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Counterpublic and counterprivate: Zoe Leonard, David Wojnarowicz, and the political aesthetics of intimacy

In this paper we explore the space that dyadic intimacy plays within the counterpublic world-building of political activism. We reflect on a particular encounter between the artists and ACT UP activists Zoe Leonard and David Wojnarowicz by offering
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  Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory ISSN: 0740-770X (Print) 1748-5819 (Online) Journal homepage: Counterpublic and counterprivate: Zoe Leonard,David Wojnarowicz, and the political aesthetics of intimacy Shannan L. Hayes & Max Symuleski To cite this article:  Shannan L. Hayes & Max Symuleski (2019): Counterpublic and counterprivate:Zoe Leonard, David Wojnarowicz, and the political aesthetics of intimacy, Women & Performance:a journal of feminist theory To link to this article: Published online: 14 Oct 2019.Submit your article to this journal View related articles View Crossmark data  Counterpublic and counterprivate: Zoe Leonard, David Wojnarowicz,and the political aesthetics of intimacy Shannan L. Hayes a , b * and Max Symuleski c a  Department of Visual Studies, Haverford College, Haverford, PA, USA;  b  Program in Literature and  Feminist Studies, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA;  c  Program in Computational Media, Arts and Cultures, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA In this paper we explore the space that dyadic intimacy plays within thecounterpublic world-building of political activism. We re 󿬂 ect on a particular encounter between the artists and ACT UP activists Zoe Leonard and DavidWojnarowicz by offering two readings of what we call the  “ counterprivate ” relation between the two. In the  󿬁 rst part of our argument, we contend that thecounterprivate couple form (found in our case study of Leonard andWojnarowicz) occasions a space of provisional leave from the normativeaffective, aesthetic, and identity-based impulses which tend to emerge in socialmovement group formation. Despite established critiques of the private, dyadicintimacy of the couple within social movement theory and queer and feminist cultural studies, we highlight the value of counterprivate couples  –   not in placeof the collective world-building that is made possible by political organizingand collective identity, but as a necessary aesthetic complement to collective, participatory politics. In the second part of our argument, we read the intimacy between Leonard and Wojnarowicz as a private moment of expresseddoubt that has subsequently been institutionalized into a public discoursethrough the context of art. Here the counter   private  couple form in turn becomes a counter   public  mode of collective world-making once more. Thistransformation from counterprivate relation to public discourse occasions a practice of collective subject formation (in the institutional terrain of art) that af  󿬁 rms doubt, curiosity, and poetic beauty as part of the reproductive labor involved in political participation. Keywords:  the couple form; art and activism; participatory politics; world- building; social reproduction; burnout  At a coffeeshop in New York City one day likely in 1991, the artists and ACT UP activistsZoe Leonard and David Wojnarowicz had a conversation about art and political commit-ment amidst the US-based AIDS epidemic. Leonard had brought  Wojnarowicz a stack of  photographs that she took of clouds through an airplane window. 1 She wasn ’ t sure that the photos were any good and wasn ’ t con 󿬁 dent that directing energy to her artistic practice © 2019 Women & Performance Project Inc. *Corresponding author. Email: Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory , 2019  was justi 󿬁 able. So much political work still needed to be done. 2 This ongoing doubt about the role of poetics in politics and re 󿬂 ective contemplation in collective action causedLeonard to keep much of her art practice a separate affair from her political commitments. 3 The conversation with Wojnarowicz  –   a fellow artist, organizer, and close personal friend  –  offered a space in which Leonard could express these doubts. Nearly two decades later, Leonard re 󿬂 ected on the profound impact that this conversa-tion with Wojnarowicz had on her in a 2010 ACT UP Oral History interview with SarahSchulman. As Leonard narrates it, at the time she and Wojnarowicz sat down that day tocatch up, she had been struggling with an ongoing feeling of distress about the nature of her art in the context of her activism. She understood her art to lack the didactic style of commercial graphics that were adopted by the ACT UP movement through the bolddesign aesthetics of af  󿬁 nity groups like Gran Fury. 4 As Leonard puts it,  “ my artwork wasn ’ t directly political. It wasn ’ t really issue oriented. It was perhaps more philosophicalin bent and more quiet. I wasn ’ t making work that was about AIDS. It didn ’ t seem to have a place in that room ”  (Leonard 2010, 53). Wojnarowicz ’ s reply clearly struck her. Sherecounts it in the following way: He looked at all of [the photos]. We ’ d always had this friendship very much as artists, lookingat each other  ’ s work and talking about work, and he ’ d always been really supportive. Helooked at them, and he said,  “ But these are really, really beautiful, and that  ’ s what we are 󿬁 ght-ing for. Don ’ t give up on beauty, We ’ re  󿬁 ghting so that we can have that. Don ’ t give up. That  ’ sthe goal. The goal is to get through this mess so that we can make beautiful work about cloudsand about life and existence ”  (Leonard 2010, 54). As Leonard explains it, Wojnarowicz helped her in this moment realize that she shouldn ’ t give up the values of beauty and contemplation that have continued to be deeply important to her. To give up on these values would be to forgo the very treasures that   –   Wojnarowicz posits  –   the political collective was  󿬁 ghting for. It would be to concede defeat.In this paper we explore the space that such intimate, dyadic encounters play within thecounter   public  world-building of political activism. We re 󿬂 ect on the above describedencounter between Leonard and Wojnarowicz in two ways. First, we read this moment as a private expression of doubt that is made possible by the couple form betweenLeonard and Wojnarowicz in the context of collective AIDS activism. We call thiscouple form a counter   private  in order to theorize the world-making that it enables; the coun-terprivate couple form offers a space of provisional leave from the affective, aesthetic, andidentity-based normative impulse that tends to emerge in social movement group formationgenerally and has been evidenced in ACT UP speci 󿬁 cally. Despite established critiques of the private, dyadic intimacy of the couple within social movement theory and queer andfeminist cultural studies, we argue in this article for the value of counterprivate couples  –   not in place of the collective world-building that is made possible by political organizingand collective identity, but as a necessary aesthetic complement to the political work of social movement activism that helps plurality and poetic indetermination remain activein the pre 󿬁 gurative worlds we build. To make this argument, we consider the sociologicalscholarship on social movement theory, interview-based archives from the AIDS OralHistory project, and theories of the public and counterpublic developed by Michael2  S.L. Hayes and M. Symuleski  Warner in partial collaboration with Lauren Berlant. We establish the concepts of counter- public and counterprivate further below.There is a second way that we read this moment of intimacy between Leonard and Woj-narowicz, namely as a private moment of expressed doubt that has been institutionalizedinto a public discourse through the context of art. Here the counter   private  couple form  –  which provides room for a  “ counter  ”  expression to the collective ’ s norms by way of the provisional leave of the private couple  –   in turn becomes a counter   public  occasion for col-lective world-making once more. We build this argument through a consideration of Warner  ’ s de 󿬁 nition of the counterpublic as speci 󿬁 cally a space of plurality, strangers, stran-geness, attention, indetermination, and the counter-hegemonic work of poetic modes of address (Warner  2002). These aesthetic attributes are frequently stripped from goal-oriented politics and social movement group dynamics in favor of expediency and strong collectiveattachment. 5 They are nurtured, by contrast, within the institution of art. We argue in thesecond part of this essay that the  private  counter  - aesthetics that are given space in Leonard ’ sintimate relationship with Wojnarowicz are transformed into a  public  mode of addressthrough both Leonard ’ s art (speci 󿬁 cally her 2008 installation  You See I am Here After  All)  and the discourse about her relationship with Wojnarowicz, which has framed bothartists ’  work at key moments. This transformation from counterprivate relation to publicdiscourse occasions a practice of collective subject formation that af  󿬁 rms doubt, curiosity,and poetic beauty as part of the reproductive labor involved in political participation.To develop these two readings of the encounter between Leonard and Wojnarowicz, weraise the following questions of them both: How do we make sense of the private, dyadicintimacy between Leonard and Wojnarowicz  –   as a case in counterprivate coupling  –   withinthe contexts of collective politics and AIDS social movement building? How might we better understand the politics of this provisional, aesthetic departure from the activist col-lective if we refrain from seeing it as a threat to political commitments, instead treating it as a part of the political need for doubt and sustainability? What pre 󿬁 gurative world-build-ing is taking place in the counterprivate couple form as it relates to the political collective?How might the example of Leonard and Wojnarowicz ’ s dyadic or private intimacy offer aunique theory of the couple form in the context of collective social movement politics andcounterpublic world-building? And  󿬁 nally, what theory of the relationship between aes-thetics and politics might this suggest? Couples and collectives The central role that affect plays inthe politically advantageous project of collective identityhas gained considerable attention over the past two decades. 6 Scholarship studying the link  between affect and collective identity formation has become a rich sub 󿬁 eld in the study of social movements that is primarily housed within the discipline of sociology. As severalscholars in the  󿬁 eld have characterized it, a  “ return of the repressed ”  status of emotion in political organizing offers new insights into the generative dynamics of group affect while intervening in both the classical behaviorist model of mob mentality that was popular in the 1960s, and the reactionary turn to rationalist-incentive models for under-standing activist participation that developed in the 70s and 80s (Goodwin, Jasper, and Pol-letta 2000). Current social movement scholarship has made signi 󿬁 cant strides in drawing Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory  3  out the political force and intelligence of affective bonds within collective politics, particu-larly for movements built around shared identity (Polletta and Jasper  2001; Jasper  2011). While affect has been embraced within much recent work on collective identity for-mation, the affective intensity that is characteristic of the couple-dyad remains largelysuspect in social movement theory. Jeff Goodwin writes of this problem in his 1997essay  “ The Libidinal Constitution of a High-Risk Social Movement: Affectual Ties andSolidarity in the Huk Rebellion, 1946  –  1954. ”  Coining the term  “ libidinal-economy, ” Goodwin contends that group dynamics may often be corroded by the  “ dyadic withdrawal ” of amorous couples, which on his account drain emotional energies and redirect time awayfrom collective participation and identi 󿬁 cation (1997, 55  –  56). As he explains:  “ I do not suggest that sexual or affectual networks are  ‘ naturally ’  corrosive of group solidarity, ”  but   “ emotional energies ”  are  “ inherently limited ”  and  “ some libidinal ties can hinder theformation of group identi 󿬁 cation and solidarity ”  by taking these energies away (1997,66, 55). Goodwin is not alone in treating couples as a threat to the collective. This ideahas been repeated in the  󿬁 eld as common knowledge even in work, such as that byRebecca Klatch, which develops a more complex understanding of affect  ’ s role in identityformation than the simple embrace of affect as a good that solidi 󿬁 es group bonds (2004,488). We indeed  󿬁 nd important echoes between Klatch ’ s work on the Students for a Demo-cratic Society (SDS) New Left social movement of the 1960  –  1980s, and the account of affect documented in the ACT UP oral history archives. (We will return to these echoeslater.) It is all the more striking for this reason to 󿬁 nd a distinct wariness toward dyadic with-drawal in Klatch ’ s work, considering the unique insight she offers into the frequent alien-ation of group affect. Klatch remains suspicious of the couple form despite her ambivalencetoward the affective demands of group conformity, referencing Goodwin when shewrites that   “ Couples pose a threat of libidinal withdrawal from the group, transferringtheir energy and time to themselves, reducing devotion and complete dedication to thegroup ”  (2004, 498).What underlies both of these accounts is a notion of the  “ libidinal-economy ”  that isorganized by a logic of scarcity. The couple form taken for granted here is one of the nor-mative couple that privatizes affect and redirects emotional energies and time toward theapolitical affairs of the self and the family. The theory of   “ emotional energies ”  assumedhere, moreover, is one of an  “ inherently limited ”  ontology of affect, rather than for example an ontology of af  󿬁 rmation and generativity. An  “ economy ”  of scarcity followsin which cost-bene 󿬁 t trade-offs must be adjudicated and any attention, time, or energydirected to projects outside of the activist collective  –   whether those projects be dyadicrelationships or artistic practice  –   are seen as threats to the solidarity of the collective.The theory of the counterprivate couple that we offer rejects these assumptions. It rejects the zero-sum attitude reproduced by them as well. We wish to make space insteadfor the recognition of a counterprivate couple that simultaneously remains critical of thenormative couple form that privatizes affect,  and  , precisely through the intimacy of occasional dyadic withdrawal and return, also rejuvenates the affective energies that areneeded to sustain the ongoing political work of counterpublic world-building.There is yet another theoretical discourse (outside of the sociological scholarship onaffect and social movement theory) that informs our notion of the counterprivate: thequeer and feminist critique of normative intimacy issued within the concept of the4  S.L. Hayes and M. Symuleski
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