Through the Keyhole of Ideology:
Or, My Favorite Shapes as Queer Critical Theory


Julio Torres, the waifish, thirty-two year-old, yet still epicene Salvadoran stand-up comedian, has released arguably the best queer comedy special of the last couple years, My Favorite Shapes (2019) (henceforth “MFS”; all unattributed quotations are from MFS). Torres’ show is in a class apart from recent contemporary queer comedy—whether in the form of slick specials like Ellen DeGeneres’ Relatable (2018), Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette (2018), and Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes (2018), or the smaller-scale Comedy Central and late night sets of Mateo Lane, Joel Kim Booster, and Jaboukie Young-White—and not simply because it can be couched, too neatly, frankly, as “prop-comedy.”[1] These comics, despite the centrality of queerness to their bits, nevertheless still play it straight when it comes to the very problematic to which comedy emerges as an uncanny response: that of experiencing what is relatable as unreliable, which, by turning the expectations of the audience for resolution (what Gadsby calls “the tension”) into the butt of the joke, allows playing with trauma as it is inflected by “the relation between aggression and pleasure.”[2] To “play it straight” with relations of aggression and pleasure in a comedy act is to leave very little room for ambiguity and the affective, ideational, and associational movement it enables, which is always accompanied by certain risks, to be sure, but also the potential for what Torres calls “release.”

Essential to Torres’ comedy in MFS, and my inclination to discern in it a form of queer critical theory, is his charming resistance to playing it straight. “My least favorite shape is someone telling me, ‘it is what it is’,” Torres states in one of the only moments of MFS that comes close to articulating anything like a hermeneutical axiom.[3] On the contrary, MFS complicates ordinary object relations by rendering commonsense things, what goes without saying, alien again. Torres does quite funny things with his favorite shapes by allowing these things to become endowed with a life of their own, as it were, such that they are not quite autonomous of human interference, but still are capable of giving the “curious queen” a thing, quite literally, to hold onto and orient oneself around, toward, or away from when que(e)rying the relations between aggression and pleasure that do not conform to the generic expectations of comedy, with its guaranteed resolution that, by padding the experience of disorientation as bounded and terminal (“it’s just a joke!”), allows the experience of dissonance to be tolerable—and, admittedly, too, albeit less often, potentially transformative. Instead, Torres queers our ordinary object relations, making things vessels that runneth over for pooling critical reflections upon—or vehicles for complicity with—the brutal devastations of late capitalism, bellicose white supremacist nationalism, and global ecological catastrophe.


It goes without saying that Torres, an immigrant from El Salvador, leverages his position as an outsider looking in on American life and that this forms a fundamental dimension of his comedy. So much of comedy relies on the performer being a plausible outsider, to be able to articulate the slantwise perspective upon which humor thrives, that this forms the hard kernel of Ellen’s tepidly self-deprecating—and so, frankly, not very funny—Relatable. (Indeed, as relatable as any old queer can be when chumming it up with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas baseball game, as if that man did not secure his prerogative to wage illegal war abroad while assaulting civil liberties and economic rights at home through the fevered demonization of queers in the 2004 campaign; whose father, H. W. Bush, presided over the U.S. invasion of Panama [1989-1990] in a continuation of neoliberal American policy under Ronald Reagan, whose administration illegally ravaged Nicaragua by funding right-wing terrorists, the Contras, in a covert attempt to destabilize the democratically-elected socialist Sandinista government—and the region—and sap away resources from efforts in public investment and political reform.)

Torres risks being initially unrelatable and does so by literalizing the rhetoric of the resident alien, the metic of the ancient polis cum “legal little space twink,”[4] in a number of ways, from dressing in a silver, cosmonautical body suit, sporting clear slippers like Cinderella, and glittery-glowing, impeccably-manicured hands, to a set that is at once at home as the backdrop to a Jane Fonda exercise video and that era’s musing of extraterrestrial interior design (it turns out it’s a lot like Tilda Swinton’s current aesthetic: very Kubric’s Space Odyssey, very translucent). Although never explicitly political (there is never mention of any politician by name and there is only one, oblique but penetrating reference to the President as “that man”), Torres clearly understands himself to be bringing something from afar to his American audience, something foreign, but which may be closer to home than it is comfortable to acknowledge. Of his ability to stay in the States, Torres explains, “I ended up getting a visa that says I am an alien of extraordinary ability. The ability to do this:…” at which point he pours a jug of Brita-filtered water down a cascading flue to fill at the bottom a reflecting pool for a disfigured swan figurine. 

“Is this one of the jobs I’m stealing?” Torres at another point asks of his own performance. “I’m just doing it because no one else was doing it, and it needed to be done.” Indeed, there is an ineffability about what exactly Torres is doing that (as an academic coming into adulthood amidst the fallout from the Great Recession) was quite relatable: 

This is what I feel like when someone casually asks, ‘So, what do you do?’ And I’m like, “Oh, well, it’s actually pretty simple. I’m just like a big shoe that is for little shoes. And I do have a purpose if you have a miniature shoe collection that you want displayed in a bigger shoe. So yah, a visa for that. That’s sort of what I bring to the table. Yah, pretty, pretty, pretty straight forward, actually.” 


Attention to the capacity for a campy shoe display (for what other than miniature shoes?) to stand in for the inability of the philosophical artist to vindicate their convictions, leaving those who attempt to looking like asses, plucher et fortissimos (as Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil), follows, likely, from Torres’ training in college. Torres attended the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, New York, where he took a degree in literary studies, during which time, although perhaps apocryphal, he attended a course on Kafka and architecture. Unlike the writing he does for either Saturday Night Live, or his new Spanish-language HBO series (alongside producer Fred Armisen), Los Espookys (which is well-deserving of its second season renewal), MFS allows Torres to spin off into queer Kafka-esque allegories, where the absurd is able to gently pierce the auratic sheen of things to let in a little critical, queer illumination.[5] 

Torres’s family still reside in El Salvador, where his father, a civil engineer by trade, has been painstakingly constructing a dictionary of the local indigenous language, Nawat,[6] an “Uto-Aztecan language descended from Nahuatl, which is still widely spoken in many parts of Mexico” but which, in El Salvador—as of 2009—“is endangered, and has already vanished elsewhere in Central America.”[7] Indeed, one of the tragedies of the ongoing crisis at the Mexican-American border is that a significant number of the refugees whose children are being kidnapped and detained in for-profit concentration camps do not speak Spanish, but indigenous languages stemming from either Aztec or Mayan civilizations, underscoring the imperialist optic that casts all of Central America as “Latin” or “hispanic.”[8] Describing his father as both looking like and bearing in conversation the political disposition of “a Bernie Sanders gone rogue,” it is clear that the younger Torres has similarly sympathetic, “rouge” tendencies, even if better coifed hair.[9]  (To be clear, too, according to the New York Times, at least, Sanders’ trip to neighboring Nicaragua in 1985, two years before Torres was born, in solidarity with the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega was evidence of how the Vermont mayor had gone rogue, as “aspects of the trip might have unsettled another visitor.”[10])

All of which is also to say that Torres’ style, although it clearly has its roguish moments, is markedly divergent from the emphatic frankness of a Sanders-type in that it slides its critique in diagonally, with a swerve (to anticipate Jane Bennett’s attention below to enchantment)—or, better still: a swish. Joking that he lives in a—<<como se dice>>—“vegan queer collective,” we may wonder if, with Lauren Berlant, Torres, too, finds in queer “collective work projects” “a freer reception of any people who showed up to collaborate; and that one could process things differently by collectively inducing different dynamics with the world,” with veganism, like comedy, serving as one of those practices of “the work of a concrete utopian, inducing better relations and potentials from within the cracks of the present.”[11] We will return to the promise of things for better relations and potentials held open by seeking a “concrete” utopianism in the cracks so the present.

For now, however, it is enough to note that, when asked last year by GQ how he handles the pressure to respond to political events, Torres’ answer is telling and underscores how so many people come to “become-political,” namely: not out of a desire for political power, but from a collision with power that politicizes forms of life, their clusters of worldly relations and attachments, and the aspirations for the good life that they buoy and to which they give direction. Thus, Torres’ account of his relation to politics is illustrative not of a personal disposition, but of the structural shifts of power that have confronted him, which he, in turn, seeks to make crystal-clear.

A lot of us young people went from sort of not caring [about politics] to being hyper-aware of it. It’s not like I made a conscious decision to start talking about these things. They’re just in my mind now. That’s the case for so many of my peers.  It’s not that it’s trendy or something—it literally affects your life.

I’m also slowly learning that to many people my presence is inherently political even if I don’t do anything. Even if I’m talking about a vase, the work inherently has an agenda because of who I am and the labels that people attach to me. It took me a bit to recognize that.[12]

MFS reflects this awareness and offers a subtle, but incisive critical response to the exigencies of having to “start talking about these things,” where things slips from denoting political events and circumstances, like the crisis of both ecologically and politically displaced Central American refugees, to the objects that are the stuff of MFS—and back.

This shuttling back and forth between things being merely what they are and as also serving as heuristics for thinking more critically, even if light-heartedly, about the relations that things enact, especially the powers of alienation that animate these relations, all occurs on the surface of things. On the surface (indeed, the double-sided surface of a palm-sized reflective, lavender square that is both the starting and ending point for MFS), Torres’ act adds up to “just,” as he demurs “a little alien playing with [his] toys, but this time for a captive audience.” And, crucially, this it truly is: Torres does not seek depth or interiority, nor does he ever dispense with the element of play his routine entails, even when his monologues glide upon existential leitmotifs. To the extent he is a homo, then, it is ludens.

At play, Torres curates a horizontal and superficial relationality of objects as actants that alternately collide against and nestle into (consciousness of) the world as it is constructed as an always already open thing-of-things and as a conceptual construct. Within this lateral play—and indeed the shapes come streaming along a conveyer belt in a send-up to dwindling Fordist production lines, and, in their hay-day, their parody (I’m thinking of Lucille Ball desperately cramming chocolates in her mouth in an iconic bit that can hardly be reduced to “prop-comedy”)—Torres is able to construct a dense palimpsest out of the spatial relations of objects and their assumed unassuming significance that is simultaneously no less attentive to the “negative space” that inflects the relations of objects. Indeed, like it was for the lovable Lucy, the shapes that come down the conveyor belt construct—and deconstruct—our commonsense sensibility of things like time and place and labor and consciousness, and as Torres’ treatment of these shapes attest, our “time is out of joint.”[13]


In one respect, MFS is an extended mediation on the implications of Jane Bennett’s assertion that, “‘commodity fetishism’ is not capacious enough to account for our fascination with commercial goods.”[14] Bennett proposes a degree of “enchantment” as an alternative to the sort of ideology critique that purports to rationally demystify the commodity fetish. She argues,

For me the issue is not whether to live with commodities but how to participate in commodity culture. There is no vision of capitalist or non-capitalist economy today that does not depend to some extent upon the commodity form. If so, then the pertinent questions become: how to reform commodity culture to render it more just and more compatible with ecological integrity? how to design individual and collective strategies for exploiting the ethical potential within commodity culture?[15]

MFS may then be said to essay a tentative answer to the question of how to relate to objects more critically and ethically without sacrificing the pleasures of worldly enchantment that things enable and upon which we depend.

Indeed, it is important that Torres repeatedly affirms “nothing but love for all of my shapes.” This is no less true when expressing his distaste for one-dimensional shapes, which are not banished, but merely his “least favorite.” Even the one-dimensional man has value—specifically, the orange blob named Eric who, as the only shape apart from the opening and closing neon lavender reflective square to cycle round the belt twice, recurs (eternally?) to mock Torres’s show—because through him one can connect to his more interesting wife and be reminded that haters are going to hate. There is, then, an almost Nietzschean affirmation of the enchantment of the given in its absurd abundance, as the outcome of what happens “when no one says no.”

In Torres’ archive, cartoons like the Flintstones, but primarily Disney’s female characters, notably Cinderella for her footwear and Daisy Duck for her deep purple eye-shadow, signify the quintessentially American cultural export of commodity enchantment. Yet, it is telling that Torres’ first invocation of Disney is cautionary, implying that he is not unaware of the dangers of enchantment. In his reflections on the villain in the Disney animated movie, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1996), Judge Claude Frollo, who is described by Wikipedia as “a ruthless, self-righteous and religiously pious Minister of Justice of Paris,”[17] Torres says of “the possibly closeted villain”: 

We see him turn lust into misogyny into essentially genocide… 

Anyway that was a happy meal toy. 

There’s a lot of self-hate in him and that, combined with power, just makes him lash out in really toxic and scary ways and, Idk, sometimes I put him in a little car.

The commodity form does not discriminate between hero and villain, even as it leverages the differential affective pull of these oppositions to turn a profit by normalizing the thing as a means of producing value. If such normative distinctions are to be drawn, then it will be from within the commodity form, albeit at a critical distance. Thus, for instance, Frullo is also the first explicit mention of queer sexuality in MSF, inflecting white male queerness not with emancipatory or critical valences, but rather reactionary and misogynistic hostility, the kind of sensibility that can digest a “happy” meal whilst playing with a maniacal Catholic figurine. (It is thus salient that Torres’ special airs on the heels of America’s first “Happy Meal” president appointing a Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanagh, despite multiple credible and disqualifying public allegations of attempted rape.) 

By contrast, Torres’ first allusion to his own sexuality comes through in the first of three monologues. Voiced by Lin Manuel Miranda as a cactus (the same cactus who “shows up late to a meeting and immediately chimes in”), this monologue is ostensibly about the ghost in the shell and, through this metaphor, powerfully speaks to the strangeness of inhabiting a queer body. More specifically, Torres gives voice to the phenomenon described by Kathryn Bond-Stockton in The Queer Child of being known first by others and then only later and, still then only partially, by oneself.[17] The cactus observes that, 

People react to me with a familiarity that feels foreign to me. Like they know something about me I don’t. They both pity and fear me for merely existing.

The monologue about (or, more aptly, of) the cactus, then, speaks to the alienation wrought by heterosexism and how this renders Torres a stranger unto himself, a question, in a way that primes his sensibilities to the alienations wrought by white supremacy and capitalism. Crucially, recognition of alienation follows from recognition of the extent to which time is out of joint in the monologue about the cactus, such that the experience of dispossession in alienation gives the lie to the liberal, Lockean dream of sovereign self-possession. Others, including things, know me first and maybe also finally; in fundamental, ineradicable ways, I know myself only through them.

Torres experiments with and feels out the implications of such profound ethical inter-subjectivity in the final of the three monologues, voiced by Emma Stone, about an oversized black stiletto shoe display for miniature shoes. The shoe display asks,

Who am I even for? Am I for the little shoes, or are the little shoes for me? I am an idea on top of an idea…. I am what happens when no one says no. I am complicated. I am difficult to explain and impossible to draw. I am alive.

Of this stiletto display Torres says he “feels seen,” and it is through his relation to such things that Torres proposes that sustaining this ambiguity, where things remain unclear regarding who is for whom, is part of being alive and complicated and impossible to reduce to a one-dimensional image.


The shadow and the soul of the disfigured swan figurine.
Note that the soul is also a material thing, as is the shadow.

That in Torres’ atheist cosmology there exists such things as “souls” is undeniable. Yet, it is also crucial to underscore than soulfulness is not the exclusive prerogative of human being, but is a quality of thingliness, a thing in its own right, which humans share, that can animate all objects and which can even be “transferred” from one vessel to another, as when the child plays with what the object-relations psychoanalyst Melanie Klein calls “transitional objects.”[18] For Torres, letters are the paradigmatic soulful thing. He tells a story of learning how to write and of the joy of encountering what he took to be the invitation to freedom encouraged by the letter E.

Me and the Es became this ongoing parent teacher conference saga. You know what an “E” is right? You watch the teacher write the letter E, I’d be like “Okay, she created the frame, which are sort of the rules that we must respect in order to live in a society. But within those boundaries she drew in a little stick. 

[Presenting an E that looks like a tall ladder missing its right leg.]

I would treat Es on a case-by-case basis. I’d be writing and I’d be like, ‘This one wants two, this one wants five, and this one wants 18, this one feels like it wants 18.’ And my teacher was like, ‘Okay, Julio this was very interesting, but you gotta write an E and move on. You can’t have a sentence like <<El elefante está en el edificio>> be 10 days of labor for you.’

It is in this context, perhaps absurdly, that Torres stakes his opposition to one-dimensional thingliness:

I get it. I understand. I live in the real world. Sometimes a thing is just a thing and you have to move on. And you just have to see it for what it is. But, frankly, I’m sorry, that is the kind of thinking that got that man elected. My least favorite shape is someone telling me, ‘it is what it is.’

The letter, the letter of the law, insists on reductive identity—A=A—on the identical and the identifiable, what Patchen Markell writes of as the bondage of rights regimes predicated on recognition, insofar as recognition demands a stable, static referent of identification, which thereby violently forecloses for those interpellated to become “recognizable” the freedom to live a dynamic, multi-dimensional and complicated existence no less worthy of respect and civil liberty protections.[19] Torres explicitly links reducing the letter E to the letter of the law to the normalization of a commonsense that accepts “that man” as Executor of the will of the people, reduced as they are in the Presidential imaginary to mean, exclusively, white nationals.

By contrast, what the letter E allows feeling out in the unique relationship to its every expression, writing allows feeling out in the relationship to the worlds that words compose, composed as they are of the relations of things. Just as the letter can be manipulated, so can the letter of the law, including the inexorable law of fate. Again, this affirmation of the historical contingency of things in the face of fatalist—and fatal—reductionism occurs through the only seemingly predetermined relations of and to things.

Opposition to the one-dimensional object is fundamental and is perfectly captured in the second monologue of MFS, voiced by Ryan Gosling, about a shape that makes Torres “shudder to think what would happen if [it] were to fall in the wrong hands.” Described by Torres as possibly his “favorite part of this entire show” and possibly the “reason why [it] even exists to begin with,” the shape is a child’s toy: A race-track for three penguins—one black, the second blue, the last red—that loops them down around and then climbs them back up again ad infinitum. Torres gives voice to the blue penguin, who suffers the “deeply solitary awakening” that the march of the penguins is predetermined and that they will always remain stuck in their places so long as the race is run.

And I was suddenly all alone in this. That was the day the Playful Penguin Race became… hell. So really the toy is an allegory for the working class, I guess. 

At first, on the surface, the monologue seems to offer only a nihilistic resignation to the fate of the “working class,” capturing in a toy the profound alienation afflicting the increasing precariousness that is evident in the spike of deaths of despair and the ravages of opioid addiction. From this alienated and hellish position, however, the blue penguin is also able to glean some critical insights about how the moral psychology of the penguin race-track obscures the reality of material structural forces: “The black penguin celebrated his victories as though they were his own. The red thought he just wasn’t trying hard enough.” And yet, this knowledge alone feels cold comfort.

And, alone, such critical insight rightly is an icy “hell.” However, the entire set-up to the blue penguin monologue begins by introducing the “Playful Penguin Race” as a shape so amazing that, if the audience has never seen one before, they will need to “get ready.” With a hyped-up countdown, Torres presses the activating button, the penguins ascend, and… instead of running their course, they get “stuck” and do not proceed down around the looping track. A visibly exacerbated Torres sighs disappointedly and states, frustrated, “we rehearsed this… you said ‘we got it’.”

What is the significance of the fact that, while the audience hears descriptions of the penguin track in action and are screened a pre-recorded video of the track behind the Gosling-voiced monologue, we never actually see the penguins run the track “live”? Can we think of this moment less as an instance of a toy breaking-down (always an immanent possibility in times of chronic crisis) and more as an extension of the political allegory? And can we link these two possibilities? What if this failure to perform was actually an exhausted refusal to participate? What if the penguins staged a strike? Could this moment of collective, solidaristic refusal be where the utopian energies of MFS shine through the cracks of the present? For, contrary to the fatalist resignation to the exigencies of running the race, the presentation of the Playful Penguin Race shows that there is power in refusing to play, and that the preset track can be halted, or at least suspended, to allow for the formation of broad-based, cross-cutting class-consciousness.


It is clear why the Playful Penguin Race is a shape that makes Torres shudder to think what would happen should it fall into the wrong hands. This is, of course, a joke, as the very existence of the toy attests to the fact that it has been already wrought by the wrong hands to keep the hands that produced it bound to the endlessly repetitive cycles of capitalist production and consumption, boom and bust, abuse and reform that have hollowed out and precariatized the working class. In short, if the penguin track is an allegory about late-modern capitalist political economy, what, more finely, are the mechanisms that keep the track running?

Torres’ initial answer comes in the form of an impression of one of his shapes that he performs “at” his audience:

Well I’m sorry if you don’t like what I do and if you don’t like what I stand for, but I actually keep the economy going and my job is pretty important. I’m sorry if you can’t handle that but we live in a nation of laws and rules are rules and I’m sorry if you can’t handle that.

Given Torres’ biography and immigration status, it is impossible not to hear in this impression a callous and condescending recitation of conservative talking points about “illegal” immigration. And, while this is certainly an undeniable and salient register of significance, Torres makes a broader intervention that allows situating America’s revanchist immigration policies relative to the broader structures of white supremacist capitalism.

This is because Torres presents a diorama of an airplane interior and reveals he has been impersonating the “nasty little curtain” that “divides the people.” The letter of the law draws the veil of ideology between the people in the name of promoting economic growth and national orderliness. The nasty little curtain thus refigures another partitioning object, the fantasized “border wall,” as only an extension of the curtain as a commonly accepted and indeed normal object, now revealed as insidious and segregationist.

Casting the defender of “a nation of laws” as this curtain is funny and deflationary and holds out the promise that the dividing curtain can be, at least potentially, retracted if not wholly and finally rent. But, it also highlights the way capitalism paints grey upon grey, rendering nothing—no thing—outside its perverse logic. While the curtain may be “nasty,” it also faces circumstances that are absolutely relatable.

It’s a job and some curtain has to do it. But to be a curtain and to pick that as your curtain job, is like: who hurt you? Why? And I bet that if you talked to this curtain it would be like, ‘well, you know I wanted to be in theatre, but things don’t always work out.’

Again, while this may be one of Torres’ less favorite shapes, he still expresses an understanding of the difficulties of being principled in a capitalist society. Of his own plight finding work after college, Torres relates that once during an interview he was bombing he declared, out of desperation:

I love corporations! That is by far the darkest thing I have ever said in my life. And it haunts me, it haunts me to this very day.

This haunting, on the one hand, gives Torres a humane perspective on the situation faced by the nasty little airplane curtain: the curtain is but a symptom of a society structured by class antagonisms—first class divided against coach—that literally puts the curtain in this divisive position.

On the other hand, however, Torres pushes the allegory to make possible the capacity to resist, even in small ways like not drawing closed the first-class curtain. Here, objects and humans become co-implicated in the divisions that rend “the people.” “We have to,” says the flight attendant qua avatar of the law when asked to not close the curtain. But, Torres replies, “Why?” and the question is like a trigger, a gentle tug:

And in her eye, I saw flowers blooming, meteors falling, and animals decomposing, and she was free. She had been released.


We will return in a moment to the potential to be “released” from the camera obscura of ideology by the gentle tug of another asking, “Why?” But first, what is the structure of ideology? What are the ideational mechanisms by which late stage capitalism inculcates itself in the reproduction of everyday life? I suggest that Torres offers a rather sophisticated analysis of ideology as looking at the world as if through a “keyhole.”

Torres illuminates the way ideology functions as a keyhole in a long narrative about a family vacation to Disney World and his excitement to meet Daisy Duck. Describing how each of the main characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, have their own “houses” wherein they greet park visitors for pictures and autographs, he explains what happens when he finally reaches Daisy Duck’s house:

I see Daisy’s door and I am so excited. I see the big, bulbous doorknob. And I reach toward it, I twist and then I pull, but the door won’t open. I pull and I pull and I pull but the door won’t open. So then I look to my mother because I’m panicking because the door is not opening. And then, she explains to me, that it was all just a facade. In that moment I became an atheist. She released me. 

And I understand, I’m not crazy, the park has to end at some point. I understand that it can’t be infinite and I understand that maybe there wasn’t enough [in the] budget to build the home for a pretty minor, though pretty iconic character. I get all of that. But I feel that they were operating under the notion that the world is pretty simple, so we might as well lie to a kid with a door that goes nowhere. 

If I had designed the park, I would have created a miniature interior of Daisy’s house and put it behind the little keyhole. So that when the bizarre little child comes up to the door and looks through the keyhole, they will feel that even though they don’t have complete access to everything yet, and even though they can’t see everything all at once, there is something so beautiful just out of reach. 

This is all in an email I’ve sent several times.

This is the keyhole of ideology: a trompe-l’œil that gives the impression that the barrier of an unopenable door to nowhere is not an implacable obstacle to human happiness, but rather the proof of the promise of something “so beautiful” on the other side, “just out of reach.”

Here Torres nuances the pretense of rational “ideology critique” previously parodied though another diorama involving curtains. In this earlier sketch, the curtains are in a basement without windows and they are meant to provide the illusion of an accessible beyond that is in fact solidly walled off. Describing this practice of interior design as an allegory for religious belief, Torres imagines the rational ideology critic confronted with the illusion that “there might be something” by simply parting the curtains: “There isn’t. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can live a happy life and move on.”

Yet, what the keyhole of ideology signals is the way in which the subject of desire is interpellated into the very functioning of ideology as a libidinal political economy.[20] “Of course, what is frustrating about Daisy’s door,” Torres explains, is that “something was presented as just that and nothing more. The world is explained to me by oversimplifying it. But I don’t like simple.” Torres’ emails to Disney regarding his innovation on their simple and one-dimensional facade signals the desire for the sustainability of this feeling that there is a beyond, even if it is, technically, “nowhere.” In this regard, there is something uncannily akin to utopianism in Torres’ formulation of the keyhole of ideology, what Lauren Berlant has elsewhere theorized as the “cruel optimism” that keeps people invested in attachments to fantasies of the good life, where that very attachment actually impedes the material flourishing of a good life.[21] How is it, then, that we parse ideology and its reproduction from the utopian energies of feeling out different relations to things enabled by the (ideally collective) dialectical negotiation of the forces of alienation and the powers of enchantment animating contemporary commodity culture?


Torres’ favorite color is “clear” (“followed closely by shiny”), but it is doubtful that it is the clear of a translucent pane.[22] Instead, it is likely for the refractory powers of the prism that Torres claims a crystal pyramid as one of his favorite shapes, not least of all for the challenges to definitive judgment it poses, as voiced by Herman Melville’s narrator in Billy Budd, a Sailor (an Inside Narrative): “Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?”[23] The prism casts every shade on an object, on the relations of objects, in a way that ambiguates and compels judgment, even if such judgment will always be provisional, tentative, experimental, and, at times, laughable.

Torres proposes that it is through the pluralism encouraged by this prismatic perspective that drawing the distinction between ideology and its exit is possible. He does so with a parable about outfitting a queen, dreaming of a “cape for a queen that is so, so long that she doesn’t know that there is another queen on the other end of it.” It is a brilliant allusion, again, to the co-implication (complication) of subjectivity always already in the subjectivity not only of other subjects, but the worldly host of objects. Yet, for this to be believable as allegory, “the cape has to be so, so long that they have no idea, except that every now and then they feel a little tug.” 

They might wonder what it is or they ignore it, but the curious queen would be the one who turns around, follows the cape and changes her life forever. There are two kinds of queens in this world: the queen that follows the cape and the queen that does not.

What might it mean to be the curious queen who follows the cape? How does this parable about our intimately interwoven destinies fashion a way forward to the emancipatory potentials of collective refusal to “create an impasse, a space of internal displacement [that] shatters the normal hierarchies, clarities, tyrannies, and confusions of compliance with autonomous individuality” encouraged by playing it straight, such that a thing “is what it is”?[24]

Torres does not exactly answer this question so much as conclude his routine with a gesture to a critical practice of staying enchanted with the world in the face of the “slow death” defining the historical present.[25] As stated, the last of Torres’ favorites shapes is the first, the neon lavender square with a mirrored surface on one side, which is now revealed to have had all along on its other side a picture of the keyhole to Daisy’s house. What does this resignification of the keyhole of ideology as the other side of the mirroring object that initiated Torres’ reflection upon his favorite shapes mean if not that the “nowheres” of ideology and utopia alike are immanent to the very enchantment with what is now, here—these things that show us to ourselves, relate us to one another and our common world? These things both lubricate commonsense, “straight” perceptions of the world and they create the cracks in this “crenelated present” from which radical collective refusals of the given state of things can take hold to form cleavages in consciousness, capital, and community capable of recalibrating commonsense relations to the things we take for granted as simply being what they are.

Fundamentally, the practice of critical theory Torres endeavors in MFS, as an act of comedy, affirms the pleasure of disorientation, alienation, and enchantment as experiences of resistance to the dubieties of simplicity and which thus holds out the potential for reconciliation—for “release.” This is Torres’ queer commitment to not playing it straight. That this is a practice that, like veganism, is as ongoing as the nerviness of the visceral itself need not denote that such refusal is either dour or strident. Rather, on Torres’ rendering resistance is coquettish and playful, imaginative and curious, at ease with the atheistic experimentation of the gaya scienza and engaged in developing a taste  that “has not too much to do with the visceral as it is, but like all practices, protocols, programs, and pursuits, is about what—the visceral to come?”[26] 

“Another fun fact about me,” Torres states, “is that I am almost always doing exactly what a Trump supporter thinks that I’m doing, and let me tell you: it’s a lot of fun.”[27] What goes without saying, for it is beside the point what a Trump supporter thinks amounts of queer fun, is this affirmation of pleasure as a key to resistance in a world where the keyhole of ideology induces precisely a view of things that anesthetizes attunment to the attrition of sad affects cathected around the nasty little letter of the law as it divides the profits of ill-fated cycles of exploitative and alienating capitalist political economy as it loops round an increasingly exhausted planet. Torres’ invitation to laughter functions like an invitation to good sex and home cooked food and solidaristic protest and joyful, soulful music (and all those other visceral releases), in that it collectivizes pleasure in a way that allows sustaining an enchanted relation to the things of this world, all the while mindful that a joke is never only a laughing matter, that any meal could be our last, that we must fight and struggle for our way in the world, and, finally, that the ecstasy of release is never final, for we must come together, or else come apart.

(SRG, NY, 2019)

[1] Young-White’s recent foray into queering entomology is a notable departure, no doubt informed by Torres’s “queer multimedia” approach to comedy. 

[2] Berlant, Lauren. “The Predator And The Jokester,”  “https://supervalentthought.com/2017/12/12/the-predator-and-the-jokester/#more-1036) (accessed: 18.10.2019)

[3] All unattributed quotations are from: Julio Torres, My Favorite Shapes, HBO (2019).





[8] Opinion: Migrant Girl’s Death Reveals A Need For More Interpreters Along The Border https://n.pr/2VrK8IB

[9]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApKTTlnerSc&frags=pl%2Cwn


[11] Berlant, Lauren, and Jordan Alexander Stein. “Cruising Veganism.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies21, no. 1 (2015): 18-23, pp. 19.

[12] https://www.gq.com/story/julio-torres-is-changing-the-shape-of-comedy

[13] Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international. Routledge, 2012.

[14] Bennett, Jane. “Commodity Fetishism and Commodity Enchantment,” Theory and Event, Vol. 5, No. 1: 2001

[15] Bennett, Jane.“Commodity Fetishism and Commodity Enchantment,” Theory and Event, Vol. 5, No. 1: 2001


[17] Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The queer child, or growing sideways in the twentieth century. Duke University Press, 2009.

[18]  Klein on transitional objects.

[19]  Markell, Patchen. Bound by Recognition (Princeton University Press, 2003). 

[20]  Lyotard, Jean-François. Libidinal Economy. A&C Black, 2004.

[21] Berlant, Lauren. “Cruel optimism: on Marx, loss and the senses.” New Formations 63 (2007): 33.

[22]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9s7U51XQfhc&frags=pl%2Cwn

[23] Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (an Inside Narrative) eds. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), pp. 102.

[24] Berlant, Lauren. “Cruel optimism: on Marx, loss and the senses.” New Formations63 (2007): 49.

[25] Berlant, Lauren. “Slow death (sovereignty, obesity, lateral agency).” Critical Inquiry33, no. 4 (2007): 754-780.

[26] Berlant, Lauren, and Jordan Alexander Stein. “Cruising Veganism.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies21, no. 1 (2015): 18-23, pp. 19.

[27 ] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJXZ-fOM3TE&frags=pl%2Cwn