And speaking of my dissertation defense, here’s the Prezi for that for those who were unable to attend, since I wasn’t able to have it streamed or live-tweeted.
Category Archives: queer
In the first part of January, there was an exchange over the email list of the Association of Internet Researchers that started with a scholar looking for pointers to sources on social-media-based tribes. In addition to responses that just answered the question came some that were critical of the racist/colonialist underpinnings of the term “tribe” itself.
(I’m torn here between giving those contributors credit and respecting that what they said was not, strictly, public, particularly given AoIR’s long history of thinking about online research ethics and protecting the identities of one’s sources. So I’m erring on the side of not naming names or even quoting, since that would be Google-able).
The conversation about “tribe” raised a question for me: Can we separate out the usefulness of “tribe” as a type-of-social-organization term from its racist/primitivist history? And if we can’t, how can we talk about those forms of social organization?
It just so happened that I had an upcoming meeting of my queer studies reading group that was going to look at queer indigenous studies, so I put the topic on hold in anticipation of the insight that reading and group discussion would provide. And, sure enough, it did.
(What follows is heavily influenced by having read and discussed excerpts from Scott Lauria Morgensen’s Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, but in a way that makes it hard to point to specific page numbers. So, this is both a blanket citation and a blanket disclaimer that he may not think about this the same way I do. It might be more accurate to say, like those old anti-drug commercials: This is my brain on Morgensen.)
It seems clear that “tribe” in online contexts works in much the same way as it does in other white folks’ appropriations of nativeness. It gestures toward an untainted, pre-civilizational past upheld as pure and superior, which seems like a positive representation until you realize that it relies on a primitivizing logic and on actual indigenous people disappearing into the past. (Which I wish advocates of a certain mascot on my campus could comprehend.)
Because of what I’ve read recently, in terms of appropriations of nativeness I’m thinking primarily about gay, lesbian, and transgender social movement uses of indigenous histories of gender and sexual diversity here (I’m not aware of any bisexual organizing using this tactic, but I’m happy to be corrected), but one of the AIR-L contributors mentioned the use of Native American imagery to demonstrate masculinist pride and martial prowess through things like “Apache” helicopters.
Like these uses, the use of “tribe” or “neo-tribe” to describe online forms of social organization both grounds a way of being in a historical, “natural” and so uncontestable, precedent and perpetuates the subordination of the both the thing it defends and the precedent.
How does that work? Well, in saying that “tribal” groupings are legitimate because they have a precedent in real, live indigenous people somewhere, this logic perpetuates the idea that such groupings need a justification rather than being legitimate on their own merits. This is then advocacy for “premodern” forms of social organization without contesting the ways “modern” forms of organization—bureaucracy, say—are considered inherently good. This perfectly demonstrates Morgensen’s contention that “impersonating indigeneity and believing in colonial modernity are noncontradictory acts” (p. 17).
On top of this, and more importantly, the valorization of supposedly spontaneous and natural ways of being aligns nativeness with nature rather than culture and constructs indigenous peoples as the antithesis of civilization, a logic which played a major role in justifying dispossession and genocide in the first place. It relies on a primitivist—or, indeed, primitivizing—logic. So much for this being a sign of respect.
Morgensen discusses this dynamic as establishing “anthropological authority to determine Native truth while leaving their desire for it unexamined” (p. 15). People decide what indigeneity means and then either want to eliminate it or celebrate it (and mourn its elimination), eliding their own process of construction and not questioning the logic that makes nativeness a screen for those anxieties or desires.
But I want to take a step further.
Even if we stop using these loaded tribal logics and languages, we have to also examine the desire for historical legitimacy itself. On one hand, that is, to be able to point to people who have done things differently disrupts the naturalization of contemporary norms—“it doesn’t have to look this way, look, someone else did it differently!” Authenticity begets authorization. But this slides very quickly into resting the legitimacy of one’s difference on there being a precedent rather than making a robust argument for difference as inherently legitimate.
This contention perhaps sounds familiar, as this is the same structure by which people claim homosexuality is biological to legitimize it. What Shannon Weber calls biological homonormativity, in using nature as a cover, supports the idea that no one would ever choose same-sex desire if they weren’t compelled, and in the same way the appropriative logic of tribal authenticity relies on a belief that collective organization is lesser but legitimate because “pure.”
And instead of participating in these logics, I think the arguments in favor of diverse forms of human community need to be much queerer.
This isn’t, of course, to say that indigenous folks can’t or shouldn’t make arguments about authenticity and authority with regard to their own cultures and histories in order to make claims to things like land. I’m not legislating a queer approach to everything or for everyone, because it’s not for everything. (Also, it would be radically unqueer to do so.) Queer is a screwdriver, and sometimes you need a hammer; not recognizing that will lead to trying to screw everything when sometimes it needs nailing.
But I am arguing that appropriating “tribe” to legitimize collectivist forms of organization is not only racist, primitivizing, and reproductive of the crimes of colonization—which would be enough reason to dispense with it—but it’s actually not even productive for the purpose to which it’s set.
As part of my work of professionalization, I have signed up for table of contents alerts for various journals in my areas of interest so that I can keep up on recent work. One such alert came through recently for the journal Sexualities, and Shannon Weber’s piece What’s wrong with be(com)ing queer? Biological determinism as discursive queer hegemony caught my eye.
Though I think the piece does some oversimplifying, I was struck by the feeling that it would be great to teach with–uncomplicated being good for undergrads and then I can complicate in lecture. (Inability to exercise my educational creativity muscles strikes again)
I was thinking, in particular, of starting class discussion with the statement that has become the title of this blog post: Homosexuality is a choice. I think this will be quite a jolt, given, as Weber describes, “the success that the Christian Right in particular has had in framing the debate over LGBTQ rights: telling queer people that they are not normal and do not deserve equal rights because their behavior is chosen and sinful” (687).
To say non-heterosexuality is a choice has come to be tightly linked to an antigay position, that is, and correspondingly saying that it is innate has come to be the only politically acceptable pro-gay position.
As Weber points out, following Jennifer Terry, the idea that sexuality is biologically determined positions it as something one cannot control (680). First, this participates in the same logic that stereotypes non-heterosexuals as sexually out of control—manifesting as homosexuals will always hit on every person of their “same” sex or as bisexuals are slutty.
Moreover, it participates in the same logic by which non-heterosexual desire is seen as a bad thing—that no one would choose it freely. As Weber put is, this is “an always already defensive position that argues not for sexual agency and freedom, but an acceptance of same-sex desire only inasmuch as it cannot be cured away into reformed heterosexuality” (682) which takes me back to beating my dead horse on the trouble with tolerance.
Weber speaks of strategic essentialism in LGBT politics (682), but I don’t actually think it is strategic. When you talk to an average person on the street, most of them believe that whatever orientation they have was innate—I was present recently for a round of “gayer than thou” where people were competing to have been gay earlier, but was too tired to intervene and point out their essentialism, too tired even to put my finger on why the whole thing irritated me. And if that bunch, who has read their weight in queer theory, can do that, it’s pretty pervasive.
But of course, it absolutely is a choice. I am agnostic on where desires come from, but once we have them we have to figure out what they mean and what we are going to do with them.
Even if we could prove that homosexuality was genetic and occurred in a certain percent of every population throughout time (which would be a benign variation like eye color, incidentally), how people responded to those desires in themselves and others has varied wildly. How people have made sense of such desires (as holy, as sin, as act, as identity, as mutable, as immutable) has also varied wildly, as is has how people have perceived nonnormative configurations of relationship (as failed heterosexuality, as nonsexual companionship, as sexual).
People can perfectly well choose to never act on their desires. They can choose their religion over it. (Which, incidentally, as Weber points out, using the framework of religion as a way to make cases for same sex rights is pretty clever: you’re not born locked into a religion forever, you can choose a different one, but if you have one it is a very important part of your identity that many would find it appalling to try to force someone to change–and it would definitely be unconstitutional if the state did it.) Choosing to suppress rather than act on desire makes a lot of people miserable. But it makes other people less miserable than feeling like they’re sinning. Either way, it’s a choice.
This way of thinking of non-normative configurations as a valid choice rather than only defensible as uncontrollable is a useful framework. Weber gives the example of the way biological essentialism frequently attends narratives about transgender status, critiquing how this, like biological essentialism around same-sex desire, disallows the experience of an identity that has changed over time.
Weber stops with pointing out the trouble of essentialism, but it occurs to me that the framework of choice is also useful here: “I want my body to look like this; I want to be perceived in X way” produces a more livable life than “I can’t control this and am forced to change my body because I really am this on the inside but I was born in the wrong body.” (Though I acknowledge that the latter self-narration is often a strategically necessary essentialism for those who want access to medical body modification.)
We might contest the system that produces the self-loathing of the ex-gay or the sense that having certain wants or desires means anything about a sex or gender category to which one belongs, but people choose how to respond. It’s a sane response to an insane system.
What I’d want to get my students to see is that it’s a choice. It’s not an entirely free choice, of course, because it’s constrained by the socially available options. But it’s a choice people can make how they want to respond to those constraints. The world I want to live in is not one in which we all have to accept that the non-heterosexual can’t control it and tolerate them, but rather to open up the things that are socially possible to choose.
I think most people take some joy in being right. I’ll certainly admit that I’m one of them. But as a critical academic I’m often going around making dire predictions or showing awful intended and unintended consequences of things, so when I’m right about those there’s some disappointment mixed in with the glee (as there is with all glee, Ryan Murphy).
In the post, the author (who @j_l_r informs me is an undergraduate and so I’ll be playing even nicer than usual this week) critiques what she considers the excesses of fangirls who use microblogging platform Tumblr.
The post is in fact quite prescriptive, telling said fangirls how they ought to behave: “they need to change how they fangirl over it. They need to stop focusing on what shoes their favorite actor is wearing, and remember why they became a fan”; “if you want to run your blog ‘right,’ you need to make your posts about why you’re a fan of so-and-so.”
The author also parses out more specifically what it might look like to not be doin’ it wrong. Thus, she declares, “there’s nothing wrong with listening to the same band for weeks on end, or paying an absurd amount of money for a concert ticket in the nosebleed section.” (Donning the Marxist hat for a second: note that engaging in consumer capitalism is what’s a-ok.)
Moreover, she distinguishes such people from “normal fans,” even insisting that “these fangirls aren’t fans anymore; it’s a race to be the most obsessive, and it isn’t genuine or fair to actual fans on the website.”
Now, @j_l_r quipped “paging Bourdieu?” in the original tweet, and she’s not wrong about that, of course—and maybe my response is because my queer hat just fits me better than my Bourdieu hat—but I want to go a different direction here.
Because the author also noted in the blog post that the Tumblr style of fangirling “makes everyone involved uncomfortable,” and I’d like to argue that this is actually the crux.
This is to say that, as we can see from the definition given—”A fangirl is someone who takes that one thing he or she (usually a she, though) really loves — such as a celebrity, television show, or band — and loves it to the point where their life revolves around it”—fangirling is both highly gendered and an issue of large-scale affect (itself also highly gendered). It’s girls, having extravagant feelings.
But there’s another layer. She says, “Unfortunately, fangirls have taken to blogging their unhealthy obsessions on Tumblr.” Girls have long had feelings deemed extravagant by social standards (ever since rationality became gendered as masculine, in fact), but now they’re doing it in public. And that reminds me vividly of my theorization of fandom as like public sex.
Yes, the blogger’s discomfort (and that of many others) is about what is and isn’t a tasteful way to appreciate cultural objects (obligatory Distinction reference), but engaging in the wrong kind of appreciation shouldn’t produce such a strong reaction. And yet it’s a moral panic. Why? Because such fans become perverts.
The post parses the problem: “It’s a competition — who can post the most pictures, who can get a reaction from a band member or actor via Twitter, who can attend the most concerts or know the most quotes from a show, or who can make the most ridiculous comment professing their undying love,” and complains that such activity is not about the object of fandom.
But here’s the thing you learn about norms and deviants if you can look at it from a certain angle and let go of the panic about contamination: it’s never about the object of fandom.
These girls’ behaviors are scratching some itch they have, providing them some pleasure they desire, and they’re not ashamed to do that even if it does look only tenuously related to the object that is supposedly the point.
Ultimately, love is not rational, and you can write all the essays you want detailing the fine points of a band or TV show and it will always come down to a certain something that produces feelings. What these fangirls are doing openly, everyone does covertly.
And it’s desire, and its excessive feelings, and it’s femininity, and it’s not inside the confines of normative development (the author identifies it as a “stage”). And it freaks people out.
And this blog post is exactly why it matters to bring queer theory to bear on fandom. Because the power of the norm is such that we get female youth hating on feminized youth practices because they know that having that much desire can’t possibly be right.
Posting early because it’s timely and because I’ll be traveling for the next 10 days or so. Look for my next post probably in June.
The normative trajectory of development is frequently made sense of, as so many normative things are, as “natural.” Kids “naturally” hit certain physical, mental, and experiential milestones at certain times.
But, of course, we know from those other normative things that “nature” takes work. People “fail” by having a gender presentation that, oops, it turns out doesn’t “naturally” follow from having a certain sort of body. They don’t “naturally” find that their desires fall into a monogamous heterosexual configuration. Being outside the norm, far from requiring deviance, is the more common condition, showing that compliance with the norm doesn’t just spontaneously arise after all.
As Kathryn Bond Stockton explains in The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, it takes work to regulate growing up so that kids learn things at the “proper” intervals and don’t “grow up too fast” and “lose their innocence.” This is, moreover, a particular kind of work, because this is understood only ever as “premature” exposure to sexuality or violence. We’re oddly unconcerned with precocious entry into other things associated with adulthood like business ownership. Providing kids with a computer game about lemonade stand ownership is a-ok; the kid with the lawn care business is cute.
Not so the incipient trans child, who is imagined not to be capable of thinking about their gender in the way an adult is. So youth have access to some “grownup” decisions or activities and not others.
Stockton notes that “gay” or “homosexual” are “categories culturally deemed too adult, since they are sexual, though we do presume every child to be straight” (p. 6). Thus, a (sex-free) storybook about a penguin same-sex relationship is unsuitable for young children, but those endless Disney movies constructing heterosexual marriage as the one and only happily ever after aren’t too grown up or sexual.
At the same time that we want to keep kids from getting involved in things imagined to be too advanced for them, there is a point at which the narrative flips. Beyond a certain age, one becomes eligible to be told to “grow up already” and move on to adult things.
This is not a major point for Stockton, interested as she is in examining the figure of the child. She does point to the idea of homosexuality as arrested development (p. 22-3)—and the irony that this is paired with thinking of homosexuality as incompatible with childhood doesn’t escape either of us. Stockton also notes that for Freud “perverts are ‘diverts, one could say, who extend themselves or linger” instead of following normative trajectory of sex (p. 25).
But the idea of not growing up fast enough was the part that most interested me, particularly in relation to my work on the ways that fans are represented: they’re not white enough and not straight enough, that is, because they’re not grown up enough—because they haven’t “grown out of” their fandom into the measured appreciation characteristic of normative adulthood.
So given that
a) growing up normatively requires carefully calibrated work to enforce that normativity, to make sure it’s not too fast or too slow, and
b) like other queer theorists I tend to want to expose and disrupt the enforcement of norms,
I was particularly drawn to Stockton’s proposal that we consider what alternative, nonlinear, nonnormative trajectories of growth might look like, that we “prick (deflate, or just delay) the vertical, forward-motion metaphor of growing up” through “sideways growth” (p. 11).
Granted, this is probably because I’m in the “everything relates to my dissertation!” stage, but this seems like a pretty important insight for fan studies.
So much of the field has been founded on being normal—with early work insisting that fans weren’t crazy, honest, and later work interpreting increased visibility and encouragement of fans as showing they had succeeded in becoming normal. But what if we started from the premise other than getting access to normativity? What if we refused the legitimacy of the norm of upward, straight line, normative “growing up”?
I’d like to argue something more like: Kids engage in certain sorts of fandom, and adults can too, and if that’s considered unacceptable it’s the norm that’s the problem, not the fans.
Because, the rush to be “normal and normaller,” (as Michael Warner termed it in 1999 with respect to same-sex marriage) is, I argued in my own discussion of gay marriage, something we ought to approach much more critically, because these sorts of moves inevitably only allow access to the norm for the people who already look mostly like it—white (+), male (+), gender-normative (+), middle-class (+), heterosexual (+) fans (-).
Instead of trying to change the definition of being normatively grownup so they’ll let fans in, or prove that we were always properly adult but not recognized as such, I think fan studies ought to embrace and celebrate growing sideways and slantways and curlicue-ways and fractured-ways and queerly.