Queering the Atmosphere

By George Sanders

On June 12, 2016, an armed man ended the lives of 49 people inside a gay nightclub in Orlando.

The following day, the hardcore punk band G.L.O.S.S. (an acronym for Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit) self-released their second album, titled “Trans Day of Revenge.” The first track, “Give Violence a Chance” is a full-throttle rampager that clocks in under the two-minute mark. The lead vocalist, Sadie, a self-identified trans-woman, opens the song with an ear-shredding scream of “When peace is just another word for death/ It’s our turn to give violence a chance.”

Listening to G.L.O.S.S. on June 13th was less a salve than a re-figuring of the heartache from the previous day. The music provided a space for grief yield to cathartic fury.

Music effuses affect and by “affect” I mean to refer to the tenor and color underlying emotional experience. Affect is the pre-discursive feeling tone that, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, contributes to a kind of “texture [that] is not coextensive with any single sense but rather tends to be liminally registered” (2003: 15). Affects lurk viscerally and enfold themselves into our dispositions and tendencies. They are aided, intensified, or attenuated by our environments, its aural qualities, and the bodies around us among other things. Our emotional affects are generally apprehended and experienced “at the edge of the unsayable” (Anderson, 2009: 78).

The psychic impacts of collective tragedies like the one in Orlando can easily claw their way across miles of separation, contributing to an affective response saturated by confusion, grief, and outrage. Of course the individual traumas experienced by those who are queer-identified, who have been systematically marginalized, viciously attacked, and frequently dehumanized carry another set of potential affective responses. The agony of betrayal, of being subjected to physical violence, or the berating onslaught of derision carry other sets of affective trajectories. These affective intensities can be quite literally debilitating.

According to Lawrence Grossberg, our affective intensities create cultural landscapes in which we uncover what matters to us and point us to where we can begin mattering to others who may share in our affects of shame, remorse, hope, vitriol, and the like. Indeed, Grossberg highlights music as one of the most vital nodes for such connections. And if Sedgwick is accurate in equating affects to “free radicals” (p. 19) that can move about and attach themselves to people in unique ways, then music is surely a vectoring force that contains, channels, modulates, and re-directs our affective states.

I would argue that artists/performers like G.L.O.S.S. play a crucial role in such affective vectoring. G.L.O.S.S. catalyze vehement rage against gender binaries, hetero- and homonormativity, and organizations that aim to assuage the cis-inclined rather than indict them. Their music is not so much a reminder as a warning: some queers bash back.  Comments by listeners on their Bandcamp page resonate similarly:  from “straight boys, your time is fucking up” to “trans girls, strike fucking back,” queer punx have embraced confrontation over apathy.

Live performances by G.L.O.S.S. are exhilarating and empowering. Like most typical hardcore shows, the audience is less a spectator than a writhing, kicking, and punching mass ornament; a Busby Berkeley spectacle on bath salts. G.L.O.S.S. refracts the affective intensities of their music and drives them straight into the bodies of fans, who for a half-hour or so, can lash out and scream along to the lyrics.

The experience is a will to power. It fuels one’s sense of volition and agency and, even though the shows are relatively short, the effects are lasting and consequential. Attending shows like the ones G.L.O.S.S. put on helps trigger those capillary powers that foster an active and purposive sense of agency. Here, affects are mobilized into a temporary autonomous zone for queer subjects.

These shows can be violent to be sure but it is not the sort that denigrates and diminishes. It is a ritualized and cathartic self-blessing that enriches, edifies, and humanizes. Amidst the inevitable challenges of queer life, G.L.O.S.S. provides the expressive mechanism to stave off the emotive forces that can lead to paralysis: regret, fear, and shame, which Sedgwick writes, create a “can turn one inside out—or outside in” (2002: 117). At a G.L.O.S.S. show, participants are affirmed and emboldened, rather than dismissed or, even worse, debased. (Another track here.)

Sadly, the band recently announced they were breaking up. All proceeds from future sales of their merch, the band announced, would be donated to the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter. In a statement, the band wrote: “The punk we care about isn’t supposed to be about getting big or becoming famous, it’s supposed to be about challenging ourselves and each other to be better people.”sanders-pic

G.L.O.S.S. will be missed by many people. The affective violence implicit in their frenzied and discordant music belies the band’s underlying expressions of compassion, hope, and generosity. Thankfully, today there are even more hardcore bands than ever who are working to queer the punk scene and are successfully establishing temporary autonomous zones for empowerment and transformation. So while punk may in fact be dead, queercore will continue to thrive and decry all that which is hetero- and homo-normative, consumerist, hierarchical, and oppressive. And though members of G.L.O.S.S. would likely (humbly) deny their role in this movement, they have undoubtedly refigured and redirected the affective trajectories of countless queer punx. Their music continues to serve an important purpose—it is a mechanism for converting complacency, fear, and shame, into affirmation, compassion, and action.

George Sanders is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oakland University as well as a member of the Gender & Society editorial board. He is currently interviewing Buddhist meditation practitioners as part of an ethnographic project on affective contagion. He is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.

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