Interview with Robyn Taylor-Neu
Robyn Taylor-Neu: It’s conventional (for this blog series) to ask about the focus and argument of the book–but Dragging seems to willfully resist reduction to a single focus or argument. So I’ll ask instead: what does this work pivot on, for you? What’s its center of gravity, so to speak?
Shaka McGlotten: For me the center of gravity is the messy struggle of making and relating—making art, doing politics, and relating to research objects, intimate others, and disciplinarily itself.
Robyn Taylor-Neu: Could you explain the background of the research and how you came to the project?
Shaka McGlotten: As I say in the book, the project began with binge viewing of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’d never connected deeply with drag cultures, so that signaled a shift for me. I teach at a very queer school and drag, especially in its particularly quirky, out there, or monstrous iterations, played an increasingly large role in queer students’ lives. My students’ interests are always contagious. Then there was my intimate partnership with an Israeli. We’d both identified Berlin as a desirable place to live out some fantasies as creatives. So New York, where I’m based, Berlin, where we ended up for eighteen months, and Israel/Palestine, where we visited regularly became the default field sites. I think this is important to acknowledge: ethnographic field sites aren’t selected at random. We often choose them because we have some intimate connection to them.
Robyn Taylor-Neu: As you acknowledge in the preface, your book’s form is unconventional for an academic monograph–it takes shape as a non-fiction narrative comprising three kinds of writing. You mention that works by Christopher Isherwood, Leigh Patrick Fermor, and Maggie Nelson influenced the form… Could you say a bit about the affordances and challenges of this more literary approach?
Shaka McGlotten: Wow. Well, all writing is challenging, but this was sometimes excruciating. There is a formula to academic writing, and once you have it more or less down, you can follow that template pretty easily in my view. But I’d never been trained to write creative non-fiction, so it was really a lot of trial and error. In regards to these three writers in particular, I was interested in a kind of flatness I found in both Isherwood and Nelson. There’s nothing unnecessary about their prose. Fermor is a lot more florid—he helped me think more about the intersections of memoir and travel-writing. I’m not sure I’ve fully answered the question about affordances and challenges, though. So let me give it another go. One affordance is that I didn’t feel it necessary to always cover my theoretical ass, so to speak. Not everything had to be neatly tied up in an academic argument because the book is meant to create a series of associations and resonances that collectively affect the reader (as in fiction or creative non-fiction). The challenges—like I said, excruciating! I had to write and rewrite chapters to make sure that various threads (about the drag scenes, my intimate life, or pedagogy) came together.
Robyn Taylor-Neu: You’re reflexive about the process by which the research and book came to be, and you explicitly offer the book as “training for all of us to risky, vulnerable openness”… I’m curious about who you mean by “us” (that is, anthropologists, social scientists, humans?) and how you would differentiate “training” and “disciplining,” since you also mention the need to “become undisciplined” (citing Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Sylvia Wynter). (I should put my cards on the table here. As a PhD candidate, I’m muddling through what it means to be credible as an ethnographer and anthropologist while preserving space for genuine curiosity… when so much of the professional side of things seems like an elaborate performance of disciplinary competence.)
Shaka McGlotten: Your parenthetical hits the nail on the head. I was weaned on critical theory, and I love the possibilities for thinking that reading it provided for me. But what I don’t like is the, as you say, “elaborate performance of disciplinary competence.” I think of this sometimes as “rehearsal” too. Yes, most of us have read X, Y, Z theorists, so increasingly, when reading academic material, I think “just get to it! Get to your point!” Imagine what would happen if people cut out all of the rehearsal—books would be shorter. Now, I say all of this, but then I find books like Ana-Maurine Lara’s Queer Freedom: Black Sovereignty so beautiful—it’s a poetic work of theory in the style of something like Anzalduá’s Borderlands/La Frontera. When I think about training in risky openness/becoming undisciplined, I’m after a loosening of the reigns. I think we can still be credible and disciplined while also being open to other genres that afford us different possibilities as writers and makers, as well as the kinds of people who might engage with our work.
Robyn Taylor-Neu: Your engagements with theory are often oblique and emerge either in fragments or in the interview transcripts that you incorporate. You say that you’re not particularly invested in using theory to make claims and so forth, but could you elaborate on how you see theory and what it does for you in this work?
Shaka McGlotten: Hmmmm, I think that my previous answer gets at this somewhat. I’ve done something similar in a lot of my work. I read theory but I start with the curiosity induced by objects, or the trouble that objects pose for me. I think in terms of events, scenes, and cases as any reader of my work will note. In this way, I was very much inspired by people like Lauren Berlant and my mentor Katie Stewart. I don’t approach my writing with a theoretical apparatus in mind that I then apply to my research. Instead, the process is much more iterative, where I am trying to come to some kind of understanding informed by theory. My friend Neville Hoad calls me “ill-disciplined”! I use what I think is helpful from bodies of critical theory and then sort of move on. At least, that’s been my process in recent years, when I feel I have less to prove.
Robyn Taylor-Neu: My impression is that many of your interlocutors, as artists and activists, are versed in (or at least passingly familiar with) the writings/works that seem to shape your own thinking about the politics of drag… is this the case and, if so, how did that affect your approach in interviews?
Shaka McGlotten: Yes! The folks I worked with were the real experts: The Drag and Liad in particular had sophisticated understandings of queer theory, art, and politics, so these were conversations informed by shared archives. Still, we didn’t always share understandings of who was included under the rubric of drag. For example, Natali Vaxberg didn’t initially understand why I wanted to talk to her, but over the course of our discussions, she increasingly embraced the associations.