Southern Strategies: An Architectural Rapprochement of Queer Ethics and Rural Space in Alabama’s Black Belt

The Rural Studio is a design and build architectural program at Auburn University in Alabama. The studio was co-founded by Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth in 1992 with the mission of building an “architecture of decency” for families in Alabama’s Black Belt region that lacked access to stable and permanent housing. The studio utilizes found, discarded, and donated materials to craft innovative housing solutions and public spaces in and around Hale County—a region that has played a historic role in the state as the seat of King Cotton in the antebellum south; it has since seen economic disinvestment leave it ruined, and has notoriously claimed the tittle of one the country’s poorest counties. The Rural Studio aspires to confronting this historical legacy head-on by building private and public structures throughout the county at little to no cost to its citizens. This thesis brings the work of the studio into conversation with queer theories of metronormativity and anti-urbanism as developed by theorists including Judith Halberstam and Scott Herring. I develop the architectural practices of the studio and its relationship with its clients as a queer structure of feeling that challenges contemporary architectural values with its insistence on rural, vernacular building solutions—this, I claim, is parallel to self-identified rural queers who live in the country and defy metronormative and urbane conceptions of LGBT identity. By deconstructing modern, metropolitan definitions of queerness, I seek to expand the mantle of queerness to include the clients of the Rural Studio, as well as rural-identified queers who consider the country as an inherent aspect of their queer identity. By dissecting the geographic and temporal characteristics of the urban/rural dialectic, I attempt a rapprochement of rural space and queerness as such, disabusing the notion that to be queer is to be urban. Tracing the intersectional political alliances at the heart of the Rural Studio’s design-build process, I hope to view the studio’s work as a queer organizational model for marginal subjects— one that confronts the twin legacies of Queer and Southern history—through the production of strange and intersectional political and social alliances in rural spaces.

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Saturating Nor Supplanting

“Queer activists are also lesbians and gays in other contexts–as, for example, where leverage can be gained through bourgeois propriety, or through minority-rights discourse, or through more gender-marked language (it probably won’t replace lesbian feminism). Some people are in some contexts meaningfully motivated by queer self-characterizations; others are not. This distinction is not the same as that between those who are straight and those who are gay and lesbian. No one adheres to queer self-characterizations all the time. Even when some of us do so, it may be to exploit rhetorics in ways that have relatively little to do with our characters, identities, selves, or psyches. Rhetoric of queerness neither saturates identity nor supplants it. Queer politics, in short, has not just replaced older models of lesbian and gay politics; it has come to exist alongside those older modes, opening up new possibilities and problems whose relation to more familiar problems is not always clear.”

Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 213.

This is the Truth-Event

I’m less interested, then, in the “turn toward time” than in the turning or troping by which we’re obliged to keeping turning time into history. Whether polyphonous or univocal, history, thus ontologized, displaces the epistemological impasse, the aporia of relationality, the nonidentity of things, by offering the promise of sequence as the royal road to consequence. Meaning thus hangs in the balance—a meaning that time, as the medium of its advent, defers while affirming its constant approach, but a meaning utterly undone by the queer who figures its refusal. This is the truth-event, as Badiou might say, that makes all subjects queer: that we aren’t, in fact, subjects of history constrained by the death-in-life of futurism and its illusion of productivity. We’re subjects, instead, of the real, of the drive, of the encounter with futurism’s emptiness, with negativity’s life-in-death. The universality proclaimed by queerness lies in identifying the subject with just this repetitive performance of a death drive, with what’s, quite literally, unbecoming, and so in exploding the subject of knowledge immured in stone by the “turn toward time.”

– Lee Edelman

Wishing for a Benign Vision

At one level, my interest in the historical experiences of queers in the South reflects a desire to create a narrative that would allow me to bring the seemingly disparate parts of my identity together, if only for a textual moment. Yet I am leery of this desire for synthesis, for given the normative definitions that coalesce around “the South” and “southern,” (i.e., the South as more racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. than the rest of the country), this desire seems suspect. I have had to ask myself what this “togetherness” would symbolize. Is reconciliation necessary, desirable, or even possible? The impulse to distance myself from dominant definitions of southern seems as suspect as the desire to create a definition of southern  that could include me, however. Is this impulse a wish for a benign vision of my regional identity–one that would place me outside the oppressive structures of power that shape normative definitions of southern? Is it a search for a place of innocence? Whom would a potential reconciliation serve, and whom would it serve best? And perhaps most important (to return to the issue of my own assumptions about what constitutes “southern”) who is this “we” I wish to make visible?

– Donna Jo Smith

Another Peculiar Institution

“Peculiar indeed it is that the South somehow could be both the citadel of perversity and too backwater for the gay social register, for gay history.”

Charles E. Morris, “Introduction: ‘Travelin’ Thru’ the Queer South,” Southern Communication Journal 74, no. 3 (2009): 233–42.

Wiping Out Power (Psyche)

If metropolitan lesbians and gay men had in fact succeeded in wiping out power in relationships, all we would have to do is enjoy our egalitarian practice and let everyone else in on the secret. But that is far from the case. The prevailing sex— gender system, we have every reason to know, is geared to the production of hierarchy and, as part of that, to the production of anxious, unhappy and violent people. It produces us and our psychic lives—straights and gays—and it is not going to leave us alone. It is a liberal-bourgeois delusion to suppose that ‘private’ space can be somehow innocent of and protected from the real world. In actuality, none of the power hierarchies that I have been highlighting is insignificant in metropolitan sexual practice. But, unlike people in non-metropolitan systems, we prefer to pretend otherwise. It would be better, at the least, to acknowledge what we are doing.

Richard Phillips, Diane Watt, and David Shuttleton, De-Centering Sexualities Politics and Representations beyond the Metropolis (London; New York: Garland Pub., 2000), http://site.ebrary.com/id/10100552.

A Few More Rednecks

Given the thinly-veiled self-congratulation and condescension that informs such intellectual efforts, it is not surprising that self-consciously rustic people often become emphatically anti-intellectual…Charlie Daniels (1990) follows a lyrical call for “a few more rednecks” with the threat that “you intellectuals might not like it but there’s nothing you can do,” while Aaron Tippin (1993) glorifies “pride, honor, and dignity” of the “working man’s Ph.D.” It is tempting for intellectuals to dismiss such criticism as “rural idiocy,” but once we recognize anti-intellectualism as an aspect of identity politics, we need not take it personally. Instead, we can see it as a part of urban hegemony: as long as rustic discontent is directed exclusively at intellectuals, its poses no great political threat. Nevertheless, when rustics target intellectuals or champion conservative causes, they render their identities less interesting to scholars fascinated by the resistance potential of identity politics. These intellectuals thereby collude with “liberal” urbanites in casting rustics as homogeneous oppressors of other marginalized groups. Thus demonized, rustics seem to merit whatever degradation and neglect they may experience.

Barbara Ching and Gerald W Creed, Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (New York: Routledge, 1997): 11.