The Paris Review

Participating in the American Theater of Trauma

© Andreas Sterzing: David Wojnarowicz (Silence = Death), New York, 1989
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery New York

For David Wojnarowicz, this decade has been a renaissance. He plays a guiding spirit in Olivia Laing’s 2016 internal travelogue, The Lonely City, and haunts the 2011 music video for Justice’s “Civilization.” In last year’s retrospective, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, the Whitney Museum reminded us that Wojnarowicz “came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes.” We recognize that decade in our own, and, with it, Wojnarowicz’s anger. Our present is magnetized to his past. His art, as Hanya Yanagihara wrote, “reminds you that there is a distinction between cynicism and anger, because the work, while angry, is rarely bitter—bitterness is the absence of hope; anger is hope’s companion.” In truth, renaissance is a cruel word to give to someone who died at thirty-seven. But we do love him. We do need him.

Some things to know about who we are:

We are trapped in a moment of political terror. We are dangerously close to cynicism, but angry enough to have hope. We are no longer interested in compromise. Men, we agree, have had their chance. White women we can no longer trust to uphold feminism, not while they cling to white supremacy. We are antiracist and antifascist and prison abolitionists; we rejoiced when Bill Cosby received his sentence. We canceled Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and Al Franken with equal fervor. We are uninterested in what they think.

Welcome to we: a disingenuous pronoun that both paid and unpaid pundits alike brandish without consent. I’m often guilty, too: my points are more convincing if I ventriloquize your voice alongside mine. Are we really doing this? Is this what we want? When did we decide this was okay? As usual, Adorno said it best: “To say ‘we’ and mean ‘I’ is one of the most recondite insults.” More often than not, we is an erasure, a linguistic illusion that you or I have endorsed some third person’s opinion, politics, or decisions. Deployed in politicized spaces, the subtext of we—i.e., I didn’t need to ask you—is a violation of political agency.

What’s dangerous in maligning , however, is how badly I—a cisgender white man living in America—need to hear these voices. Often, the contemporary is a backlash against centuries in the Constitution. It’s a backlash voiced by women, people of color, trans and nonbinary persons, and persons with disabilities. As Wesley Morris wrote for the last year, “Groups who have been previously marginalized can now see that they don’t have to remain marginalized. Spending time with work that insults or alienates them has never felt acceptable. Now they can do something about it.” Morris casts this moment as an inversion of the culture wars of the eighties and nineties, when artists like Wojnarowicz faced censorship and humiliation from the religious right. After pushing their work to extremes and waging costly legal and political campaigns—including, in Wojnarowicz’s case, the very right to survive as a queer artist—the oppressed are now closer to power than ever. “This territory,” Morris writes, “was so hard won that it must be defended at all times, at any costs. Wrongs have to be righted. They can’t affect social policy—not directly. They can, however, amend the culture.” It’s in this sense that becomes linguistic action. We cosign or cancel speech, endorse or excoriate art, all the while presuming that any can borrow any . amplifies our voices as one, an assumption of power.

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