Adam, a cool blog author in Dallas, recently had a post on Queer Theory that put my little gears turning for a bit. At different times, I asked colleagues to come in and jiggle my head when I got stuck.
In particular, I worry about the obfuscating language of queer studies and its relevancy for public debate. This is made worse by some queer scholars who intentionally make themselves opaque in order to seem smarter. “What?” You ask, “An academic who pretends to be smarter than he/she is? Get out!.” No, it’s true. It happens.
As a result, a divide sometimes exists between those of us who teach queer studies and those engaged in public debates about sexuality. This is ironic (and it is a real irony, not a fake Alanis Morissette irony) given that queer studies developed with a specific intention of taking academic research directly to the politics of the state. Now, though, we seem a bit adrift.
Let’s take one of the reigning queens of gender studies/queer theory: Judith Butler. Those of us in the academic world worship at the altar of Butler for her remarkable ways of challenging what we presume to be “natural” about men/women/sexuality. Without a doubt, Butler has proved she is one of the smartest academics in the U.S. She could be as close to an academic rock star as we have in this country.
Yet, the woman needs an editor like Cheney needs to stop eating red meat. Here is a typical Butler snippet:
- The redescription of intrapsychic processes in terms of the surface politics of the body implies a corollary redescription of gender as the disciplinary production of the figures of fantasy through the play of presence and absence on the body’s surface, the construction of the gendered body through a series of exclusions and denials, signifying absences.
Is this passage smart? Yes. Is it clear and easy to understand? Oh, hell no. Don’t look for Butler on Oprah’s booklist anytime soon.
I know every field develops a specialized language. Certainly I would not be able to pick up the most recent chemistry journal and be able to decipher it. For the humanities, however, we have an obligation to make our work and teaching relevant. I also think certain queer scholars have allowed theory to cloud their recognition of actual queer people’s day-to-day lives.
Queer Theory has some valuable pieces to add to the public debate on sex and sexuality. At its most basic elements, Queer Theory starts with the presumption that modern sexual categories (e.g. gay/straight or homo/hetero) are historically recent and culturally specific. Therefore the political and legal decisions based on those categories become suspect and should be challenged. Enforcing these categories is an act of power that limits people’s erotic and romantic options. These elements of queer theory allow us to reconsider the ways we think about sexuality and the possibilities for sexual freedom.
On one side, some queer theorists have allowed their commitment to this intellectual exercise infringe on their approach to other queer folk. Many queer theorists disdain those who use homosexual desire as a means to organize their identity. They disparage attempts to build a movement based on “identity politics” as essentialism and denigrate urban “gay ghettos” as another form of the closet. These scholars claim to be on the cutting edge of intellectual and political endeavors, dismissing others as hopelessly parochial or deluded by heteronormative power.
On the flip side, some queer folk have disregarded queer academics as “egg heads” whose ideas have little relevance for the fight for social justice. Queer Theory gets pushed aside as “intellectual masturbation” with little relevance to the “real world” of queer life.
Neither of these things ultimately helps us. Queer Theorists have to start engaging with local circumstances and take seriously that they are not smarter than queer folk outside of the humanities. This may seem obvious, but you would be amazed at the number of people I have known who use their Ph.D. to bludgeon others.
Queer Theory gives us a particular vantage point to enter into public debates on sexuality, but not control them. If we take Queer Theory seriously and assume identities are contingent upon local and historical circumstances, than we also need to take seriously the means through which individuals resist and accommodate those identities in their day-to-day lives. We are often quick to look for resistance from historical figures, but too often assume collusion by our contemporaries.
I would also suggest that those who dismiss queer folk as being “tricked” by heteronormative standards wrongly assume their own immunity from societal and historical processes. Think of a circus performer who walks on his hands when in front of an audience, but really walks on her legs during the rest of day. So also queer theorists marshal their intellect to unpack the complicated processes that inform our assumptions about sexuality (which is good); however, in their daily lives they also face the same expectations and knowledge that brought all of us to our current identities. They might be better informed about the historical emergence of those identities, but it would take a unique individual to break free from the surrounding discourse that built their knowledge of self.
Those outside of the academic world need to reconsider their assumptions about Queer Theory. The U.S. currently suffers from a wave of anti-intellectualism that queer folk need not endorse. Setting aside the scholars who intentionally obfuscate themselves, Queer Theory has some powerful things to offer public debate. We should be cautious about both essentialism (one must do X and X to be queer) or about erasing queer folk’s differences with straight folk (we are all the same, really).
Sexual difference, under queer theory, actively disrupts assumptions about power and state and religious authority. Those who refuse to conform automatically call into question the legitimacy of structures that keep individuals from forming the types of relationships they would like (regardless of whom they actually want to end up with in bed).
Finally, because Queer Theory draws our attention to the ways that sexual identities have historically been constructed, it also draws our attention to our own possibilities for remaking the meaning of those sexual categories. We should no longer think the queer community as exists because of some accident of “nature” that resulted in our dissenting sexual practices. Instead, let’s think about the queer community as something through which we unite in order to protect and defend our ability to express our sexual dissent. Let’s make a real community by actively engaging and defending each other.