In my second semester of doctoral studies, in Jean Graham-Jones's seminar on critical theory, we were tasked with creating a twelve-text annotated bibliography (and an introductory note) around an area of our choosing. My resulting "queer theory" bibliography was idiosyncratic, and personal, and full of the kinds of stylistic mistakes made by young scholars learning to play in a theoretical sandbox. It was a valuable exercise, though, and is one of the things I want to revisit/rethink as I prepare my dissertation proposal. I'm posting it here (warts and all; I've made very few changes) with the caveat that it was written a few years ago and that the texts I selected and the ways I described them would like be different were I to write it today.
The introduction is below, with my comments on the individual texts after the jump.
As always, comments welcome.
Compiling a “definitive” list of queer studies texts is impossible for a number of reasons: Not only is there simply too much relevant material, even given the relatively recent emergence (and, some would argue, decline) of queer theory and politics, but the modus operandi of queerness is that it resists and rejects definitions and definitive frameworks. Queerness is not a statement of identity but a disarticulation and fragmentation of identity processes. I am particularly intrigued at the strategies of queer politics, which gathered a movement not by asserting the sameness of those gathered but by attempting to draw attention to their difference: difference from the mainstream, difference between the individual identities that made up the group, and even difference from moment to moment, because queerness is also a rupturing of narrative.
Of course queer theory and politics has often been entangled and confused with lesbian and gay liberation, a movement with a related but much different agenda. While lesbians and gays seek access to heteronormative structures, queers seek to explode those structures rather than expanding them. Lesbian and gay politics has indignation, while queer politics has rage. Lesbian and gay culture has disco, while queer culture has punk, and queercore. Even as I write these things, however, I’m aware that I am constructing and reinscribing binaries that don’t hold up; this is often one of the difficulties of discussing queerness.
As a theatre scholar and practitioner, I’m particularly interested in the idea that the theatre is an inherently queer space, a space that draws attention to the mutability and multiplicity of identity and desire. I am also curious about the possibility of other queer spaces, and the degree to which those spaces have similarly conflicted relationships with mainstream culture.
I selected the twelve texts below as an attempt to sketch out one version of the shifting boundaries of queer discourse. In order to do so, I have included texts that predate queer theory, most notably Michel Foucault’s seminal The History of Sexuality, Volume One. If there is one predictable, identifying common element of queer texts it is their reliance on Foucault. Many of the texts engage directly with his formulation of the discursive processes of knowledge production while others invoke him as a kind of proto-queer figure. Queerness is postmodern not only because it is based largely on Foucault’s post-structuralist analysis, but because it is a rejection of modernism’s narrative of progress and wholeness.
Several texts are from the very early 1990s, when queerness was first being articulated as a concept. The texts from 1990 did not consider themselves queer texts at the time of their writing because “queer theory” as a term would not be coined until 1991, in an essay by Teresa DeLauretis. Still: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, while a work of feminism, has often been noted as a foundational text for queer theory, an assessment with which I agree.
I wanted to mix culminating overviews, more theoretical texts, more political texts, and examples of queer discourse as applied to theatre studies, and I have tried to do so. I do fear that theatre receives too little attention here, but twelve slots proved inadequate in some ways, to what was perhaps too broadly-conceived a project. Arguably, though, a part of the queer project(s) is that they always present identity as theatre. Some would argue that I should write “identity as performance,” because queer identity is defined not by categorization but by action and process. All identity is performance, however; queer identity is aware of itself as performance and is thus rendered theatrical. All of the texts that follow, then, are about the process of constructing and performing identity rather than the reification of identity categories.
Certainly there are other books that could have been listed here, including some that are directly concerned with theatre. Among those authors whose work I regret not including are bell hooks, Dana Takagi, Jeffrey Weeks, and Laurence Senelick. In many cases I wanted to include a given author but wasn’t sure which text to use. Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Teresa De Lauretis could all certainly have been represented by different texts. Halberstam might in fact have been better served by inclusion of her Female Masculinity, but I wanted to use something with an overtly activist energy, which her short essay “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence” captures well. It also captures the very specific historical context within which queer discourse emerged, and may provide clues as to why it is a discourse that has arguably begun already to disappear or, perhaps more accurately, to be absorbed into other conversations.
Queer theory has often been criticized as being largely apolitical, and yet there is (was?) certainly a political consciousness to queerness. Even so, I do think the dissipation and decline of queerness in the early 21st century is related to its politics. The rage that drove queer politics was built largely on the terror of the AIDS crisis, disillusionment with the aftermath of Reaganism, frustration with the pseudo-conservatism, assimilationism, and exclusionism that too often defined feminism and gay politics, etc. Some have suggested that queer discourse and the identity politics of the 1990s have lost their central place in the wider cultural and scholarly conversation because the geopolitical turmoil exemplified by September 11, 2001 makes relentless focus on individual identity seem trivial. I would suggest, however, that oppression, war, famine, colonial imperialism, economic injustice, etc. are always about individuals. These are not compelling issues because they are about masses and entire demographics; they are compelling because they are about masses of individual identities. Oppression is enabled in part by the notion of individual identity processes as embodying stable and representable categories. Queer discourse is relevant to geopolitics.
Certainly some of what has happened to queer discourse is that, having established its grammar, it has been incorporated into other disciplines. David Savran has written quite openly that, while he finds queer methodologies to be useful, he also finds them to be inadequate on their own in pursuing his cultural materialist project. I think that kind of dispersal is a positive development, and not the cause of the dissipation of queer discourse. What I am afraid of is the possibility that queer dissipation is the result of a kind of complacency. Queer identity politics began as largely a US-American phenomenon (though that was soon complicated). The rage and terror inspired in part by the AIDS crisis may well have subsided in a time when AIDS is treatable and life with AIDS is sustainable—at least from the privileged perspective of the first world.
But why aren’t queer activists outraged about AIDS continuing to ravage third-world countries? Why aren’t queer activists outraged by torture, and economic injustice, and famine around the world? My queasy suspicion is that queer activists have failed to find motivation in injustice not at their doorstep. Queerness has been re-identified with gayness (Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) not just by the general public but by queers ourselves. Much of queer culture was always a little too white and a little too male, but AIDS and other crises served to shatter the comfortable privilege of that outmoded brand of gayness. Now that fewer white men are dying invisibly from sex, however, identification with, and rage on behalf of, the oppressed no longer seems as urgent. Gayness has been reinscribed as a stable and productive identity category. Why celebrate David Wojnarowicz when we can celebrate Nathan Lane and David Geffen? Queerness has lost out to gayness, perhaps, because too many queers were just gays in queer drag to begin with. Queerness may have served as another kind of closet for gays who wanted desperately to be complacent but who could only escape from fear of the plague by responding with rage.
Clearly, I’m writing in part from a place of frustration. But it should be said that the queerness is inevitably marginal, and that those margins have not disappeared altogether. There are still signs of queer life in theorists like Lee Edelman and in performers like John Cameron Mitchell. While it’s not at all difficult to argue that everybody is queer, Edelman has a point when he writes that the queer is always that which exists outside the boundaries of categorized identity. That which can’t, or won’t, be defined is queer.
- Bristow, Joseph. Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1997.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990). New York: Routledge, 1999.
- De Lauretis, Teresa. “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities, An Introduction” in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3, no. 2 (1991): iii–xviii.
- Dyer, Richard and Derek Cohen. “The Politics of Gay Culture” in The Culture of Queer by Richard Dyer. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (1976). Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
- Halberstam, Judith. “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representation, Rage, and Resistance” in Social Text 37 (1993): 187–201.
- Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Savran, David. A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
- Solomon, Alisa. “Great Sparkles of Lust: Homophobia and the Antitheatrical Tradition” in The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater. Edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
- Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp” (1964, revised 1966), in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject. Edited by Fabio Cleto. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
Bristow, Joseph. Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1997.
Joseph Bristow’s Sexuality is intended as an introduction to, and summary of, the systems and frameworks through which “sexuality” as a term has been treated since its invention in the nineteenth century.
The body of the book is divided into four major chapters: “Sexological Types,” “Psychoanalytic Drives,” “Libidinal Economies,” and “Discursive Desires,” with each chapter divided further into two or three titled subsections. The introduction is untitled, but the conclusion is entitled “Diverse Eroticisms,” which gives some indication of Bristow’s point of view and agenda. Bristow is, in fact, very much a presence in the book, never pretending to present facts and histories with a misleading “objectivity” that would have disguised his own theoretical and ideological leanings but editorializing rather openly and placing himself within the history of the conversation(s) he is detailing.
The first chapter, “Psychoanalytic Drives” is divided into three sections: “Sexual Classifications,” “Feminist Contentions,” and “Consuming Passions.” Taken together, the sections are an overview of “sexology,” the “science” of identifying and categorizing sexual practice and identity. Many of these studies sought to challenge the hetero/homo binary but did so by creating increasingly elaborate systems of categorization that still tended to fall apart upon further examination. The studies mostly relied on case studies and interviews, which bring with them all the usual problems of statistical sampling methods and of the biases of those conducting the studies. While many of these studies were attacked and even banned as transgressive and obscene they tended to, in fact, reinforce fairly conservative notions of sexual morality and reductive (if sometimes bizarre) systems of categorization. The more complex these systems get, the more they seem to point to the misguided futility of categorically describing sexuality at all. Still, the legacy of sexology is still certainly felt, with terms and ideas derived from Kraft-Ebbing, Bloch, and Kinsey (among others) still resonating even among those who don’t know where the ideas have come from. Bristow also, though more briefly, examines feminist and pseudo-Marxist critiques of sexology in terms of both their valid criticisms and their limitations.
“Psychoanalytic Drives” is divided into “Freud’s Complexes,” “Lacan’s Orders,” and “Feminist Interventions.” This is largely a summary of well-known material, but it Bristow also frames it as a clear break from the work of sexologists, noting in particular Freud’s re-interpretation of Kraft-Ebbing’s case studies, as well as his revolutionary move to sexualize various body parts, in effect challenging the privileging of genital-centered sexuality. This move would later lead to The Sexual Enlightenment of Children, and other controversial works in which Freud asserted that children’s physical pleasures must be understood in terms of the erotic and that childhood experiences and habits therefore impact, and may be inextricable from, adult sexuality. With Freud having been narrativized as a break from sexology, Lacan is then narrativized as a break from Freud. Particular attention is played, not surprisingly, to the mirror stage and other aspects of Lacan’s difficult formulation of how self-identity develops and functions. Finally, Bristow outlines a few of the primary feminist critiques of psychoanalytic approaches to sexuality, noting its tendency to conservatism, its phallocentrism, and its lack of historical contextualization. Particular attention is paid to Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous, and their attempts to reject Freudian and Lacanian models of female sexuality. Bristow finishes by suggesting that these responses to Freud provide a narrative transition to book’s third chapter and its focus on economies of sexuality: “Taken together the works of Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous dramatize some of the contradictions that emerge when feminists seek to free women’s desires from the structures erected by psychoanalytic phallicism. . . . Their work forms part of a wide-ranging series of theoretical debates about the hoarding, circulation, and expenditure of sexual energies and flows” (114).
“Libidinal Economies” is divided into “(De)Generating Pleasures,” and “Pornographic Materials.” The first section focuses on the work of George Bataille, and Deleuze and Guattari, and their theoretical explorations of desire. More specifically, he is interested in their interrogation of sexuality’s dual associations with birth/life and with death. He writes that Battaille’s formulation of desire “operates within a system of accumulation and expenditure, where life and death are opposing forces structured around a system of taboos and transgressions” (127). Deleuze and Guattari both draw from and challenge these systems in their attempt to completely overturn existing theories of desire. They are reacting against the formulation of desire as a “lack of the real,” instead proposing relationships between body parts as “desiring machines” (for example: mouth-breast in the case of a nursing baby, is a desiring machine.) Their iconoclastic approach continues with their celebration of the schizophrenic. A discussion of Baudrillard and Barthes and their similarly negative views of pornography lead into the second half of the chapter, an examination of ongoing debates among feminist theorists and activists about whether pornography is inherently violent and exploitative. He uses Linda Williams’s provocative writings on potentially productive pornography to transition into the final chapter by noting her reliance on Foucault.
“Discursive Desires” is a treatment of Foucault’s immense importance to queer theory and to the study of sexuality in general. Focusing primarily on The History of Sexuality, Volume One, the chapter is divided into “Foucault’s Bodies,” “Foucault’s Exclusions,” and “Foucault’s Followers.” The first part is as summary of Foucault’s major arguments in The History of Sexuality, which I discuss elsewhere in this bibliography. The second section outlines some prominent criticisms of Foucault’s work: first among them that he refuses to acknowledge “sexual difference” between genders and the ways in which the laws he so often discusses display overt institutional sexism. In the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality, Foucault treats male-male love and desire without reflecting on its impact on or interaction with women’s issues. Similarly, post-colonial critics have tended to criticize Foucault for his failure to acknowledge perceived and/or actual differences of race. Bristow also points to Terry Eagleton’s Marxist critique of Foucault, writing that “[t]o Eagleton, Foucault’s relentless desire to aestheticize the self in the name of resisting the powers mediated by external subjugatory laws presents far too many intolerable paradoxes for it to be taken seriously” (195). Finally, Bristow places Foucault in the context of an ongoing conversation about the construction of sexuality, particularly gay male sexuality. While this section is titled “Foucault’s Followers,” it also acknowledges Foucault’s predecessors, including Mary McIntosh and Jeffrey Weeks. He then briefly treats work by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and others, all of whom cite and reflect Foucault as a primary influence. All of this leads to the statement that “queer theory is a major consequence of Foucault’s introduction to The History of Sexuality” (218).
Bristow’s brief conclusion seeks to identify an emerging discourse that may be seen as an attempt to render queer theory and politics irrelevant by confronting the seemingly paradoxical universality that underlies that treatment of sexuality as infinitely multiple. Theorists like Dana Takagi have suggested that, while celebrating “difference,” queer theory implies that these differences are comparable, equivalent in some way and thus not differences at all. Bristow’s final sentences suggest that “[m]aybe the time has come when diverse desires will no longer be bound together under one constraining label—a label that has for decades proved immensely difficult to analyse, . . . [namely,] sexuality” (228).
While Bristow’s narrative of sexuality may be a little too neat, suggesting as it does a clearly traceable history of the language and discourse of sexuality and the ways in which various approaches have led into each other—and even, ultimately, suggesting an end to the history of the word “sexuality” that mirrors its beginning—the book serves as a useful overview and as a point of entry into a dauntingly complex and contentious field of study. His ability to encapsulate complex arguments into clear prose without resorting to terribly reductive interpretations is certainly valuable. The book can itself be seen as an extended annotated bibliography, providing enough context for a multitude of works to suggest where the reader might want to go next.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990). New York: Routledge, 1999.
The central project of the book, which is laid out in its opening pages, is to reconcile the agenda and promise of feminist thought with the emerging discourses of identity that sought to destabilize ideas as central as gender and subjectivity. On a more activist level, Butler took a firm stance on the side of these emerging theorizations and against feminism’s legacy of heteronormative politics predicated on relatively conservative notions of gender identity.
Butler asserts that feminism as a movement, having made significant strides in subverting “universal patriarchy” is now at a moment of crisis. From her point of view, the destabilization of oppressive categorical structures is the mission of such movements, and the next step is clearly to subvert gender itself. In a movement built on womanhood and femininity as unifying forces, however, such a development is bound to be met with skepticism. From Butler’s point of view, “naturalized and reified notions of gender . . . support masculine hegemony” and need to be recognized as products of the patriarchal structures which feminism has always resisted (44).
Having laid out her position in her opening chapter, Butler uses the second and third chapters to engage with a series of seminal theoretical texts from a variety of disciplines. Foucault is a major presence throughout, as Butler repeatedly rejects binary systems and reveals the structural and political underpinnings of existing discourses. In the second chapter, “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix,” she challenges the impulse of some feminists to posit “an original, a time before what some would call ‘patriarchy’ that would provide an imaginary perspective from which to establish the contingency of the history of women’s oppression” (45). These speculative musings are in danger of promoting “a politically problematic reification of women’s experience in the course of debunking the self-reifying claims of masculinist power” (46). From this perspective, Butler criticizes those feminists who employ Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology to construct a sex/gender binary whereby “there s a natural or biological female who is subsequently transformed into a socially subordinate ‘woman,’ with the consequence that ‘sex’ is to nature . . . as ‘gender’ is to culture” (47). Having established a political impetus for rejecting any notions of unitary or originary identity categories, Butler deconstructs elements of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, and Riviere to point out the tortuous theorizations necessary to sustain their various articulations of “Natural” identity structures.
The final chapter of Gender Trouble, “Subversive Bodily Acts” locates flaws in the writing of ostensibly subversive and progressive thinkers, including Foucault, whose methodologies Butler turns on Foucault’s own passages. She begins with a critique of Julia Kristeva’s reliance on psychoanalytic drive theory. “Even if we accept Kristeva’s theory of primary drives, it is unclear that the subversive effects of such drives can serve, via the semiotic, as anything more than a temporary and futile disruption of the hegemony of the paternal law,” Butler writes. She continues, criticizing Kristeva’s “failure of political strategy” as a result of her “uncritical appropriation of drive theory” (103). Foucault’s claim that sexuality produces “’sex’ as an artificial concept which effectively extends and disguises the power relations responsible for its genesis” plays a primary role in Butler’s dismantling of Kristeva’s attempt at feminist semiotics.
Having used Foucault’s theory to critique Kristeva, Butler then examines moments at which Foucault’s theory “proves increasingly difficult to maintain, even within the strictures of his own critical apparatus” (120). Her primary strategy is to juxtapose Foucault’s treatment of sex in The History of Sexuality with his treatment of sex in a preface to the journals of nineteenth-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin. She finds a subtle but intriguing tension within The History of Sexuality itself, as well: “On the one hand, Foucault wants to argue that there is no ‘sex’ in itself which is not produced by complex interactions of discourse and power, and yet there does seem to be a ‘multiplicity of pleasures’ in itself which is not the effect of any specific discourse/power exchange. In other words, Foucault invokes a trope of prediscursive libidinal multiplicity that effectively presupposes a sexuality ‘before the law.’” This seems to contradict Foucault’s insistence that “sexuality and power are coextensive and that we must not think that by saying yes to sex we are saying no to power” (123).
Next she examines Monique Wittig’s development of and reaction to Simone Beauvoir’s statement that “One is not born a woman.” In general, Butler finds much to appreciate in Wittig’s notions of “fictive sex” but she is troubled by the implications of Wittig’s statements about becoming lesbian as “taking leave of heterosexuality” as if the two were the same process. “What a tragic mistake . . . to construct a gay/lesbian identity through . . . exclusionary means. . . . Such an exclusion, paradoxically, institutes precisely the relation of radical dependency it seeks to overcome: Lesbianism would then require heterosexuality” (163).
Finally, Butler begins to circle back to her primary point, synthesizing the various critiques on which she has embarked over the previous pages into statements that mirror those at the beginning of the book: “Gender ought not to be constructed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (179). Her conclusion to this chapter is a suggestion to think of gender attributes as “not expressive, but performative” so that “these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal,” in an attempt to bring agency and a new kind of subjectivity to gender identity (179-180). If a single point were to be extracted from Butler’s book-length deconstruction of sex and gender, it would be her argument that gender is always already an imitation, a performance, and that all gender is therefore a kind of drag (though it is a drag without a stable referent).
Tellingly, Butler concludes the book not with a statement, but a question: “What other local strategies for engaging the “unnatural” might lead to the denaturalization of gender as such” (190)? Gender Trouble is not intended to be a definitive statement but a catalyst for further discussion. Butler takes on a dizzying array of writers and thinkers, including many I did not have space to address here, and this is not a book that can be digested in full in one reading. Nevertheless, the broad strokes of her project are clearly and accessibly articulated and her erudition and facility with a variety of theoretical and literary texts, and to the various articulations of feminist thought and politics, lends weight to her ideas that makes it difficult for those who disagree with her to simply dismiss her.
De Lauretis, Teresa. “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities, An Introduction” in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3, no. 2 (1991): iii–xviii.
Teresa de Lauretis is frequently credited with coining the term “queer theory” and for playing an instrumental role in developing its initial discourse. The essay in which this naming occurs is in some ways a modest one: it is the introduction to a journal issue comprised of papers presented at a conference about sexuality. The repercussions of both the conference and the collection, though, were significant; they served as an articulation of a major shift in the discourse and politics of sexual studies. The ambition de Lauretis had for the agenda of the conference is clear: “to examine, make explicit, compare, or confront the respective histories, assumptions, and conceptual frameworks that have characterized the self-representations of North American lesbians and gay men, of color and white, up to now; from there we could then go on to recast or reinvent the terms of our sexualities, to construct another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual” (iv).
The gesture of employing “queer theory” as a new articulation of an area of study and exploration was intended, in large part, as an acknowledgment of and break from the increasingly apparent limitations and biases built into “lesbian and gay” studies. While it takes up relatively little space in the essay, the question of why a new term is necessary and why it should be “queer” is a central one. Toward the beginning of the essay, de Lauretis writes, “‘Queer Theory’ conveys a double emphasis—on the conceptual and speculative work involved in discourse production and on the necessary critical work of deconstructing our own discourses and their constructed silences” (iv). The central role that Foucault’s vocabulary and methodology would play in this emerging theoretical toolbox, then, is clear from the beginning.
A couple of sentences later, de Lauretis begins to make the distinction between what she and her colleagues are trying to do and what has come before: “The term ‘queer,’ juxtaposed to the ‘lesbian and gay’ of the subtitle, is intended to mark a certain critical distance from the latter, by now established and often convenient formula. For the phrase ‘lesbian and gay’ or ‘gay and lesbian’ has become the standard way of referring to what only a few years ago used to be simply ‘gay’ . . . or, just a few years earlier still, ‘homosexual.’” This sentence, and the paragraphs that follow it, serve as an acknowledgment that “lesbian and gay” studies began as, and has continued to be dominated by, the study of gay, white men. She points out that women and racial and ethnic minorities have been long under-represented in this ostensibly inclusive and progressive field, partly because of “restricted institutional access to publishing and higher education, which has only slightly improved . . . with small presses and great effort” (viii).
This disparity, along with what she speculates might be “a matter of different choices, different work priorities, different constituencies and forms of address” (ix), has resulted not just in a fragmented body of work but in distinct and separate bodies of work, with those addressing women and gays of color continuing to be markedly smaller than those addressing gay white men. When all the permutations and possible combinations of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, etc. are taken into account, the prospect of an unsustainable proliferation of distinct discourses emerges. “In a sense, the term ‘Queer Theory’ was arrived at in the effort to avoid all of these fine distinctions in our discursive protocols, not to adhere to any one of the given terms, not to assume their ideological liabilities, but instead to both transgress and transcend them—or at the very least problematize them” (v).
More than half of the essay essentially provides abstracts of the writings that make up the remainder of the journal, and much of the introduction seems, in retrospect, rather obvious. Still, as both a culminating statement of brewing dissatisfaction with existing grammar and discourse, and a catalyst for the explosion of queer theory that was to emerge in the following decade, de Lauretis’s essay remains a touchstone work. Perhaps its most significant achievement is that, rather than reject a fragmentation of identity politics altogether, it takes that fragmentation as its subject, thus providing a means by which to bring distinct and personal formulations of the identity process under a single umbrella term without resorting to universalist and assimilationist impulses.
Dyer, Richard and Derek Cohen. “The Politics of Gay Culture” in The Culture of Queer by Richard Dyer. London: Routledge, 2002.
Richard Dyer and Derek Cohen essentially provide two coming-out/coming-of-age essays, framed as cultural histories, for “The Politics of Gay Culture.” The motivation for the dual authorship is the assertion that there are (at least) two gay “cultures,” termed by Dyer and Cohen as the “traditional” and the “radical.” Coming of age into the “traditional” culture, before the “radical” culture existed was an essentially different experience from coming out into the “radical” culture. Dyer and Cohen are of two generations; thus Dyer writes about traditional gay culture and Cohen writes about radical gay culture, while the two collaborate on definitions of each, and other aspects of the article’s framework.
The distinction between the two cultures is slippery, as is the relationship between them: “The traditional culture is not necessarily reactionary . . ., it has simply been around longer and is not defined by its self-conscious political orientation. The traditional culture could be very radical . . .. and there is radicalism . . . that is deeply and/or ambivalently involved in traditional gay cultural forms” (25). They mark the birth of radical gay culture as the 1970s, “with the advent of gay liberation politics” (26), but since traditional gay culture continues alongside radical gay culture, the distinction is not solely temporal.
The closet is certainly one location of difference. Traditional gay culture spoke in codes and generally operated under the regressive sexological notion that homosexuality could be equated with femininity. Dyer writes: “It is clear that, as I experienced it then, the equation of artistic queerness with femininity downgraded both femininity and me. I negate myself by identifying with women . . ., and then out myself down by internalizing the definition of female qualities as inferior” (22). While traditional gay culture eventually (one hopes) came out of the closet and developed somewhat more progressive gender politics, it “was never knowingly political, and fully effective political movements have to be self-conscious movements” (22).
Radical gay culture, according to Cohen and Dyer, rejected the closet but was also explicitly political in its cultural output. Aggressive assertions of subjectivity were central to the new gay arts. The celebration of artifice inherent to camp was replaced by an insistence on authenticity.
The article mostly looks at these two cultures via their art(s). The process by which each man came to identify as gay was fundamentally impacted by the images, narrative strategies, and tone of the art to which they had access. This was largely, but not solely, art that involved representation of queers.
In many ways, the traditional/radical binary that Dyer and Cohen set up seems to mirror what others would have articulated as a gay/queer binary, but there are crucial differences. The fixation on “authenticity” and “liberation” in radical gay culture is not the focus on fragmentation and subversion later put forth by queer culture.
Dyer and Cohen’s article is very British, and so the timeline of gay liberation politics differs somewhat from the American one. Stonewall is not a major presence in the article, for example. Similarly, it is striking to be reminded how recently homosexuality and its associated acts were illegal in the United Kingdom.
The authors acknowledge early on that gay white men have traditionally had many of the same advantages of straight white men, and while this admission has a kind of regretful tone to it, that privilege is very much felt throughout the article. This late in the game, I’m not sure it’s enough to acknowledge that the essentialist, mainstream gay experience serves to erase the agency and subjectivity of more marginal identities and then simply proceed to continue in that tradition of exclusivity.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
While I cannot claim to have fully digested, or fully comprehended, Lee Edelman’s dense and difficult No Future, and while my nascent understanding of the book has already yielded some objections, I wanted to include it here because it seems to represent a version of the rage, rebellion, and punk-infused iconoclasm which defined the queer movement a decade ago and which has largely been lost in recent years. Just as choosing the word “queer” itself was an act of asserted subjecthood, a reclamation and recontextualization of a signifier that was inherently negative within heteronormative discourse, No Future is a call to embrace the association of queerness with infertility and a near-apocalyptic lack of concern with the future, a call to reject the ideas of progress and futuricity built into modernism, and inextricably linked to a heteronormative ideology.
The book is made up of four chapters, two or three (depending on what you count) of which were published previously. The first, “The Future is Kid Stuff,” identifies the image of the child as foundational to Western society. In one of the more amusing passages, Edelman suggests that “The Greatest Love of All,” with its opening line “I believe the children are the future . . . ” may as well be our national anthem. This seminal image places undue stress on both the child/mother/family as productive signifiers of progress/hope and the opposed(/oppressed) “queer” identities that do not, by their sexual “nature” imply a future generation. Queer sex “reduces” sex to “fucking;” there is no rational, practical result or purpose. There is only the pleasure principle, which is linked to the “death drive,” which is associated with queer sexualities on a number of levels. Rather than objecting to these linkages, queers should embrace the death drive and reject the future as an outmoded, modernist construction. Identity and action are not about the future, but about the now. The straight/gay binary fucks FOR the future, while the queer says “fuck the future.”
“Sinthomosexuality,” Edelman’s second chapter, is certainly central to his argument but is also the chapter on which I have the most tenuous grasp (in no small part due to my tenuous grasp of Lacan). Edelman borrows (late) Lacan’s concept of the “sinthome” (symptom), which cannot by analyzed and does not point to a signifying symbolic order. The queer, says Edelman, unlike the “gay,” is “sinthomosexual;” queer theory rejects the entire symbolic order as a romantic notion enabled by modernism. Queerness does not signify because it is itself a rejection of the system that enables signification.
Chapters 3 and 4 (“Compassion’s Compulsion” and “No Future”) employ a number of textual readings to support ideas put forth in earlier chapters and to critique existing theoretical discourse(s). Perhaps most intriguing is Edelman’s critique of Judith Butler. Butler famously, and repeatedly, called for an expansionist of humanist conceptions of identity so that no permutation of identity could be considered “other.” Edelman responds both to that broad project and, more specifically, to Butler’s reading of Antigone. Edelman’s primary critique is that queerness can never be “included” by a system of identity categories because, no matter how inclusive that system, queerness is always what rejects the system and exists outside of it.
As I've already stated, I have some objections to No Future, though my rather tenuous grasp of its argument makes me reluctant to voice those objections. First and foremost, I am suspicious of the apolitics of the book. In its rejection of “future” it also rejects the political. While I applaud the return to “rage” as a driving motivator of queer theory, I am frustrated by the queer movement’s failure to engage with political issues not immediately relevant to the most obviously queer concerns, and I am afraid that Edelman’s blanket rejection of future and rationalism reinforces that problem. I am also frustrated that Edelman’s examples of cultural artifacts are all products of and about middle-to-upper-class white men. I recognize that the agenda of the book is largely to identify mainstream concerns in order to either queer or reject them, but the invisibility of more “marginal” product, which Edelman ostensibly champions, is troublingly evident in his own work. I am also frustrated that much of the book is willfully difficult, though, again, I recognize that this is part of his project: rendering narrative accessible will almost always involve reinforcing the very narrative structures Edelman is seeking to reject. Finally, I think that there are moments that Edelman, for all his care to the contrary, reinscribes categorical identity structures by insisting on things that the “queer” is not.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (1976). Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
While not actually a part of queer theory or queer politics, the first volume of Foucault’s final project is foundational enough to both movements to be a significant and inevitable presence in every one of the texts mentioned here. The prospect of summarizing a few hundred pages of Foucault in the context of an annotated bibliography is daunting, but I will touch on the major points that are frequently drawn upon by queer theory.
First, The History of Sexuality is an attempt to disrupt what had become the received narrative of Western sexual history. It is a rejection, or at least a questioning, of the idea that the relative sexual “freedom” of the seventeenth century gave way to the “repression” of the Victorian period, a repression that persisted throughout the twentieth century. Instead, Foucault suggests that this narrative is in fact a part of the history it pretends to narrate, a part of the system it against which it rebels.
Foucault takes pains to point out the irony of how very vocally we complain that we can’t talk about sex. In fact, he suggests, we talk and write far more about sex than we did before it was “repressed.” Repression is, perhaps, actually an obsession. At the very least, this ostensible “repression” is part of the discourse of sexuality rather than an imposed silence that is opposed to that discourse. This connects to a wide r theme of Foucault’s, which is present in earlier works as well as in The History of Sexuality. “Silence” cannot be opposed in binary fashion to discourse. Silence is, rather, an integral part of discourse and a constitutive element of both knowledge and power.
Liberal, post-Enlightenment society, in decentralizing power has been theorized as limiting power, but in many ways has actually expanded it. Power has become more pervasive in that definitions of normality, enforced by social contract and the discourse of knowledge, have taken on agency that they did not have when power structures were more centralized. New kinds of social control are possible with power thus distributed within/throughout the body politic. “Repression” of sexuality has in fact resulted in proliferating discourse(s) about sex(uality), isolating via articulation and definition various sexual “perversions” and proclivities, allowing power to penetrate aspects of behavior and identity where it did not previously have access.”We must therefore abandon the hypothesis that modern industrial societies ushered in an age of increased sexual repression. We have not only witnessed a visible explosion of unorthodox sexualities; but […] a deployment quite different from the law […] has ensured […] the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities” (49).
While nineteenth-century science sought the “truth” of sex, it did so by focusing on aberrations to the exclusion of the ostensibly normative. The science of perversion and aberration can be juxtaposed with the ars erotica, the art of the erotic, in which “truth is drawn from pleasure itself” and “pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself” (57). Instead of ars erotica, our civilization relies on confession, which assumes a much different power structure and frames pleasure as perversion. “The confession was, and still remains, the general standard governing the production of the true discourse on sex” (63). The sheer number of these confessions/case studies results in an ever-expanding nomenclature and discourse of sexual practice, pleasure, and predilection.
Focusing on law, prohibition, liberty, etc. fails to provide a framework with which to examine and articulate a history of sexuality. The power of the state is not the totality of power; the state should not be assumed to have sovereignty with regards to discourse. Centers of power are local and unstable. Sexuality is “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power.” It is “not the most intractable element in power relations, but rather one of those endowed with the greatest instrumentality: useful for the greatest number of maneuvers and capable of serving as a point of support . . . for the most varied strategies” (103).
Four “great strategic unities” emerged in the 18th century as “mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex” (103): “A hysterization of women’s bodies,” represented by “the hysterical woman;” “A pedagogization of children’s sex” with the representative figure being “the masturbating child;” “A socialization of procreative behavior” embodied by “the Malthusian couple” [a reference to Thomas Malthus’s population theory]; and “a psychiatrization of perverse pleasure,” represented by “the perverse adult” (104–105).
The standard narrative of sexuality, that of Victorian repression, rests on two ruptures: the advent of increased repression in the mid nineteenth century and the rebellion against, loosening of this repression in the mid-twentieth century. This is historically suspect. Psychoanalysis and other emerging loci of power in fact “deployed” sexuality rather than repressing it, and by deploying “sexuality,” invented “sex.” The invention of sex has been misidentified as the repression of sex.
Sex is also a function of class. Sexuality is a bourgeoisie-centered construct, and serves in part as a further means to articulate and stratify class distinctions.
As Foucault theorized in earlier works, like Discipline and Punish, the Enlightenment engendered a shift away from power as a threat of death and towards power as a control over life. The cataloging, study, and deployment of sexuality is a facet of this power dynamic. Power over sexual discourse is power over life both in terms of the literal, birth-yielding aspect of sex and in terms of pleasure and desire, primary aspects of identity formation, etc.
My notes on Foucault’s book are in no way an adequate articulation of his “analytics.” Fairly often, the invocation and deployment of Foucault in queer texts is either superficial or inaccurate as well. The linking of sex with power structures, the idea that sexual identity is largely a function of historically specific sexual discourse, and the destabilization of a great many assumptions about sexual politics, though, all set the stage for the queer agenda.
Halberstam, Judith. “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representation, Rage, and Resistance” in Social Text, 37 (1993): 187–201.
“Imagined Violence/Queer Violence” is a manifesto of sorts. Pointing out that real-world protests have largely lost their teeth, having become carefully stage-managed events that are officially sanctioned and predictable, Halberstam suggests that an alternative is to find a “place of rage” in the imaginary. She defines “rage” as “a political space opened up by the representation in art, in poetry, in narrative, in popular film, of unsanctioned violences committed by subordinate groups upon powerful white men.” She continues:
The relationship between imagined violence and "real" violence is unclear, contested, negotiable, unstable, and radically unpredictable; and yet, imagined and real violence is not simply a binary formulation. Precisely because we cannot predict what action representations will give rise to, it is impossible to describe the boundary that divides imagined violence from real violence in any detail. [The] place of rage is a strange and wonderful terrain, it is a location between and beyond thought, action, response, activism, protest, anger, terror, murder, and detestation. [The] place of rage is ground for resistance. (187-188)
Reading several poems by June Jordan (from whom she also borrows the phrase “place of rage”), excerpts from David Wojnarowicz’s Close to Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Ice-T’s controversial “Cop Killer,” and Paul Verhoeven’s film Basic Instinct, along with glancing references to other works, she suggests that the volatile, even panicked reactions of various populations to such aggressive texts indicates the power of their imagined violence.
Halbserstam’s particular use of the word queer is critical both in understanding her personal politics and the optimistic, even utopian, agenda driving AIDS-era queer discourse. “I use the word ‘queer’ here to denote a postmodern, postidentity politics focused on but not limited to sexual minorities” (190). Bemoaning the disappearance of rage from “organized political activism,” she theorizes “the production of counterrealities as a powerful strategy of revolt emanating from an increasingly queer postmodern culture” (189–190).
Responding to criticisms of postmodernism as apolitical, she counters that political activism is insufficiently postmodern, citing Queer Nation and ACT UP as emerging exceptions. Queer Nation’s “Bash Back” campaign, which tried to raise the possibility of violent responses to gay-bashers, is tied to Halberstam’s conception of the imaginary. Because the line between fantasy-violence and actual violence is unstable, no “real” vigilante response to bashers is necessary; the articulation of the fantasy is in and of itself an act of resistance and a potentially effective threat.
If Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” have revealed themselves to be an extraordinarily powerful formulation, then why would “imagined violence” not have similar potential for the Queer Nation? Halberstam’s attitude towards “nation” is ambivalent, though; she repeatedly cites Wojnarowicz’s sneering rejection of the “ONE TRIBE NATION” and suggests that one of the positive outcomes of the imagined violence in “Cop Killer” and Basic Instinct is that it has in fact fragmented the liberal and queer communities: “[U]nity is … an imagined consensus that always covers up difference with platitudes. Let politics be postrnodern and queer, postidentity and posthuman. Imagined violences create a potentiality, a utopic state in which consequences are imminent rather than actual, the threat is in the anticipation, not the act” (199).
Enacting imaginary/fantasy violence reconfigures power structures in which straight white violence is condoned and queer violence is viewed either unthinkable and untenable. While the white male is always already potentially violent, members of marginal populations are objects rather than subjects and don’t have the agency to respond with violence. Introducing the possibility of queer subjecthood and the potential for violence, the imagined, alters the imagined/consensual power dynamic.
Judith Halberstam’s call to (imaginary) arms could only have been written in the 1990s, when AIDS, high-profile police brutality cases, and the aftermath of Reaganism made a performative, activist rage seem viable. The article seems almost quaint 14 years later, when all the rage of the queer movement seems to have dissipated. Imagined violence and other signifiers of queer rage have been co-opted and commodified just as street protests of earlier decades have been.
Halberstam’s strengths and weaknesses are in full effect in the article. Her awareness of and sensitivity to race issues as relevant and even integral to queer politics, her highly accessibly prose style, and her ability to modulate effortlessly between popular culture, queer culture, high art, and scholarly theory are all impressive. Her tendency to relevant texts and theorists she happens not to care for, and her tendency to gloss over details in favor of compelling turns of phrase are also on display.
Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
David Halperin’s Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography begins with a brief explanation of his personal motivations for writing the two long essays that make up the body of the book. First he notes that Richard Mohr, in a book called Gay Ideas, had attacked both Foucault and his devotees as dangerous to the “gay” cause. More broadly, Mohr attacks the social constructionist view of sexuality (which, he claims, is dominant in academic circles) because it seeks to contextualize homosexuality so specifically and so completely that it may one day no longer exist.
Halperin briefly notes that this is somewhat of a misreading of Foucault and that Mohr’s brief mention of Halperin’s own work is not entirely accurate either. While Halperin says he was one of few classicists to respond positively to the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality, he did voice reservations. The difference in his point of view now, though, is that he would not voice those reservations. He has come to see Foucault even more positively and take him even more seriously than before.
Halperin goes on to discuss a lawsuit that his colleague, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, filed against MIT. In it, she claimed that MIT hiring and promotion within certain departments was linked to sexuality, and cited Halperin as an example. She also made claims that Halperin was a potentially dangerous figure because it was part of his job to, essentially, indoctrinate young gays and lesbians and because he, an older gay male, sometimes held classes in his home. Many of the facts in the filed suit were apparently incorrect, and no accusation has apparently ever been made again Haperin regarding sexual harassment, but the charges made headlines and did what he perceived as considerable damage to his reputation. While he had intended to file suit against Wolff himself, MIT convinced him to take generous research grants and teaching schedules instead.
The incident has come to represent for me an object lesson in the institutional crisis of gay authority. . . . It dramatizes the remarkable ease with which socially authorized individuals can communicate certain ‘truths’ about a gay subject: if the message is already waiting at the receiver’s end, it doesn’t even need to be sent; it just needs to be activated. Ultimately, what the Wolff affair brought home to me is the very real vulnerability which, until that moment, I hadn’t realized I shared with all other lesbian and gay people in our society, a vulnerability I foolishly thought I had managed to escape by coming out. . . . [C]oming out had seemed to me to furnish a means of seizing the initiative [... and] a certain interpretive authority over my words and actions. As I discovered . . ., however, it turns out that if you are known to be lesbian or gay your very openness, far from preempting malicious gossip about your sexuality, simply exposes you to the possibility that . . . people can say absolutely whatever they like about you in the well-grounded confidence that it will be credited. (12–13).
His motivation for writing this book, then, and for declaring Foucault to be a “saint” within a nascent queer hagiography, is his recognition of the ways in which he is enmeshed in the complex matrix of power relationships that Foucault spent much of his career articulating.
The body of the book is divided into two sections. The first, “The Queer Politics of Michel Foucault,” tries to reconcile the fact that Foucault was widely criticized for articulating a circular theory of power relationships that invalidated ideas of “progress” and thus preemptively undermined activism with the fact that every queer activist he questioned, including leaders of ACT UP/NY, cited Foucault as a major influence and with the fact that Foucault spent much of his life as a major activist himself. While Halperin is careful to say that this is not a book explicating Foucault’s theories so much as a book examining (and exulting) his status as a queer public intellectual and activist, he does take a considerable amount of time in discussing Foucault’s theory of how power functions in a modern liberal state and the objections that many of his peers and critics had to that theory.
Most of the essay, though, tries to address the question “What did gay activists see in Foucault, and specifically in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, that his straight-liberal critics missed, and why” (27)? He suggests several possible answers and contributing factors before zeroing in on what he sees as central: “I believe that Foucault’s political approach to discourse, specifically his inquiry into what might be called the political economy of sexual discourse, enables us to devise some effective strategies for confronting and resisting the discursive operations of contemporary homophobia” (30).
Noting that “homophobic discourses contain no fixed propositional content” (33) and asserting that homophobic discourse is built on a “paradoxical combination of incoherence, propositional indeterminacy, and social efficacy” (43), Halperin essentially suggests that recognizing sexual categories, identities, and prejudices as discursive processes enables a polymorphous resistance to an unstable and shifting rhetoric/discourse/bias. Embracing identity as discursive allows the marginalized to be subjects with agency rather than objects of empowered arbiters of knowledge.
The second essay in the book, “The Describable Life of Michel Foucault” explores, in part, the tension between the hagiographic and biographic celebrations of Foucault and his writings and Foucault’s resistance to authorship. Writing about Foucault as the “author” of his texts is problematic given “Foucault’s highly skeptical inquiries […] into the discursive function of ‘the author’” (127–128). Because biography and psychology can be seen as an exercise of power and a means of control, it is problematic to apply them to a figure who vocally resisted them in a variety of ways.
While Halperin says he is “not arguing that the only legitimate way to write the story of Foucault’s life is to do so either in a Foucauldian manner or in a Foucauldian idiom” but that those “whose lives may depend on our abilities to resist the power of normalization in its various social and institutional manifestations, whose conception of the political has been crucially shaped by our reading of Foucault’s tests, and whose own political and discursive practices have been inspired . . . by Foucalt’s personal example” might reasonably “protest against an account of Foucault’s life and work that in effect reverses his entire political program” (145–146).
This “protest” is largely in response to James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault which isolates specific facts and writings of Foucault’s life to impose a cohesive narrative onto it, and to suggest that this narrative is authoritative and factual rather than a discursive construction in its own right. Comparing Miller’s book to several other biographies of Foucault, Halperin uses Foucault, as an object of others’ biographical scrutiny, as an example of the kind of discourse of knowledge that Foucault, as a theorist, rejected in his writings.
Saint Foucault is an angry book, and sometimes comes across as unnecessarily strident, but it is also a useful examination of Foucault’s place in queer history, not just as a theorist (which is evident in almost all writings on queer theory) but as an activist and an inspiration for a mode of resistance that emerged in the post-AIDS era. Like many of the texts treated in this bibliography, it is very clearly a product of its time, but it remains relevant in no small part because it was written by someone whose complacency and confidence in his own secure position was shaken by the realization that “power is everywhere” and that revolutions, even while they redistribute and decentralize power, often serve to actually amplify it and its determination to prescribe behavior and rhetoric.
It’s interesting to note that, while the defiant-punk tone and substance of Halperin’s book point to a queer sensibility, he rarely uses the word “queer” outside of chapter titles. He clearly identifies as gay more than as queer and, indeed, uses the word “gay” in his subtitle.
Savran, David. A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.
A Queer Sort of Materialism is a collection of essays that sums up David Savran’s scholarly work during the heyday of queer theory and criticism. In one sense, it marks the end of his direct engagement with gender and sexuality studies and his shift to frameworks borrowed from the sociology of culture; but Savran’s intention in juxtaposing these essays, as he explains in his preface, is also to locate their common ground. He locates that commonality in the affinity he feels for Marxist and materialist thought, writing that his “scholarship has been . . . obsessed with materiality, with the materiality of desiring bodies and the materiality of culture” (vii). If the commonality between the essays is their materialist bent, though, whence the “queer” in the title? Savran suggests the possibility that “materialism is always (to borrow a phrase that Marx uses in a very different context) ‘a very queer thing’” (xi). “Queer,” both in its denotative sense and in the context of queer discourse, is defamiliarizing, unsettling to and disruptive of cultural (and literary) narratives.
Because of the book’s project, some of the essays are more pertinent to this bibliography than others. The first chapter, “Middlebrow Anxiety” has little direct relation to queer theory, but is a sociological argument about theatre’s status as a middlebrow form, and the troubled space that the middlebrow occupies in American culture. He suggests that “[r]ather than cringing at this category, perhaps we should try to use it to pry open the economic and social relations that produce—and are produced by—what we call American theater” (24–25). Savran then focuses on the Pulitzer Prize as devoutly middlebrow, a category that can be defined in part as “a combination of seriousness and popular success,” pointing out that “the prize by definition excludes determinedly avant-gardist work as surely as it does shameless crowd-pleasers devoid of ‘educational value’” (26). He further narrows his focus to the seven musicals, “one per decade beginning in the 1930s” that have won the Pulitzer, and narrows it more fully to South Pacific, and Rent. He criticizes both musicals for trying to be all things to all people and, at their heart, more conservative and less subversive than they appear to be.
In “The Queerest Art,” (which appeared in a shorter version in the Alisa Solomon/Framji Minwalla collection mentioned elsewhere in these pages), Savran writes about the proliferation of gay and lesbian subject matter in 1990s theatre (and in all media) as well as its place within the historical association of theatre with queer sexualities. While this development was coincident with the rise of queer politics and theory, Savran argues persuasively that the presence of gay and lesbian subject matter and openly gay and lesbian perfomers failed to live up to the utopian vision of queer discourse. Broadway and off-Broadway commercial theatre tended to produce work by and about gay white men while lesbians, genderqueers, and those who reject or defy easy categorization remained in smaller downtown venues, whether in traditionally narrative plays or in performance pieces. Some aspects of this are rooted in the aesthetic implications of queer discourse; disjointed narratives and fragmented characters are not generally the stuff of commercial success. Even taking such factors into account, however, it is clear that “gay” theatre is assumed to be, and marketed as, commercially palatable and viable while queer theatre remains marginal. This is not entirely undesirable, perhaps, but the fact that it extends into the continued under-representation of women and racial minorities in gay theatre is disappointing. Savran briefly looks at the various ways in which theatre has historically been associated with queers and then launches into the most ambitious aspect of the essay: it’s assertion that, especially compared to cinema, theatre is inherently “the queerest art.” It is a complex argument, in which engages with film theorists like Metz and Bazin in order to juxtapose the process of spectatorship in the theatre with that in cinema. The central point is that theatre invokes an “inevitable confusion of identification with desire” (73). He concludes by admonishing gay playwrights for failing to produce “a theater that is not only queer, but also feminist, antiracist, antihomophobic, and anticapitalist” (81).
“The Haunted Stages of Modernity” examines an apparent proliferation of ghosts in contemporary plays. He briefly examines the ghosts of mass culture product and concludes that the ghosts on stage play a significantly different (though obviously related) role that belies something fundamental about theatre. He plays these onstage psychological and metaphysical hauntings against the semiotic hauntings of Marvin Carlson’s The Haunted Stage (the essay is dedicated to Carlson.) Along the way he draws intriguing parallels between “the contemporary stage and the producers of the spectacle we call history” (102), framing the street protests of the late nineties as a theatrical response to “the ghosts of colonialism” (83).
These first three essays make up Part I of the book, and are collectively titled “Historical Pageants” because of their engagement with broad sweeps of historical narratives and cultural output. Part II, composed of six shorter essays that are focused more specifically on individual plays and playwrights, is entitled “Closet Dramas.”
His complex treatment of Angels in America (“Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism”) examines it as a very American play; as in some ways ambivalent about its subject matter; as a successfully commodified expression of progressive politics and high art; and, finally, as an ambitious and largely successful queering of American history. This queering of “the America of Joseph Smith—and Ronald Reagan” is achieved “by placing this oppressed class at the very center of American history; by showing it to be not just the depository of a special kind of knowledge, but by recognizing the central role that it has had in the construction of a national subject, polity, literature, and theater” (133).
In “The Sadomasochist in the Closet” Savran juxtaposes the work (and persona) of Sam Shepard with the “Iron John” movement, and with mass culture artifacts like The Deer Hunter and Rambo in an attempt to identify a veiled (or closeted) expression of Freud’s “reflexive sadomasochism” embedded in articulations of American masculinity. This is linked in part to a “displacement of homoeroticism” in Shepard’s work. He concludes that it may be time for America’s masculine heroes “to admit that what white men really want, what gives them the greatest thrill, is pain” (154).
In “A Different Kind of Closet Drama,” Savran frames “the melancholy heterosexuality” represented in Jane Bowles’s In the Summer House as a slippery subversion of heteronormativity and gender subjectivity. She creates “a play—on Broadway, no less!—in which homosexual desires are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere” and thus “reveals itself the symptom of a melancholy heterosexuality [that can] never admit to itself that it will always be in mourning” (169).
“Eat Me” focuses on “the relationship between cannibalism and sadomasochism in [Tennessee] Williams’s work of the 1940s” (171), reading a number of Williams’s texts from that period and juxtaposing them briefly with work by figures like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg. He concludes that, underlying Williams’s representations of cannibalism is a “terror of being consumed by the very commodities that we so desperately and compulsively desire” (179).
“In and Out” juxtaposes the desexualized, white-bread vision of homosexuality in films like In and Out and As Good as it Gets against the contemporaneous news coverage of Andrew Cunanan’s killing spree, noting a regressive binary composed of sexualized murderers and chaste victims in mass media representations of queer characters.
“Paula Vogel as Male Impersonator” is informed by, and predicated on, Savran’s close friendship with the playwright. It argues that Vogel appropriates masculine writing techniques and sensibilities and subverts them by using them to express feminist content.
What impresses me most about Savran’s writing is that he uses incredibly lucid and accessible prose even when talking about the most complex or abstract of material. His familiarity and facility with a variety of discourses make it clear that he is quite capable of playing in the theory sandbox but that he chooses to be accessible to a relatively wide audience in most of his work. I am also impressed by the fact that he never tries to erase the “I’ from his writing, to pretend that it is somehow objective rather than subjective. This overt subjectivity does not seem to impair the seriousness with which the work is taken; from my point of view it strengthens the work by implicitly signifying an ethics within which Savran seems to be writing.
What sometimes frustrates me in these essays, though, is the fact that Savran’s politics seem to stop at the edge of America’s shores. I don’t understand how one can articulate an American history without taking into account, and wrestling with, America’s interaction with and impact on the rest of the world.
A Queer Sort of Materialism is useful in the context of this bibliography for a number of reasons: its juxtaposition of sweeping statements with very specific textual analysis; its application of queer theory to theatrical and dramatic texts; its exploration of theatre as an inherently queer space; and its interpolation of queer theory’s tools into the framework of cultural materialism.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Drawing extensively from Foucault—explicitly from The History of Sexuality and implicitly from The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge—Sedgwick “proposes that many of the major modes of thought and knowledge in twentieth century Western culture as a whole are structured—indeed, fractured—by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century” (1).
Crucial to Sedgwick’s argument is that the homo/hetero framework, while a relatively recent phenomenon, is so embedded in and fundamental to contemporary thought that no aspect of the culture can be properly examined without taking it into account. Much of the book is predicated on her articulation of two contradictions inherent in twentieth century notions of sexuality: first, that it is simultaneously “minoritizing” (“an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority”) and “universalizing” (an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities;” second, “the contradiction between seeing same-sex object choice on the one hand as a matter of liminality or transitivity between genders, and seeing it on the other hand as reflecting an impulse of separatism … within each gender.” Intriguingly, she is quick to assert that she does not seek to resolve or “adjudicate between the poles of … these contradictions” because the very idea of the book is that the contradictions themselves are endemic to contemporary “knowledge” about sexuality and therefore “no epistemological grounding now exists from which” to step outside them (1–2).
Another important idea laid out in the early pages of the book’s lengthy introduction is that “knowledge is power” is a faulty axiom. Ignorance is often a position of power in its own right. This idea has significant implications for the idea of the closet, and is expanded further with explorations of silence and dishonesty in the first post-introduction chapter. On a related point, if ignorance can be defined as the absence of knowledge, and if “knowledge,” post-Foucault, requires contextualization and is therefore plural, then “ignorance” is also plural; there are multiple, contextualized “ignorances” that line up as a mirror system to “knowledges.” This binary (which can, of course, be deconstructed) is one in a long series that Sedgwick posits as having been indelibly marked by the discourse surrounding sexual orientation.
It is important to note that Epistemology of the Closet is concerned almost exclusively with male sexuality, partly because it is in some ways a continuation of Sedgwick’s previous project exploring “homosocial desire” between male literary figures and partly because the discourse of Western sexuality has primarily been the product of male musings and male anxieties. She does take pains to point out, though, that the book is feminist from a variety of perspectives: it is a kind of sequel to a more explicitly feminist work; it is the product of a writer steeped in a feminist perspective; its underlying ideology assumes that sexuality must ultimately be theorized as “irreducible” by factors such as gender.
Because the introduction is not given a chapter number, the “first” chapter of Epistemology of Knowledge (also titled “Epistemology of Knowledge”) begins on the book’s sixty-seventh page. While the introduction lays out a theoretical framework and a list of axioms and assumptions that will be followed throughout the book, the first chapter properly introduces the titular concept of “closet” and its centrality to homo/hetero discourse. On one of her more overtly political statements, Sedgwick writes that “[t]he closet is the defining structure for gay oppression in this century” (71). Clearly, the idea of the closet is predicated on the idea of categorical sexuality. It is also a site of intersection for a variety of binaries: public/private, gay/straight, normal/deviant, etc., all of which combine to form a complex matrix. The second half of this relatively brief chapter introduces the literary analysis on which Sedgwick has built much of her career, with comments ranging from Proust to the biblical book of Esther. Throughout the chapter, she links sexuality to perceived gender vs. gender identity, further complicating her overlapping binary systems.
The book’s remaining chapters are applications of the ideas set forth in the introduction and the first chapter, from the relatively obvious Billy Budd and Dorian Gray, which she uses to introduce a further series of historically defined binarisms; to Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” as allegory for homophobic panic; to a layered reading of Proust (a specialty of Sedgwick’s) that she uses to introduce the seemingly paradoxical idea of the closet as spectacle.
Epistemology of the Closet is, self-consciously, the product of a period of transition. While quite a bit had been written in the emerging field of “gay and lesbian and antihomophobic” studies, the field was still a nascent one. Indeed, the monikers “queer studies” and “queer theory” wouldn’t be coined until a year later. Given that context, the book has aged remarkably well, with some ideas seeming a little obvious but none of them seeming obviously outdated. It is also relatively accessible, if dauntingly literate and intertextual.
Solomon, Alisa. “Great Sparkles of Lust: Homophobia and the Antitheatrical Tradition” in The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater. Edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
Alisa Solomon’s “Great Sparkles of Lust,” is one of several useful and provocative essays in the volume she coedited with Framji Minwalla, which grew out of a conference on queer theatre held at CUNY in 1995. The essay is tightly focused and economically structured, but is also quite ambitious in its interpolation of concrete examples into a rather bravura argument.
She begins by recounting one aspect of the longstanding and well-documented “antitheatrical prejudice:” the linkage of theatre with homosexuality. The two historical examples on which she focuses are Puritan fears of/for boy actors in early modern England and homophobic reactions to contemporary performance art. While acknowledging the prosaic justifications for homophobic attitudes towards theatre (the theatre community does tend to attract and include a disproportionate number of queers), she asserts that there is something more fundamental to theatre that accounts for the persistent association of theatre with homosexuality. In their way, she writes, the homophobes are right: theatre really is queer.
When John Rainolds wrote, in 1599, that the practice of boy actors dressing as women “kindles great sparkles of lust” (hence the title of Solomon’s essay), he was not just responding (apparently in a rather visceral way) to images of boys dressed as women, or to women themselves, but to the physical presence of an actor’s body “in all its sweating, spitting specificity” (9). If Rainolds was indeed seized by lust at the sight of these boy actors, it was not because of how very convincing the costumes were but because of the doubleness, the duplicity, destabilization of their identities. If neither a boy-as-a-boy nor a woman-as-a-woman would have evoked the same reaction, then it is the fact that theatre draws attention to the mutability, the “dragness” of identity that aroused his lust. That mutability is dangerous, in part, because it is attractive.
The boy actors are an obvious symptom of theatre’s queerness, but eliminating them does not eliminate the threat. In theatre, there is always a tension between the “natural” and the theatrical, and between the text and the performance. Solomon points out that even with the most heteronormative written texts, “master plots could be undercut and questioned through self-conscious performance styles” (135). Theatre is an inherently queer space because it disrupts and destabilizes processes of identity formation and of identity perception.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp” (1964, revised 1966), in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject. Edited by Fabio Cleto. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
Sontag’s famous 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” is difficult to summarize because of its intentionally elliptical structure. A brief introduction credits Christopher Isherwood’s The World in the Evening (1954) for introducing “camp” as a term and concept into the popular lexicon, but describes the relevant passage as “a lazy two-page sketch,” and asserts that no one has taken the time or found the means to articulate the concept more clearly (53). Sontag places camp in the category of “sensibility,” and points out the subsequent difficulties in describing it: “A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable” (54).
She also notes her mixed feelings about the camp aesthetic, stating that she is “strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly repulsed by it.” While she doesn’t explicate her conflicted attitude towards her subject, she does assert that this conflict in fact places her in an ideal place to write about it, claiming that “no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it” and that “[t]o name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion” (53).
While she sees herself as placed to “draw [camp]’s contours and recount its history” then, Sontag is hampered by its being “almost… ineffable.” Her solution is to construct a series of notes, brief, overlapping articulations of certain aspects of camp. “The form of jottings,” she writes, “. . . seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp” (54).
From there, Sontag launches into the body of her essay, a series of 58 “notes” that range from general articulations of camp’s mode of operation to specific examples of objects and texts that fall within the scope of camp. She defines camp as “a certain mode of aestheticism,” one that “see[s] the world as an aesthetic phenomenon” and thus favors style over content. Because of this, she claims “[i]t goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical” (54). Later, she uses this definition to distinguish camp from, and place it on par with, what she calls the other “great creative sensibilities” (62). One sensibility, that of traditional High Culture, values the apparent “seriousness and dignity” of a work, both in its intention and in its achievements. The trademark of this aesthetic sensibility is “truth, beauty, seriousness” (61).
The second “great creative sensibility” is “the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement.” This sensibility allows for “a disparity between intention and result,” and has resulted in “most of the important works of art in the twentieth century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject matter” (61).
In contrast to these two, Sontag defines camp as “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling” (62). Another way she articulates the distinction between these three sensibilities is that the first is “basically moralistic,” the second trades on “a tension between moral and aesthetic passion” and camp is “wholly aesthetic” (62).
For most of the essay, direct discussion of camp’s relationship to gay male culture is curiously absent or, more accurately, oblique. Authors, composers, and artists who are mentioned are mostly those identified as, or with, gay men. It isn’t until note 51, though, that Sontag notes “the peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality” and attempts to explain it by suggesting that “Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.” Still, she is careful to refute the idea that camp is an essentially gay aesthetic, writing that “one feels that if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would” (64).
It is also in this section where, in my opinion, Sontag gets herself into a bit of trouble. Much criticism of her articulation of camp aesthetics has focused on her specific examples, and the extremely wide range of works she identifies (and sometimes misidentifies) as camp. My primary objection, though, is to some almost offhand comments and generalizations she makes when she enters into demographics and cultural production.
When establishing that camp sprang out of gay culture, she asserts that “Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities” (64). Despite having at least mentioned jazz earlier in the essay, she does not address the extraordinary output of creative and cultural capital by African-Americans. Certainly she could have argued (problematically) that she was locating the cultivation of sensibility in the audience rather than on the stage or behind the scenes, and thus the Jewish community was more instrumental in the spread of sensibilities that embraced jazz than were blacks themselves. She doesn’t make any such argument though, and while that is in some ways a relief, it reveals her blanket assertions about Jewish and gay cultures as predicated on a certain blind spot.
An even less supported, and almost as equally troubling, statement is presented parenthetically as part of the same series of points. After writing that “its metaphor of life as theater is peculiarly suited as a justification and projection of a certain aspect of the situation of homosexuals,” she adds, in parentheses, “The Camp insistence on not being ‘serious,’ on playacting, also connects with the homosexual’s desire to remain youthful” (64). She doesn’t take time to support or provide examples of either the first statement, which seems to prefigure more recent discussions of theatre as an inherently queer space, etc. or the second statement, which seems oddly disdainful and dismissive given the subject and tenor of most of the essay.
Of course “Notes on Camp” is a product of its time and its failings can largely be attributed to its pre-Stonewall context as well as to the fact that it is a self-conscious attempt to begin a conversation and a discourse around camp aesthetics. It remains almost impossible to discuss the idea of camp in any serious way without referencing Sontag. Her “notes” succeed in identifying the peculiar slipperiness of the topic and also in differentiating it from kitsch, with which it is often associated. For these and other reasons, it remains a crucial essay, and a clear precursor to certain aspects of what would later become queer theory. Indeed, while other essays in Fabio Cleto’s valuable anthology on camp deal more directly with queer aesthetics and politics, they all rely so heavily on Sontag that hers seemed the clear choice when I was deciding what to include in this bibliography.
I remain intrigued by the simultaneous attraction and revulsion Sontag identifies as her response to camp, and I suspect that it is related to her perception of gays as particularly youth-obsessed and even her description of Isherwood’s sketch as “lazy.” Lurking under the surface of Sontag’s writing is an ambivalence not just towards camp, but towards gay male culture, a tension that is indicative of the frequently noted divide between gay men and lesbians in American queer culture.
It is also interesting to note that, while camp is viewed as inherently apolitical, camp aesthetics have, more recently, been employed by explicitly political queer artists and activists, a point that is made in later essays in the volume. This politicization of traditionally gay aesthetics may be, in fact, another way to distinguish “gay” sensibilities from “queer” sensibilities.