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What Fucking Clayton Pettet Teaches Us About Cultural Rhetorics

Pettet’s Performance and Mindfulness as Sources for Disrupting Chrononormative Narratives

by Erin Schaefer

Chrononormativity, and the associated anticipation and disappointment, is present in many dominant narratives in the United States. There’s an underlying assumption that if we just reach a certain point of time, if we fulfill a given set of criteria, we will be happy, safe, and free. The normalization of chrononormativity is both limiting and harmful. When applied to the construct of virginity, for example, those who have experienced rape are left to believe that they have permanently “lost” their virginity. Not only has something irreplaceable been “lost,” it’s been taken against one’s will.

Although I’m reminded, from time to time, not to fall into this trap, I still find myself operating from a chrononormative context. How, then, can I—can we—break free from the limitations of chrononormativity, both from the narratives it produces and the mode of thinking it fosters? One of the challenges is how we are drawn to these kinds of narratives (and the type of linear thinking attached to them). Chrononormativity puts us in the driver’s seat: whether it’s gaining a certain amount of knowledge, acquiring property, or getting promoted, we believe that if we try hard enough, we can reach these milestones; they’re within our control.

We can, however, interrupt our narratives about chrononormativity, and I offer mindfulness as one such tool for interruption. Mindfulness encourages us to look at things with fresh eyes, but we still feel uncomfortable with the space it creates for re-examining our worldviews. Pettet similarly makes space for us to examine our narratives, and again discuss our reaction to this self-awareness.

I am tempted to offer mindfulness as a solution for interrupting habitual narratives that value chrononormativity. And indeed, I do believe that mindfulness is a useful tool for stepping back from our habitual ways of seeing the world. It encourages what mindfulness communities like to call “beginner’s mind,” seeing something with new eyes. Mindfulness alone, though, may not be enough to shake up our stories. In fact, one thing that instructors of mindfulness warn about is the tendency to use mindfulness as a tool for us to be more relaxed…in our habitual ways of doing and perceiving. In this way, mindfulness practice can become separate from our everyday lives; it’s a thing to do when we have time and have finished the to-do list.

Mindfulness is not an easy practice. It is a messy practice, one accompanied by the discomfort of self-awareness. Internal thoughts, as well as external experiences such as our interactions with others, that challenge our worldview suddenly have room to take center-stage in our awareness, made space for through mindfulness. This experience is can be challenging and destabilizing, uncomfortable to say the least. It acts as an interruption to our habitual narratives, and our habitual emotional state of mind.

Pettet’s performance demonstrates what happens when there is space for us to be confronted by narratives that challenge our usual worldviews. Pettet called up a common narrative in the audience—that of virginity as a climatic, life-transforming moment—and then, as Casey pointed out, pulled the rug from under our feet. He created a space, one similar to the kind of pause we might experience during mindfulness meditation, for us to experience the gap between our narrative and what’s really happening in the present moment.

Like Casey, I can only speculate as to whether any audience member had any meaningful transformation in how they perceived virginity. Pettet’s performance is interesting because of the space it created for interrupting narratives. As with mindfulness, one has a choice in what he, she, or they do with this interruption. This interruption is fruitful, in that we can use the opportunity to embrace different narratives, or make modifications to our existing narratives. Or, we simply react to our discomfort and cling to our existing narratives. In Pettet’s performance, I believe many chose this latter path. Ultimately, I am left wondering what it takes for the kinds of interruptions created in Pettet’s performance and elsewhere, to transform rather than temporarily disrupt our chrononormative narratives, and other limited narratives.

What motivates us to deeply re-examine the narratives we are invested in, including chrononormative narratives that give us a sense of control and security?