queer x family (Blood Baby)

June 3, 2024

Lauren Bakst, artist and scholar of experimental performance studies, situates Blood Baby in our current political landscape:

queer x family

By Lauren Bakst

Thinking queerness and family together can feel like trying to solve a riddle. Perhaps that’s why, in whatever part of Meg Foley’s Blood Baby you’re about to experience, your attention will be invited towards the materialities of touch, pressure, and contact—a thinking from and with the flesh. I imagine the task of parenting a young child to be a flesh sport, in the sense that it requires one to tap into the most elemental needs of another’s survival, to protect them at the level of their flesh. To keep them alive.

The riddle of queerness and family has something to do with the lived distance between these two terms, the troubled history into which we now speak, move, and imagine. The family—that bastion of heterosexuality, the proper place for mother-father-son-daughter to live out their Oedipal destinies—has been, and often still is, hostile to the trans, queer, and gay people who also find themselves as children, siblings, and parents in this world.[1] No matter how loving or accepting any one family may be, in the words of Sophie Lewis, “the family functions as capitalism’s base unit.”[2] That is, the family enlists us in capitalism’s regimes of private property and the manifold terrors unleashed on human and earthly life in the service of wealth accumulation.[3] If you love your family and take pleasures in your role within its form, this isn’t meant to be incriminating. As a student commented in class recently, capitalism is nonconsensual.[4] So is being born for that matter. Rather, the family’s centrality to the functioning of capitalism might alert us to something we already know — that the family is a battleground, non-metaphorically speaking, over which the how of our collective survival is fought.[5]

Writing about the experience of raising her son as a Black lesbian mother in 1979, Audre Lorde says, “When I envision the future, I think of the world I crave for my daughters and my sons. It is thinking for survival of the species – thinking for life.”[6] Lorde’s essay is instructive because of the way she moves deftly between the small-scale minutiae of raising her son, Jonathan, and a planetary-scale future dreaming that we still have much to learn from. For Lorde, working through the intimacies and difficulties of the parent-child dynamic is a springboard for imagining a future beyond the enclosures of the nuclear family, wherein “the raising of the young will be the joint responsibility of all adults who choose to be associated with children.” It’s worth noting that Lorde’s essay is as much a response to the limitations of lesbian community as it is to the straight status quo. For instance, when Lorde and her partner learn that a lesbian-feminist conference they are considering attending does not permit boys over the age of ten, they are confronted with “logistic as well as philosophical problems.” Are they to leave their son behind in order to go imagine a lesbian future from which he is excluded? Lorde’s bond to her son prompts her—and her fellow readers—to “relearn the experience that difference does not have to be threatening.”

Perhaps what remains most difficult and unwieldy about the familial form is the way it hosts knotted, complex, and uncontainable processes of intergenerational transfer. Lorde recalls responding to Jonathan after, being targeted by bullies, he returns home from school crying:

My fury at my long-ago impotence, and my present pain at his suffering, made me start to forget all I knew about violence and fear, and blaming the victim, I started to hiss at the weeping child. “The next time you come in here crying . . .,” and I suddenly caught myself in horror.

Responding in anger and disappointment to her child, Lorde is confronted by the brutal fact that she cannot help but transfer the psychosomatic wounds and scar tissue that live within her onto her son. “An old horror rolled over me of being the fat kid who ran away, terrified of getting her glasses broken.” While Lorde goes on to discover an alternative and more reparative response to her son’s despair in the face of cruelty, I remain compelled by her moment of parental failure. Here, failing is woven into Lorde’s dream of a world in which “we will raise our children free to choose how best to fulfill themselves.”

In their book, Gender Without Identity, psychoanalysts Avgi Saketopoulou and Ann Pellegrini invite us to consider a scene such as the one Lorde describes as the transmission of mythosymbolic and cultural codes.[7] Passed from caregiver to child, these codes become a resource for the child to make their own translations, “a rendering of the psychic world in their own personal idiom.” In this view, familial trauma and conflict cannot be unduly avoided. Rather, trauma forms the intergenerational stuff out of which a child can self-theorize their existence, including the becoming of their gender and sexuality. The moral anti-trans panic that has galvanized around trans children in particular shows us just how threatening a child who claims the right to invent their existence truly is. In the framework offered by Saketopoulou and Pellegrini however, this task is not only performed by transgender and nonbinary children, but by allchildren. In other words, even normative genders are created. “… Traumatic incursion is always at work in all gender-becoming,” write Saketopoulou and Pellegrini. “As long as the subject is able to modify what was handed down to them intergenerationally, and to forge out of those inheritances their own gender translations, gender is not pathology.” And yet, some gender-becomings remain pathologized, punished and forestalled, while others are deemed negligible by virtue of their presumed naturalness.

I am reminded of a scene from Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.”[8] Written in 1905, Cather’s queer-coded teenaged protagonist Paul is a lover of flowers. When we first meet him at a disciplinary school hearing, he dons a single “red carnation in his buttonhole.” For Paul, the flower is a gesture of self-fashioning, yet to his teachers, it is a scandalous symbol of his “hysterically defiant manner.” The flower encapsulates “something about the boy which none of them understood.” How telling that a single flower—an adornment of beauty, an index of blossoming, a delicate and fragile living organism—can stir such anxiety in those whose comfort is assured by maintaining the order of things. Let’s stay with Paul a little longer, as Cather’s fictional case study might have something to offer us in terms of performance. Because if there’s anything Paul loves as much or more than flowers, it is the theater. Against the backdrop of the repressive family and school life to which he is nonconsensually bound, at the theater, Paul “really lives.” Finding contentment in his job as an usher, Paul does not wish to become an actor or musician—rather he simply wants to “be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it.” Later when Paul escapes the dreary monotony of Pittsburgh for New York City, he applies, albeit briefly, the tactics of theater-making to his own life, producing a scenario in which “his surroundings explained him.” At the theater, Paul learned something—not from the content of any one play or concert, but from the entire field of activity and operations sustained by a delicate combination of labor and imagination. Within the surround of performance, the sense that other atmospheres for living might be ushered into existence becomes a tentative possibility.

The work of atmosphere is at play in Foley’s project, too. Each part of Blood Baby’s constellation is an experiment in environment, a materializing of the tension between what one is surrounded by and how one can feel, imagine, relate. The task of thinking queerness and family together then is also a question of design—what forms of gestation and habitat might actually contribute, in the spirit of Lorde, to the future life of the species? Performance, and the work of dance, movement, and flesh in particular, offer us some tools for weathering indeterminacies, wherein we can “relearn the experience” that difference might even prove pleasurable.

When I envision the various temporary architectures of Blood Baby, I think, too, of the recent blooming of student encampments across university campuses. In the preceding months, we have been reminded daily of our conscripted intimacy with the destruction of entire generations of families in Gaza, as the possibility of family itself is brutally interrupted, on repeat, by forces of state and settler-colonial violence. In response to these horrors, students prop up tents, showing us alternative choreographies of living, sleeping, and dreaming. They remake the terms by which daily life is reproduced, protesting this genocidal world and withdrawing from the non-future to which we are now being subscribed. I learn that the challenge of dis- and re-organizing the immediate spaces in which we forge kinship is bound up with the life of the one, as it is with the life of the species, as it is with the life of the earth. From within the belly of the world’s killing machine, minor attempts eke out the hope of more hospitable thresholds for everyone.

—Lauren Bakst

Lauren Bakst is a writer, scholar, and artist working in the interstices of experimental performance and queer studies. She is completing a PhD in English at the University of Pennsylvania.

[1]“Oedipal destinies” is a playful nod to Freudian psychoanalysis and the ways this now-popular interpretation of familial dynamics marks a consolidation of heterosexuality within the family. This is not a dismissal of the Oedipal story however, as Freud’s model remains useful if we can loosen it from the gendered and sexual roles it traditionally connotes. In an interview with psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster, she offers these helpful comments: “I think of it (Oedipus) importantly as the moment when something is sedimented that has not much to do with mom and dad, but has everything to do with a natural evolution from the sexual life of the young child, through repression, into latency. Whichever way you configure the family, that’s going to happen. There will be repression; there will be a repressive moment. […] So I don’t care if you have a mother, only you have two fathers, you have five parents, it’s still enclosed. There’s desire within this enclosed space of the immediacy of the people who are there. Then repression comes and it sends the child out, and that’s what was important for Freud: it sends the child out.” For further context, see “The Problems with Love and Care: An Interview with Jamieson Webster” by Catrinel Radoi for Sublation Media.

[2] Lewis, Sophie. Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. Verso, 2022.

[3] For more on the ways that capitalism enlists the family in cycles of dispossession and accumulation, I recommend studying the Wages for Housework movement. Beginning in 1972, WfH organized around the problem of capitalism’s structural dependence on unwaged domestic labor, particularly within the sphere of the home. The Wages for Housework Community Archives are housed at the Crossroads Women’s Center in Germantown, Philadelphia.

[4] This bright comment was made by a student in a seminar called “Jeanne Dielman: Sex, Work, and the Everyday” that I taught at University of Pennsylvania in Spring 2024.

[5] “Reproductive racial capitalism,” as theorized by Jennifer L. Morgan and Alys Eve Weinbaum, is one helpful framework for thinking about the ways that reproduction, and by extension the family unit, is at the heart of contemporary capitalism. By conjoining the racial and the reproductive, Morgan and Weinbaum teach us to center “experiences of conception, gestation, parturition, and childrearing” in our analyses of capitalism and our anti-capitalist struggles, in particular looking to the ways that histories of hereditary racial slavery bear out in the present. For example, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2022 to revoke the constitutional right to abortion, “the court rescinded the bodily autonomy of pregnant persons and pitted them against their fetuses.” Such a ruling relies on the logic of a “maternal/fetal conflict,” one that Morgan and Weinbaum trace back to its inauguration in the “reproductive cultures and politics” of hereditary racial slavery, a system that secured the financial futures of slaveowners by “stealing labor” from the wombs of the enslaved and wrenching “potential kinship from the world.” Through the framework of racial reproductive capitalism, we might ask, how does power grant or deny the positions of mother and child, and by extension the status and protections of the family, to those who have the capacity to reproduce? Following Morgan and Weinbaum, if the racial configurations of reproduction constitute the terrain over which capitalism extracts and exploits labor and value, this terrain also constitutes the grounds of resistance, challenge, and refusal. For more, see their introduction to the recently published issue “Reproductive Racial Capitalism” in the journal History of the Present published by Duke University Press, 2024.

[6] Lorde, Audre. “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response.” Conditions: Four, 1979.

[7] Saketopoulou, Avgi, and Ann Pellegrini. Gender Without Identity. New York University Press, 2024.

[8] Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” McClure’s Magazine, 1905.