Performing the Singular Plural
A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Justin Vivian Bond perform live as Kiki (one half of the raucous Cabaret duo Kiki and Herb), but V’s most famous role was probably in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. Currently, V is on tour with Sister Spit, the queer spoken word performance group led by Michelle Tea. At the Chicago stop of the Sister Spit tour, Justin Vivian Bond read from the memoir Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, recently published by the Feminist Press. V also serenaded the crowd with an impromptu performance of a song from the forthcoming album Silver Wells (now fundraising on Kickstarter).
Justin Vivian Bond is a queer icon, a staple of New York City nightlife, name-checked in the song Hot Topic by Le Tigre, one of the chosen few pixie-dusted by the ethereal combination of wit and glamour. When V adopted the middle name Vivian, I geeked out because Oscar Wilde had a son named Vyvyan and isn’t that just perfect?
At this year’s MLA convention in Seattle, Tavia Nyong’o spoke about Justin Vivian Bond at the roundtable discussion “Affecting Affect” organized by Lauren Berlant. (You can read a version of this piece on Bullybloggers).
The pronoun V, and accompanying honorific Mx., occupy a linguistic elsewhere to binary gender, an elsewhere that Bond’s memoir, Tango, makes clear V has resided in since childhood. Tango is not a narrative of being trapped in the wrong body, however, but only of being trapped in the wrong society, and Mx. and V are linguistic foils with which to parry that society’s imprecations.
In this spirit of political subversion, Nyong’o lauds Justin Vivian Bond’s involvement with the Occupy Wallstreet Movement. V’s “ability to perform the singular plural, occupying gender without staking a representative claim of speaking as or for any particular position in or betwixt a binarism”- a unique contribution to a movement that first gathered strength by making no demands and refusing to lay out specific ideologies- a diffuse tactic akin to the political and coalitional ethos behind the concept of queer itself.
I am always looking for these moments when criticism seems in step with the times, and queer culture cuts through the discourse in an incisive and innovative way.
I appreciated Nyong’o’s contribution to the affect studies panel because it was so concrete and specific (there were a lot of open-ended questions floating around in that session, and it was easy to get lost in the abstraction). I guess it felt important for me to be in the room when he read his critique, but admittedly, it felt even better to be in the rarefied space of the Wicker Park Arts Center when Justin Vivian Bond took to the piano.
Photo by Jamie