Nightlife as Queer Political Method

University of California, Berkeley, Free Palestine Camp, Spring 2024, Photo credit: Mx. Granger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Tamar Shirinian engages with “nightlife” as a temporal and affective phenomenon, emphasizing the particular political possibility that exists at night. Night requires a different kind of method, one attuned to the undercommons and its thinking on the move, and attentive to emotion, invisibility, and uncertainty.
[Ed. note: This article is part of a dossier on New Directions in Queer Nightlife.]

Night is both a temporal and affective phenomenon. It denotes a time within a daily cycle – after the sun goes down, perhaps, or after the working day is over and before it begins anew. Or, not an end at all perhaps, but a beginning – of leisure, of rest, of particular kinds of fun that cannot be had during the day. Daytime’s association with certain obligations are, again, both temporal and affective. On the one hand, one cannot drink and dance and let loose during the day perhaps because one works during the day. But on the other hand, one also cannot drink and dance and let loose during the day because the day is a time in which one must keep up certain appearances: of professionalism, of responsibility – in short – propriety. Thus, those whose work involves nightlife are also placed outside of professionalism, responsibility, the space of mature subjectivity. Night is a different time, that contains a different kind of life.

While the concept and object of “queer nightlife” often focuses on such leisure activities, however, night is also a temporal and affective space of particular kinds of political activity. Daytime is the proper time of political activity; or, it might be more accurate to say that daytime is the time of proper politics. Yes, peaceful marches, but also parliamentary hearings and professional meetings and official above-board practices. Daytime is the time that we critique. But come night, that critique should be taken down so that peace can be had, so that all can go home and go to sleep. The continuation of the political into nighttime arouses improper (perhaps dangerous) orientations toward the political. The 1969 Stonewall uprising began at night. If daytime is a spacetime of propriety for the rest of us, it is also a time in which police also must keep up appearances. Marching onto university campuses by the hundreds and brutalizing students – as police have been doing across the United States in Spring 2024 during the “Student Intifada” against Israel’s genocide in Palestine – is not such a savory activity. For this reason, the most brutal attacks on encampments – including those by state-sanctioned civilian mobs – is most often reserved for the time-space when the night provides some cover. Nighttime is when power is scared because it has looser control over the life activities that occur at night. But, this looser control results in anxiety for power: tighter restrictions, and especially regarding public space. While public parks are policed throughout the day, come night when they are less policed, respectable parks surrounded by gates are also locked up.

Because night is a particular kind of time-space, research on nightlife requires particular kinds of methodological considerations. These considerations are practical, but they are also ideological. They require not only shifts in methodological practice, but shifts in intellectual process and in the relationships that writing and thinking have to life.  In The Undercommons, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten advocate for another kind of thought, a thought that is on the move, a thought that does not necessarily have an arrival, a destination. They tell us that they have “look[ed] for politics in order to avoid it” and that “we move next to each other, so we can be beside ourselves, because we like the nightlife which ain’t no good life.”1Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 19. Thinking on the move, thinking in nightlife, regards thought as an emergent space: a long conversation, with its constant shifts and its new openings. Thinking on the move is a form of study as life – not the thinking that happens in the institution, not the thinking that happens in the classroom, but that which happens with and for, allowing for living in fugitivity. Night, and the life that happens in it, is not a time of critique but of movement. Not a time of cognition, perhaps, but embodied thinking, a time of e-motion.

In 2010, when I first arrived in Yerevan, the capital city of the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia, there was very little visibility of queerness anywhere in the country. To conduct ethnographic fieldwork on queer life, I had to wait until night to find the queers. In the only explicitly gay bar in Yerevan’s history, which remained open for just a short while as it was the object of constant threat and targeting by police, and which was only open at night, I found queer life that did not ever exist (visibly) anywhere else in the city: gender-bending, same-sex desire, and sexual affection (same-sex but also heterosexual touch, which was also largely invisible in Yerevan’s dayscape). This gay bar, a bit of queer nightlife in Yerevan, was a whole queer world tucked away in the night and that engendered resignifications of nation, propriety, and everyday life.2Tamar Shirinian, “Queer Life-Worlds in Postsocialist Armenia: Alternativ Space and the Possibilities of In/Visibility,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 5, no. 1 (2018): 1–23. Not through critique, but through embodied practice.

Figure 1: The Soviet-era Mother Armenia statue, which shares many aesthetic traits as those of other Soviet Republics, sits atop the Central District of Yerevan. Photo by author.
Figure 2: Graffiti of the Mother Armenia statue’s silhouette with the words “Suck my pussy.” Photo by author

I have been doing ethnographic research in Yerevan for fourteen years now. Much of this research has been at night, a time where the boundaries between work and play, the personal and the political, are more porous and when research happens as I have also been living my own life – socializing, falling in love, or politically acting. There is much life that takes place at night that in many cases cannot know the light of day. Nighttime was a time I ethnographically learned about sex in Armenia, and especially sex in public. Well, perhaps not exactly sex in public but scenes that teetered on sex in public, between illicit lovers: those who were likely unmarried, sometimes same-sex encounters. Under the cover of night, alleyways, spaces behind buildings, parks that were not locked overnight, and other public spaces became locales for private activity that had no right to private space. The queer right to the city was a right claimed at night. Night was the time-space of illicit political activity; it was a time when graffiti work was often done, especially work of a less savory nature, such as the refiguration of the Mother Armenia statue (see Figure 1) as a silhouette demanding, “Suck my pussy” (See Figure 2). Night, a less organized time, was a time of a different kind of planning, when the physicality of letting loose – drinking and dancing perhaps – also made possible an emotional, intellectual, affective letting loose. A time when we allowed ourselves to imagine possibilities that we were less likely to imagine during the day. Night was when we planned many disruptions. During the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” – mass social uprisings that eventually led to the resignation of the oligarchy’s henchman, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan – night was a time when radical activists planned disruptions not only of the regime but of the protests themselves: internal disruptions, queer re-orientations, deciding to make a banner that declared the movement a “Revolution of Love and Solidarity,” which became the queer name for it thereafter (see Figure 3). Night is a time when the body, the mind, the spirt (including that of the collective) wander – sometimes into new, untreaded, terrain.

Figure 3: LGBT organization, PINK Armenia’s, blog, Inchpes Du (As You) declares the “Velvet Revolution” the “Revolution of Love and Solidarity” after a banner that reads “Long Live the Revolution of Love and Solidarity” prepared by leftists one night to disrupt any fascist or nationalist take over, was revealed the following day. Photo available from https://asyou.pinkarmenia.org/?p=1891

Night requires a method of the undercommons. To enter the space of the undercommons, according to Harney and Moten, “is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the criminal, matricidal [I might here suggest patricidal], queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back, where the commons give refuge, where the refuge gives commons.”3Harney and Moten, the Undercommons, 28. As a form of ethnographic method and thinking on the move, night provides cover for life otherwise.

Notes

Notes
1 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 19.
2 Tamar Shirinian, “Queer Life-Worlds in Postsocialist Armenia: Alternativ Space and the Possibilities of In/Visibility,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 5, no. 1 (2018): 1–23.
3 Harney and Moten, the Undercommons, 28
Shirinian, Tamar. "Nightlife as Queer Political Method." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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