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.

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

First Comes Love, Then…

Domestic privacy can feel like a controllable space, a world of potential unconflictedness (even for five minutes a day): a world built for you. It may seem of a manageable scale and pacing; at best, it makes visible the effects of one’s agency, consciousness, and intention. This leads to another reason the couple form and its spinoffs so effectively siphon off critical thought about the personal and the political: to refuse the maturational narrative of “a life” would require a confrontation with another idea, that social forces and problems of living that seem not about the private “you” are, nonetheless, central to the shape of your story.

I learned to think about these questions in the contexts of feminist/ queer pedagogy; and how many times have I asked my own students to explain why, when there are so many people, only one plot counts as “life” (first comes love, then … )? Those who don’t or can’t find their way in that story–the queers, the single, the something else–can become so easily unimaginable, even often to themselves. Yet it is hard not to see lying about everywhere the detritus and the amputations that come from attempts to fit into the fold; meanwhile, a lot of world-building energy atrophies. Rethinking intimacy calls out not only for redescription but for transformative analyses of the rhetorical and material conditions that enable hegemonic fantasies to thrive in the minds and on the bodies of subjects while, at the same time, attachments are developing that might redirect the different routes taken by history and biography. To rethink intimacy is to appraise how we have been and how we live and how we might imagine lives that make more sense than the ones so many are living.

Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (January 1, 1998): 281–88.

[More] Sex in Public

Queer is difficult to entextualize as culture. This is particularly true of intimate culture. Heteronormative forms of intimacy are supported, as we have argued, not only by overt referential discourse such as love plots and sentimentality but materially, in marriage and family law, in the architecture of the domestic, in the zoning of work and politics. Queer culture, by contrast, has almost no institutional matrix for its counterintimacies. In the absence of marriage and the rituals that organize life around matrimony, improvisation is always necessary for the speech act of pledging, or the narrative practice of dating…The heteronormativity in such practices may seem weak and indirect. After all, same-sex couples have sometimes been able to invent versions of such practices. But they have done so only by betrothing themselves to the couple form and its language of personal significance, leaving untransformed the material and ideological conditions that divide intimacy from history, politics, and publics. The queer project we imagine is not just to destigmatize those average intimacies, not just to give access to the sentimentality of the couple for persons of the same sex, and definitely not to certify as properly private the personal lives of gays and lesbians. Rather, it is to support forms of affective, erotic, and personal living that are public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” 561-62.

Queer Ecologies

Our argument is thus that we should reorient our politics and take on something like a queer ecological perspective, a transgressive and historically relevant critique of dominant pairings of nature and environment with heteronormativity and homophobia, in order to outline possibilities responsive to these relations and, equally, explicitly critical of the continued organization of dominant metrosexualities through an environmentally disastrous (and often ethically void) lifestyle consumerism. Here, we are advocating a position not only of queering ecology, but of greening queer politics. The extension of queer into ecology is not, then, simply a question of making nature more welcome to gay inhabitation; it is also an invitation to open queer theory to ecological possibilities, and to thus produce a queering of ecocultural relations along the lines of Halberstam’s queering of space: “in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction . . . according to other logics of location, movement and identification” (2005, 1). Queer ecology suggests, then, a new practice of ecological knowledges, spaces, and politics that places central attention on challenging hetero-ecologies from the perspective of non-normative sexual and gender positions.

Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010), 22.