. . . I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963–1964)
At our first full rehearsal for the University of Hawaiʻi's 2005 production of Vinegar Tom, my friend and director Lurana O'Malley urged us to allow our characters to be as strange and specific as we ourselves are in life. Each of us, especially when we are alone or with only those we are close to, has odd habits, quirky behaviors, wrinkles in our personalities that rarely find their way on stage. Actors too often create characters who are so efficiently in service to intention and action, to objective and tactic, that the messiness, the strangeness, the specificity and eccentricity of the human being are lost.
One of the things I admired most about Lisa Kron's In the Wake, which I saw toward the end of its run at the Public Theater a couple of months ago, was that Kron wrote characters that couldn't possibly be played without quirks. The actors didn't have the option to make too much sense, or to be so committed to moving their objectives (and the plot) forward that they reduced the lives of their characters to cogs in a well-made machine. (Of course casting first-rate actors like Marin Ireland didn't hurt the cause.)
The play isn't perfect, but Kron does a remarkable job channeling her formal restlesness, in the context of this relatively conventional play, into the shape of her characters. The result, perhaps surprisingly from this playwright, is a text inhabited by people I'd never met but recognized almost immediately. They could very well have been my neighbors in the early post-9/11 years during which the play is set. The oddness of the characters didn't distract from the issues raised by the play, it made them easier to engage with. In the Wake isn't quirky for quirky's sake; it's startlingly realistic and believable (with the exception of some ill-considered direct-address monologues).
I often declare my suspicion of, and disdain for, words like "universal," carping that universalism is more often an act of erasure than of illumination. Another reason the quest for something "universally" identifiable, of course, is that identifiication itself is personal. If there is a "universal" experience, it is the recognition that we can never quite understand each other, and that we can never quite be understood. Empathy is not about complete understanding; it is about the fact that it is okay not to understand completely, and the fact that each of us is as mysterious to our respective "other" as the other is to us.
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 (i.e. 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.
Tomorrow is my first day of teaching for the new semester. I added the following "note" to my Theatre History syllabus today, and thought a few of you might find it worth reading. Or mocking, depending on your mood and your inclination...
For me, the course description above raises as many questions as it answers. As we move through the semester, I hope to challenge preconceptions and dominant notions about theatrical practice, theatre history, and the theatrical present, as well as the meanings of terms like “the West” and the role of theatre and performance in the larger culture. Questions I hope to explore include:
- What is theatre? Why do we make theatre? Is theatre important?
- Who is the “author” of a theatrical production?
- What constitutes “good” or “important” theatre?
- What does theatre tell us about the culture and politics of a given historical moment?
- How can studying past events help us to understand the present and shape the future of both our art and our society?
- What is “the West”?
- What is the canon? How do we choose which texts make it into a course on theatre history?
- Whose stories do we erase by focusing on a handful of figures in a handful of countries?
- Why should theatre practitioners (actor, directors, designers, etc.) care about theatre history and theatre theory?
I am much more interested in your ability to engage with such questions than I am in your ability to memorize series of facts. Unless specifically noted, you should feel free to consult your notes and texts for all assignments, including exams. Information is widely available. What is less common than access to information is the skill required to navigate, evaluate, curate, and interrogate that information. I am not here to dispense knowledge, but to facilitate learning