From Shakespeare to RuPaul, we all love a performance. But what exactly is it? What are its boundaries, its powers, its potential, its stakes? Kareem Khubchandani, who also performs as LaWhore Vagistan – “everyone's favourite desi drag queen aunty” – joins Uncommon Sense to unpack the latest thinking on refusal, repetition and more. And to discuss “Ishtyle”, Kareem’s ethnography of gay Indian nightlife in Chicago and Bangalore, which attends to desire and fun in the lives of global Indian workers too often stereotyped as cogs in the wheels of globalisation.
Kareem also reflects on the particular value of queer nightlife, and celebrates how drag kings skilfully unmask what might be the ultimate performance: heteromasculinity. We also ask: what do thinkers like Bourdieu and Foucault reveal about performance? Why is there still a way to go in our understanding of drag and how might decolonising it serve us all? Plus: why calling something “performative” is actually not about calling things “fake”? In fact, performance can make things “real”…
With reflection on Judith Butler, “Paris is Burning”, “RuPaul's Drag Race” and clubbing in Sydney and Tokyo.
Guest: Kareem Khubchandani
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
From The Sociological Review
By Kareem Khubchandani
Further reading and viewing
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:06
Hi and welcome to Uncommon Sense from The Sociological Review. I'm Alexis Hieu Trong in Ottawa, Canada.
Rosie Hancock 0:12
And I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:16
And as ever, this is where we are joined by a friendly expert guest who helps us to see an everyday concept more critically and yes, more sociologically. Visit our archive – with shows on everything from emotion to Europeans nature to natives – and you'll see we're about questioning the taken for granted and seeing the world differently.
Rosie Hancock 0:36
Today, "all the world's a stage" – that one's from Shakespeare. The next one "we're all born naked and the rest is drag". That one's, that one's RuPaul. Yes, we are talking about performance. It's a theme that's been staring us in the face, because really, what's a podcast if it isn't that? So today we're asking – what is performance, exactly? Is it confined to the stage alone? Is it ephemeral or inevitable? A means of escape? An expression of something authentic or fake, sincere or cynical – as Erving Goffman would have it – a kind of work or perhaps none of those.
Alexis Hieu Truong 1:15
It's something thinkers in and around the social sciences have had a lot to say about from Bakhtin on the Carnival and the carnivalesque, to Goffman with his fascination for our tiniest interactions, and Judith Butler, who reminded us of the performative aspect of gender.
Rosie Hancock 1:34
Our guest today is Kareem Khubchandani, an associate professor of theatre, dance and Performance Studies at Tufts University, and the author of ‘Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife’ Focused on Bangalore and Chicago. Kareem's book explores how queer South Asian men – typically migrants and transnational workers – bring their own cultural practices, their own accent to nightlife cultures through performance. Hi, Kareem.
Kareem Khubchandani 1:59
Hello, thank you for having me.
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:02
Hi Kareem, we should that also of course that you also perform and have done research as LaWhore Vagistan – “everyone's favourite overeducated desi drag queen aunty” – I'm interested in hearing more about this because and I don't – I'm actually not sure if I've shared this yet – but I performed in Dansō, like, so, which could be loosely defined as cross dressing, well, female cross dressing in Japan – as part of my two year fieldwork in Tokyo on costume play, which is like, where people dress up as basically like manga and anime characters, right? So I do have...I saw your, your some of your music videos, so I have a quite a few questions for you about – not just about methods, but also about singing and makeup and... we'll come back to the LaWhore in a moment and talk more about drag towards the end of the show.
Kareem Khubchandani 2:54
Yeah, I'm ready.
Rosie Hancock 2:56
But Kareem, we wanted to start by asking you about your own story, pre-academia, and whether it drew you to be interested in performance. Because I know you were born in Gibraltar, you were raised in Ghana, and now live in the US and your family is originally from what's now Pakistan. Did that, did that breadth of experience give you an early awareness that what we think is normal, say what gender is, in fact, culturally constructed?
Kareem Khubchandani 3:22
You know, all of those things come to bear and continue to come to bear for me as I do my research. So my most recent work is on Aunties – and I'm thinking about the role of collective queer, trans fem Labour around me that shaped who I am, that shaped my path into academia, etc. But at the time that I was living in Ghana – where I spent most of my childhood – I was a science student. I was, I did my A levels in chemistry, math and physics. And that was the path, I was going to be a nice chemical engineer. And it's actually a class in anthropology and sociology at Colgate University that – the art department was sort of compounded there, with both disciplines – that shook everything up for me. And that got me thinking about where I fit in the world – facts and science, the, the factuality of science, but actually, the reflexivity of the social sciences – that gave me the tools to look at where I fit, to think about race class migration. So, so that's where it comes in, right? Suddenly, I'm thinking about what's the relationship between partition and Gibraltar and Ghana and, and why, why am I Indian in Ghana, even though we're from Pakistan – and gave me the language of colonialism and decoloniality and all of those things to really place myself in, to extricate myself from the sciences in a way that was really beneficial to me.
Alexis Hieu Truong 5:03
So like all concepts, what performance means is culturally contingent – I think both in the sense of what it is, but also what makes a good performance. In the US, you might assume it's something that happens in front of a paying audience, for example, or on camera – like at the Super Bowl, halftime show, or Saturday Night Live, or perhaps Mardi Gras. Like it's on, on stage of sorts, and it's fleeting, it's there, and then it's gone. How, would you say, have sociologists and others complicated those kinds of ideas over the decades?
Kareem Khubchandani 5:36
So you mentioned Goffman, but but I think someone like Goffman, who leads us to think about performance as everyday life. Performance as something that we are doing, that we're making choices about how we bring ourselves into the world. And therefore, you know, that opening quote "All the world's a stage" I mean, we really are thinking about what we put on. And when we don't think about what we put on, it's because we have a certain kind of privilege to not actually raise those questions. So I think it's often – and this is where sociologies investment in questions of power and structure are really valuable – is those who don't have to think so hard about how they perform have a have a closer relationship, or a greater access to power, because they're already performing in the way that is most normative. And so someone like Goffman, is really helpful in thinking about what is, when we're putting things on stage, or are working behind the scenes and don't feel the pressure to conform and perform. I think Foucault also helps us thinking, think about how do we perform according to how we have to perform – discipline, and what happens if we don't. What happens when we don't bring our bodies into alignment with what is expected of us. And then I think Bourdieu, as well, who helps us think about performance and culture as transactional, as having a currency. That even what we do with our bodies – how we speak how we're accented – actually tells a story about who we are and how we're placed in relation to each other. And then I think there's some other fields like –you know – psychoanalysis gives us the language of the mirror, right? We watch ourselves and look at ourselves in order to think about who we are – and do we look like the thing we think we are? Or do we think we look like the rest of society?
Alexis Hieu Truong 7:41
That's a very detailed answer to a kind of really broad question. And it's really like helping us like put a lot of important concepts on the map, and some of the things you've mentioned, right? – so the questions of the normative, the questions of bodies, pointing out the privilege and so on – I was it's kind of wondering, like, a word that might come up is like, for example, performative, right? And I'm wondering, because your answer, right there really gave us a sense of – it's not only representing something, but the actions the performance does, it does also something to the social, right. So I'm wondering if you could maybe clarify that a bit of like, for example, what Judith Butler meant with performative or, or like and how that differs may be from, from performance.
Kareem Khubchandani 8:29
Yeah, so So I think it's also important to say that the word performative has come into the public sphere, as you know, people talk about – oh, that's performative activism – ie, it's fake activism. It is a performance that is not real participation in the political sphere. And I think that it's important to acknowledge that that is different from Butler, or even a kind of deep performance studies reading of the term performative. Because what that term does – when we call things performative is to say because it is performance, it is fake. And so I really appreciate the question. I think it's important to understand that performative refers to cultural expressions, ability to do things in the world, to impact the world. So the way that Judith Butler – who's a feminist – is thinking about it, is to say that we are... a cultural expression has the ability to land its intent, because it has happened before and it has happened over and over and over again, that meaning has concretised around it, and people get it and follow its lead. So the, the most common one being when a married couple says "I do" you know, suddenly everybody starts treating them like a married couple. So this tiny performance "I do" actually has the power to shift your social status, how people treat you, etc. And Butler takes it into the world of gender to think about – okay, well, how do these things that we think are masculine, concretise into being masculine or feminine, right? How does gender – through repetition – how does long hair come to refer to femininity? I think these these social cultural debates about what is gender, create this world of repetition, in which suddenly we all seem to be in consensus – and then we start treating someone as the gender that we think they are because of repetition.
Rosie Hancock 10:33
Kareem, you know, we've been talking a lot about Butler and her thinking, and I think – I'm presuming that most of this stuff we're talking about is referring to her landmark book "Gender Trouble" which came out in 1990. And I know she, herself has some new work coming out as well. But there's also been a lot of other, you know, people writing on this since then. So you know, are there some recent ideas circulating that, to bring in at this point.
Kareem Khubchandani 10:58
Yeah. So when we think about performative, we're talking about performances ability to do its work, because it's replicating. But there are folks like D Soyini Madison, and Joshua Chambers-Letson, who come out of a performance studies training, who also talk about a performances ability to do by interruption – you know – so instead of replicating, they actually say, what, what if we, what if we break the chain? What, what if something does something that we weren't expecting? How does that also do a kind of work? So that, that is drawing on a strain of thinking coming out of Roland Barthes and his idea of the punctum – that thing that pricks us punches us. We've also got the idea of failure that I mentioned – that not succeeding at reproducing the thing that performance was supposed to do, creates other possibilities. And there's this interest there, amongst thinkers on mess and the messiness of not conforming as well.
Rosie Hancock 12:12
I mean, we can also, we could also maybe bring up your work here, because I know that, you know, you, you think about and you write about performance, and queer nightlife and global politics, showing how these things meet. I'm thinking of "Ishtyle" – which is your ethnography of gay Indian nightlife that we described in the intro. I mean, what, what prompted that study? How did it begin? And and what were you looking to find out?
Kareem Khubchandani 12:34
You know, as you asked about my, my history of migration and family earlier, it was that early moved to the US in 2000, in 2000. But really, in 2001 – when I was just coming out as queer and started going to queer spaces in New York City, I spent a lot of time at the Gay Lesbian Centre in New York's West Village, and was hanging out with all these fantastic people whose genders and sexual identities I didn't know existed until that time – and it was really beautiful. And at the same time, I was also invited to a queer South Asian party in New York City. And so I was going to 18 and over gay clubs with these friends, and you know, it's like, it's music and pop and whatnot. But then I go to this queer Bollywood night, and suddenly I'm dancing to the songs that I used to dance to at my cultural shows in Ghana, at, at our International School. I am dancing to the songs that my parents were dancing to at the Diwali balls and their parties. And it was this disjuncture between like, the queer nightlife I was seeing and experiencing with my friends, and then this South Asian one that felt like too close to home in some sense. And again, a discomfort right and a disruption in what I thought queer nightlife was supposed to be. And there was a certain kind of comfort and discomfort in being in those spaces. That's one of the first places I saw South Asian drag as well. And, and so that was a place of pleasure for me. And it was joyful and wonderful. And I used to travel from Central New York and from Western Massachusetts – where I've travelled approximately three to five hours just to get to these parties, and stay the night in New York and go back. So they really called to me is what I'm saying. And that led me to graduate school to start thinking... just to think about what are they? And I also say, because I wanted to be a part of them. I wanted to reason to keep going to them. You know, graduate school was not just a question of curiosity, but it was also a way of making a place for myself in the world and being with people who I felt at home with.
Alexis Hieu Truong 15:02
In your ethnography, what you found there – part of it was what you call "Ishtyle". Given that it's your book's title, can you elaborate on that, maybe with like a few examples?
Kareem Khubchandani 15:13
Yeah, so that that difference I was seeing between sort of – quote unquote – mainstream queer nightlife, and then these queer Bollywood parties in the US, that had different flavour, right – that it was still nightlife, and it was still very queer, but something else was happening and people were moving differently. And I should also say that the, the research started in in the US, but but also I did work in India as well. But in both spaces, actually, I found that people were using the choreographies of Bollywood divas in really unexpected ways. And they were using choreographies that were from the 80's and 90's. You know, they were so they were signalling both a different place and a different time and a very specific cultural reference. So, these two divas – one named Shridevi, one named Madhuri Dixit – were known for their curious dancing and their overemphatic dancing – and very specific gestures of theirs who show up in the nightclub even when they're not supposed to, right. And it's this question of like – even when it's not supposed to – because the accent, like our accents sometimes feel like the most normal part of ourselves. And sometimes they feel like that puncture that – oh, I don't fit in here – you know, no one else sounds like me, but I'm going to do it anyways, because this is what my body does, right? So that's one, one example. The other is the requirement to conform and to perform the dominant accent. And I had an interlocutor who said, who migrated from Bombay to San Francisco. And he said – I saw a rainbow flag somewhere. And so I got off the bus. And I found that I was in the Castro. And I started coming going there every night, and I was having a great time dancing, but no one talked to me. No one wanted to interact with me. But I was very happy to be there – and he said – It's only after going over and over again that I realised that I was supposed to do things a particular way. I had to, he says – I had to trim my nose hairs, I had to go to the gym. So he had to bring his body into alignment with what was the dominant in order to actually fit in. And then the, something he goes on to say later is he says that, you know – I grew up in India, but I didn't grow up watching Bollywood movies. But because I was here, people in the US, people expected me to know Bollywood. So I started watching Bollywood – and I'm doing the interview and is in his house, and he gestures to this like a rack of films that he watches now – because the expectation again, that he performs his culture now asks him to learn something new about his own – quote, unquote – accent, right? He has to make make himself fit inside the way he's supposed to be seen and perceived and heard.
Rosie Hancock 18:19
Am I right that it was during your research in these nightlife spaces that you started performing as LaWhore Vagistan?
Kareem Khubchandani 18:26
Yeah, that is right.
Rosie Hancock 18:27
Can you tell us a bit about her?
Kareem Khubchandani 18:28
So performing was a reluctant act. Then I got to Chicago and like I said, this was an opportunity for me to, to be in a city and to be around other queer people of colour. And I joined this very nascent activist organisation called Trikone Chicago – which was a organisation serving queer and trans South Asians. And we had no money, and we needed to throw a fundraiser. And I, you know – having gone to those parties in New York several times – suggested that we do one and that we have drag the same way that I saw there. And they're like, sure you organise it, you find the performers. And I did a, you know, a friend and I brought in a DJ all the way from Michigan. We found a bar that was willing to host us, but then we couldn't find a drag artist. So I did it. And I went to thrift stores and to the cheapest makeup shops I could find. And I didn't know what I was doing, but I did something. People were like, well, what's she going to do next time? And so I just kept performing. And there have been several stages in, in her development. But one of the things I'll say is that LaWhore Vagistan was also this way of making a place for myself in the world, in a world where I was supposed to perform only one kind of choreography right? I was always supposed to be the 'the Boy in the Bollywood dance' and I was supposed to perform muscularity and strength – which I have none of, right? And so LaWhore gave me the room to do feminine movement. The name also was this this way of finding place for myself questioning these routes of displacement and travel and migration and, and such. LaWhore Vagistan is also a place for me to exist where the subcontinent can't actually hold me.
Rosie Hancock 20:29
I mean, could you like explain a little bit more about this about about the name LaWhore Vagistan kind of the concept behind it and you know – you've kind of mentioned it's a bit of a nod to geography, yeah?
Kareem Khubchandani 20:40
Yeah. So LaWhore like the city in Pakistan – but has a W because she's here to work. Vagistan – like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Hindustan, Tajikistan – put after the British and the Dutch and the French sort of cut it all up. She likes to – like good postcolonial drag queens – sew it all back up together as a beautiful Vagistan And specifically – the gesture to shape and to femininity in particular refers to the tendency to draw the subcontinent as a woman's body – but usually it is this woman wearing a sari. And it's the kind of respectable Hindu figure that overtakes the entire subcontinent. And so really gesturing to sexuality there is important because, you know, referencing all kinds of sexual figures – courtesans and such that that are part of our history – but also the role of sexual violence and making a subcontinent, making the subcontinent right? At the time of partition – and through colonialism, and through pastism, as well – I think thinking with sexuality is really important to all of my work and performance, sexuality and sexual violence. Yeah.
Alexis Hieu Truong 22:03
If I remember correctly 'Sari' is one of the songs that you've recorded, right? There's video on YouTube? Well, I guess in many ways, LaWhore draws attention to national division as itself – like a kind of construct or artifice, a kind of performance – and of course, one that came with very real consequences and like violence. In the case of the partition of India. I'm kind of wondering, what did researching as LaWhore reveal about the nature of all research? Being in drag, did it shape kind of the vibe of your research? Or like, I guess it reminds us that interviews – for example – are always performances or being a researcher is always a kind of performance, but it kind of like, feels like it might bring it to another level?
Kareem Khubchandani 22:51
Yeah, I mean, I think it insisted to me that I'm not an impartial figure in the world that I write about. Because people wanted to come to me, they wanted, well, they wanted to come to LaWhore and tell them what they thought. And one of the things that's very specific about that is that the the field sites that I write about are heavily masculine – but because I brought femininity into the space, people wanted to talk to me about the kinds of femininity that they practice – or had stripped it out of their bodies. So this is where the – again, the interview is not a neutral site – it's in fact, a place where people are telling me the stories that they think I might want to hear because I am LaWhore.
Rosie Hancock 23:37
Kareem, you mentioned kind of earlier in your answer, that the spaces that you were in were quite masculine. And, you know, we think about drag normally as, as men dressed as women, but drag also highlights the fact that masculinity is a performance in and of itself. And, interestingly – so my partner performed as a drag king in the late 90s, and throughout the 2000s in Sydney – and she started drag kind night that really kicked off a pretty significant drag scene here. And I mean, it's, it's really striking how hetero-masculinity is often assumed as though it's, it's just, it's just simply there, it exists, people aren't performing it, you know – and, and drag is an opportunity to confront that head on.
Kareem Khubchandani 24:23
So there I teach a class called 'Critical Drag' at Tufts. And we have a unit on masculinity and a unit on femininity. And students were finding it difficult to talk about and describe hetero-masculinity. And I was like –okay, get up and give me your clearest, straight white cis boy pose – and the entire class knew exactly what to do, right? They knew where to like cock their heads and pretend they had a baseball cap on and finger in the jeans pocket. And these kinds of power, like casual power poses, right. But they're often, they're often so hard to see, right? Because they make themselves so normative. And this is the thing is that hetero-masculinity disappears itself and suggests it's not a performance. But in fact it is, right. It is a doing – but because there's so much of it, we forget. We think, we think that performance is that which is spectacular. But in fact, there's so much sort of normative performance happening, that we forget that it actually is happening. And I think, you know, drag queens are often teaching us about excess. But there's the skill of the drag king to capture that really gross, sickening normativity that can that freaks us out when we see it on stage, because we're like – how are you actually capturing and performing it because it seems so nebulous. And this is where I think of drag artists as deep ethnographers that they study body and movement in order to represent it. And I think that drag artists are researching gender for us – and putting it and allowing us to see it again, in ways that we often don't see it in the everyday because we take it for granted.
Alexis Hieu Truong 26:33
We will return to talk more about drag later – but after Chicago, you took your research to the southern city, Indian city of Bangalore, can you tell us why? And is it significant that Bangalore is kind of a Silicon Valley of India?
Kareem Khubchandani 26:49
Yeah. So I when I started doing research interviews in Chicago, and one of the things I was hearing was that – well, we're so lucky, we have queer nightlife here, because it's not there in India. And I was like, that can't be true. Is it true? I don't know. I, you know – I didn't know I didn't, I didn't have a deep relationship with the subcontinent. And my parents had retired in Bangalore, but I would go visit them and for a week and come back –mand that's, that's what I knew of India. So I went on a small research project there one summer, and saw that there were all kinds of nightlife scenes there – from house parties to bars that weren't queer, but allowed people to gather there – to parties that were called G parties, right? They couldn't be called gay parties, explicitly, but allowed people to hang out and party and dance and sweat. The strange thing that happened as I started travelling to India, was that I was running into my friends from Chicago in New York and Toronto there. And so it was that trip that made me realise they're these transnational labour circuits actually that are allowing people to enter a different party spaces, and to experience multiple kinds of nightlife in different spaces – and to create transnational intimacies that allowed them also to see their families at the same time, that allowed them to practice religious pilgrimage at the same time as they were going to parties and, and doing work.
Rosie Hancock 28:31
As you've highlighted, the people at the heart of your study, were typically migrants or transnational workers. And, you know, you say global Indian workers are so often represented as docile and desexualized. They're cogs in the global capitalist system, you know, between East and West – and your work challenges that thinking, applying a determination to acknowledge people's artistry – as you put it – which is so lovely. Their identities beyond those that are expected by global capitalism,. Can you can you tell us more about that?
Kareem Khubchandani 29:05
So, one of the things that started this project was a search for me – myself, right – and looking for looking for community. And as I entered these spaces, a lot of people didn't, weren't like me. You know, I come from a merchant family that has lived outside of the subcontinent for decades. A lot of the people I was meeting were working in information technology industries – were project managers, were engineers. And I was making friends with these people who wouldn't normally be in my orbit. And then as I saw that they were moving across these national spaces, I was like, oh, it's worth it's this kind of work that allows you to move. So to make sense of who these folks were around me, I started reading the literature on call centres and transnational work and IT industries, and they're all about work. And they're all about the workplace and the way the workplace disciplines the body. And I was like but – they're here at the club with me too – where's the where's where's the fun in the nightclub and the making out in these in these ethnographies? It got me thinking about how we think about the worker, right? That the worker is stuck, the worker is caught up in something that is beyond their control. And these workers that I was with were having a great time. They were also caught up in visa issues, and they were caught up in exploitation of new jobs. And they were – some of them are struggling to pay rent, etc. But how do we account for pleasure in all of that? What do studies of globalisation do with joy, pleasure, fun, mess? And so that's where some of these questions emerge from – to think about the global worker, but from a different place. And it pushed me to think differently about the nightclub and the work that's happening there – that the connections that people are making on the dance floor help them survive these global economies simply by creating new, new homes for them where they can be invited to someone's home and be fed or have a place to sleep or someone to fuck.
Alexis Hieu Truong 31:33
I'm wondering if we can kind of tie all this to another idea that you've alluded to around refusal and performance. You shared a piece with us on this very theme of refusal by Lilian Mengesha and Lakshmi Padmanabhan. Can you tell us about that, and how it speaks to Ishtyle – like perhaps to help people resist a certain reductive ways of being seen?
Kareem Khubchandani 31:59
So I think that Mengesha and Padmanabhanmen's work is a really important offering to performance studies that works in the tradition of Saidiya Hartman – who's an important black feminist thinker as well – who reminds us that performance isn't just about creativity and joy and pleasure, but it is about the compulsion to work and to work in service of racial capitalism. And so what does it mean to not perform? What does it mean to refuse the compulsion to work? And this is when we can, you know, we characterise certain racial groups as lazy, right? But who's doing that characterisation, I think is an... Is that refusal to work, is laziness, is slowness its own – it can look like nonperformance – but actually, what if we look at it as a performance of refusal? And so, so I think, as I think about global workers – who prioritise fun over work, when they're allowed to and when possible – think this is one of those sites of refusal as well, right that it acknowledges that you're supposed to perform a certain way in order to do the work that global capitalism wants of you and that sometimes you just don't do it.
Alice Bloch 33:39
Hi, I'm Alice, and I produce Uncommon Sense. And if you're enjoying hearing Kareem Khubchandani talking about performance here, why not head to our archive to hear Romit Choudry reflecting on masculinity and Kolkata – that's in our show on cities. Or catch our episodes on bodies, intimacy, and more. You'll find all of that as well as recommended reading and viewing to share with students and friends over at the podcast page at thesociologicalreview.org. And as ever, remember to tap follow or subscribe in the app that you use to hear this, to make sure you never miss an episode. Thanks for listening.
Alexis Hieu Truong 34:24
Well, here's the part of the show where we turn to really focus on a particular trope or buzzword and take on some of our everyday assumptions around the idea, I guess.
Rosie Hancock 34:35
Kareem, we wanted to hone in a bit further on the notion of nightlife – of the night as the space for hedonism, nihilism, abandon or suspension. I've personally been looking forward to this bit of the chat because the queer club scene is so important to me, personally – as a place of kind of connection and community – but it also catharsis and freedom. But I know, you know, a lot of my non queer friends, they think you're supposed to grow out of the nightlife scene, you know? It's, it's, it's a bit of a weird thing to still be going in your late 30s.
Alexis Hieu Truong 35:09
Can you tell us a bit about ideas about what the traditional ideas are around nightlife and clubbing – including in academia – and how people have complicated that, including you?
Kareem Khubchandani 35:22
Yeah. So one that nightlife is the place you're supposed to grow out of – but but I think the... You're really getting us to this question of like, how time regulates our lives, right? That the night is, is the bad time, the night is a time for rest. And to do things with it, and to do too much with it – you know, to go till four in the morning – puts you outside of capitalist time, as well. And so just night is always regulated as this time of non-work, but also the time that helps you go back to work. And so those people who play with it and do rambunctious things with it are seen as naughty and wild and need to grow out of it and wake up and take it, take care of their children, but those who choose not to, I think, are raising questions about how time works – period. But even inside of that, you know, queer folks are always talking about nightlife as their escape from heteronormativity, you know – and that it is the place of joy and losing yourself, etc, etc. But actually, you know, my work has arrived at this place of saying that this is where global economies are colliding. And there's so much happening in nightlife spaces – from DJs, to visuals, to architecture, to fashion to who's in there – that actually tell very complicated stories of how they all arrived there, and what economic grounds brought them. And there's a scholar named Dhiren Borisa in India who's working on the relationship between caste and nightlife. So, the ways that caste and class in India are – or caste privilege and class privilege in India exerted in nightlife spaces – from how people dance, what music is played what's on an invitation, and is approaching this as a geographer to say what is happening in different parts of a city – that in the same city, nightlife can look very different depending on where you go in who's allowed and who's not.
Rosie Hancock 37:27
I think you also wanted to mention the late queer and performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz and his work on utopia. Yeah?
Kareem Khubchandani 37:34
Yeah. I mean Muñoz's work has been foundational to creating what we think of as nightlife studies. Muñoz and his colleague, Celeste Fraser Delgado edited a book called "Everynight life" right? So we think of everyday life as a thing we study, right? And it's performances every day – but what about the every night and how... there are people who look to nightlife as their every day, right? It's actually people who depend on going out and raves and partying or house parties where they can finally relax in a way that their everyday lives don't give them permission to. And so his work has really been important. And his reframing of Utopia – not as the the place we arrive at, but, er, the thing that we're trying to get to and gesture towards – in all of these kinds of big or small convenings.
Alexis Hieu Truong 38:26
I guess, like what you're saying, brings us to think about, like, how clubs are still places structured by rules. It's kind of like you mentioned desire, like the things we do and so on. And I do remember that – for example, in Tokyo – desire – in some roleplay kind of spaces with with cross dressing, and drag – was different than how it happened, like in the Ni-chōme kind of neighbourhood. So for example, a lot of the men with whom I talked to kind of expressed their desire for other men in very heterosexual, kind of – they said they conceived the DDD relationships as heterosexual because they were dressed as a woman or because their partner was dressed as a man. So these kinds of rules that organise different spaces.
Kareem Khubchandani 39:18
Yeah, I mean, I think nightclubs are imagined as places where you go and you hook up and, and it happens, but they don't always work that way. And again, they don't always work that way because people have uneven structures of desire, you know – they're there, they're based on race and class and caste, and on material conditions and contexts. So I found out in Bangalore that people bring their dates to the party – and so they're not looking to hook up – but the party is the one place where they can make out because they can't at their homes, because they're living with parents. There's a scholar – an Indian based scholar, name Jayaprakash Mishra – who is writing about how married men – men married to women – are still able to live queer lives and go to these spaces and enter these spaces without living inside of all kinds of contradiction about their identities. And so I think there's a kind of clear cut – the gay club is where like all kinds of hedonism happens – actually, no, there's a lot of stuff happening outside that structures the desire that can be practised there. And then the US we see that play out in really racist forms of how people are rejected based on their body and skin colour and hair and any of those things – and, and these kinds of white ideals of the desirable body travel elsewhere as well.
Rosie Hancock 40:54
Yeah, right. So I mean, I kind of want to talk about these spaces as spaces as work as well, which – which I think Alexis mentioned – and you write, in "Ishtyle" that it highlights a different kind of labour, and that the embodied work these men do to feel queer and sexy together, like it's this form of labour right – to co create something. Which, you know, totally it's ties into this idea that even though nightlife gets stereotyped as a place to get wrecked, or whatever, but it can also... people are building things in these spaces, people are working really hard to build something. So you know, along with Kemi Adeyemi and Ramón Rivera-Servera, you co edited a book "Queer Nightlife" which came out a couple of years back – and it's description notes how the mass shooting at a queer Latin night in Orlando, Florida in 2016, sparked – I'm quoting here – "a public conversation about access to pleasure and selfhood within conditions of colonisation, violence and negation". And, you know, the book poses the question, how do we go back to the club after Orlando? And I'm wondering whether you have an answer to that, or can reflect on where the conversation stands today?
Kareem Khubchandani 42:09
So, Orlando aside, in my work, in Kemi's work, in Ramón's work, we all actually document how awful night life can be, right? How much pressure it takes to bring your body into that space, which labour goes in, you know, you know – we have actual nightlife workers, you know, who's who, again, don't get to follow the, the daytime structure that is perhaps easiest to, to work inside of. But we keep going back, I've had the worst experiences in nightclubs and I keep going back and I think this question of what are we looking for? And how does how do nightclubs and their, their strange structures and possibilities invite us back in because they give us something that the rest of the world doesn't. And I think that that's, that's something that's driving this field of queer nightlife studies, is the kinds of possibilities that we're eager to find so, so I think that the conversation post Orlando and Club Q – and, and those are not the first attacks on nightlife spaces either, right? – they're reminding us that nightlife spaces are actual spaces of legitimate building that has consequences beyond the space. But that the... you know, to me _ and the argument I'm making in my book – is that it also matters what happens in the space, it's not that – fine that it extends out and wonderful that it extends out. But it feels like we have to justify that nightlife is important because it impacts other spaces. Can we just trust that what happens there is in fact, fantastic and important and great for what happens there. But I'll also add that, again – beyond the Orlando and US centric conversation – we've tried really hard in that book to include stories about Lebanon and South Africa and India and Cuba, right – to really think about nightlife as something that's not just, and queer nightlife like not just structured around Stonewall – not just structure around the US's primary concerns around pleasure in work and in life – but but to think about other political structures, formations and possibilities.
Rosie Hancock 44:40
Okay, so normally at this stage, we quickly grab our tips for something non academic to go away and enjoy. But today we thought we'd take our time a little bit and talk about drag which has ostensibly boomed and entered the mainstream which shows like RuPaul's Drag Race – which for those of you who don't watch it is the US reality TV drag competition that has just many, many, many versions worldwide. Kareem, our team was talking before the show, thinking about how thanks to social media – kind of selves and precarity – we all seem so much more aware of how we need to constantly perform and switch modes in our daily lives – to be to be kind of different selves and wear different hats as the saying goes – and that, you know, maybe the fact that our behaviour is a performance is just unavoidably obvious now, because of this, do you? I mean, do you think that could be one reason for the seeming mainstreaming of drag on TV?
Kareem Khubchandani 45:41
I mean, I think if you watch Drag Race, and if you watch drag artists, very few of them are putting on a character. Rather by transforming themselves visually – you know they're not changing their voice, they're barely changing their, their, their physical composure – but by changing the way we see them visually, something new happens. And this is, this is gender performativity. right? This is how performativity work is, works is like, when someone with long eyelashes is telling you a story, you you will experience it differently from when someone with a beard and short eyelashes. It just, it's wild, how deeply these things are ingrained to create fantasy and difference so simply. But I don't think, you know, this is the thing is that I don't think drag artists are doing anything fake when they're performing. I think that perhaps the kind of self help obsession with authenticity right now is why we're getting words like performative coming to mean fake, right – and the performance, it becomes bad. So I think I think drag artists actually have a lesson for us in saying every version of ourself is actually a good one. And we don't have to try so hard to be our, our correct self.
Alexis Hieu Truong 47:11
Kareem, you mentioned that you wanted to open up what drag means, right? And right there, you mentioned that like drag and performance are tools that are useful for everyone, basically, right, in a reflexive way. But of course – like in a certain sense, also – only some types of drag have been mainstream, yes? I mean, like, there's Jennie Livingston's landmark documentary, "Paris is Burning" showing the mid late 1980s ball culture in New York and it's minoritised communities – African American, Latino, gay, transgender – but you're unlikely to catch it on like, let's say primetime TV – like drag queens of colour and drag kings too –and many other kinds of performers are still far less visible. Like I'm also thinking, for example, how for some people, or maybe in some spaces, the question of like –can women drag or critically do femininity for like bio queens, for example? Always just say, like, I think we need to think about, like, who is allowed to perform? And kind of like on what terms? Yeah, what do you think?
Kareem Khubchandani 48:22
Yeah, I mean, you're very right. And I think you just summarised my book "Decolonise Drag" really well –thank you. That's precisely you know, if colonialism has been this process of like privatisation and and extraction, than to decolonise drag, I think we need to create more access and openness because people with different bodies will do drag differently, right? Disabled folks aren't able to do gender, the way that we think gender is supposed to be done – some disabled folks, right? And so what does drag look like for them. Thinking about class and who can afford the kinds of accoutrements of packers and breastplates, and rhinestones and all that – how do we do drag simply through posture and gesture and not through dress and makeup? You know, so, I mean, I really am invested in more things being called drag – if they want to be – because drag has this global stage and certain people are not being given access to the benefits that come with, they're not being invited to the stage in the same way. So yeah, I'm, I'm there with you. I think there's also you know, outside of the, outside of a sort of Euro-western context they're all these kinds of trans broadly defined performance, that are not be counted as drag, but are working in very similar registers that laugh at patriarchy in all of these ways, and – and that's what drag should be doing. You know, and there are forms of performance that are doing that already. And I think we don't validate them as being inside of the same ecology as drag, because I think this, this magnificent, but also, monopolistic show RuPaul's drag race has delimited the terms of what we think drag is for a long time.
Rosie Hancock 50:21
So you do have this new book coming out "Decolonise Drag" and I understand that – as you sort of just then mentioned – maybe it's, it's in response to RuPaul and and the global phenomenon that it that it is – and how it is also quite limiting. Is there anything more that you, that you want to share with us about the book that we haven't spoken about already?
Kareem Khubchandani 50:41
Well, one, you know, I think RuPaul – in the book report is one chapter – but it's, she's emblematic of, I think, our our tendency to work with gender on it's most Western colonial terms, right – and to binarise gender formations and work within a formation that understands sex and gender to be the same, right – or to be constitutive of each other. And so the book first works to tease apart the relationship between colonialism, gender and performance to then say, okkay, how does RuPaul restage some of those – but how do actually some of the performers on her show dismantle that as well? And then it goes on to think about how performers are actually performing colonial critiques beyond the show as well. And you know, there are people who are critiquing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, there are folks who are performing as Harriet Tubman who are critiquing the police in India, through drag king aesthetics – I have all of these examples in there. But one of the things I, I arrive at – and it's sort of happened in "Ishtyle" and it just hits me in the face here – is that there's room for decolonial thought in the nightclub, right – the the nightclub as a place of politics, you know– if I say it's caught up in global politics, why can't it also be a radical and dissenting global politic as well? And seeing, you know, seeing an accounting for all these artists making performance about settler colonialism and racial violence, and people still cheering and feeling and crying together? I think that the nightclub is actually an incredible space for, and drag is an incredible space to practice radical politics.
Rosie Hancock 52:44
Kareem, it has been so fascinating learning from you. And I think I'm gonna leave this conversation a little bit more aware of how I perform in my own life, but also with some drive to add in a bit of play and artistry as well. So thank you so much for joining us.
Kareem Khubchandani 52:59
Thank you for having me.
Alexis Hieu Truong 53:06
And that is it for today. You can find our show notes on the episode page in whatever app you're using to hear this or over on the podcasts page at thesociologicalreview.org. And be sure to tap followers subscribe, because next month, we're talking about success. And after that, anxiety,
Rosie Hancock 53:27
Thanks for joining us. Bye
Alexis Hieu Truong 53:30