Queer theory: Wikis

  
  
  

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Queer theory is a field of critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of gay and lesbian studies and feminist studies. It is a kind of interpretation devoted to queer readings of texts. Heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, queer theory builds both upon feminist challenges to the idea that gender is part of the essential self and upon gay/lesbian studies' close examination of the socially constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. Whereas gay/lesbian studies focused its inquiries into "natural" and "unnatural" behavior with respect to homosexual behavior, queer theory expands its focus to encompass any kind of sexual activity or identity that falls into normative and deviant categories.

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Queer theory

"In the late 1960s, closets opened, and gay and lesbian scholars who had up till then remained silent regarding their sexuality or the presence of homosexual themes in literature began to speak."[1]

Although many people believe that queer theory is only about homosexual representations in literature, it also explores categories of gender, as well as sexual orientation. In fact, it could be argued that queer theory's main project is not the interrogation of homosexuality, but the subverting and challenging of heterosexuality as 'natural' and 'unmarked'. Some argue that queer theory is a by-product of third-wave feminism, while others claim that it is a result of the valuation of postmodern minoritizing, that is, the idea that the smallest constituent must have a voice and identity equivalent to all others.

Queer theory's main project is exploring the contesting of the categorization of gender and sexuality. Theorists claim that identities are not fixed – they cannot be categorized and labeled – because identities consist of many varied components and that to categorize by one characteristic is wrong. For example, a woman can be a woman without being labeled a lesbian or feminist, and she may have a different race from the dominant culture. She should, queer theorists argue, be classed as possessing an individual identity and not put in the collective basket of feminists or of colour or the like.

Overview

Queer theory is derived largely from post-structuralist theory, and deconstruction in particular. Starting in the 1970s, a range of authors brought deconstructionist critical approaches to bear on issues of sexual identity, and especially on the construction of a normative "straight" ideology. Queer theorists challenged the validity and consistency of heteronormative discourse, and focused to a large degree on non-heteronormative sexualities and sexual practices.

The term "queer theory" was introduced in 1990, with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich and Diana Fuss (all largely following the work of Michel Foucault) being among its foundational proponents. Queer theory is not the same as queer activism, although there is overlap.

"Queer" as used within queer theory is less an identity than an embodied critique of identity. Major aspects of this critique include discussion of: the role of performance in creating and maintaining identity; the basis of sexuality and gender, either as natural, essential, or socially constructed; the way that these identities change or resist change; and their power relations vis-a-vis heteronormativity.

History

Teresa de Lauretis is the person credited with coining the phrase "Queer Theory". It was at a working conference on theorizing lesbian and gay sexualities that was held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990 that de Lauretis first made mention of the phrase.[2] Barely three years later, she abandoned the phrase on the grounds that it had been taken over by mainstream forces and institutions it was originally coined to resist.[3] Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet, and David Halperin's One Hundred Years of Homosexuality inspired countless others' work.

Background concepts

In many respects, Queer theory is grounded in gender and sexuality. Due to this association, a debate emerges as to whether sexual orientation is natural or essential to the person, as an essentialist believes, or if sexuality is a social construction and subject to change.[4]

The Essentialist theory was introduced to Queer Criticism as a by-product of feminism when the criticism was known by most as Lesbian/Gay Criticism. The essentialist feminists believed that both genders "have an essential nature (e.g. nurturing and caring versus being aggressive and selfish), as opposed to differing by a variety of accidental or contingent features brought about by social forces".[5] Due to this belief in the essential nature of a person, it is also natural to assume that a person's sexual preference would be natural and essential to a person’s personality, who they are.

The Constructivists counter that there is no natural identity, that all meaning is constructed through discourse and there is no subject other than the creation of meaning for social theory. In a Constructivist perspective, it is not proper to take gay or lesbian as subjects with objective reality; but rather they must be understood in terms of their social context, in how genealogy creates these terms through history.

For example, as Foucault explains in The History of Sexuality, two hundred years ago there was no linguistic category for gay male. Instead, the term applied to sex between two men was sodomy. Over time, the concept "homosexual" was created in a test tube through the discourses of medicine and especially psychiatry. What is conventionally understood to be the same practice was gradually transformed from a sinful lifestyle into an issue of sexual orientation. Foucault argues that prior to this discursive creation there was no such thing as a person who could think of himself as essentially gay.

Identity politics

Queer theory was originally associated with radical gay politics of ACT UP, OutRage! and other groups which embraced "queer" as an identity label that pointed to a separatist, non-assimilationist politics.[5] Queer theory developed out of an examination of perceived limitations in the traditional identity politics of recognition and self-identity. In particular, queer theorists identified processes of consolidation or stabilization around some other identity labels (e.g. gay and lesbian); and construed queerness so as to resist this. Queer theory attempts to maintain a critique more than define a specific identity.

Acknowledging the inevitable violence of identity politics, and having no stake in its own ideology, queer is less an identity than a critique of identity. However, it is in no position to imagine itself outside the circuit of problems energized by identity politics. Instead of defending itself against those criticisms that its operations attract, queer allows those criticisms to shape its - for now unimaginable – future directions. "The term," writes Butler, "will be revised, dispelled, rendered obsolete to the extent that it yields to the demands which resist the term precisely because of the exclusions by which it is mobilized." The mobilization of queer foregrounds the conditions of political representation, its intentions and effects, its resistance to and recovery by the existing networks of power.[6]

Role of biology

Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying individuals as either male or female, even on a strictly biological basis. For example, the sex chromosomes (X and Y) may exist in atypical combinations (as in Klinefelter's syndrome [XXY]). This complicates the use of genotype as a means to define exactly two distinct sexes. Intersexed individuals may for many different biological reasons have ambiguous sexual characteristics.

Scientists who have written on the conceptual significance of intersexual individuals include John Money, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Ruth Hubbard, Carol Tavris, and Joan Roughgarden.

Some key experts in the study of culture, such as Barbara Rogoff, argue that the traditional distinction between biology and culture as independent entities is overly simplistic, pointing to the ways in which biology and culture interact with one another.[7]

In Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Anne Fausto-Sterling challenges many of the accepted biological underpinnings of gender and sexuality. From genitalia to brain composition, "hormones and gender chemistry," "toward a theory of human sexuality." A feminist biologist, Fausto-Sterling navigates the scientific underpinnings of sex. In contrast, some queer theorists are attempting to reconcile the biological and sociological bases of sexing, incorporating both models.[citation needed]

The HIV/AIDS discourse

Much of queer theory developed out of a response to the AIDS crisis, which promoted a renewal of radical activism, and the growing homophobia brought about by public responses to AIDS. Queer theory became occupied in part with what effects – put into circulation around the AIDS epidemic – necessitated and nurtured new forms of political organization, education and theorizing in "queer".

To examine the effects that HIV/AIDS has on queer theory is to look at the ways in which the status of the subject or individual is treated in the biomedical discourses that construct them.[8]

  1. The shift, affected by same sex education in emphasizing sexual practices over sexual identities[9]
  2. The persistent misrecognition of HIV/AIDS as a "gay" disease (although gay men are significantly more at risk)[10]
  3. Homosexuality as a kind of fatality[11]
  4. The coalition politics of much HIV/AIDS activism that rethinks identity in terms of affinity rather than essence[12] and therefore includes not only lesbians and gay men but also bisexuals, transsexuals, sex workers, people with AIDS, health workers, and parents and friends of gays; the pressing recognition that discourse is not a separate or second-order "reality"[13]
  5. The constant emphasis on contestation in resisting dominant depictions of HIV and AIDS and representing them otherwise[14]. The rethinking of traditional understandings of the workings of power in cross-hatched struggles over epidemiology, scientific research, public health and immigration policy[15]

The material effects of AIDS contested many cultural assumptions about identity, justice, desire and knowledge, which some scholars felt challenged the entire system of Western thought,[16] believing it maintained the health and immunity of epistemology: "the psychic presence of AIDS signifies a collapse of identity and difference that refuses to be abjected from the systems of self-knowledge."[17] Thus queer theory and AIDS become interconnected because each is articulated through a postmodernist understanding of the death of the subject and both understand identity as an ambivalent site.

Prostitution, pornography and S & M

Queer theory, unlike most feminist theory and lesbian and gay studies, includes a wide array of non-normative sexual identities and practices, not all of them non-heterosexual. Sadism and masochism, prostitution, sexual inversion, transgender, bisexuality, asexuality, intersexuality are seen by queer theorists as opportunities for more involved investigations into class difference and racial, ethnic and regional particulars. These practices are supposed to allow for a wide ranging field of investigation and reconfigure understandings of pleasure and desire.

The key element is that of viewing sexuality as constructed through discourse, with no list or set of constituted preexisting sexuality realities, but rather identities constructed through discursive operations. It is important to consider discourse in its broadest sense as shared meaning making, as Foucault and Queer Theory would take the term to mean. In this way sexual activity, having shared rules and symbols would be as much a discourse as a conversation, and sexual practice itself constructs its reality rather than reflecting a putatively proper, biologically predefined sexuality.

This point of view places these theorists in conflict with some branches of feminism that view prostitution, and pornography, for example, as mechanisms for the oppressions of women. Other branches of feminism tend to vocally disagree with this interpretation and celebrate (some) pornography as a means of adult sexual representation.[18]

The role of language

For language use as associated with sexual identity, see Lavender linguistics.

Queer theory is likened to language because it is never static, but is ever-evolving. Richard Norton suggests that the existence of queer language is believed to have evolved from the imposing of structures and labels from an external mainstream culture.[19]

Early discourse of queer theory involved leading theorists: Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others. This discourse centered on the way that knowledge of sexuality was structured through the use of language. Heteronormativity was the main focus of discourse, where heterosexuality was viewed as normal and any deviations, such as homosexuality, as abnormal or "queer".

In later years there was an explosion of discourse on sexuality and sexual orientations with the coming-of-age of the Internet. Prior to this, discourse was controlled by institutional publishing, and with the growth of the internet and its popularity, the community could have its own discussion on what sexuality and sexual orientation was. Homosexual and heterosexual were no longer the main topics of discourse; BDSM, transgender and bisexuality became topics of discourse.

Media and other creative works

Many queer theorists have produced creative works that reflect theoretical perspectives in a wide variety of media. For example, science fiction authors such as Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler feature many values and themes from queer theory in their work. Patrick Califia's published fiction also draws heavily on concepts and ideas from queer theory. Some lesbian feminist novels written in the years immediately following Stonewall, such as Lover by Bertha Harris or Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig, can be said to anticipate the terms of later queer theory.

In film, the genre christened by B. Ruby Rich as New Queer Cinema in 1992 continues, as Queer Cinema, to draw heavily on the prevailing critical climate of queer theory; a good early example of this is the Jean Genet-inspired movie Poison by the director Todd Haynes. In fan fiction, the genre known as slash fiction rewrites straight or nonsexual relationships to be gay, bisexual, and queer in sort of a campy cultural appropriation. And in music, some Queercore groups and zines could be said to reflect the values of queer theory.[20]

Queer theorists analyze texts and challenge the cultural notions of "straight" ideology; that is, does "straight" imply heterosexuality as normal or is everyone potentially gay? As Ryan states: "It is only the laborious imprinting of heterosexual norms that cuts away those potentials and manufactures heterosexuality as the dominant sexual format."[21] For example, Hollywood pursues the "straight" theme as being the dominant theme to outline what masculine is. This is particularly noticeable in gangster films, action films and westerns, which never have "weak" (read: homosexual) men playing the heroes, with the recent exception of the film Brokeback Mountain. Queer theory looks at destabilizing and shifting the boundaries of these cultural constructions.

Queer theorists also analyze texts to expose underlying meanings in texts and investigate the discrepancies between homosocial male bonding, homophobia and homosexuality in English literature. King Lear is often used as an example.

New Media artists have a long history of queer theory inspired works, including cyberfeminism works, porn films like I.K.U. which feature transgender cyborg hunters and "Sharing is Sexy", an "open source porn laboratory", using social software, creative commons licensing and netporn to explore queer sexualities beyond the male/female binary.

Criticism

Typically, critics of queer theory are concerned that the approach obscures or glosses altogether the material conditions that underpin discourse [22]. Tim Edwards argues that queer theory extrapolates too broadly from textual analysis in undertaking an examination of the social.[22] Adam Green argues that queer theory ignores the social and institutional conditions within which lesbians and gays live.[23]

Queer theory's commitment to deconstruction makes it nearly impossible to speak of a "lesbian" or "gay" subject, since all social categories are denaturalized and reduced to discourse.[24] Thus, queer theory cannot be a framework for examining selves or subjectivities—including those that accrue by race and class—but rather, must restrict its analytic focus to discourse [25]. Hence, sociology and queer theory are regarded as methodologically and epistemologically incommensurable frameworks [25] by critics such as Adam Green.

Foucault's account of the modern construction of the homosexual, a starting point for much work in Queer Theory, is itself challenged by Rictor Norton, using the Molly House as one counter-example of a distinctly homosexual subculture before 1836.[26] He critiques the idea that people distinctly identifying in ways now associated with being gay did not exist before the medical construction of homosexual pathology in his book The Myth of the Modern Homosexual.[27]

Queer theory underestimates the Foucauldian insight that power produces not just constraint, but also, pleasure, according to Barry Adam (2000). Adam suggests that sexual identity categories, such as "gay", can have the effect of expanding the horizon of what is imaginable in a same-sex relationship, including a richer sense of the possibilities of same-sex love and dyadic commitment.[28]

The role of Queer Theory, and specifically its replacement of historical and sociological scholarship on lesbian and gay people's lives with the theorising of lesbian and gay issues, and the displacement of gay and lesbian studies by gender and queer studies, has been criticised by activist and writer Larry Kramer.[29][30][31]

See also

Theorists

(in alphabetical order)

Further reading

  • Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology, 2006
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble, 1990.
  • Edelman, Lee. No Future, 2004
  • Foucault, Michel. La Volonté de savoir, 1976.
  • Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies, 1995.
  • Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place, 2005
  • Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory, 1996.
  • Probyn, Elspeth. Outside Belongings, 1996.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men, 1985.
  • _____. Epistemology of the Closet, 1990.

References

  1. ^ Ryan, M., 1999. Literary Theory: a practical introduction. Oxford. Blackwell. P. 115
  2. ^ David Halperin. "The Normalizing of Queer Theory." Journal of Homosexuality, v.45, pp. 339-343
  3. ^ Jagose, A 1996, "Queer Theory".
  4. ^ Barry, P 2002, Lesbian/gay criticism, in P Barry (eds), Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp139-155.
  5. ^ a b Blackburn, S 1996, “essentialism”, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, (Oxford Reference Online).
  6. ^ Brooker, P, A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory, 1999
  7. ^ Rogoff, Barbara. The Cultural Nature of Human Development. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2003: 63-64. Print.
  8. ^ Donna Haraway, The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies, 1989.
  9. ^ Michael Bartos, Meaning of Sex Between Men, 1993 and G.W. Dowsett, Men Who Have Sex With Men, 1991.
  10. ^ Richard Meyer, Rock Hudson's Body, 1991.
  11. ^ Ellis Hanson, Unread, 1991.
  12. ^ Catherine Saalfield, hocking Pink Praxis, 1991.
  13. ^ Jagose, A 1996, Queer Theory, [1].
  14. ^ Edelman, L 1994, Homographesis, [2]. Accessed 19-04-2007.
  15. ^ David Halperin, Homosexuality: A Cultural Construct, 1990.
  16. ^ Thomas Yingling AIDS in America, 1991.
  17. ^ Ibid., p. 292.
  18. ^ XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography
  19. ^ Norton, R 2002, “Queer language, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory [3].
  20. ^ Matias Viegener, "The only haircut that makes sense anymore," in Queer Looks: Lesbian & Gay Experimental Media (Routledge, New York: 1993) & "Kinky Escapades, Bedroom Techniques, Unbridled Passion, and Secret Sex Codes," in Camp Grounds: Gay & Lesbian Style (U Mass, Boston: 1994)
  21. ^ Ryan, M., 1999. Literary Theory: a practical introduction. Oxford. Blackwell, p.117.
  22. ^ a b Edwards, Tim (1998), "Queer Fears: Against the Cultural Turn", Sexualities Vol= 1 pages= 471-484 
  23. ^ Green, Adam (2002), "Gay But Not Queer: Toward a Post-Queer Study of Sexuality", Theory and Society 31 (4): 521–545 
  24. ^ Gamson, J (2000), "Sexualities, queer theory, and qualitative research", Handbook of Qualitative Research, Sage Publications 
  25. ^ a b Green, Adam (2007), Sociological Theory 25 (1): 26–45 
  26. ^ Norton, Rictor (2006), Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700—1830, Chalfont Press 
  27. ^ Norton, Rictor (1997), The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity, Cassell 
  28. ^ Adam, Barry (2000), "Age Preferences among Gay and Bisexual Men", GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (Duke University Press) 6 (3) 
  29. ^ Larry Kramer's Case Against "Queer"
  30. ^ Larry Kramer Questions Gay Studies
  31. ^ Larry Kramer's Yale speech: 'Yale's Conspiracy of Silence'

Adam, B. 2000. “Love and Sex in Constructing Identity Among Men Who Have Sex With Men.” International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies 5(4):325–29.

Edwards, T. 1998. “Queer Fears: Against the Cultural Turn.” Sexualities 1(3):471–84.

Gamon, Josh. 2000. “Sexualities, Queer Theory, and Qualitative Research.” Pp. 347–65 in Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd ed., edited by N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln. Sage

Green, Adam. I. 2002. “Gay But Not Queer: Toward a Post-Queer Sexuality Studies.” Theory and Society 31:521–45.

Green, Adam Isaiah. 2007. "Queer Theory and Sociology: Locating the Subject and the Self in Sexuality Studies,” Sociological Theory 25,1:26-45.

External links

Queer theory journals








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