Reuben Jentink

Compulsions of Pride

August 3, 2015

Rolando B. Rosler, Figure Drawing

“Happy Pride” is a phrase that will, no doubt, be constantly, casually passed around this weekend. Many of us may even participate in its circulation. But, what is it that we wish when we wish another a “happy pride”? Conversely, as the receiver of the well-wish, to what are we consenting in its receipt? The speech act makes compulsory at least two (rather obvious) things: happiness and pridefulness. Do we really desire the visions of happiness and pride associated with what this greeting has to offer?

Frequently, in the accompanying well-wishes to public and religious holidays, the word “happy” is employed; the new year, Christmas, Hanukkah, and birthdays, for example, are all such events for which happiness is anticipated, expected. Read as such, “Pride,” then, functions as an event: the noun in, through, and during which we’re meant to experience, place, and store our happiness. This conceptualization is, I think, widely understood (if not only at an implicit level); the weekend offers many events as proof: street, backyard, and circuit parties, parades, and festivals. It’s implied, too, when (mostly) gay men refer to Pride as “Gay Christmas.”

But, the phrase works double-duty, offering more than just a common well-wish for Pride weekend events. Taking the imperative form, the phrase insists. What I mean to say is that to wish someone a Happy Pride is to command a certain amount of pridefulness from that person. In this case, pride functions as more than just an event (or a noun), and may also be an affective state (or an adjective). One is proud.

These functions aren’t isolated, however, one from the other; rather, they seem to work together, making certain requests of those whom the well-wish encounters. Pride (the event) insists upon a pridefulness so that participation in Pride looks and feels a certain way; the pridefulness of Pride conforms to the kind of pride that Pride presents. And, moreover, demands a kind of pridefulness required of pride as a public event, as a spectacle.

Happiness is implicated, too. To participate in Pride (at least in so far as the speech act works upon us, as speaker, as receiver) is to be happy and proud. A prideful happiness and a happy pride. Or, we might say, that the happiness must be proud and the pride, happy.

But what if one is rather unhappy with the celebrations—at least in so far as they are currently practiced? What if, in the first place, the kind of happiness that one means to wish, when wishing a “Happy Pride,” is a kind of happiness out-of-reach of queers? Sara Ahmed, in The Promise of Happiness (Duke UP, 2010), writes that “happiness involves reciprocal forms of aspiration.” Take, for example, the phrases, “I am happy for you” and “I am happy if you are happy;” in each phrase the speaker sets the conditions of the happiness wished. Happiness, continues Ahmed, exercises other forms of coercion “concealed by the very language of reciprocity, such that one person’s happiness is made conditional not only on another person’s happiness but on that person’s willingness to be made happy by the same things.” What does this tell us about the obligations of pride?

At least two things, I think. Firstly, the conditionality of this kind of happiness excludes some queers from the celebrations of pride. What if one doesn’t exhibit (perform), or embody the right kind of pridefulness? To be unhappy at or with Pride might preclude you from participation (assuming, of course, a desire to participate). We might consider how exclusion structures relations between queers as well as between queers and the straight world. It is the straight world’s recognition of queers, notes Ahmed, which can be “narrated as the hope or promise of becoming acceptable, where in being acceptable you must become acceptable to a world that has already decided what is acceptable.” Does the wish for a happy pride, presuppose the kind of happiness already deemed acceptable by the world? Take, for example, the increasing corporatization of pride; is this not the most flagrant example of the conditionality of acceptability? So long as pridefulness (and, by association, queerness) banks, buys, and borrows according to the institutions of the heterosexist-capitalist world, any queer radicality has (already) been subsumed by the marketplace.

Secondly, pride obligates the disavowal of all alternate affective states. Pridefulness stands in as the only state we feel or exhibit during pride. The question then becomes one of exclusion so that the insistence of pridefulness precludes all other feelings. If pride is something we feel now, or, (at least) for the extent of this event, then what do (or did) we feel prior to? Shame, I think, seems the most obvious anterior to pride. But, is there any space in pride for shame? Is there space for anything else? I ask this question because even as pride obliterates the space for shame (such that shame becomes invisible), the strictures of such binary affects further negates the very possibility of other feelings. What about anger, resentment, sorrow, pain? Do these affective states have a space in pride?

What might it mean to be unhappy with pride? Or, how might pridelessness reorient our participation in this happy event? We might find that an unhappy pride engenders a rather more critical queer politics.

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Future Living

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