A Personal Queer Theory Retrospective

Those of you who’ve been reading my various blog incarnations for a while will be aware that, until last year, I was pursuing an academic career.  When it became apparent that there were few diamonds in that mine (for me at least), I decided to rethink and stopped blogging while I sorted out my life. 

We will draw a veil over that period, but it took me until last month to finally get rid of all the files associated with the academic part of my life and I thought it would be interesting to look at the small pile of scribbled on photocopied essays that I’ve decided to keep from the files labelled ‘Queer Theory’.  

These days, I’m a lot more critical of queer theory than I once was.  Queer theory has been dominated by white, middle-class people and, at its worst, can be elitist, impenetrable, alarmingly divorced from peoples’ real lived experiences, as well as having a tendency to erase the specificity of lesbian experience.

 Having said that, some essays still have enough importance for me to be prepared to carry them around with the rest of my belongings as I move from place to place.  In roughly chronological order of publication:  

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The Best Queer Theory I read in 2008

Carolyn Dinshaw, ‘Getting Medieval: Pulp Fiction, Gawain, Foucault’ in The Book and the Body, edited by Dolores Warwick Frese and Katherine O’ Brien O’ Keeffe, (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997)

If you’re into queer theory and pop culture, this essay is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.

Pulp Fiction, Medieval romance, lashings (*cough*) of Foucault, ‘the anatomy of male bonding – the relationship of homosocial and homosexual male relations’, ‘the centrality of the anus in male bonding, or, more precisely, in the maintenance of patriarchy’, the medieval at the heart of the modern, the perversity at the heart of the straight, the impossibility of essentially being anything, the question of ‘who can act, when, and under what circumstances’, and so much more.

David M. Halperin, ‘Deviant Teaching’ in A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, edited by George Haggerty and Molly McGarry.

Starting with Dante meeting with his old teacher in Hell in The Inferno, the essay traces the phobic connections ‘between sodomy, teaching and literary studies, a conflation so powerful and so toxic that the political fallout from it continues, seven centuries later, to pollute the professional lives of English professors who happen to be gay men and queer theorists who work in the field of literary studies’ (p. 5).

Instead of simply bewailing this damning association Halperin does what the best queer theory does with such problems:

my inclination is to work with it and to inquire into its historicity, its conditions of emergence, its ideological contingencies, the complex discursive processes by which those three orders of meaning have become irretrievably crossed and the possible reuses of such a crossing for and by a scholarship, a paedagogy, and a politics friendly to queers (p. 9).

There follows a discussion about the education of boys from the tribes of New Guinea to the American rite of passage movie Shane. Halperin concludes that we have to confront our fears about gay men and the education of the young head-on because:

We can only defuse those fears if we are willing to analyse them, to understand them, to figure out where they come from, what their institutional bias is, and – perhaps most important of all – how they are connected systematically to the social and discursive structures that organize our culture (p. 37)

Thank you also to the kind person who sent this to me.

Ellis Hanson, ‘Queer Gothic’ in The Routledge Companion to the Gothic edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy (London; New York: Routledge, 2007).

This essay is mainly of interest to me because I like queerness and the gothic (and Ellis Hanson), but I’m adding it here because it happens to include a helpful description of queer theory:

By queer theory I mean the radical deconstruction of sexual rhetoric as a form of resistance to sexual normalisation.  Although it takes as foundational its insights into the instability of language and the historical contingency of sexuality, queer theory is not a unified doctrine or political agenda, but a highly mobile practice of imminent critique that draws its form and content from the shifting rhetoric of sexual politics. It interrogates the oppositions that have traditionally characterised sexual politics, in particular such familiar oppositions as heterosexuality/homosexuality, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, closeted/out, centre/margin, conscious/unconscious, nature/culture and normal/pathological, to name a few (pp. 175 – 6)

Some more good Queer/Gay Studies reading here and  here.