Double Double Miley Trouble: Notes Toward a Queer Aesthet(h)ics of Duplicity

Curator's Note

Popular among the passages from Cruising Utopia celebrated in the wake of the untimely passing of its author, José Esteban Muñoz, were those where Muñoz laid out his insistence on thinking of queerness as an ideality that is “not yet here,” as well as his urgent call for thinking of queerness as collectivity. Less popular, if not entirely absent, from these hagiographies was the slim chapter “Just Like Heaven,” where, in an attempt to mark out “a queer aesthetic dimension,” Muñoz turned to the work of Herbert Marcuse and the myth of Narcissus in order to stress the vital importance of self-reflection in queer utopian world-making. “Gazing into the reflective surface is more than just self-appreciation,” Muñoz wrote, “…it speaks of a critical imagination that begins with self-analysis and a vaster social critique of how the world could be and indeed should be.” I would like to use my Miley Cyrus Super Queer curation as an opportunity to evoke this other aspect of Muñoz’s work in order to provisionally sketch out the possibilities of a queer aesthetics, and ethics, grounded in duplicity and her sisters: duplication, doubling, copying, faking, texting, appropriating, reflecting, masturbating; an aesthet(h)ics of self-feeling, self-seeing, and self-tasting that might abide us in our attempt to claim Miley, a seemingly privileged, cisgender, straight, white, skinny pop star, as an avatar of queerness.

I offer the below as starting points for a discussion on the ways in which Miley Cyrus appears as a flagrant, narcissistic harbinger of queer duplicity:

Lyrical duplicity – “Miley Cyrus” and “Hannah Montanna” are self-rhyming couplets. Along with a handful of redundant lyrics and cheating rhymes, this nomenclatural doubling-up is one way by which Miley narcissistically self-duplicates.

Ontological duplicity – Miley’s self-touching and self-tasting have made her an object of derision and adoration. Her public displays of self-feeling frame the “I” and the “You” of intersubjective exchange within the duplicitous “supplement” of masturbation.

Familial duplicity – Miley’s “Cyrus” is a palimpsest on her father’s, conjuring the doublings inherent in programs of kinship. As a second-generation celebrity, Miley skews from the imperative to be “original” that dominates contemporary pop music. Identical duplicity – Miley appropriates; blackness, boyishness, bootyness, Madonna. Her refusal to authentically represent herself, rather than being blunt evidence of a colonizing white privilege, might instead be read as an ecstatic, oddball desire for the not yet here.


Great post to get us started Ryan. I am about to jump on a plane and will respond in more depth later. I have been re-reading Cruising Utopia and wondering a couple of things about Miley's horizonal queerness (what could be more delightfully tautological and utopic than her given name Destiny Hope Cyrus?). Firstly, I have been wondering what Jose would have made of Miley and her disidentifications? Would he have imagined a place for her in his blueprint for a world of queer ideality and future-dawning? I am not so sure that he would. I reckon Miley's racial (dis)identifications would have troubled Jose and given him pause. Secondly, I have been doing this thought experiment where the chapters of Cruising Utopia are *all" about Miley, her public/live sex acts; her performances/performatives of utopia; the gestic, vogueing and ephemerality; her cruising of the toilet; her staging of punk rebellion; her Warholian camouflage (in the Tongue Tied video for example); her taking ecstasy (or LSD; see her performance with The Flaming Lips at the 2014 Billboard Awards:; her thens and theres... MOR

Michael, thanks for jeteeing out this window with me. I think you’re right to be suspicious about whether or not José would have included Miley in his blueprints for a queer utopia. This is precisely why, for me, I wanted to place José’s work at the core a reflection on Miley. Simply put: I think the various markers of Miley’s cultural privilege and her blatant appropriations disrupt, if not outright defuse in advance, a queer reading of Miley. Thus, the provocation I would like to make here is one that would beckon us to follow José’s thought to conclusions that might not necessarily be popular or legible to broadly accepted readings of José’s work, or even to José’s own self-reading. And I would like to propose “duplicity” as a concept that might aid us (or maybe just me and my mirror) in this effort. What is “disidentification,” after all, but a mode of duplicity? A failure to identify positively either for or against a dominant cultural paradigm, yet still an inhabiting of those positions through appropriation and dis/use. Although from here, we might also ask ourselves how identification itself is already a kind of duplicity that structures and conditions the possibility for the duplicity of disidentification. My blunt question at the start of this enquiry is this: Is it possible for white people to disidentify with whiteness? In “The White to Be Angry,” José restricts his definition of disidentification as “a performative mode of tactical recognition” to the propriety of “various minoritarian subjects” who use disidentification “to resist the oppressive and normalizing discourse of dominant ideology.” José’s answer to my question--Can white people disidentify with whiteness?--would seem to be “No.” But something has always stuck with me about this restriction, which seems, in the end, to undo itself, namely in that this formulation appears to reify white identification and white bodies, leaving only brown bodies and bodies of color open to identification per se. Yet, must not white people, in order “to be white”, identify with whiteness? Must not white people appropriate a sense of “being white” from the dominant cultural paradigm? In this way, identification is already appropriation; a duplicity; a stealing of a sense of body and a sense of self from a forest of cultural significations that precedes one’s sense of self, and incorporating those bodily significations as one’s own, as original to one’s self. If we can acknowledge that white people, in order “to be white,” must first identify with whiteness, then it must therefore be possible for white people to counter- and to dis-identify with whiteness, or else be trapped interminably in their own collective “snow phase”. It is in recognizing this structural duplicity in the performativity of identity that we might see Miley’s racial appropriations as more than just a symptom of white privilege. Rather, they may be read as a practice of disidentification against a reified sense of whiteness, an impulsive critique of white supremacy, and a longing to be “other” than what culture tells us we are. For me, the duplicity inherent in “being other” is a precept that is central to the ethics and aesthetics of queer world-making, and is obviously at the center of Miley’s queer world.

Loving this discussion so far! First of all, because it's addressing a tension that I have recognized more frequently over the past year: is this appropriation or queering? It's a binary I want to shatter without trivializing the critiques from either side. From what I understand, queering, as a verb and as a process, is an umbrella term for the multiple ways by which normative discourses and ideologies can be peformatively subverted. And I really like this concept because of its artistic and political power. This is something we have seen applied to drag queens, activist organizations like Queer Nation and then, perhaps now, Miley. However, the urgent pull of appropriation politics makes the art of queering a rather dangerous practice it seems, insofar as it forces us to recognize whose culture has been stolen or abused rather than queered. Not that identifying theft or abuse is, or should be, an easy process, either. Such is the case with Miley's twerking, which has been dubbed unequivocally racist by many on the left. I find the critique disappointingly simple, yet recognize that it comes from an important canon of emotional distress. So how to unravel and deconstruct this binary? I think Ryan's point about learning to become white as a process of appropriation that leaves room for counter- and dis-identification is crucial as a starting place; it opens up ways to critique authenticity and those who police it. Why does Munoz limit dis-identification to not only particular groups, but groups couched in neo-liberal terms as "minoriatrian subjects?" Is it only "minorities" who can/should dis-identify? The quantitative undertone of dis-identification as a minority project seems troubling, not only because it limits authority over the process, but furthermore, because it does so in a demographically empirical, census-style framework. As a quick tangent, this discussion makes me think of the trans/cis binary, which often articulates cis-gender people in an oversimplified way, often forgetting that learning to be a man or a woman is itself a process in learning how to appropriate the culturally correct components of masculinity and femininity that will make your gender intelligible and prevent gendered failures (such as androgyny, sissiness, butchness, bitchy wife, submissive husband--all kinds of failures that are not limited to trans identity). By limiting dis-identification to minorities, aren't we reinforcing who we think the victim and victimizer are in society? Those power dynamics are important and cannot be neutralized, but if whiteness is created concomitantly with racialized otherness, then it is is also something to be parodied, subverted, and performatively queered, no? Instead, I think we might ask questions about why certain ways to dis-identify with whiteness are more desirable projects than others. Miley does not require the particular image of black women's assess twerking to accomplish her otherness, right? Instead of chastising Miley's queer duplicity as explicit racism, we might ask what discursive instruments make certain forms of duplicity more desirable or popular, and perhaps within such questions, find answers that aid our quest to both admire Miley's dis-identification with whiteness without necessarily undermining the significant implications of sexualized racism and its integral role in perpetuating pop music as lucrative capital. This is the Foucault in me I suppose. What discursive moments make Miley's duplication of black women's bodies and dancing thinkable? That might be important to ask, and I think would more critically assess the racism we have in this moment, rather than using it as a weapon against an individual singer whose work has other important things to say. I value dis-identification, and would extend it to those outside minoritarian subjectivity, yet think we must do so carefully by 1) not reinforcing victim/victimizer binaries without more complex considerations, 2) not ignoring their historical roots altogether either; there are reasons we have disproportionate arrangements of power and value and 3) recognizing the discursive regimes that make particular configurations of dis-identifying possible and desirable. As I often end anything I write or say, did that make sense?

Welcome, Chris! I don’t disagree with any of your points. And I think you sense (maybe identify with?) my urgent desire to rethink “appropriation” as a queer value of duplicity. You are right to stress, however, that it is important to include in this conversation--perhaps even center--our present, historical context (speaking, I suppose, for an American historical context), and the ways in which racist ideologies fuel our particular political and economic systems, as well as to fully affirm the lived experience of oppressed and marginalized racial groups, a project that José was certainly at the forefront in bringing into queer theory. I do not wish to undo any of that work. In fact, I would hope to expand it (although, perhaps that is also a kind of undoing). To accept Miley’s white disidentification as a queer aesthetic practice is not to abstract it from the corporate music industry that makes her appropriations--and the blanket appropriations of the cultural products of racial minorities to the benefit of white capital--profitable. Hopefully, it points us to those problems. But it should also provide us with a way of affirming individual struggles within these systems; struggles that my surprise us; struggles that may exceed the system’s ability to fully instrumentalize us, as well as the identitarian categorizations that aim to fix us.

Chris, I am so glad that you bring up the complex relationship between queering and appropriation, a complexity that my post tomorrow attempts to begin working through (because it is of course too complicated for just 400 words). Our conversation will probably shift in this direction tomorrow so I don't want to jump the gun here, but let me say just a few words on the subject now: I do not think that we can or should conceive of queering and appropriation as two separate acts. That is, queering often happens in tandem with racial/cultural appropriation, insofar as bodies of color are themselves often rendered queer (here I'm thinking of the work of Ferguson or Puar, among others). So normative white bodies might become queer bodies through the process of racial/cultural appropriation, whether intentionally or no. Miley's appropriation (specifically of black culture) is undoubtedly racist but can or should we reclaim/celebrate the kind of queerness that accompanies that appropriation? These certainly are difficult questions and I hope we can talk more about this issue, specifically, tomorrow. And now, re: Ryan's original post. This is an excellent way to begin thinking through Miley's queer potential. I want to add another duplicity to the list, a kind of temporal duplicity whereby Miley's present identity consciously and consistently refers back to and is inflected by the Miley of the past (i.e. Hannah Montana and Miley, her alter ego). Perhaps we can think through the ways in which Miley dis-identifies with her past selves, especially since much of the criticism launched against Miley references her status as a former child-star, role-model, etc: Miley's present self is somehow in tension with her past self. Miley is absolutely aware of this tension, and she plays it up in performances and videos; she constantly self-infantalizes (I am reminded of Halberstam's work on the queerness of childhood) making us aware of her (dis)identification with that past self. I wonder how this temporal duplicity responds to the temporality of Munoz's "not yet here," of a (queer) futurity that is constantly beyond one's grasp. Perhaps playing with her past allows Miley a way out of the (hetero)future, letting her exist as a subject that refuses a linear telos, that is not quite here, yet.

First, I'd like to say thanks again to Ryan for setting such an intriguing discussion into motion! I would then like to follow on from some of the points Zach just made - I feel like the 'temporal duplicity' is key here. Miley doesn't remain within a stable relationship between present, past (and future) personas and impersonations - she fluctuates. There is a queering of linear time taking place here. Hannah Montana turns into Miley the provocateur, turns into Miley the racial, cultural (or sexual) stereotype, turns into Hannah Montana again. And interestingly - as both Ryan's video clip and Zach's image show - she often appropriates more than one persona simultaneously. I would thus like to talk about what Miley is doing as something a bit more complicated than 'dis-identification'. I would refer to it as a continual process of dis-identification and re-identification. I will refer to Moira Gatens's work on mirroring and identification and Amelia Jones's book on Self/Image here. Gatens argues that identification and becoming will always be a type of ‘doubling’, a play of contrast through which the subject represents itself in a network of bodies. Dis-identification (as Ryan acknowledges in his discussion about whiteness) requires a simultaneous act of contrasting identification - and in order for this process not to stagnate - a following act of re-identification. In Gatens's Lacanian conception of reflection, this type of becoming also becomes erotically charged - and Miley represents such a scenario perfectly in her orgiastic fondling and enfolding of her various past and possible selves. Self and image here become one - and I think this part of Miley's queer potential. It is impossible to tell where the imagery ends and the 'real' Miley begins. As Amelia Jones argues, this type of self/image juxtaposition is highlighted in the type of technologically playful representation of self that takes place in the film clip Ryan is curating here. Miley IS the many images she has taken on - and not merely one after the other in a linear fashion - but all together, embraced and embracing - trickling out of her mouth, down her slide/tongue. Karin

Thanks Zachary and Karin for joining us. And I look forward to reading more thoughts from everyone this week. José’s formulation of the “not yet here,” if I recall correctly, maintains a direct relation and reference to the past. In this way it promises a kind of fidelity to history and historical context that grounds a “concrete” utopian project to emerge. While José was a utopian at heart, he was not a fan of abstraction. Yet, as much as I find this formulation a rich resource for both thinking the ways queering troubles straight time, and for building queer projects that address (and perhaps redress) concrete political struggles, I find myself preferring to formulate the “not yet here” as an instance of the “elsewhere,” which would include the “no longer present,” as well as any occasion of time that cannot be realized in or as the present. The “elsewhere” is both no longer here but also not yet here, and yet: oddly here. One might say that José is now, troublingly, elsewhere. The figure of Narcissus, as I hope to use it here, and as I think José at least partially imagined it, represents a critical, reflective dropping out of time and place that stands as a refusal to what Marcuse called “the performance principal.” While it has been pointed out (by Zizek no less) that Marcuse’s interpretation of narcissism is not exactly coherent with Freudian psychoanalysis, “the great refusal” that he was formulating, and that José carried forward in “Just Like Heaven,” offers a way of imagining narcissism, perhaps the doubling par excellence, not as a some pernicious threat to social fabric--as it is often imagined--but rather, as a modality of critique that opens up new horizons for social formations to take place. This point, for me, is key, and one I find consistent with Sedgwick’s writing on Henry James in Touching, Feeling, where she formulates queer performativity as “a strategy for the production of meaning and being, in relation to the affect shame and to the later and related fact of stigma.” The self-feeling (through reflecting on his early writing) that Sedgwick catches James in the act of performing, Sedgwick also finds deliciously inviting. To draw this back to Miley, her proliferating performances of self-referencing, self-touching, self-tasting, self-seeing--even self-wearing--I read as emanating from a deep desire for the other, as well as a powerful desire for social cohesion and collective action. Miley touches herself, and the crowd roars. Perhaps it might be helpful to imagine how the elsewhere and the not yet here of queer are enabled by--not threatened by--the performative force of narcissism.

This is a really great set of questions you are opening up here Ryan around appropriation and disidentification. I think we've reached a point now in queer theoretical discourse where we need to reflect quite seriously on what queer of color critique is doing and how useful a rubric white disidentification or critical whiteness studies is. On the one hand, I'm convinced that we need a shift now to modes of critique which would be anti-antinormative and that would of necessity require a return to the foremothers of queer theory who have already come up here (Butler and Sedgwick in particular). The danger in making this move is that postcolonial theorists, queer of color critics and subaltern studies folks will immediately holler that this is a return to the "white" foremothers (or fathers) of queer discourse and that it blurs the implicit focus on "minoritarian" subjects. But, I think that is precisely why I would argue for that shift (and its urgency now). Part of Miley's racial mimicry and performativity (and her duplicitousness around racial identifications and disidentifications) is calling into question the "property" and "propriety" of blackness and brownness and structures of feeling. The problem which Miley (and the responses to her twerking for example) highlights is the way in which poco studies wants to "own" minoritarian status and disallow to her the kind of positions Ryan and others are suggesting Miley takes up. Jose's colleague Fred Moten has argued that blackness is not necessarily a property of "race" at all. So perhaps the question is why can't Miley "be" black (in an ontologically duplicitous way)? Or why can't queerness and blackness be used as near-synonymous terms of revolt, rebellion and frame-renovation which don't necessarily have to refer to an identity at all? MOR

Well said, Michael. And I think yes, any move "back" to the foremothers of queer theory should be self-consciously careful not to reproduce the color-blindness that made early queer theoretical work a right object of critique, or, what we might say conditioned the possibility for a queer of color critique. We also have "masculinity studies" which is sometimes liable to "forget" its groundings in feminist theory. But, just as masculinity studies is moving into territory that feminist studies left undertheorized, I think a similar effect is being produced in queer of color critique, poco studies and whiteness. I will not argue here that "critical white studies" is either A.) a real project, or B.) a project worth spending vital brain resources imagining. All I will say is, for queer critique of any kind to be queer--and I'm stealing a bit of this from your work--it must remain open to becoming other than what it is, to be expanded, collapsed and expanded again, categorically open-ended toward...

One of the things which inspired this super queer week on Miley was a series of fertile coincidences (the shared--although perhaps false-- etymological trajectories of queering and twerking, for example) and your post brings up the idea of coincidence and non-coincidence (and refusal and authenticity) in a number of really interesting ways. I have written a memorial text (which will be published soon) on José Esteban Muñoz where I track the use of the words "insist" and "insistence" in Cruising Utopia and elsewhere in José's work ( So I was very taken with your words about "his *insistence* on thinking of queerness as an ideality that is 'not yet here'". The other project I pursue in that dead letter for José is to carefully seek out the many times the words "insist" and "insistence" are used in other memorial texts for Muñoz (in boundary 2's collage for example: So I am thinking a bit about Miley and insistence (and persistence and other -sistence words) and how that is about a utopic "great refusal" and educated Blochian hope ("we won't stop, NO we won't stop, for example). Another coincidence propelled (also thinking about Miley and propulsion in light of Zachary's invocation of the mechanisms of ratcheting) by your post was the line about how Miley's self-tasting/touching/seeing has made her "an object of derision and *adoration". I have been thinking for some time about how Jean-Luc Nancy's work (especially Corpus II, his writings on sexuality) has important things to say to Miley's own corpus (and backwards and forwards between the pair) around touch, taste, the tongue, the buccal, fluids, auto and allo-eroticism, and so on. And it so happened that I was reading Adoration by Nancy yesterday shortly after reading and as I was still ruminating on) your post. And while the opening prologue to Nancy's book would repay a detailed reading alongside or brushing up against your post, Miley's texts and Muñoz's Cruising Utopia let me just leave you with a couple of lines which close his prologue (but could just as easily have come from Muñoz's epilogue): "'Addiction' is a Latin term to which the English language has given the sense familiar to us. Roman addictio is the confirmation of an affirmation, a declaration, a commitment. The word developed its sense in the direction of 'to dedicate oneself', 'to devote oneself', 'to give oneself over to', and later in the direction of obligation, indebtedness, and submission...what is the difference between what we are naming 'addiction' on the one hand, and 'adoration' on the other? It is perhaps very simple. Addiction, whatever its object or its nature might be, implies a relationship to a tangible, appropriable presence. 'Drugs' are what cause me truly to perceive another regime of presence, an 'elsewhere' in which I am able to forget or convert the 'here' that I wish to leave. In addiction, there is something that ultimately comes down to hallucination. Addiction signals a relationship to a presence that it would be out of the question to bring 'here', that must be known and affirmed as essentially 'elsewhere', with the effect of opening the 'here'. It is therefore not a presence in the accepted sense of the word. It is not the presence of anything in particular, but that of the opening, the dehiscence, the breach, or the breaking out of the 'here' itself". MOR

Michael, I love this. I have not read Jean-Luc Nancy, but it appears from what you’ve posted here that I must get into it asap. Masturbation, historically, has been regarded as an insistence; either one that is dangerous to the self because it emerges as an insistence within the self, or, the opposite, as a medical insistence of the 19th century to treat hysteria in women and therefore restore a proper sense of femininity to herself. There is thus this enigmatic double valence by which self-feeling both discovers the self (see also 1970s feminist rediscovery of masturbation as empowering) and also ruins, or, wrecks the self. I find the latter resonant with a Bersanian commitment (insistence?) on self-shattering, or, self-wrecking. And this is I think at the heart of Miley's auto(allo)erotic affective demolition. Yet, maybe it will be important to keep in mind José’s critique of self-shattering as too abstract, too anti-collective. I would read this along with Butler’s contention (as far as I’m reading it) that the self’s undoing (and doing) is categorically an action, or imposition--or insistence--of the other. Self-wrecking, then, might be most beneficial when it occurs in relation to an otherness that insists on wrecking us. Queer of color critique seems, to me, to fit this bill. And I think, in the context of this theme week, Eva’s contribution has productively wrecked many of our insistences without, I think, foreclosing the project of a reflection on Miley--indeed, Eva’s critique is undoubtedly part of this reflection. This seems to me to be a fundamental tension in queer theory at the moment: the tension between self-insisting and self-wrecking, a tension that quite possibly cannot be resolved. After all, self-insisting would appear to be the main political mode of queer of color critique and critical trans politics--a self-insistence that aims to wreck the oppressive other’s self-centeredness. Is this self-insisting and self-centering, or selfing, commensurate with those projects’ aims to wreck or decenter selfish normalcy? Is there not some kind of contradiction that inheres in an anti-selfish project that is enacted through performative acts of self-insistence? Queer theory, in my reading, is a theory of selfishness (this is how I came upon the trail of masturbation in the first place); it is a theory of selfishness because it is a theory that seems to destabilize the conceptual presuppositions of selfhood, while at the same time, affirming a right to a self(ish)ness, more or less, of one’s own choosing. If selfing is, in some way, an insistence that generates necessary resources for subsistence in an oppressive world, in a world that attempts to deprive us of those resources that make survival possible, and if the self-insistence of minoritarian subjects is not only prohibited by oppressive regimes that are themselves self-insisting, but is also vitally necessary in opposing and toppling those regimes, then something like a right to autophagy would be a queer political project that might get us out of the deadlock that anti-narcissism or anti-selfing perpetuates. That would be a queer political project I could get behind, or, should I say, that could get behind me.

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