t have to dig very deep into the closet; they didn’t have to go to the store.

That khakis-and-polo-shirt thing is the costume of a homeland. But it’s also a style—or an absence of style—of the traveling salesman, you know?

Bordowitz For me, the use of “styles” in Some Styles of Masculinity is related to the theorist Michel Foucault. For Foucault, style is nothing less than what he calls a “technology of the self,” or of “self-production.” I think fashion is very significant, and adjacent to art. I cut my teeth on books like Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), which asks about the ironic meaning of the swastika and safety pin in punk. When I think about movement politics, I think about subculture going along with style and, more generally, with so-called counter-hegemonic practices, which go against the dominant way of thinking—or dressing.

I appreciate that you identified my encounter in Crown Heights as a mutual recognition of style. It is about style, and not only because of the Rastafarians who wear tzitzit. And it’s not only about recognizing garments, it’s about recognizing how people wear what they’re wearing, how they present themselves and regard you. It’s like the dance of cruising: look, look away, look back and see if they’re looking, don’t look away. The dance of flirtation is also about style. It’s about a different style of walking down the street, depending on what you’re looking for. And that’s what I’m thinking about in Some Styles of Masculinity: how masculinity is produced through the standard lineages but also through counter-lineages, counter-genealogies.

Of course, figuring out your style can be awkward! I try to bring that out in Some Styles of Masculinity; I’m going for awkwardness more than humor. Or, if I’m going for laughter, I’m also recognizing that laughter can be equivalent to pain, and vice versa. I think that has to do with the precedent, too. When you set up a joke, you have to think about what comes before: the previous word and line, but also the histories that precede and contain the joke. In this sense, a joke is like a Midrash, a commentary on the Torah: you have to launch the commentary from somewhere: a line, word, definition, or translation.

Moten That makes me think about the music that we love, which is always dealing with this question of where to begin, or how to address the precedent—and always extending the moment of indecision. What does it mean to refuse decision, to suspend choice? How do we create modalities of experimentation within the moment of indecision in the “valley of indecision,” as Bob Marley didn’t quite put it?

Bordowitz Rock (and all music) is about the silence in between the notes, and what you say in between songs. Like the moment of encounter between the analyst and analysand—which includes the time before the session, the session, the time after the session; what happened, what didn’t happen, what could’ve happened—rock music sets up a new notion of time.

Moten Yeah, talking about the “valley of indecision” makes the music seems abstract, but it’s not: every day, you go through moments when you feel like you have to begin, you have to make a decision, which means you have to enter into the temporality of the normative politico-economic subjectivity. Because you have to, because they’re fucking with you all the time. And, seemingly, to remain in indecision is to be still. But the pause is not a moment of stillness. It’s not a moment of stasis. It’s a moment of shifting. Anticolonialism seems, to me, to be a kind of itinerant movement within the pause. It’s a moment of cessation. It’s a moment of rest and arrest. It’s when you stop. And this moment of rest and pause is also insurgent. But it’s not inactive, so to speak; it’s not the absence of practice.

What happens when the anticolonial insurgency, in the interest of establishing some kind of postcolonial reality, finds itself responsible for administering neocolonialism? That’s the history of the last seventy-five years. That’s the story of Jamaica, that’s the story of Barbados. That’s the story of Obama—as grotesque as his stylish ass is, so to speak.

Well, that’s a real question. Is he stylish, or is he the embodiment of the absence of style?

Bordowitz Does he wear polo shirts?

Moten Let’s not talk about him. Long before it was an Obama question, it was a Wilson Goode question. Goode was the mayor of Philadelphia when the police bombed the headquarters of MOVE, the Black revolutionary group, and killed eleven people. MOVE was about pausing, ceasing. The decision to call the group MOVE wasn’t paradoxical: they were saying, “We ain’t gonna do this shit no more.” And Goode blew them the fuck up, right? That’s what I mean when I talk about becoming responsible for neocolonial administration.

That betrayal is as much a physical thing as a metaphysical thing. It’s a way of being and acting—it’s a style. I teach performance studies, and I’m always trying to find books that communicate this. By the third week of class, I realize that, regardless of what I’ve assigned, there’s only one real text: Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village (1988). Delany focuses on a moment between 1960 and ’65 on the Lower East Side, when he became a man and an artist thanks to the presence of all these strange people, all these strange identities. It’s a book of pauses, and it’s a book of lingering on the pauses.

Now, I believe there are two texts worth teaching: Some Styles of Masculinity is the other. The book is a fundamental account of queer inheritance that constitutes the precedent for performance studies. It’s now part of the lineage to me: what Billy Strayhorn does for the late ’40s, what James Baldwin does for late ’50s and early ’60s, what Delaney does for the ’60s, you’ve done for the ’80s. Some Styles of Masculinity gives us a whole new curriculum for the performance of identity, in addition to everything else the book offers.

Bordowitz Thank you, Fred. Thank you.

[Question from audience]

Kendall Thomas I was struck that you started with the concept of the precedent, which is at the foundation of my field, law. Our system of common law, which we inherited from England, is all about the authority of the decisions that have been made before the decision that we now have to make. Temporality is the source of authority, right? As you were talking about Charlottesville, I couldn’t help but think about the dependence of the legal discourse on originalism: the effort to discern what the founding fathers, who wrote the constitution, intended to say when they uttered the secular scripture that we know as the Constitution.

Of course, the Constitution was drafted in the image of patriarchy, as an elaboration of American political identity through American manhood. So, for me, the question that Charlottesville brings up is: can we imagine a masculinity that opposes the precedent of American manhood, which is racialized, heterosexual, patriarchal, and capitalist? What, as a style, does postfascist or antifascist masculinity look like?

There’s a regime of manhood that limits how we imagine masculinity and, therefore, how we inhabit styles of masculinity that oppose the fascist expression of American manhood, as embodied by Donald Trump—or, Fred might say, Barack Obama. But I think Some Styles of Masculinity, as a product of this particular moment and a tool for prophesy, helps us to conceive of a future for masculinity without manhood. But is that something we should even want?

Bordowitz Thank you, Kendall. I have a provisional answer: we’re doing it! The alternatives exist, and that’s exciting! To follow the playwright and director Charles Ludlam, the genius behind the Ridiculous Theatrical Company: “You’re a mockery of your own ideals; if you’re not, your ideals are set too low.”

I’m thinking of all of the ways in which alternative styles of masculinity are being proposed. I’m thinking of Lil Nas X and other gay rappers; artists like myself who are performing this conjugation of identity—queer, Jewish, AIDS. Manhood doesn’t exist, after all, just as heterosexuality doesn’t exist, as Eve Sedgwick taught us. Heterosexuality means not gay; there’s no other content to the term. Similarly, manhood is a fiction—and the enforcement of manhood is meant to suppress alternative propositions, alternative styles. But the culture changes, the law changes—we change.

In order to talk about masculinity, I have to talk about heaven on earth: it’s right here, but I can’t see it. It’s not elsewhere, it’s actually here. The problem is that realizing that—seeing heaven—would take an extremely profound shift. I’m bordering on mysticism, but that’s what I believe. There’s no exodus to anywhere but here.

Look at the room. Look at the people in the room. We’ve been modeling the alternatives. We’ve been trying to bring to life what you’ve asked for; we’ve been trying to unhinge ourselves from the notion of manhood that lethally conjugates race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in order to perpetuate exclusion, in order to perpetrate violence against those who won’t conform to the national fiction. We’ve been working on this.