José Esteban Muñoz
The Sense of Brown
Edited with an Introduction by Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong’o
Duke University Press, 2020
Reviewed by kt shorb
The posthumously published final collection of essays by José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown is a conceptual treatment of brownness at the inclusive and expansive intersection of queer and Latinx studies. Using performance analysis methods, Muñoz asserts a latinidad-centered, but not latinidad-exclusive exploration of how brownness manifests in heightened performative acts as well as everyday life. After having served as Professor of Performance Studies at New York University, Muñoz’s premature death in 2013 shocked colleagues across many disciplines. Known for the oft-cited books, Disidentifications (1999)and Cruising Utopia (2009), Muñoz had established himself as an expert and interlocutor of queer of color performance. Working in conversation with performance studies, Latinx studies, Black studies, Asian American studies, and queer studies, Muñoz had connected many theoretical threads between these disciplines. His former NYU student-turned-colleague Joshua Chambers-Letson (now Professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern) and colleague Tavia Nyong’o (now Professor of American Studies, African American Studies, and Theater and Performance Studies at Yale) assembled the drafts of this monograph with devoted and respectful care. Although at times hampered by the clear need for elaboration so often characteristic of initial drafts, The Sense of Brown still offers a quintessential and vitally useful analysis of how we live in a brown world that is imbued with educated hope as methodological and theoretical intervention in queer and critical ethnic studies.
“Brownness is already here.” In contrast to Muñoz’s claim in Cruising Utopia that queerness exists in the future, one of his major claims about brownness is that it exists all around us in the now. Referring to marginalized and othered histories of migration, linguistic hegemonies, and the precarity and vulnerability concomitant with such histories, brownness is partial, incomplete, and expansive. Brownness therefore relates to racial abjection but is adamantly hopeful. Muñoz asserts a sense of brown not as a fixed identity, but rather “a manera de ser, a way of being in the world.” Therefore, brown both includes and is beyond any definitions of latinidad. It includes such markers but also knits itself into other racial, class, and migratory identities. Brown is, to invoke DuBois, living in response to “be[ing] a problem.” Brownness comes from a shared sense of harm and precarity in which the brown commons becomes a vital site for brown to “flourish under duress and pressure.” The commons, therefore, is a collective site of iteration—or “brown worlding”—where the already-but-imperceptible brownness of the world becomes undeniably perceptible. The book analyzes a multitude of artists across many media, generally centering, but not exclusively, queer Latinx performers and playwrights. These artists include long-time Muñoz muse Nao Bustamante, as well as Luis Alfaro, Wu Tsang, Tania Bruguera, and José Feliciano among others.
This book serves many purposes. It is incontrovertible evidence of the brilliance of Muñoz that such essays in their incomplete form still constitute a corpus of nuanced and incisive ideas. It also updates, expands, and places in conversation previous versions of various articles and unpublished presentations. Most importantly, it succinctly theorizes ideas of brownness in ways that are useful to Latinx studies and queer studies that necessarily expand both fields through Muñoz’s utopic ideals of community and difference:
Brownness…offers us a sense of the world. It represents a “swarm of singularities.” These brown feelings are not the sole province of people who have been called or who call themselves brown. It is, instead and more importantly, the sharing out of a brown sense of the world, a flowing into the common that nonetheless maintains the urgencies and intensities we experience as freedom and difference.
Evaluating any shortcomings in the book betrays the elegiac experience of reading something one knows could not be seen to completion due to the author’s unexpected departure. The performance analyses of José Rodríguez-Soltero’s LBJ (1966) and María Irene Fornés’s Mud (1983) felt cut short, and indeed, this is one of the few unpublished works that very probably was awaiting more attention at a later date that never came. Throughout the book, similar sentences and ideas repeat in ways without the benefit of conceptual progression, as if for each article, Muñoz was rehearsing a new framing without connecting the dots of theoretical development. Some concepts, such as the relationship between methexis and mimesis specifically as it pertains to performance by queer Latinx artists, were part of a potentially fertile thread that only presented itself in a rather flat and perfunctory way. One cannot help but mourn the care with which Muñoz was unable to revise this book as he had done with previous monographs—interweaving the chapters together as theoretical tapestries from talks and articles similarly produced over a long period of time. Then again, as Chambers-Letson and Nyong’o note in their introduction, theory “is a performative utterance whose praxis can only be achieved and realized through its uptake.” In other words, the active engagement by his readers that would have been necessary to enacting theory into practice was only further necessitated by Muñoz’s early death. Perhaps, too, the experience of trying to read the voids and traces left by Muñoz may well be a meta-commentary on what he claims about brownness itself, as “partial, incomplete, and not organized in relation to a hermeneutics dedicated to foreclosure.”
Despite the shortcomings that were inevitable to the loss of an esteemed colleague, The Sense of Brown still provides theoretical concepts in performance studies, Latinx studies, queer theory, and other studies of race, gender, and sexuality that are invaluable to expanding our notions of performance and racial hegemony. Already cited across multiple fields in their previous iterations, some individual chapters will continue to gain traction toward further asserting that the world in which we live is indeed brown. As a compiled volume, however, this text provides much fodder for future scholars to continue thriving in a brownness, of Muñoz’s words, “vast, present, and vital.”