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Monthly Archives: November 2010

In his discussion of queer theory, Bertholde Schoene (2006, p. 293) contends that “no doubt the most pressing issue is whether, in terms of both its political engagement and its academic import, queer theory – as a historical offshoot of feminism—has grown into the latter’s partner or rival”.

Though I’d contend that this is probably not “the most pressing issue” with respect to queer theory in general, it is one that catches my attention as I return to feminism after having taken a course in queer theory. As my title suggests, I’m clearly not alone in this line of inquiry; parsing the relationship of queer theory to feminism is of concern to a number of people engaged in both projects.

After all, feminists—and in particular lesbian feminists—had already critiqued things like “compulsory heterosexuality” (Rich, 1994); if there was already a theoretical apparatus working to dismantle the ways that people were forced into heterosexual roles as a result of a sex/gender binary, it is to some extent a fair question why the world needed another one.

However, Rich’s article already indicates why feminism alone wasn’t particularly good at addressing the issues queer theory came to examine—though Rich is willing to extend sisterly solidarity to heterosexual women, she still positions men as the enemy controlling the whole sex/gender/sexuality system rather than recognizing that they are equally constructed by it—albeit in a privileged position

It is this sort of feminist tendency that led Sedgwick (1992, p. 27) to contend that “the study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender; correspondingly, antihomopobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist inquiry. But we can’t know in advance how they will be different.”

Through this statement, then, Sedgwick—one of the foundational thinkers of queer theory, writing one of the field’s originating texts—points to the way that queer theory has different concerns than feminism, but she also recognizes that there is overlap and that the two modes of inquiry do have points of commonality such that feminism can contribute to this allied project and vice versa.

As Rich’s non-systemic thinking and oppressor-oppressed model of power suggests, what feminism tended to miss that queer theory added was a poststructuralist lens (the existence of poststructuralist feminism troubles this divide somewhat, but I think it stands as a general statement; also, Butler is often considered the hinge between feminism and queer theory).

Indeed, Schoene (2006, p. 283) argues that “any attempt to map the political complexities of the queer movement must begin with an acknowledgement of the theoretical indebtedness” to History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 . Leaving aside his slippage here between “the queer movement,” which may or may not have been reading Foucault, and “queer theory,” which surely was, this is a statement with which I would agree.

Foucault’s (1990) model of power as productive and systemic redirects inquiry away from the sort of “us vs. them” model exemplified by Rich; instead, “what queer theory’s deconstruction of the hetero/homo binarism reveals is the fact that heterosexuality is as systematically constructed as controlled an orientation as homosexuality” (Schoene, 2006, p. 292).

That is, if structuralism uncovered the ways in which we use binaries to explain how the world works, poststructuralism’s intervention was to insist that we recognize those binaries as constructed, hierarchical, and ultimately in no way necessary, which queer theory clearly inherited. Thus, unlike much of (lesbian) feminism, “the chief opponent of ‘queer’ it has to be remembered, is after all not heterosexuality but the system of heteronormativity” (Schoene, 2006, p. 295).

However, as many have noted, queer theory, for all its improvements on feminism in some senses, has generally not drawn on women of color feminism as early, as often, or as extensively as it really should.

Schoene (2006, p. 297) rightly points out that “queer theory views all traditional forms of identity as coercive assignments that, regardless of people’s individual specificity, subject everybody to the regulatory imperatives of unequivocal cultural intelligibility,” but this misses the ways in which those identities can also be sources of belonging and solidarity, particularly when they are group memberships like those in racial and ethnic categories that allow people to band together for mutual support against a discriminatory dominant category.

Thus, though Schoene (2006, p. 287) claims that the “relativity of ‘queer’ enables declarations of solidarity and the forging of political alliances across a broad spectrum of hitherto mutually isolated, diasporic, and disempowered identities,” queer theory’s frequent demand that we all reject all identity altogether makes this sort of alliance-building difficult in the absence of a recognition of and respect for the ways in which different queers are differently positioned in culture.

Rejecting privilege, as McRuer (2006, p. 36) points out, doesn’t make it go away. More recent queer theory, such as Ferguson’s (2003) queer of color critique, takes these factors more into account, and may provide a way to resolve this lack.

Ultimately, queer theory’s greatest contribution is its unremitting opposition to normativity and normalization of all sorts, which it undertakes while remaining grounded in the study of sexuality.

That is, “the queer movement demonstrates that ‘the problem of sexuality’ resides ultimately not with itself but with mainstream society which, once deprived of an easily identifiable Other against which to assert itself, comes seriously unstuck” (Schoene, 2006, p. 290); through exposing the non-naturalness of sexual categories, that is, queer theory disrupts not only its own Othering but the norm constructed through the process of Othering.

It is for this reason that I must dissent from “Sedgwick’s generous definition of ‘queer,’” which, as Schoene (2006, p. 294) points out, “encompasses not only all gender rebels and sexual nonconformists, but also those potentially capable of becoming or fancying themselves as such, which renders ‘queer’ a universal human trait or, in other words, an utterly unremarkable noncharacteristic.”

Like (seemingly) Schoene, I diverge from the usage of the term that would identify everything nonheteronormative as queer; it is, I contend, vital that we maintain “the deformative and misappropriative power that the term currently enjoys” (Butler, 1993, p. 229). Queer, Edelman (2004, 17) says, disturbs identity; Giffney (2009, 2) contends that it resists categories and “easy categorization.”

Queers are “the people that don’t belong anywhere,” who consequently “are a threat” (Anzaldúa 1983, 209), which can’t happen if everyone and everything is queer. To maintain the term’s bite, its force as a way to build on feminism and question every category we use to make sense of the world, “queer” has to be reserved for those nonheteronormativites that actually challenge norms, not those that are deployed to reinforce them.

Anzaldúa, G. (1983). La Prieta. In C. Moraga & G. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (pp. 198-209). Latham, NY: Kitchen Table Press.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.
Edelman, L. (2004). No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ferguson, R. A. (2003). Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.
Giffney, N. (2009). Introduction: The ‘Q’ Word. In N. Giffney & M. O’Rourke (Eds.), Ashgate Companion to Queer Theory (pp. 1-13). Farnham: Ashgate.
McRuer, R. (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: NYU Press.
Rich, A. (1994). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. In Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (pp. 23-75). New York: Norton.
Schoene, B. (2006). Queer Politics, Queer Theory, and the Future of Identity: Spiralling out of Culture. In E. Rooney (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory (1st ed., pp. 283-302). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1992). Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

As it turned out, I spent last weekend in what was quite possibly the best location from which to write a response to Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place, as it both confirms some of her postulates about queer time and space and troubles some of her neat compartmentalizations. So here it is, written in present tense as it was originally conceptualized.

From where I sit, I can see sheep lying down in the grass, and already today I’ve been serenaded by the braying of donkeys, the crowing of roosters, and the squawking of guinea hens. Metronormative, this place is not.

Halberstam wants to contest the ways in which “rural and small-town queer life is generally mythologized by urban queers as sad and lonely, or else rural queers might be thought of as ‘stuck’ in a place that they would leave if they only could” (36), and where I’m sitting right now is a perfect example of the ways in which queer rurality needn’t signify sadness, loneliness, or stuckness.

However, this place also demonstrates the ways in which, for all her critique of others for their lapses Halberstam herself “occludes the lives of nonurban queers” (15)—or at least some of them.

She notes that “until recently, small towns were considered hostile to queers and urban areas were cast as the queer’s natural environment,” wherein “affluent gay populations are often described as part of a ‘creative class’ that enhances a city’s cultural life and cultural capital, and this class of gays are then cast in opposition to the small-town family life and values of midwestern Americans” (15).

Through conflating the small town or rural with the Midwest, Halberstam, much like the “Queering the Middle” symposium held on at the University of Illinois earlier this fall, replicated a pattern of erasure in which rurality is imagined to exist only in the Midwest. Queering the Middle at least had the excuse of being a conference about the Midwest.

Sitting in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on what could easily be interpreted as a ranch—there are lots of animals, lots of land, and no crops, though the people who live here do actually make their living in town in urban-coded occupations of therapist and county mental health program manager—I have no doubt that I am both decidedly in a rural space and decidedly not in the Midwest anymore, Toto.

While the nonqueer people who live around here surely have a great deal in common with Midwestern farmer types in terms of things like “values” and voting patterns, they aren’t the same and deserve to be respected in their specificity. In a book disputing the elision of the particularity of people and places, in which Halberstam troubles so much other received wisdom, this is a particularly perplexing oversight.

Looking around the inside of the house where I’m staying, on the other hand, with its marks of middle-classness and parenthood—and the state-recognized marriage that I know about but can’t actively see at this moment—there are clearly things that are not queer about it, though I don’t have the heart to come in here as queerer-than-thou and tell them that they have succumbed to reproductive time.

I imagine that they’d be horrified to think that they are participating in “respectability, and notions of the normal on which it depends,” even as they are quite comfortable with their “middle-class logic of reproductive temporality” (4). Certainly, this household inhabits “the time of inheritance”—not least because so much of its remodeling after purchase was financed by the wealth of my mom’s partner’s parents.

In a broader sense, however, it clearly functions under a “generational time within which values, wealth, goods, and morals are passed through family ties from one generation to the next” (5). It’s also quite obviously wrapped up in “the kinds of hypothetical temporality—the time of ‘what if’—that demands protection in the way of insurance policies, health care, and wills” (5) that signal middle-classness more than anything.

So, given that the adult partnership in this household is same-sex, is this a queer time, or place, or both, or neither? I think the most fortuitous part of being here while thinking through Halberstam is the ways in which this location and its inhabitants disarticulate metronormativity from reproductive temporality.

Here, more than I have observed even in the drowning-in-corn-and-soybeans Urbana-Champaign, it is clear that the two modes of normalization of queerness that Halberstam identifies don’t have to always go together, even though she seems to think that they do.

Indeed, though Halberstam herself doesn’t quite make this connection, when she points in the cases of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard to “the complex interactions of race, class, gender, and sexuality that result in murder, but whose origins lie in state-authorized formations of racism, homophobia, and poverty” (46), it begins to suggest that some sort of intersectional analysis is in order if the fullness of these formations is to be appreciated.

Any given person is more or less normative on a variety of axes—with ultimate normativity being, as Butler reminds us, impossible to embody. So my mom and her partner challenge metronormativity, but they reinforce reproductive temporality, and there is no contradiction in doing both at once—however unfortunate the latter may be—because these are formations that intersect in various ways for various people.

After all, not everyone is considered eligible for or the proper subject of the horizon of futurity of reproductive time in the first place, which is why “the abbreviated life spans of black queers or poor drug users, say, does not inspire the same kind of metaphysical speculation on curtailed futures, intensified presents, or reformulated histories” (3) as arises from the deaths of white gay men from AIDS.

We have to reckon with the fact that people who occupy the same place on one axis—queerness or poverty—but differ on other axes—black queers vs. white ones, rural poor vs. urban—can’t actually be understood as entirely the same.

That is, though Halberstam is right to hail “ravers, club kids, HIV-positive barebackers, rent boys, sex workers, homeless people, drug dealers, and the unemployed” as “queer subjects” who “live (deliberately, accidentally, or by necessity) during the hours when others sleep and in the spaces (physical, metaphysical, and economic) that others have abandoned” (10), it is equally vital that we not collapse the distinctions between these groups into one big pile of “queer subjects” in our search for a coalitional politics.

We can have the same interests without reducing our complexities to a single characteristic to organize around, because this sort of reduction inevitably works to establish the interests of those most privileged by other characteristics (such as white, middle-class, homo- and metronormative queers) as universal.

Halberstam’s complication of the rural/urban and straight/queer binaries begins to show a way to think about shared interests in a way that is different from our standard modes, and in so doing she potentially begins to point to a way out of our accidental complicities with heteronormativity.

When taking a number of courses connected in some way to the Gender and Women’s Studies department, you occasionally have “perfect storm” weeks, and I had one such earlier this semester.

The theme—across feminist theory, “Gender, Power, and The Body,” a talk by Judith Halberstam, and a queer studies reading group on race, region, and sexual diasporas—was that there are times when the people we would prefer to see as the “good guys” end up being the “bad guys.” Or alternately, it was expressed by the professor in the feminist theory course as “writing fuller histories means writing ethical histories.”

It started on Monday night that week, at Halberstam’s talk, “The Killer in Me is the Killer in You: Homosexuality and Fascism” (See the recap. It’s also now a chapter in The Queer Art of Failure). In the talk, Halberstam elaborated the ways in which Nazis were actually fairly okay with gays.

Yes, there was a pink triangle, and yes, homos were sent to concentration camps, but Nazis thought homosexuality was social rather than innate and therefore could be cured. Moreover, what Nazis really wanted to prevent, according to Halberstam, was male effeminacy, not necessarily homosex. Butch gays weren’t that big of a deal, and indeed given Nazi misogyny there was a sense in which the less one had to do with women the better.

All of this means that the received history that gays were also subject to widespread execution isn’t that accurate. Lots of men who had sex with other men served in Hitler’s army, Halberstam argued, doing all the horrible things that gay history has imagined were only done to them. We may want them to be the good guys and in solidarity with the other victims, but it was way more complicated than that.

Tuesday brought feminist theory, in which we had a special guest, Terence Ranger, whose 2004 piece Dignifying Death: The Politics of Burial in Bulawayo wanted to reorient the issue of agency away from reductive contentions on the order of “all that one needed to know about the history of Africans in Bulawayo up to 1980 [ . . . ] was that they had been ‘crushed under the boot of colonialism’. They had been denied citizenship; had been unable to exercise agency; and had been unable to create culture” (p. 112).

Without disregarding the violences of colonialism, that is, Ranger contends that there is a more multifaceted interplay of forces, such that some groups of Zimbabweans imposed their cultural practices (around, in this case, death) on other groups, such that resistance has to be understood as happening not just between colonizer and colonized but between Africans themselves.

Thus, in the end, though the parts of Zimbabwean history that mark the oppression of some Africans by others may make us uncomfortable, it is ethically incumbent on us to recognize that they happened, as much as it might feel better to focus only on the colonizers’ violences.

On Wednesday in Gender, Power, and the Body we discussed Aberrations in Black, and as we saw in last week’s blog, Roderick Ferguson’s 2003 book is nothing if not attentive to complicities among the strangest of bedfellows.

Finally, later that Wednesday night was queer reading group with a theme of queers and settler colonialism and the critique was again about unacknowledged complicities. We read Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism, in which Andrea Smith argues that queer theory, for all its troubling of norms, falls short of taking on settler colonialism and is thus complicit with its violences.

Similarly, Scott Lauria Morgensen‘s Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities notes the ways in which the retroactive claiming of Native practices as “really” gay but just lacking the terminology is a form of imperialism. The recognition of these complicities and (perhaps inadvertent) violences is a vital part of a more honest and ethical look at the position queers occupy, such that rather than strictly claiming oppression we have to be attentive to the ways we’re also oppressive.

Thus, everywhere I went that week, the message was clear: we can’t shy away from the spots of history, even when telling histories of disadvantaged people; instead, we must recognize the complexity of a world in which positionalities aren’t simple “villain” or “hero.”

I’ve written before about Ferguson’s exposing of strange bedfellows around the discourse of “black matriarchy”; he argues that black nationalists and cultural conservatives—who in virtually every other way were antithetical—both pointed to this as the problem at the root of poverty and other social ills in African-American communities.

What I noticed on this second reading of Aberrations in Black, however, is the sheer variety of unexpected connections and contradictions he articulates between institutions and groups. As I think that, ultimately, this is the book’s greatest contribution, I’d like to elaborate them here.

To enumerate the connections in the order that Ferguson does, he first shows how Marxism is complicit with bourgeois liberalism. He argues that Marx, in taking “normative heterosexuality as the emblem of order, nature, and universality, making that which deviated from heteropatriarchal ideals the sign of disorder,” was making the same argument as the bourgeois thinkers of his day when they condemned the working class for their sexual deviance, such that ultimately “both liberal reform and proletarian revolution sought to recover heteropatriarchal integrity from the ravages of industrialization” despite the fact that Marx blamed capital and the bourgeois blamed the working class’s lack of self-control (6, 10).

Second, Ferguson demonstrates how what he calls “canonical sociology” is implicated in state practices of exclusion, despite the discipline’s pretensions to objectivity. Like Marx, sociology identified nonheteronormative behavior as “dysfunction,” and in articulating normativity as the way out of the problems experienced by the African-American community the discipline “aligned itself with the regulatory imperatives of the state” (18, 20)—meaning that surveillance of black populations’ sexual habits, whether by ADC social workers, “vice” squads, or sociologists, could thenceforth be figured as being for African Americans’ own good.

However, Ferguson also elaborates the ways in which ideas or institutions that we typically imagine to be working toward a common purpose are actually fundamentally incompatible.

In his argument that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy, he goes beyond the standard critique of neoliberalism (that the refashioning of society such that everything runs on market processes is undemocratic, which implies that running some things through the market is okay).

Rather, Ferguson argues that capital produces nonnormativity through both recruiting certain kinds of labor and not others—creating homosocial work environments, separating families, etc.—and its reliance on inequality between groups to drive down the price of labor.

This is all in complete contradiction to liberal democracy, which both requires universal, interchangeable subjects stripped of particulars and (at least in its U.S. iteration) valorizes heteropatriarchy.

Finally, Ferguson articulates points at which the state acted at cross purposes to itself. For example, African-Americans were judged insufficient as citizens due to nonconformity with patriarchal ideals of a “providing” husband and a wife who managed the house rather than working, which rendered them ineligible for some features of state aid. However, the state encouraged this very “deviance” by denying Social Security benefits to jobs disproportionately occupied by black men and treating black women who stayed at home as shirking work.

The common thread between all these convergences and divergences, of course, is the ways in which nonheteronormativity—whether the result of racial difference, alternative gender formations, sexual nonnormativity, or, usually, some combination—is grounds for exclusion, but what is interesting and useful is the ways in which Ferguson traces the consequences of this through so many institutions and uncovers so many unexpected relationships.